Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Miscalibrated Minds: Why Don’t We Apply What We Know About Twins to Everybody Else?

September 30, 2009

Diane Arbus identical twins photo

We’re Inconsistent About How Much Weight We Attribute to Genes
I think our intuition might be miscalibrated when it comes to evaluating how much a person’s genes impact how they turn out physically (which isn’t surprising). What’s a bit strange is that we seem to be closer to the truth when it comes to twins.

Nobody’s surprised when identical twins turn out to have very similar bodies (weight, muscle mass, etc), even into adulthood.

But when it comes to non-twins, people seem to think that “making the right choices” and “willpower” are primary factors in how human bodies turn out, and that we can assign a good amount of personal credit or blame to individuals for good and bad outcomes.

There is a disconnect between these two visions, and I think that it’s the latter that needs to be updated.

After all, even if we put aside the direct ways in which our genes build our bodies (encoding how our tissues grow) and instead look at our abilities to “make the right choices” and exert “willpower”, we find that those are also greatly determined by genetic factors. Identical twins probably turn out very similar in good part because they have almost identical amounts of those qualities of mind.

Wrong by Degrees
This doesn’t mean that all is pre-determined and that if we all stop trying we’ll turn out the same we would have otherwise, but rather that we are playing within certain parameters, and that the part we control is probably smaller than most people think (not non-existent — we still deserve some credit — just more modest).

To be clear, I’m not saying the situation was white and we thought it was black, or even that it’s a black & white thing, but rather that most people’s intuition might be the wrong shade of gray. Otherwise, I would think there would be a bigger variation between identical twins, but they spend their lives making different choices yet most stay very similar to each other (as far as I know — if you know of a study on this, please send it my way).

This article has been cross-posted on LessWrong. There’s more discussion of it in the comments over there.

I Don’t Want To Live in a Post-Apocalyptic World

February 23, 2009

Image from The Road film, based on Cormac McCarthy's book

How About You?
I’ve just finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road at the recommendation of my cousin Marie-Eve. The setting is a post-apocalyptic world and the main protagonists – a father and son – basically spend all their time looking for food and shelter, and try to avoid being robbed or killed by other starving survivors.

It very much makes me not want to live in such a world. Everybody would probably agree. Yet few people actually do much to reduce the chances of of such a scenario happening. In fact, it’s worse than that; few people even seriously entertain the possibility that such a scenario could happen.

People don’t think about such things because they are unpleasant and they don’t feel they can do anything about them, but if more people actually did think about them, we could do something. We might never be completely safe, but we could significantly improve our odds over the status quo.

Danger From Two Directions: Ourselves and Nature.

Human technology is becoming more powerful all the time. We already face grave danger from nuclear weapons, and soon molecular manufacturing technologies and artificial general intelligence could pose new existential threats. We are also faced with slower, but serious, threats on the environmental side: Global warming, ocean acidification, deforestation/desertification, ecosystem collapse, etc.


Science is a Process, Not Just a Bunch of Facts

February 1, 2009

A study published in the January 30 issue of Science shows that learning more scientific facts doesn’t seem to improve the ability of students to use proper scientific reasoning. This seems like a “well, duh” observation to me, but apparently it isn’t obvious to those who create science curriculums in many schools around the world.

The researchers tested about 6,000 students majoring in science and engineering at seven universities (4 in the US and 3 in China). Here are the results:


China’s Great Library of Alexandria

January 30, 2009

Quin Dynasty Book Burning image

Most educated people know about the burning of the great library of Alexandria, and what a tragedy for humanity that was.

But I suspect that fewer people – at least in the Western hemisphere – know about the Quin dynasty’s massive campaign of book burning in 213 BC.

The emperor Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇), at the suggestion of his chancellor Li Si (李斯), instituted book burning (he condemned “all previously written historical books as worthless and ordered them burned, much to the detriment of our understanding of early Chinese history,” according to Jared Diamond), the persecution of intellectuals (including the burying alive of many Confucians), and a restriction on formal education for the common people. I think this can fairly be described as proto-totalitarianism.

As with the great library of Alexandria, we can only speculate about what has been lost.

“Representatives” vs. “Leaders”

December 12, 2008

Letter from Economist

Source: The Economist, December 6th edition

Iodine Deficiency is Reducing the World’s I.Q.

December 4, 2008

Salt Shaker photo

Sadly, cost-effectiveness isn’t always a priority when it comes to humanitarian aid. In the same way that in the environmental sector it is common knowledge that cute endangered animals will receive more help than ugly ones, ease of marketing is also a big factor when it comes to helping our fellow humans. But if the people who manage aid funds (either voluntary charitable donations or tax money) looked for the biggest bang for the buck, salt iodization would become a priority and the world would be a better place.

