Wednesday Round Up #34

The enduring allure of conspiracies

The United States of America was founded on a conspiracy theory. In the lead-up to the War of Independence, revolutionaries argued that a tax on tea or stamps is not just a tax, but the opening gambit in a sinister plot of oppression. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were convinced — based on “a long train of abuses and usurpations” — that the king of Great Britain was conspiring to establish “an absolute Tyranny” over the colonies.

“The document itself is a written conspiracy theory,” says Nancy Rosenblum, a political theorist emerita at Harvard University. It suggests that there’s more going on than meets the eye, that someone with bad intentions is working behind the scenes.

AI weighs in on debate about universal facial expressions

One major strength of Cowen and colleagues’ effort is that they analysed facial configurations in more-natural settings. The authors curated YouTube videos of people in natural social contexts, such as at weddings, sports events or playing with toys (Fig. 1). Another strength is the scope of their sampling: the paper sampled more than 6 million videos from 144 countries in 12 regions around the world. Perhaps just one other study12 has so far matched this broad scale of sampling.

In each [world] region, certain facial configurations were observed relatively more frequently in certain contexts. The associations were subtle (that is, the magnitude of associations between facial expression and context tended to be weak), but, remarkably, the pattern of expression–context association observed in the videos from one world region were similar to those in other world regions. For example, in the various regions sampled, people in the videos made facial-muscle movements labelled as ‘awe’ more frequently in contexts that involved fireworks, a father, toys, a pet and dancing than in contexts that did not include these elements, such as those involving music, art, the police and team sports. In fact, facial expression–context patterns were 70% preserved across the 12 regions, suggesting a degree of universality in how people across the world express emotions in various situations.

Bridging the American Cultural Divide

As the narratives in those texts suggest, I have been particularly impressed by the resilience of the Songhay. They are a people who have lived for more than 1,000 years in the Sahel of West Africa: a dry, windswept, and desolate region on the southern fringe of the Sahara Desert. It is a starkly beautiful place that is prone to frequent droughts, famines, diseases, epidemics, and political instability. Although Songhay people may be materially poor, they are, I realized, rich in a wisdom that has enabled them to confront, with grit and grace, a long history of existential challenges.

When I talk with my students about the social dynamics of contemporary American society, we often consider a topic that Songhay elders like to discuss: the slow pace of cultural change.

Why parents should stop blaming themselves for how their kids turn out

Same event, different experience.

But just because an event doesn’t shape people in the same way doesn’t mean it had no effect. Your parenting could be shaping your children — just not in the ways that lead them to become more alike. Your parenting could be leading your first child to become more serious and your second child to become more relaxed. Or, it could lead your first child to want to be like you and your second child to want to be nothing like you.

You are flapping your butterfly wings to your hurricane children.

Just Move: Scientist Author Debunks Myths About Exercise And Sleep

“The more we study physical activity, the more we realize that it doesn’t really matter what you do,” [Daniel] Lieberman says. “You don’t have to do incredible strength training … to get some benefits of physical activity. There’s all different kinds of physical activity, and it’s all good in different ways.” …

On the demonizing of sitting as “the new smoking”

When I walk into a village in a remote part of the world where people don’t have chairs or a hunter-gatherer camp, people are always sitting. … Some friends and colleagues of mine actually put some accelerometers on some hunter-gatherers and found that they sit on average about 10 hours a day, which is pretty much the same amount of time Americans like me spend sitting.

So it turns out that I think we’ve kind of demonized sitting a little falsely. It’s not unnatural or strange or weird to sit a lot, but it is problematic if, of course, that’s all you do. As I started to explore the literature more, I was fascinated because most of the data that associates sitting a lot with poor health outcomes turns out to be leisure-time sitting. So if you look at how much time people spend sitting at work, it’s not really that associated with heart disease or cancers or diabetes. But if you look at how much people sit when they’re not at work, well, then the numbers get a little bit scary.

Gary Taubes: ‘Obesity isn’t a calorie problem, it’s a hormone problem’

The ketogenic diet is a widely accepted dietary treatment for epilepsy, but in your book you go further, describing it as a potential solution to the obesity epidemic and type 2 diabetes. What is the thinking for why a ketogenic diet can help in these cases?

