Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Mechanism For Extremism

Jonathan Haidt, and others, have shown experimentally that information which challenges our belief does not weaken our original theory, but fairly rapidly results in our holding the previous belief ever more tightly.  Village cells in communist China used to have an exercise in which the group attacked the Maoist premises of one of the members, forcing him or her to defend it.  I don't know if this was at all widespread, but I read about it in the early 70's. It supposedly made acceptance of doctrine even more complete among party members. 

We would hope that reasonable people would pause and reflect if counter-evidence is provided.  Apparently this is not so. The default human tendency is to double down on the old belief.

We hear this, we find it plausible, we see it in others and worry with some disquiet whether it is true of us as well. Yet really, how would such a thing work?  We can imagine evolutionary strategies where persistence of belief is advantageous, and I discussed earlier this week the advantage to the group that some be extremist.  There is advantage to the individual to be that sort of person as well, though it is perhaps a little harder to see it. If one thinks in terms of small hunter-gatherer and then villager groups it becomes easier to see.

But.  We also have a bias toward truth, toward reality.  Knowing what is really a danger, what is really a food, or really a friend has obvious advantages. We may delude ourselves quite a bit about whether our chief is really a good leader, and functioning as a loyal group works out for us even when the leader is pretty bad.  But there has to be a limit to that.

What is it that we tell ourselves in rationalisation, to allow ourselves to hold the challenged belief.  When we are presented with strong evidence that Bill Clinton is lying, how do we continue to support him?  What story to we tell ourselves to justify this?

I have some insight into this, not from a deep understanding of human nature, but from observing what takes place in my own mind.  I doubt my experience is universal, but I'm darn sure it's not unique, either, as I see it all around me. When challenged, we focus on the faults of the attacker. Well, yes, under ordinary circumstances we should lessen our support for a president who lies.  But these are parlous times, and the evil of his critics is so great that they must be stopped in their tracks at all costs.  Politics is a dirty business.  There are no perfect people after all.  We have no choice, really. Twenty-four hours of telling yourself that and you can go back to liking the guy again.

A friend in Romania was describing to me in 2000 that the choice in the election was quite literally between a fascist and a communist, whatever sweet words they said. (There are smaller parties, such as a Hungarian one that is big in Transylvania.) How do you mark the ballot for either?  Only by telling yourself ever more forcefully how bad the other guys are.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Strike At Putney

The Strike At Putney by Lucy Maud Montgomery.  Male readers may have to think a bit to remember where they've read the author's name before. Tracy handed this to me before bringing the book back.  A common sentiment, but well-told and earlier than most.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Resiliency and Fragility

The HBD sites have had discussion recently about unimportance of environment in human development.  Some take the extreme form, that heritability accounts for so much of the variance, and factors that are clearly environmental factors so little, that we should for the time being not pay much attention to the latter.  While this sounds counterintuitive to us, they actually have some good numbers for it.

Disease seems to follow a different pattern: heritability is clearly important, but does not account for even half of the variance.  "Other factors," which are neither environment nor DNA, and are often a giant question mark, are the big ticket.

Cautionary note:  disease researchers say that genetics is only 5-10%, but they have usually narrowed their scope before saying that.  Cystic Fibrosis and Down Syndrome are clearly genetic ("Oh, that. But those are exceptions, and what we are talking about is...." Want a long long list of those exceptions, dude?"), while gunshot wounds and head injuries are pretty clearly environmental - unless one wants to take the (not unreasonable) view that these occur in definable genetic groups - males, sensation-seekers, risk-takers - more often. That is sorta kinda genetics, I suppose. What the researchers really mean is that genetics seems to provably account for only 5-10% of the variance in the diseases we are studying right now.