From a Nicholas D. Kristof op-ed:

Almost one-third of the world’s people don’t get enough iodine from food and water. The result in extreme cases is large goiters that swell their necks, or other obvious impairments such as dwarfism or cretinism. But far more common is mental slowness.

When a pregnant woman doesn’t have enough iodine in her body, her child may suffer irreversible brain damage and could have an I.Q. that is 10 to 15 points lower than it would otherwise be. An educated guess is that iodine deficiency results in a needless loss of more than 1 billion I.Q. points around the world.

A campaign to iodize salt would cost about 2-3 cents per person reached per year, and it could probably be less since once awareness has be raised salt makers would add iodine to their products because it would become a competitive advantage that would pay for itself.

There is another New York Times article from 2006 on this subject: In Raising the World’s I.Q., the Secret’s in the Salt.

If you want to help (and not just with iodine, but also with vitamin A, folic acid, iron, and zinc), check out the The MicroNutrient Initiative, a Canadian non-profit “dedicated to ensuring that the world’s most vulnerable-especially women and children in developing countries-get the vitamins and minerals they need to survive and thrive.”

Addendum: Of course here “I.Q.” is used as shorthand for “intelligence” (whatever that means), and whatever happens, I.Q. will still be periodically normalized to average 100. That’s beside the point that making poor people healthier and smarter is a good thing in itself, and would indirectly lead to more good things.

Humans are Tone Deaf to Probabilistic Reasoning

October 30, 2008

In his book The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker makes an interesting point about the fact that our brains haven’t evolved to intuitively grasp probabilities. It is an acquired skill like reading, not something innate like walking.

This can lead to scenarios like this:

Some experts are describing the risks of accident at some nuclear waste storage site. They describe various conceivable sequences of events that could lead to failure. For example, accidental drilling in the wrong place, erosion, undetected cracks in the rocks, which could lead to groundwater contamination. Then natural water movement, or volcanic activity, or a large meteorite impact could damage the site and release radioactive materials in the biosphere. The experts will estimate the probability of each event, or each chain of event, and numbers like 1 in X millions will come up.

To the experts, this is reassuring. They are basically saying: “This is pretty damn safe.” But they are speaking a different language from most people.

As Pinker says:

“When people hear these analyses, however, they are not reassured but become more fearful than ever — they hadn’t realized there are so, many ways for something to go wrong! They mentally tabulate the number of disaster scenarios, rather than mentally aggregating the probabilities of the disaster scenarios.”

How to make it better
How can we improve the situation in the hope that more rational decision-taking will take place? The only short-term realistic solution seems to be education. Just like we have no innate cognitive organs for abstract mathematics or reading but still can learn to use our brains to acquire these skills, we should try to make the understanding of probabilistic thinking more widespread.

We don’t expect people who have never studied physics at all to be any good at it, so why do we expect that decision-makers (and the voters/shareholders that supports them) will be able to understand probabilities – especially in complex situations – when they weigh the pros and cons of some proposal.

Seminar on Global Catastrophic Risks

October 8, 2008

November 14, 2008
Computer History Museum, Mountain View, CA

Organized by: Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology and the Lifeboat Foundation

A day-long seminar on threats to the future of humanity, natural and man-made, and the pro-active steps we can take to reduce these risks and build a more resilient civilization. Seminar participants are strongly encouraged to pre-order and review the Global Catastrophic Risks volume edited by Nick Bostrom and Milan Cirkovic, and contributed to by some of the faculty for this seminar.

This seminar will precede the futurist mega-gathering Convergence 08, November 15-16 at the same venue, which is co-sponsored by the IEET, Humanity Plus (World Transhumanist Association), the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, the Immortality Institute, the Foresight Institute, the Long Now Foundation, the Methuselah Foundation, the Millenium Project, Reason Foundation and the Accelerating Studies Foundation.


  • Nick Bostrom Ph.D., Director, Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford University
  • Jamais Cascio, research affiliate, Institute for the Future
  • James J. Hughes Ph.D., Exec. Director, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies
  • Mike Treder, Executive Director, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology
  • Eliezer Yudkowsky, Research Associate. Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence
  • William Potter Ph.D., Director, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies

Register here

Ancient Wisdom is Actually Early Draft

May 8, 2008

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius book photo

For the past few days I’ve been reading (among other things, of course…) Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, a roman emperor who lived from 121 to 180. He is known as one of the most important stoic philosophers.