What I argue in the book is that obesity is not a caloric imbalance problem, it’s a hormonal regulation problem. Fat accumulation is primarily regulated by the hormone insulin, and the idea is that for those who are obese, diabetic, or predisposed, they have to minimise their insulin levels to solve the problem. By restricting carbohydrate, the ketogenic diet minimises insulin, and so instead of accumulating fat, your body starts mobilising it, and synthesising ketones out of it to use as fuel.

After Alarmism The war on climate denial has been won. And that’s not the only good news.

By the time the Biden presidency finds its footing in a vaccinated world, the bounds of climate possibility will have been remade. Just a half-decade ago, it was widely believed that a “business as usual” emissions path would bring the planet four or five degrees of warming — enough to make large parts of Earth effectively uninhabitable. Now, thanks to the rapid death of coal, the revolution in the price of renewable energy, and a global climate politics forged by a generational awakening, the expectation is for about three degrees. Recent pledges could bring us closer to two. All of these projections sketch a hazardous and unequal future, and all are clouded with uncertainties — about the climate system, about technology, about the dexterity and intensity of human response, about how inequitably the most punishing impacts will be distributed. Yet if each half-degree of warming marks an entirely different level of suffering, we appear to have shaved a few of them off our likeliest end stage in not much time at all.

The next half-degrees will be harder to shave off, and the most crucial increment — getting from two degrees to 1.5 — perhaps impossible, dashing the dream of avoiding what was long described as “catastrophic” change. But for a climate alarmist like me, seeing clearly the state of the planet’s future now requires a conspicuous kind of double vision, in which a guarded optimism seems perhaps as reasonable as panic. Given how long we’ve waited to move, what counts now as a best-case outcome remains grim. It also appears, miraculously, within reach.

‘Why Do I Spend Weeks Avoiding Tasks That Will Take Me 10 Minutes to Do?’

Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago and author of Still Procrastinating?: The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done, told VICE that for a long time people looked at this kind of procrastination as laziness or disorganization, when it’s actually an avoidance strategy. “It’s not time management—it’s a much more complicated concept,” Ferrari said.

Bali’s thieving monkeys can spot high-value items to ransom

Shrewd macaques prefer to target items that humans are most likely to exchange for food, such as electronics, rather than objects that tourists care less about, such as hairpins or empty camera bags, said Dr Jean-Baptiste Leca, an associate professor in the psychology department at the University of Lethbridge in Canada and lead author of the study.

The Battle Over Dyslexia

Both sides tend to proceed with implacable certainty, often caricaturing their opponents as unfeeling bureaucrats determined to deny dyslexic children the support they desperately need, or pushy parents determined to secure advantage for their offspring, come what may. “If you want to cause an academic riot,” writes Janice Edwards in The Scars of Dyslexia, “just shout, ‘let’s discuss dyslexia!’ to a hall randomly filled with educational psychologists, assorted educational ‘experts’, politicians, teachers, and parents. Then retire gracefully and watch the mayhem commence.” When I told Greg Brooks about the piece I was writing, he let out a long, delighted laugh. “You don’t know what you’re getting into,” he said. “It’s horribly contentious and horribly messy.” Later, he emailed: “Good luck … prepare for ordure to be hurled.”

Why abstinence-only drug education doesn’t work—in fact, it backfires spectacularly.

The funniest part is this: Often, drug users talk about how, after being bombarded by frightening images of the worst possible effects of drug use, those internalized messages would actually backfire and have the exact opposite effect of their intention when they ended up trying illegal drugs for the first time. When none of the doomsday predictions come true after their first few times, users are left questioning the accuracy of all of the narratives they’d been given about drugs—including important ones about actual potential dangers.

Tethered to the Machine

JaMarcus searched for diversions. At night, after his wife, Gail, fell asleep, he sneaked out of the house with his teenage son to drive the empty freeways and cruise by the shuttered brick downtown, letting the cold wind hit his skin. In the afternoons, when he shopped for groceries, he drove to the Walmart Supercenter instead of the closer shops, because he enjoyed the bright lights and people-watching, as if it were a mall. JaMarcus didn’t tell his wife or son that he was making calculations in his head: most people didn’t survive five years on dialysis. He was nearing seven. His mother had died in year eight.

