Wednesday Round Up #39

Evolution: A Brief History of Us
Anthropologist Herman Pontzer covers human evolution in 12 minutes.

Bird-Watching Goes Both Ways

Before he began studying how and where L.A.’s raptors build their nests, Cooper gave little thought to bird droppings on the streets. “We’ve all seen bird shit on the ground,” he says, but it sort of fades into the background. “It makes you wonder, What else are you missing?”

These birds of prey, on the other hand, don’t miss much. Spending his days watching raptors go about their days, Cooper has been struck by how attentive they are to their surroundings. He suspects that they have figured out how to survive among millions of bipedal primates—us—through careful observation. They’re not just scrutinizing the crows and the squirrels. They’re also watching us. Bird-watching, in other words, goes both ways.

The Most Ambitious Effort Yet to Reform Policing May Be Happening In Ithaca, New York

In Berkeley, Ca., armed officers no longer conduct traffic stops or respond to mental health and homelessness calls. Portland ended the deployment of “school resource officers,” long linked to the criminalization of Black and brown youth and the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.

And now, in a proposal announced today, the mayor of Ithaca, NY will attempt the most radical reimagining of policing in the post-George Floyd era so far: abolishing the city’s police department as currently constructed and replacing it with a reimagined city agency.

In a nearly 100-page report obtained by GQ, Mayor Svante Myrick will propose replacing the city’s current 63-officer, $12.5 million a year department with a “Department of Community Solutions and Public Safety” which would include armed “public safety workers” and unarmed “community solution workers,” all of whom will report to a civilian director of public safety instead of a police chief.

The neural correlates of ongoing conscious thought

A core goal in cognitive neuroscience is identifying the physical substrates of the patterns of thought that occupy our daily lives. Contemporary views suggest that the landscape of ongoing experience is heterogeneous and can be influenced by features of both the person and the context. This perspective piece considers recent work that explicitly accounts for both the heterogeneity of the experience and context dependence of patterns of ongoing thought. These studies reveal that systems linked to attention and control are important for organizing experience in response to changing environmental demands.

These studies also establish a role of the default mode network beyond task-negative or purely episodic content, for example, implicating it in the level of vivid detail in experience in both task contexts and in spontaneous self-generated experiential states. Together, this work demonstrates that the landscape of ongoing thought is reflected in the activity of multiple neural systems, and it is important to distinguish between processes contributing to how the experience unfolds from those linked to how these experiences are regulated.

What If We Pay People to Stop Using Drugs?

PROP stands for Positive Reinforcement Opportunity Project, a treatment tailored for LGBTQ+ and non-binary people who want to reduce their stimulant use. After thinking it over for a couple of weeks, Tyrone showed up for an appointment at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation on Market Street.

Unlike traditional treatments for substance use disorders, which often take place in expensive residential facilities, demand total abstinence from all drugs, and rely heavily on group therapy and the 12-steps, PROP doesn’t punish or control those who participate in the program. Instead, PROP holds substance use on a continuum, and gives people the power to determine their own treatment goals: Some might want to be abstinent from all drugs; others might reduce their stimulant use to more manageable levels.

Counseling and group sessions are also part of PROP, but the program is grounded in a highly effective behavioral therapy called contingency management, which reinforces positive behaviors through delivering tangible, often monetary, rewards. “In PROP I found community, I found support,” Tyrone said. “And it was great to have that money.” …

Here’s how PROP’s contingency management program works: Participants show up every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a drug test. Every time they screen negative for cocaine, amphetamine, or methamphetamine—all stimulants—they are rewarded with money that is deposited into an account managed by the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. Participants can request to cash out at any time. The deeper into the program you get, the more money comes in each deposit. After every three consecutive negative screens, there’s a bonus. The more a behavior is rewarded, the theory goes, the more likely a person is to repeat it…

In contingency management programs, a positive urine screen does not result in punishment the way it might in other treatment programs, especially when those are court mandated and using drugs can result in jail time. The only negative reinforcement in contingency management is that a positive urine screen means the reward cycle resets, along with the bonus count. You have to start over…

Petry is known for inventing the “fishbowl” method, which the VA adopted across their facilities. Instead of receiving a set reward after each negative urine screen, participants draw prize slips at random. Some slips are worth $1, others are worth $20, and there’s one “jumbo” prize worth $100. But other slips have no monetary value and simply say, “Good Job!” After consecutive negative urine screens, the participant gets to draw more slips, increasing their chances of winning more money which is meant to reinforce abstinence over time. Veterans can earn a maximum of roughly $364, and on average earn closer to $200 in prize draws.