One thing that has been on my mind while reading this is the fact that many people are very impressed by anything labelled “ancient wisdom” and have a bias towards giving it more weight than more recent thought. Part of that inclination is rational: If something has endured that long, there’s a good chance that it is because of its quality. But another part of it is not rational. It is based on the false parallel between the fact that older humans are generally considered wiser and the fact that the text is old.

From our point of view, the text is old. But from the point of view of human knowledge, old texts are ‘younger’ than modern texts.

So while I appreciate many of Marcus Aurelius’ stoic principles (look for truth, mind your own business, don’t waste your time on frivolous things, clearly define what matters to you so you can better stick to it, be open to have your mind changed by evidence, eliminate the unnecessary, etc), I simply chuckle when I read about his conception of the universe, the gods, reality, destiny, dualism (soul separate from body), death, etc. This is the best information that was available at the time, but compared to what we know now, it’s clearly archaic and if the roman emperor had been born today, he probably wouldn’t believe what he believed then (not to mention his positions on slaves, women, homosexuals, etc).

Yet some people will automatically give more weight to these ideas than to ideas that come from more contemporary sources because they come from “ancient wisdom”. If you suffer from that bias, you should recognize it, look back on how it might have influenced you in the past, and keep it in mind for the future. Judge ideas on their own merit, not on their capacity to endure the passage of time. With some things, it doesn’t matter too much (f.ex. morality). With others, it changes everything (scientific fields such as cosmology, biology, physics, etc).

If more people realized this, fewer Bronze Age myths would be taken seriously.

Dead Geniuses

March 13, 2008

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart drawing image

Mozart was 35 years old when he died. By that time, he had composed about 600 musical pieces (that we know of). He started playing the piano at 3, and at 5 he was composing. As those who have seen the movie Amadeus know, he died before he could finish one of his greatest compositions, his Requiem. It didn’t happen like in the movie (which is fiction, based on a play), but he did die of a strange illness:

The cause of Mozart’s death cannot be determined with certainty. His death record listed “hitziges Frieselfieber” (“severe miliary fever”, referring to a rash that looks like millet seeds), a description that does not suffice to identify the cause as it would be diagnosed in modern medicine. Dozens of theories have been proposed, including trichinosis, influenza, mercury poisoning, and a rare kidney ailment. The practice of bleeding medical patients, common at that time, is also cited as a contributing cause. However, the most widely accepted version is that he died of acute rheumatic fever; he had had three or even four known attacks of it since his childhood, and this particular disease has a tendency to recur, leaving increasingly serious consequences each time, such as rampant infection and heart valve damage.

Could modern medicine have saved him? Probably. What if he had lived to be 77 like Haydn, 65 like Bach, or even 56 like Beethoven? What if he had lived to be 120? What if he was still alive and healthy (not a frail decrepit old man) today? What if these other genius composers I just mentioned also had lived longer or not died? That’s worth imagining, no?

Some individuals definitely contribute more to humanity than others (lets not kid ourselves). These statistical aberrations don’t happen very often, and it is regrettable to see them extinguished by random diseases, caused by old age or not. Don’t get me wrong, any loss of life is sad (except for some evil tyrants, maybe), but some deaths create bigger ripples in humanity’s pond than others.


Internet Project: Re-Humanizing People in War-Torn Countries

February 29, 2008

Children in Iraq

There is a rule in big media: Don’t show regular people doing normal things in countries that your country is at war with (or might soon be at war with). So you will rarely see in the US media images of Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, etc, just buying things at the market. Children playing. Normal street scenes that wouldn’t be out of place – except for the visible local cultural differences – anywhere in the world.

So that is what I would like to see. If there are any people living in or visiting these countries reading this, please flood youtube and your blogs with videos and photos of normal life. Lets get these images out as an antidote to the pernicious pro-war propaganda (which now works in more subtle ways than before, sinning as much by omission as by what it clearly says).

Anti-war people have shown enough blood & guts, cadavers and dismembered bodies. It’s time to try something else. I believe that people will be more empathic to images of people in situations they can related to rather than in the alien (for them) world of war.

For those interested in learning more, I highly recommend and Antiwar Radio.

Photo: Children in Iraq.

Internet is the New Turn-of-the-Century Vienna

February 18, 2008

Map of Vienna, 1958 image

Vienna, the capital of Austria, was the place to be at the end of the 19th century. Unlike Paris and London, it was quite small: You could walk across it in half-an-hour. It had operas, theaters, museums for natural history and the arts, good banks, a stock market and some of the best universities in the world.

It was almost impossible not to constantly meet friends, colleagues and relatives on the street. Even the most famous and powerful people were close:

Opera singers, stage actors, and members of the royal family [were on the streets]. When a famous singer walked by, or one of the more than sixty archdukes drove by in their carriage, people would greet them with spontaneous applause. […] Yet the best example – and almost unbelievable for us today – was [emperor] Franz Joseph himself, who frequently departed in just his carriage from the […] palace. Anyone could walk within reach […] and lift his hat to the white-haired emperor.

