Archive for the ‘science’ Category

This is not a post about how you should be fixing all your own problems by yourself, by just cheering up and adopting a positive mental attitude.

There are a lot of things we can do to physically influence our mental state, without introducing any external factors like drugs or alcohol. In fact, we’re unavoidably doing it all the time.

We tend to assume that being happy makes us smile, being tired makes us slump into a pathetic heap, and so on. That’s how we imagine bodies work. In fact, the way we feel and the way we express ourselves to the world is not at all a one-way street.

For instance, if you adopt a superhero stance, or a “power pose”, it will make you feel more powerful. And adopting a withdrawn, nervous, low-power posture will make you feel more anxious and reduce your confidence. You might adopt such a position because of anxiety and low confidence, but if you do, your posture will likely reinforce it. Even if you feel great and only stand like that in order to pretend, you will still start to feel anxious and less confident, because of the way your brain takes on feedback.

Also, smiling makes you happy. Botox can both treat depression and cause depression, because it suppresses the ability to both smile and frown. Also, exercise is useful in treating depression.

In all these cases, your brain notices how your body is behaving, and uses that to decide how it must be feeling. It’s really not meant to work that way around. But it does.

For years now, I’ve been reading the kinds of blogs and listening to the kinds of podcasts that often talk about fascinating, important, and deeply counter-intuitive features of human psychology, so this kind of thing gets brought up a lot. And, having been saturated in it for so long, I now regularly try to incorporate it into my life.

If I’m not having the best day at work, sometimes I’ll hide in the toilet and spend a few moments grinning ridiculously and leaping around a bit, in the kind of way that could only possibly be explained by my being in a fantastically good mood. And honestly, if I let myself go along with it, this is pretty good at making me feel better. Acting like I’m really happy seems to remind me that I don’t have to be mopey by default just because I’m not actively thrilled to be in the office and I’ve got resting bitchface. My brain sees me looking goofy and bouncing around, and goes “Oh yeah! Things are pretty good apparently!” Even just remembering to stand up straighter can improve my outlook.

Science has learned some wonderfully bizarre and amazing things in this area of psychology, and there are many ways for us to take control of our own state of mind and have a significant impact on our feelings, motivations, and emotions.

That’s all good and important and if I were a more consistent writer I could fill a dozen blog posts about all this stuff.

But none of that’s the point.

The point is: it is incredibly difficult to talk about this in a way that’s actually empowering.

What I’d love to discuss is some uncontroversial scientific data, and my own recent experiences with some very light brain-hacking. What I want to do is talk about how everyone can find this data useful in their own lives, in the same way that I have.

What I’m in real danger of actually doing is patronising everyone and inadvertently blaming them for all their problems.

Because everything I’m talking about is a hair’s breadth away from terrible popular advice that everyone’s heard a million times before. People with depression or mental health issues are constantly told to just pull themselves together and get over it, by people who don’t understand what they’re experiencing. Men never seem to shut the fuck up from telling women to smile. And the supply of folk who think fat people maybe just haven’t encountered the advice “try eating less” before, and consider it their moral duty to deliver this important message to them for the first time, is apparently endless.

The thing about this advice is that it’s always about the giver, not the beneficiary. If you shout an instruction to smile at an irritated stranger, that’s not going to make them want to smile. It’s far more likely to irritate them further, and it’s hard to imagine someone not understanding that without being wilfully oblivious to other people’s actual emotions.

Ditto with “just cheer up”. Nobody says that because they think it’s going to help. They say it to try to browbeat another person into complying with their wish for a more artificially cheerful environment. They say it when somebody else is bothering them by not being in a sufficiently upbeat mood.

This is true even if the woman walking down the street being harassed from a building site really is only in a mildly bad mood for no good reason, and really could make herself feel better by changing her stance and facial expression and choosing to shake it off. Unfortunately, you’re not introducing her to a useful and empowering psychological tool in a safe environment, where she might be able to take it on board and use it to improve her life. You’re just being a selfish dick.

So how do you talk informatively about the potential for positive psychology to improve people’s lives, without just being part of that same unhelpful crowd? There are just tripwires everywhere. Already it might seem like I’m nagging at people who hide in the toilet at work to cry and feel shit about themselves, like they should do what I do instead, and just choose to put on a brave face and force themselves to feel better. That’s absolutely not my aim. I really don’t want to make anyone in that position feel worse than they already are, but it’s so hard to get a constructive point across without putting my foot in it like that.