“Holiday season is my favorite time of year for CM,” Dr. DePhilippis said. “Patients who are doing well in CM are using their earnings to purchase gifts for loved ones, which is especially poignant because in many cases in prior holiday seasons when a patient is struggling they’re unable to have that joyous experience of buying their loved ones gifts.” …

Contingency management turns popular myths of addiction on their head, like claims that drugs “hijack” people’s brains, leaving them unable to make decisions for themselves, or ideas about “addictive personality,” as if people who use drugs are intrinsically selfish or egocentric. The contingency management model is based on the science of human behavior, and people who use drugs are human.

That philosophy is what attracted Tyrone to PROP’s contingency management program in the first place. “You were never really penalized. They never took anything away from you. You were never told that you can’t come back,” Tyrone said. “There were times we’d be in the room and there would be guys bouncing off the wall because they were so amped up, and they were treated just as equally and meant to feel as welcome as anyone else. For me, that was really important to feel like, no matter what, I was welcome.”

The Broken System: What comes after meritocracy?

Michael J. Sandel’s new book, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, gives us a deeper view into some of the reasons why many ordinary workers have become suspicious of the highly educated elites who seek to represent their interests in the Democratic Party. In providing a damning critique of meritocracy, Sandel also documents how, as both an ideology and a set of practices, it has become a driving force within the party as its members have become more highly educated. He argues that, in stressing education as the primary means to get ahead in society, the party’s educated elites have come to offer an increasingly narrow pathway to a decent life.

In doing so, they have rationalized the rampant inequality of the past four decades and often demeaned less educated people and their contributions to society. Their meritocratic focus on technical expertise in policy-making has also excluded the less credentialed from participating in this process and displaced democratic discussion of the common good, a fundamental project in which all should be included. Even the focus of the more left-wing educated elites on distributive justice, Sandel argues, doesn’t remedy the ways that meritocracy has undermined what he calls contributive justice—fair opportunities for everyone to contribute, and be recognized for contributing, to the common good.

Albert and the Whale by Philip Hoare review – his greatest work yet

This magnificent new book by Philip Hoare takes its title from that tale, but only as a point of departure. The narrative soon turns into a trip of another kind entirely, a captivating journey through art and life, nature and human nature, biography and personal memoir. Giants walk the earth: Dürer and Martin Luther, Shakespeare and Blake, Thomas Mann, Marianne Moore, WH Auden, David Bowie. Hoare summons them like Prospero, his writing the animating magic that brings the people of the past directly into our present and unleashes spectacular visions along the way.

Is the Western way of raising kids weird?

“Is he in his own room yet?” is a question new parents often field once they emerge from the haze of life with a newborn. But sleeping apart from our babies is a relatively recent development – and not one that extends around the globe. In other cultures sharing a room, and sometimes a bed, with your baby is the norm.

This isn’t the only aspect of new parenthood that Westerners do differently. From napping on a schedule and sleep training to pushing our children around in strollers, what we might think of as standard parenting practices are often anything but.

Striatal indirect pathway mediates exploration via modulation of collicular dynamics (cosyne)

Wednesday Round Up #38

Toward Clinically-Viable Brain-Machine Interfaces – Krishna Shenoy

Shenoy’s talk starts around 3:25, and the first part really is about dynamical approaches to understanding neural functions. So great basic science on how mammals accomplish tasks in real-time, before turning to how to apply that type of approach to help people who have disabilities.

Beyond reductionism – systems biology gets dynamic

Real biological systems – in the wild, as it were – simply don’t behave as they do under controlled lab conditions that isolate component pathways. They behave as systems – complex, dynamic, integrative systems. They are not simple stimulus-response machines. They do not passively process and propagate signals from the environment and react to them. They are autopoietic, homeostatic systems, creating and maintaining themselves, accommodating to incoming information in the context of their own internal states, which in turn reflect their history and experiences, over seconds, minutes, hours, days, years, and which even reflect the histories of their ancestors through the effects of natural selection.