Within two generations, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert appeared on Vienna’s stages in rapid succession, something that is without precedent in history. Passion for music united all strata of the population. In the words of William Johnston: “Slovenliness might be tolerated in politics, but not in musical or theatrical performance.”

The elites did not confine themselves to exclusive social circles and ivory towers. In cafés, the Viennese met to talk business, exchanged ideas, debated issues and met people who worked in various fields. For students and young intellectuals, school was very hard at the elite gymnasiums, much closer to modern college than high-school, but their education did not stop outside the classroom: the cafés were also a place to learn and grow.

The better cafés subscribed to the major international journals of science, art and literature. Designed for the entertainment of customers, these subscriptions made the cafés function as a kind of private library.


The Individuals-as-Groups Fallacy

January 25, 2008

Acropolis of Athens. Photo G. Larson. Public domain.

Democracy: It is the best system we know to take group decisions and it has a very strong and positive ‘brand’. But is it possible that we use it too much? By that I mean that there are many things that we decide democratically that actually don’t require group decisions to achieve the best results — there are many areas of life where individuals would be best positioned to decide what is best for themselves, but others force their decisions on them.

Humans have a tendency to see groups everywhere, and democracy can compound the downsides of that flaw. Liberals, conservatives, people of various religious beliefs, atheists, whites, latinos, blacks, arabs, jews, Americans, Chinese, Frenchmen, environmentalists, rich, poor, middle-class, urban, rural, majority, minorities, etc. Within that framework, people start to actually identify with their group and to dislike others, especially those they are in a power-struggle with. It’s a rational reaction because within a democratic system, some groups hold power over others and nobody wants a group they dislike to impose decisions on them. No, they’d rather impose their truth on others. This allows power-hungry politicians to play identify politics and try to have groups identify with them and thus overlook things that they would never accept on an individual basis. It’s all very tribal-like (you can also observe that phenomenon in sports).

When people stop seeing individuals, it can quickly lead to dehumanization and polarization (and we know where these can lead). They see caricatures and don’t take the time to get to know people who are in groups that they dislike: as soon as a label comes up, their minds shut down and whatever their reasons (based on reality or not) for disliking that group, they project them on the individual. “Surely if I hate jews, I’ll hate that jew.” “Surely if Frenchmen are annoying, I’ll be annoyed by that Frenchman.” Then confirmation bias kicks in…

Opposite factions rarely make the effort to really understand the positions/culture/etc of the other side(s) (liberals read liberal blogs, conservatives read conservative blogs), which means that few people change their minds and even fewer pick rational positions based on the best available information that can be gathered from all sides.

Free yourself from these shackles. Force yourself to see people as individuals, because that’s what they are. And so are you, and I’m sure you wouldn’t want others to look at you as some insignificant part of a larger over-simplistic monolith.

Irrationality Can Screw Up Your Life

January 24, 2008

As if we needed more evidence that rationality is a good thing, it now seems like irrationality is not just something that will lead you to have crazy beliefs and not understand how the world works; it can also kill you (among other things).

Scott Beaulier and Bryan Caplan argue in a paper titled Behavioral Economics and Perverse Effects of the Welfare State that the traditional explanation about crime being more attractive to the poor because their legal options to improve their situation are limited is unsatisfactory.

It might seem intuitive that more poor people commit crimes because they are trying to get out of poverty, but evidence shows that most crimes are not very lucrative.

Their theory?

What’s my alternative? Crime is just one of many, many “social pathologies” that are over-represented among the poor: alcoholism, drug abuse, smoking, obesity, illegitimacy, etc. None of these are good escape routes from poverty. So instead of trying to explain why “poverty causes crime” or “poverty causes obesity,” it makes sense to look for common causes of poverty and social pathologies.

Like what? In a paper just accepted by Kyklos, Scott Beaulier and I point to a simple candidate: irrationality. People who have biased beliefs about practical matters, and/or exercise poor impulse control, are likely to screw up their lives across the board. So it’s hardly surprising that poverty and self-destructive behavior go hand in hand. Rather than being a natural response to poverty, a lot of crime can be seen as objectively self-destructive behavior that happens to have an unusually large amount of collateral damage. (link)

This seems consistent with anecdotal evidence that poor but educated people aren’t as likely to suffer from these social pathologies (and by educated I most certainly am not talking only about formal schooling).

It’s not about how much is in your wallet, but how much is in your head. So get smart (you can if you have a growth mindset).