Self-defeating emotional behaviours are innately extremely good at defending themselves from treatment. There’s so much science can tell us about how to improve ourselves as much as we claim we want to, but the problem makes us want to solve it by doing things that actually make it worse. The often insurmountable difficulty of applying solutions that work, despite their easy availability, is one of the great frustrations of the modern age.

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It takes a relatively short amount of time, and a few fairly well understood psychological techniques, to implant memories in people.

The science is basically in: Your memory is not a camera that faithfully records your experiences in the world and plays them back to you later. It’s constantly re-interpreting and re-writing itself, and can easily be fooled into taking on board fictitious details, treating them just the same as all the memories that originated from actual experiences.

People Can Be Convinced They Committed a Crime That Never Happened, as one headline puts it.

So, the next time we hear about someone confessing to a crime, and it turns out they were interrogated for eight hours by police first, using techniques known to elicit both false memories and false accusations, can we agree in advance that this confession means nothing, and that we don’t actually have to pay a damn bit of attention to their own opinion on what they did, and that we can thank the cops for screwing up the evidence if we’re unable to bring a case against anyone as a result?

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This is kinda interesting – how much are you swayed on matters of scientific fact, by your biases about what should be true according to your political ideology?

In my case, reassuringly little. In fact slightly more of my mistakes were caused by attempting to deliberately steer away from politically motivated thinking than my prejudices themselves.

Still, 39% seems like a worrying low score for total correct answers, and I don’t know whether to be reassured or concerned that 60% of people did even worse.

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Will Storr wrote a book really worth reading called The Heretics. It’s about people with beliefs on the fringes of mainstream or accepted scientific thought, and it’s about the skeptical movement that challenges and calls them out. In particular, it’s about how the author has failed to find a comfortable place for himself within the latter, despite sharing so many of their ideals and principles.

I read this book last year and scribbled lots of notes about it, and am only now getting around to putting those notes together into a coherent article. Knowing me, “coherent” will probably be aiming too high and this will likely end up rather scattershot and disordered. [Update from the future: Yep.]

At times the book feels a little uncharitable in its depictions of the characters involved, and a little unfair in its conclusions. But although it felt that way for me to read it, I know a lot of that feeling comes from defensiveness about a perceived attack on my own tribe, who I’m reluctant to allow to be criticised on any point that feels like it touches something personal. That doesn’t explain all that I wasn’t comfortable with – I think there are times when he does miss the mark in his final judgments – but nailing down which of my objections are reasonable and which are more emotionally driven is really difficult.

This difficulty is, in fact, a large part of his point in writing the book.

A lot of what he’s talking about is what he sees as a kind of skeptical tribalism, especially at certain gatherings like QED or Skeptics in the Pub. Many of the folk at these events have a very firm idea of what specific club they’ve joined, and exactly who the out-group are. They know very well what sort of person someone must be if they’re found in the pigeonhole labelled “homeopaths”. Not that it should be a surprise, but many self-identifying skeptics’ own beliefs and positions rely to a large extent on tribal in-group coherence, rather than the purely rational objective evaluation of data which they at least have the good sense to value and espouse.

The refrain that “There’s no evidence for homeopathy”, for instance, is a common one, even though for any reasonable interpretation of “evidence” it’s clearly untrue. Scientific research and evidence is what we fall back on as justifying our position, but several skeptics Will talked to couldn’t name or usefully cite a single study or meta-analysis that supported their position on homeopathy, and bristled when the question was asked.

Off the top of my head, I can’t accurately cite in detail the research which supports my ideas on homeopathy either. Clearly that doesn’t stop me from thinking that there are good reasons to think the things I think, all the same. But if my justifications for my beliefs aren’t truly what I think they are, that’s something worth identifying.

There are ways that general expert opinion can be judged by the layman, tools one can aquire to assess the proponderance of evidence usefully (if not impeccably) which doesn’t require us to each pick through hundreds of complicated technical papers before reaching a conclusion. This kind of direct observation isn’t the only way to learn things, and there can be sound reasons to believe things that appear to be based more on hearsay and second-hand reporting. For instance, if the average punter were tasked with writing a medium-length blog post on why they believe that the world is round – and that anyone who believe it’s flat is drastically, bewilderingly wrong – they could probably come up with something reasonable, despite not having been to space to admire the curvature of the earth directly, or personally circumnavigated it just to check.

But we don’t always think naturally in these terms, and so we often don’t summarise our positions on skeptical issues this way either. A more natural inclincation, if you’re a fairly representative skeptical blogger, might be to say “homeopathy doesn’t work, there’s no evidence for it”, and to get twitchy with anyone who starts asking you to cite papers from memory, because you’ve met people who ask questions like that before, and you think know where this is going. Your tribal integrity is under threat from someone suspected of being from the out-group.