IQ scores and life outcomes, beloved by HBD-ers for their measurability* can convince one that environment matters little, at least over large populations. Today I ran into a great example of genius rising despite less-than-fortuitous circumstances, in the biography of Walter Pitts. (That link spends more time discussing the anthropologist Bateson.  You might like the Wikipedia spread better. Other sources here, here, and here, starting about p 139.). Mathematical prodicgy who ran away from home at 15 to hang around mathematicians and tell them where their arguments were weak. No education, no milk of human kindness as a teenager, impoverished with no prospects, but attracted the patronage of the super-brilliant by his own brilliance.  Resiliency.  You can't keep a good man down, eh?

Well yeah, you can, apparently.  He completely collapsed emotionally when Norbert Wiener cut off ties without explanation.  That is certainly hard to have one's mentor and patron drift away, but thousands of human beings bounce back from that every day.

I would say that it is easier to break things than make them.  There are lots of ways of becoming shorter, but none for becoming taller.  There are many ways to become less intelligent, but no ways to become more intelligent.

*which is why they also like East African and West African performance in track's distance and sprint events.

Northwestern Decision

Sports radio conversation is focusing on how the decision might affect college athletics – not just football - in general, but they are noting the downstream effects there pretty quickly.  It’s one thing to regard student-athletes as employees of the institution for the purpose of getting them ongoing medical care for injuries sustained while “working” for the university.  But if scholarships are indeed to be regarded as compensation, then won’t the recipients owe taxes on that?  Wouldn’t that necessarily extend to swimmers and tennis players who receive scholarships?  And wouldn’t everyone else on the team be equally an employee and entitled to…something?

Wouldn’t everyone who receives a scholarship start fitting under this umbrella?  Slowly, perhaps, because there would be a lot of reluctance to change things as people started seeing the implications.

The debate team…the college bowl team…the theatrical performances, concerts, and art shows…don’t all those also represent the institution in the same way that an athletic event does? If you get a scholarship for music…hell, if you get a general academic scholarship and decide to play in the orchestra…isn’t that the same?

If the athlete is getting paid via scholarship and owes taxes, doesn’t this cut poor kids out pretty quickly?  (Except, of course, that people will find all sorts of legal or legal-looking loopholes to continue the practice.)

Athletics became associated with schools mostly by accident.  Males of school age are also males of competitive sports age. (Females less so until recently.  They don’t pick up much of the blame for skewing the overall system 100-200 years ago, I don’t think. A little, perhaps.) The guys at North Central were playing games against each other for fun, and thinking they were pretty good, thought they’d put together a team to play against South Central. There were often town teams for baseball or football, and large employers such as factories would organise leagues as well.  Yet those faded while school teams remained, with increasing organisation, rules, and costs.

There has been much hand-wringing in my lifetime about the unfortunate association of college and athletics: the sometimes fictitious “student” part of student-athlete and the tolerance of bad behavior are usually cited.  Envy and cultural competition are part of it as well, because schools get prestige from their athletic teams, and people get paid lots of money that does not, cannot, go to the athletes. I don’t hear many complaints like that at the highschool level, because the money and prestige are less, but you do hear some even there, especially when there are private school scholarships being handed out. (Apparently this is different in Texas and a few other places, but I’m not qualified to make observations on that.)

When I posted a few days ago on our secondary and post-secondary education model a few days ago, this was not at all in my mind.  But this is perhaps another force for change that will remake the landscape.  Online universities don’t have football teams, or students who live together for four years.


Ben found this years ago, but I haven't played it for awhile: Tommy Seebach from Denmark covering the Ventures' "Apache"

I'm betting that hardly any of the people in this video are really Apaches.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Education Model

The current college model was developed for a world which changed slowly. Young men were sent away to not only learn the principles of great thinkers and absorb a shared culture of events and symbols, but to meet each other and learn how to interact with the other future rulers. The age for this became ages 18-22 for rather accidental reasons - it used to be much younger.

In this system, one might not have wisdom upon moving into the world of banks, regiments, clergy, government, and managing local agriculture, but one was theoretically equipped to get started. The foundation of learning to read Marcus Aurelius and Homer in Latin and Greek, plus Shakespeare, the Bible, and a theologian or two were thought to equip a man to make the great decisions of life forever after.