No matter how much he tried to go a different way, JaMarcus was being pulled along the same course, one laid out for him at birth. Black Americans are more likely to be born to mothers with diabetes, which predisposes them to the condition. They have lower rates of insurance coverage and can’t see doctors or afford medication as regularly, so diabetes and hypertension are more likely to cause complications like kidney disease. Even clinical care can work against them; doctors estimate kidney function using a controversial formula that inflates the scores of Black patients to make them look healthier, which can delay referrals to specialists or transplant centers.

Although chronic kidney disease affects people of all races at similar rates, Black Americans are three to four times more likely than white Americans to reach kidney failure. Even at the final stages of this disease, they are less likely to get a transplant. It is one of the most glaring examples of the country’s health disparities, one that Tanjala Purnell, a Johns Hopkins epidemiologist and health equity researcher, calls “the perfect storm of everything that went wrong at every single step.”

The mathematical case against blaming people for their misfortune

Chow’s bet on a taxi medallion went poorly because of a complex causal nexus of speculation and technological development that led the price for taxi medallions to rise steadily before falling precipitously. To predict the collapse in the price of taxi medallions without the benefit of luck, one would need to have a crisp picture of this labyrinthine causal structure.

Here’s where computational complexity theory kicks in. It turns out that learning the causal structure of real-world systems is very hard. More precisely, trying to infer the most likely causal structure of a system – no matter how much data we have about it – is what theorists call an NP-hard problem: given a general dataset, it can be fiendishly hard for an algorithm to learn the causal structure that produced it. In many cases, as more variables are added to the dataset, the minimum time that it takes any algorithm to learn the structure of the system under study grows exponentially. Under the assumption that our brains also learn by running algorithms, these results apply to human reasoning just as much as they apply to any computer.

One way to get around these constraints is to assume that the real world has a relatively simple causal structure: for example, we could assume that no variable in a system (say, the price of oil) depends on more than two other variables (say, demand and supply of oil). If we restrict the possibilities in this way, then estimating a causal structure becomes less difficult. Such heuristic approaches are a crucial part of how humans actually form beliefs, as the philosopher Julia Staffel has argued. However, treating a complex system as though it’s simple is a dangerous game; heuristics can misrepresent the world in consequential ways.

Why Artificial Intelligence Like AlphaZero Has Trouble With the Real World

An even more daunting game involving imperfect information is StarCraft II, another multiplayer online video game with a vast following. Players pick a team, build an army and wage war across a sci-fi landscape. But that landscape is shrouded in a fog of war that only lets players see areas where they have soldiers or buildings. Even the decision to scout your opponent is fraught with uncertainty.

This is one game that AI still can’t beat. Barriers to success include the sheer number of moves in a game, which often stretches into the thousands, and the speed at which they must be made. Every player — human or machine — has to worry about a vast set of possible futures with every click.

For now, going toe-to-toe with top humans in this arena is beyond the reach of AI. But it’s a target. In August 2017, DeepMind partnered with Blizzard Entertainment, the company that made StarCraft II, to release tools that they say will help open up the game to AI researchers.

Susceptibility to Mental Illness May Have Helped Humans Adapt Over the Millennia

A big part of your thesis is that some traits of mental disorders can be advantageous or adaptive—a depressed mood, for instance, might be beneficial for us. Where do you draw the line between the normal spectrum of emotion and pathology?

You can’t decide what’s normal and what’s abnormal until you understand the ordinary function of any trait—whether it’s vomiting or cough or fever or nausea. You start with its normal function and in what situation it gives selected advantages. But there are a lot of places where natural selection has shaped mechanisms that express these defenses when they’re not needed, and very often that emotional response is painful and unnecessary in that instance. Then there’s a category of emotions that make us feel bad but benefit our genes. A lot of sexual longings [extramarital affairs or unrequited love], for instance, don’t do us any good at all, but they might potentially benefit our genes in the long run.

So it’s not saying that these emotions are useful all the time. It’s the capacity for these emotions that is useful. And the regulation systems [that control emotion] were shaped by natural selection—so sometimes they’re useful for us, sometimes they’re useful for our genes, sometimes it’s false alarms in the system and sometimes the brain is just broken. We shouldn’t try to make any global generalizations, we should examine every patient individually and try to understand what’s going on.

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