It’s an entirely natural human tendency, when faced with such opposition, to assume the worst, close ranks, and awkwardly throw up defenses around one’s cherished beliefs to protect our ego from the perceived threat. The question worth asking for me is: are skeptics actually any better than anyone else at recognising this tendency in ourselves and working around it?

It’s not that it’s wrong to bristle at the question. It’s that it’s really important, for skeptics especially, to recognise both why it’s not a wholly rational response to bristle, and also why it’s utterly human, and completely understandable – and something we have in common with just about every “true believer” we’ve ever had a heated/feisty/empassioned conversation with. Because if we’re not better than average at recognising that kind of faulty thinking and deploying techniques to avoid it, then being right about the things we’re right about is only going to be of partial help.

I imagine it’s deeply unoriginal and quite tiresome for all involved to draw comparisons between The Heretics and any of Jon Ronson’s books, but that’s not going to stop me. One thing I remember about Jon’s approach to visiting the depths of close-knit tribal alien gatherings and reporting on them as an outsider, is that I don’t recall ever simply disliking anyone he wrote about. Which sounds bizarre, given the amount of time he’s spent with neo-Nazis and profoundly hateful religious fanatics. But either there was something affable in their quirkiness and perhaps Jon’s own affection seeped through, or there was something humanising he’d found about them, which went some way toward hinting at an underlying explanation for what was otherwise unappealing about them, in a way that caught the interest just enough that we weren’t leaving with the idea that they’re simply the antagonist to this piece and we’re supposed to take against them.

It could be that my hazy memory is giving Jon a little too much credit. I may be unfairly searching for an unfavourable comparison by which to downplay Will’s attacks on my tribe. But it feels like he doesn’t always acknowledge that same level of individual humanisation, while recounting certain remarks by certain skeptics in a way that insinuates a disapproving tone over the whole enterprise.

Is that reasonable? Am I being unjustifiably tribalistic, to expect him to tilt the balance even further toward acquiescence to my team? Or is it fair to suggest that his own personal biases might have led his own narrative into the kind of judgmentally prejudiced thinking he’s identifying in so many others?

Either way, it’d be petty to reject or condemn the whole book based on differences like this, however strongly I might feel about them. I’ve read and enjoyed numerous well-argued atheistic and skeptical tomes and essays which would no doubt be at least as grating to anyone not already on my side of the aisle who was trying to engage with it. (Most of the history of this blog is probably included in that as well.)

Actually, that paranthetical deserves more of a digression than that, as I felt particularly strongly in the chapter on James Randi. Various defences and objections to Will’s assessment formed in my head as I read, most of which he recapped and considered fairly a few paragraphs later. And a lot of my protests about his overly harsh insinuations would apply equally well to many other out-group people I’ve been critical of in the past, and of whom I’ve read far more damning accounts. If I want critics to go easy on someone I admire, I do not have a great track record of extending the same courtesy.

But it’s hard, because the things that feel like they’re of basic fundamental importance to us, like that homeopathy is bunk, are things that skeptics are generally right about. It’s important not to let that get lost in the fair and even-handed discussion of how both sides have things to learn and both sides are often swayed by irrational tribal urges and both sides have tendencies to make assumptions that unfairly privilege their own team and both sides etc etc. There is also often a crucial matter on which one side is also completely wrong. Will’s not denying that last point, and he’s got a lot to say about the earlier ones which isn’t easily dismissed with phrases like “tone policing”.

He looks into issues such as false memories, audio hallucinations, and Morgellons syndrome, and determines that the people involved with these issues generally aren’t “crazy”, and deserve to be granted a sympathetic ear – but this isn’t the direct counterpoint to the skeptical position that he seems to think. Most of what I know about the fragility of human memory, the fallibility of perception, and the need for compassion and understanding toward anyone who’s fallen prey to some of the myriad cognitive errors that afflict every one of us, I learned from the skeptical movement.

The section on David Irving was particularly good. It really got into the man’s head, explored and humanised him and all his irrationality, found a deep understanding and compassion for this person, without ever risking letting you think that he might be onto something with any of his utterly false notions.

In the end, even if there are potential complaints with the representation of cherished movements, and if the ratio of interesting questions raised to insightful answers proposed is sometimes higher than I’d like, there’s a lot in The Heretics that’s enjoyable to read, and which provides some level of intellectual challenge to anyone with any kind of investment on either side of any sort of discussion about “belief”.