Please note that making application of these thinkers to everyday events was not much taught. The mere exposure was supposed to build a man up so that he would naturally assume his place among his fellows and make sound decisions by a sort of osmosis. It's a ridiculous system that sort of worked.

No, that is concluding too much.  The educational system of monarchial Europe, developing into parliamentary Europe and its colonies, may have had good features that outweighed any ridiculousness I note here.  Unifying the elites into work-together packages, perhaps.  The playing fields of Eton and all that. Or, the educational system may have had little or nothing to do with the development of governance and leadership skills in those places. The most we should say is that this college model did not break the leadership system. That's something in itself, I suppose.

We think that extending this system to some of the middle class via the post-WWII GI bill and subsequent expectations of college-for-the-many in the 60's and beyond worked very well.  That it provided many benefits is rather undeniable.  But 60 years out, some of the negatives of this idea are starting to emerge. Was this all a net gain?

I wonder what we would design for post-HS education these days if we were starting from scratch? I am thinking that 4 years starting at age 18 should be one of the first things to go.  That model applies well to the especially academic 5%, a number that includes...what, about half?... of the intelligent folk.

Flawed Leadership

I mentioned previously Sponge-headed Scienceman’s report that Nigerian email scams are now intentionally bad.  They only want the most gullible responders, who would fall for anything.  A more persuasive letter with fewer errors would attract too many people who were ultimately, a waste of time.

I related this to the tendency of groups at the edges of the political spectrum to choose the worst possible hills to die on: victims who clearly asked for it, the falsely accused who have plenty of other crimes that they are guilty of, any number of fools and hypocrites. For the groups that want to harness a lot of noise and energy, the thousand people who are so sold out for the tribe that they will even defend Mayor Radu while he’s doing time in federal prison or crazy old Aunt Fezwa up in the attic are more valuable than the hundred thousand who have higher standards and are more measured.  Given enough time, the insane thousand will provoke the opposition into saying enough irritating stuff that even the sane members of the tribe start to get aroused.  The cause starts to move into the mainstream. Whether Matthew Shepard’s killing was actually more related to methamphetamine than homosexuality becomes unimportant and uninteresting, because the symbolism has taken over the story. We all become true believers and “just know” that homosexuality had nothing to do with it or everything to do with it – that even if the inconvenient details were different, the outcome would have of course be the same.

If my choice of Shepard irrituates you, you can zip in Fred Phelps, or Randy Weaver, or Leonard Peltier, or David Koresh, or Mumia Abu-Jamal.  Or whole organizations.  Whole countries even.

This isn’t new, but I seem to have trouble remembering it when I read the news.  Which leads to a disquieting thought: what if it’s not just the fringes?  What if we in the mainstream have milder versions of the same foolishness (or worse, equally unreasonable responses we just rationalise better)?  What if we prefer representatives and poster children that are good-uns at the first pass, but quickly become more motivated to support flawed candidates and causes?  Because we have gotten activated by the opposition?

What if we are essentially requiring our leaders to be flawed?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

O Happy Day

"Happy Day" was listed in the bulletin this morning, and being the age that I am, I naturally thought of this.  Alas, it was something newer which I liked less well.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Believing Against

I am struck by how often people describe their reasons for belief in terms of an opposite – in terms of what they are avoiding or distancing themselves from.  It is often the center of soul-winning theology and camp meeting:  I embraced the ways of the wicked world and it brought me to ruin, I turned from that and got saved. I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see. The main evangelical variant, of having grown up in a conscious faith community, is not that different.  The community defines itself in contradistinction to the secular world and its values. I don’t say that in accusation.  It at least partly describes my own belief.  And Peter’s.  Jesus asked the twelve whether they would go away.  (John 6) Simon Peter answers “Where else would we go?” Which suggests to me that he had considered this before. It is rather a “I am here because I can’t there” theology.