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This article on goal-oriented and process-oriented objectives is interesting and well articulated. The distinction is important, and worth picking apart if you want to gain some useful insight into human motivation generally.

I’m still not convinced it makes a conclusive argument against wireheading.

This is where I get the impression that I’m somewhat out of step with much of the rationalist community. I think the potential of wireheading deserves much more time and serious attention than is generally fashionable.

At least, if the term can be interpreted widely enough. One understanding of it specifically refers to stimulating the “pleasure centres” of the brain; whether or not “pleasure centres” is itself rigorously defined, this presumably relates only to the more immediate or straightforward physical pleasures available to humans. A shortcut to the experience of delight usually available only through sex or food would be interesting, but probably not something we’d all want to embrace to the exclusion of all other avenues we could be exploring. (At least, most of us probably don’t want that now. If we actually had access to such a device, studies suggest we’d end up wanting to do exactly that – another reason it doesn’t appeal from our putatively rational position of indifference, made possible by not currently experiencing overwhelming pleasure.)

But this doesn’t apply much imagination to wireheading’s potential. Our capabilities are clearly limited at the moment, but taking a longer-term view of the science of neuro-hacking, superior technology could in principle get around any objection to wireheading that isn’t purely ideological. It’s understandable to suppose that constant physical pleasure might get “boring” after a while, because in our natural lives we do get bored. We never go very long without craving some variety in the stimuli we’re experiencing, even those stimuli we rank among our favourites and return to again and again. It seems like any attempt at wireheading would fall prey to our same fickle tendencies.

But come on, we’re already talking about using futuristic technology to hack the human brain. Think bigger! Boredom is just as much a result of physical processes in your grey matter as pleasure is, so hack that too! Why not have a brain implant which stimulates the pleasure centres of the brain and simultaneously puts a hold on whatever accompanying brain processes would normally make you get bored? You’re right that nobody enjoying a game would want to just skip to the end, because the challenge of playing it is what they’re enjoying – but then why shouldn’t wireheading include porting that feeling right there directly to your brain? Why not have a more complex implant which directly interacts with multiple areas of the brain, and provides some “higher-level” desirable mental states, such as the satisfaction of completing a tough physical job, or the sense of comforting rightness that comes from a deep and heart-felt conversation with another person with whom you share a complete mutual love and understanding? Why not have it regularly switch to something else joyous, blissful, fulfilling, or otherwise desirable, in whatever manner currently provides the most positive adjustment to that particular brain-state?

Of course, if any device claims to be able to offer a short-cut to all these good feelings without the need to slog through reality like usual, you should be very suspicious of just how much it’s actually going to fulfil all your current desires. And you should definitely be wary of the effect on other people of your withdrawing from the world – maybe a futuristic implant really can artificially provide you with all the flow you get from your real-world work, but if you used to work as a heart surgeon, there are other considerations than whether you’re missing out on job satisfaction. There are good reasons to want our experiences to be generally rooted in the real world. But I’m not convinced it’s important for its own sake.

A follow-up post discusses this to an extent, but I don’t think the “simulated reality” distinction saves the argument. Pull-quote:

Of course I think a complete retreat to isolation would be sad, because other human minds are the most complex things that exist, and to cut that out of one’s life entirely would be an impoverishment. But a community of people interacting in a cyberworld, with access to physical reality? Shit, that sounds amazing!

I totally agree with the latter point, and it’s worth bearing in mind how much more likely something like that is than any of the sci-fi hypotheticals I’m talking about above. But cutting other human minds out of one’s life would only be an impoverishment if they couldn’t be replaced with some equivalent experience, to the satisfaction of all parties involved.

Obviously anything like that is a way off. But I’m intrigued as to the direction things are going, and I wonder if this kind of direct brain-stimulation won’t be a significant part of the post-trans-humanist techno-utopia we’re all supposed to be pontificating about.

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One thing I’ve been doing, in all that not-blogging time you may have noticed recently, is becoming something of a Scott Alexander fan-boy. So here’s a bunch of things he’s written which I’ve enjoyed and would recommend reading, which I made brief notes on at the time but which in practice I’m unlikely to write about myself at much length.

1. I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup

Putting this one up front because it’s possibly the most important and worth reading. It’s long. Read it all.

2. Social Justice And Words, Words, Words

3. Beware Isolated Demands For Rigor

4. Fifty Swifties

If you’re not familiar with the format, Tom Swifties are pretty straight-forward, and can be fantastically pleasing when well crafted. I’d particularly like to draw your attention to: “Satan is the original source of evil,” Tom said urbanely.