It works the same in the other direction.  Atheists*, agnostics, and those in historically Christian countries who embrace other faiths frequently spend the entirety of their energy telling you why they aren’t Christian, often with bitterness or condescension. There are a hundred versions, because we are all rather various.  Some people don’t like the parts where Christianity claims there’s only one truth, others dislike the behavior or social acceptability of some Christians. The positives of their own belief seem secondary at times.  I come away thinking “someone has issues, as we say.” They may think the same of me.

Jews only partly fit that description.  There is certainly the community consciousness, of being in a tribe that is not like the other tribes.  But this is used more to describe why we do things this way, rather than Why I Am A Jew. But at this point I must beg off, as I am describing Jews of my own age and older.  I can’t say if things have changed in later generations.

I have known a few followers of eastern, native, or new age religions who look at first as if they came in for more positive reasons, curious and attracted by either novelty or a particular quality they hoped to acquire. Even an occasional wiccan doesn’t seem to be focused primarily on the delicious oppositeness of her practice and community.  Yet I find that one doesn’t have to let people talk all that long before telling you what they don’t believe, and who they don’t like starts sucking up all the oxygen in the conversation. They didn’t want to be common, or like those others.  They want to indentify with underdogs, which necessitates talking a lot about top dogs. Or they want to identify with the wise ones who stand above their culture and see around all things, not the blind followers below.

Political religions are awash with it.  I am seeing it more now that the bumper-sticker theologies and anti-theologies of FB cross my screen every night. Ain’t they terrible?  Ain’t they stoopid? Ain’t they evil?  Ain’t they prejudiced? (Ain’t we great?)

Perhaps we can do no better, none of us.  We may have a drive to belong to a small exclusive tribe and can rise out of that only by great effort – or by grace.

*There’s some generalisation here; there are variants of atheist as well.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Sometimes It's Easier Than Others

I like old roads of all descriptions, but have an especial fondness for numbered routes. New England was among the first places to number roads, and many of them kept their original designations as the newer numbering systems came into play.  This display is from 1922.  Because later rules dictated that North-South would be odd-numbered and East-West would be even, Route 3 became Route 6 and vice versa.  But Newenglanders familiar with numbered roads will recognise that some have not changed. (Those are Burlington and Manchester VT, not NH or MA, on the list.) It includes some pretty obscure routes, such as 26 and 32. I’m not sure why those were important enough to need numbers then, but as the surprising ones are largely in tourist destinations, it may have had something to do with keeping those unfamiliar with the area on track.

I have previously mentioned my interest in where numbered routes used to go. I have looked at NH routes 28 and 101 in detail in the last few years.  The old old routes were generally first numbered in the 1920’s.  There wasn’t much new construction; the numbered route was generally chosen to follow the best of the roads already in place, with upgrades to follow. The new old routes came in during the 1950’s, as states began to build bypasses around towns and create more direct routes for longer travel.  This slightly preceded the Interstate Highway System.

There are clues on the map of where the old route used to go. Any secondary route which runs alongside an interstate or goes back and forth underneath it is an automatic nominee.  For the secondary routes which are themselves under suspicion of not being the original trail, map clues are nore subtle, but present. One looks on either side of a town being bypassed for a route which goes off at an acute angle into the town center; often the road runs off at a similar angle on the other side and runs roughly parallel to the numbered route, fairly shouting “Me! Me!  I am the road formerly known as Route 11!” Consulting the old USGS maps often confirms this, though switching back and forth online between maps of slightly different scales can be tedious.

Yet it was greater fun to scout out the routes in person and discover other physical clues, including my current favorite: where the telephone poles go. All that strung wire came in during the earlier time, and followed what were then the main roads.  When the new routes cut across open territory in the 50’s, the electricty and phone service were already in place.  New poles were only needed if new businesses or homes were going in – and these could often be patched in from the old route in the back anyway.

When the road you are driving has no telephone poles, it’s a newer section. If poles suddenly come alongside, they likely ran along the old route, and you are now driving on a section that is the old way upgraded, not an entirely new one.  The telephone poles will then likely dive off to the side at an oblique angle, and if you are attentive, you can see where the old road went.  Once I learned this, I recognised that I had driven nearby Rte 114 for decades and never noticed that the road to my son’s Montessori kindergarten was the original numbered route.  It’s hardly used now. When I have the time, I like to drive them to see the abandoned motels and old farm entrances.  Or to simply imagine what it would have been like to drive it in the 30’s.