My own contribution: “I used to go out with that girl with a balloon stuck to her hair,” Tom said ecstatically.

5. Radicalizing The Romanceless

Pull-quote: “As usual with gender issues, this can be best explained through a story from ancient Chinese military history.”

This one’s really interesting, and the sort of thing I could burble for a few thousand words about myself, covering most of the same ground but with different emphases and disclaimers added, in part to make sure I’m also not inadvertently signalling allegiance with the manosphere, or whatever.

One thing to note is that I don’t think I do envy Henry what he has, in terms of emotional relationships. He might “get women” for a certain meaning of the phrase, but not in any way I’m interested in replicating. When I was single, I wouldn’t have envied him in the way that someone who works hard for low pay would envy the financial security of the richly rewarded.

But it’s an interesting exploration of the core idea: expressing frustration at your basic human animal needs not being met is totally okay when it comes to earning enough money to look after yourself, but completely unacceptable when it comes to engaging in human social interaction and sexual congress. Hard work is good and noble, but we’ll understand and be sympathetic if you’re just in it for the paycheck – whereas yearning for more of a human connection, or simply being horny and wanting to get laid, is treated as shameful, and not granted much serious consideration as to how much of a basic human need our sexuality can be.

There are sensible reasons why these two scenarios might garner differing reactions, of course – the historical societal relationships between men and women and between capitalist employers and workers are in many ways divergent – but not necessarily enough to justify such a split in how we treat people who are lacking in one area of life or the other.

In particular, feeling entitled to this thing from someone else is intolerable in one instance in particular. Which may be related to how things have historically tended to work out when men’s sense of “entitlement” to women hasn’t been stifled and tabooed.

This follow-up from Jai is also especially worth reading.

6. Book Review: Red Plenty, a “semi-fictionalized account of the history of socialist economic planning”.

It turns out that the concentration of centralised political authority was the not-that-hard-to-identify main problem with Stalinism (or one of them, anyway). I’m still optimistic about eventually orchestrating some way of maximising the benefits of both communist and capitalist systems while minimising the downsides that have tended to come with either in practice, so far.

But it also strikes me that whatever political system ought to work for us – whether it’s some variant on communism, capitalism, or something else – we shouldn’t expect that its fundamental philosophy can be summed up in any single pithy phrase. The history of communism-in-practice might seem like an object lesson in the value of letting people enjoy the direct profits of the work they do, but even that’s not a simple concept, and there’s no reason to suppose anything like this can be summed up simply, in a way that’s unambiguous to everyone. If you start insisting it can, you’re in danger of convincing yourself that your ideological slogan is more important than the real-world practical results of our efforts to organise ourselves efficiently and fairly.

7. The Categories Were Made For Man, Not Man For The Categories

8. The Toxoplasma Of Rage

9. Untitled

This is not the first ten-thousand word rant about feminism by Scott Alexander that I’ve read, and so far they’ve all been worth it.

10. Book Review: The Machinery Of Freedom

The thing about advocating libertarian/anarchist principles, though, is that it tends to be more about living by those principles in your personal life and allowing their beneficial influence to infuse the culture around you and spread that way, than about setting up a small nation-state somewhere to test them out immediately on a huge scale working from scratch.

It’s clear we need some sort of system of working collectively to achieve the things we want to achieve as a society, but whether that system involves a “government” in the sense that anarchists would have no truck with isn’t the most interesting or important point. It’s allowed to be blurry around the edges and not easily summed up. Like I was saying earlier, it’s unlikely that adopting a single unifying idea like the non-aggression principle will make things all fall into place, or that a statement of political philosophy brief enough for an elevator pitch will provide us with any clue how to actually do stuff in the real world. But so long as we’re keeping track of the ideas and not getting too hung up on how to label things, we can always be aiming for utopia, and creating something with more associated benefits and fewer costs than whatever we have now.

11. Extremism In Thought Experiment Is No Vice

I mean, I’d suggest that the “spirit in which it’s conceived” is not anything as noble as intellectually curious moral philosophical investigation in the Duck Dynasty guy’s case, but this is still interesting.

12. Against Tulip Subsidies

There’s so much more where all that came from, but those are some of the highlights.

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I never did blog about Tim Hunt back when he was topical. And that’s not really going to change now.

I read quite a bit of what was written, though. In particular, I read this article. And I also read this article. They both say things worth hearing.

ETA: Possibly worth mentioning that this most recent blog break was due to being in Copenhagen for a long weekend. Copenhagen is very good and bits of it look like this.


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