On my recent Appalachian Trail excursion, I noticed an un-numbered road on the map winding in and out of I-89, at a section where Rte 10 (Central New England Route on the list above) coincides with the interstate.  Ah, I thought.  I’ll bet that’s the previous track of 10. We’ll have to stop in on the way back and see if we can confirm that by sherlocking around a bit.  Check out where the telephone poles go.  Estimate how old the houses are.  See if there are expired businesses, or old signs giving the mileage to nearby towns.

Or sometimes, someone else has done all the work for you, once you go and see.

That's Whaleback Mountain Ski Area in the background, BTW.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Links and Brief Comments

A blogger known to all of you has sent along a link to a Gawker article, Bill Gates Is Kind of a Dick. She notes that this may be true for other reasons, but this particular article does not provide evidence for the claim.  I suggest it provides evidence that Gates is interested in solving problems, rather than having the right ideals about them.
Gates' gods are not political, but technical. He worships efficiency and measurability, not ideals.
I have made many accusations about liberals over the years, and sometimes repent of them, having to go back and clarify that I am generalising about very public liberals, and highlighting - perhaps unfairly - certain aspects of their thought and motivation. Then I read something like this and wonder whether I was right the first time.


My son sent along an excellent article Married To Depression. It all seems so easy from the outside, and so impossible from inside.


In discovering Half Man Half Biscuit below, I struck a vein of links about Ambleside, which in turn put me in mind of Alan Garner's Weirdstone of Brisingamen, which is set in that region.  It is a book with many flaws, most of which are irrelevant, because of its depth of imagination. It put me on a rabbit trail of The Morrigan, the Thirteen Treasures of Britain, and all manner of northern European folk tales and goddesses. (How I love Wikipedia trails. I have noted ruefully that it has made me obsolete, as folks used to call and ask my wife and I for information they couldn't put their hands on.) Yet just as an example, read this entry on Perchta. There isn't one definitive version of her.  If you slide over a few valleys in Europe, Perchta/Bertha/Holda changes as well.

This holds true for not only the characters, but the stories themselves.  We sometimes read a tale and are suddenly aware that it is partly familiar, and were told a different version of Red Riding Hood or The Green Ribbon when we were young. While it is true that the old tales have been polished and made hard by many retellings, it is also true that each teller adds and emphasizes, and these variants may be ephemeral.  We can't count on some element being important just because it is there.

So too with languages. We blithely refer to Old French, as if there was some standard dialect in 1200 that was pretty consistent and generally understood.  But as the type of cheese changes from valley to valley in France, so too did the language. There was never a moment in time when there was a single Proto-Indo-European that started splitting off into other tongues as people moved away from ground zero of the Urheimat. It was always rather fluid and variable.

We know this, of course, and it's rather obvious when you think of it.  Yet it is easy to forget, because we put stories, and goddesses, and languages into named categories, and store them that way.


I read a Grantland article on the Red Sox by Charles S Pierce. I sent it along to son Ben, who reads far more about sports than I, with the comment It is puzzling to me.  I started out liking the article, but by the time I got to the end I was thoroughly irritated, thinking "what an arrogant prick this guy is."

But I can't tell why.  I have a partial answer, but it's not enough to cover, and the picture of him at the end confirmed it, but I was already irritated at that point.  The partial explanation is that his story of his personal history with the Red Sox has just been done too many times before. It's not only 400 writers, it's that every guy in New England my age has a story like this about Red Sox history and the 1960's.  His is better written than mine would be, or Mike King's or Jon Reckard's or whoever's, but it's not dramatically better.  Who cares, dude?  But that's really not enough to put me off this guy.  I read through the article again looking for clues, but I can't see much.

Ben had thoughts about this, and what I was sensing from afar, but I will let you have your own thoughts first.