Living things do things – they are proactive agents, not merely reactive systems. This is widely acknowledged in a general sort of way, but the problem is that the conceptualisation of cells or organisms as proactive systems has remained largely philosophical, even metaphorical, and disconnected from experimental study. It’s just not easy to study cells or organisms as systems.

Bad Dog

Schenkel’s language found its way into popular culture, and his work was still influential in the late eighties, when a scientist named L. David Mech began spending his summers on Ellesmere Island, in the Arctic Circle. By observing wolves in the wild, Mech discovered that packs are, in fact, simply families, with dynamics that change as pups reach mating age. The competition that Schenkel had observed, Mech found, was a result of the wolves’ conditions in captivity. Mech published two papers correcting the record, and the “alpha” terminology fell out of scientific use. Still, the myth has stuck. For many people, training a dog is an exercise in proving our power and authority, in vying for the position of the alpha…

The problem with using fear and pain in behavior modification is that fear is also at the root of aggression. For dogs, biting, snarling, and lunging are designed to create distance from a threat. The scientific literature of the past thirty years shows that dogs subjected to “dominant” or punishing training techniques—striking, kicking, staring, spraying water, shock and prong collars, choke chains, raised voices—have the highest incidence of aggression. These dogs also have elevated levels of cortisol, a greater fear of humans, and an inhibited ability to learn.

Teacher Demoralization Isn’t the Same as Teacher Burnout

It is worth distinguishing teacher demoralization from burnout. Teachers’ ongoing value conflicts with the work (demoralization) cannot be solved by the more familiar refrain for teachers to practice self-care in order to avoid exhaustion (burnout). Demoralization occurs when teachers cannot reap the moral rewards that they previously were able to access in their work. It happens when teachers are consistently thwarted in their ability to enact the values that brought them to the profession.

Burnout, on the other hand, happens when teachers are pushed to the brink of exhaustion and are entirely depleted. The rhetoric of teacher resilience offers a clear culprit in the scenario of burnout—the teachers themselves who failed to conserve their energy and internal resources.

Phenotypic covariance across the entire spectrum of relatedness for 86 billion pairs of individuals

Excellent study using an extremely large sample to examine how common models impact estimates of heritability. Well-worth the entire read, but a couple things stand out: twin-studies overestimate genetic influences on traits, and assortative mating makes a difference for several traits in humans. We tend to marry/have children with people who are a similar height to us, and we tend to marry/mate with people who are a similar social class to us.

We find that non-random mating had a measurable effect on the phenotypic correlation of close relatives for some traits. The phenotypic correlation of close relative pairs was higher than what would be expected under a simple AE model, and the AE model predicted that unrelated pairs to have a non-zero phenotypic correlation for height, income, lung capacity and Educational Attainment…
We observe that the twin estimate assessing the equilibrium heritability for height is significantly greater than our estimate of h^2EQ from close relatives (χ21 = 5.9, p = 0.01; Table 4). This finding adds further to evidence for the systematic inflation of heritability estimates from classic twin studies.

To Avoid Getting Duped By Fake News, Think Like A Fact Checker

The first reader’s opinion, and maybe even his vote, were swayed by a site whose backing he failed to uncover. This reader needs a tutorial in critical thinking, right?

After watching groups of intelligent adults navigate and flounder on the web, we’ve come to a different conclusion. Often, it’s not more critical thinking that they need. It’s less.

For more, see this NYT’s piece Don’t Go Down the Rabbit Hole.

Specialized coding of sensory, motor and cognitive variables in VTA dopamine neurons

There is increased appreciation that dopamine neurons in the midbrain respond not only to reward1 and reward-predicting cues1,2, but also to other variables such as the distance to reward3, movements4,5,6,7,8,9 and behavioural choices10,11. An important question is how the responses to these diverse variables are organized across the population of dopamine neurons. Whether individual dopamine neurons multiplex several variables, or whether there are subsets of neurons that are specialized in encoding specific behavioural variables remains unclear. This fundamental question has been difficult to resolve because recordings from large populations of individual dopamine neurons have not been performed in a behavioural task with sufficient complexity to examine these diverse variables simultaneously. Here, to address this gap, we used two-photon calcium imaging through an implanted lens to record the activity of more than 300 dopamine neurons from the ventral tegmental area of the mouse midbrain during a complex decision-making task. As mice navigated in a virtual-reality environment, dopamine neurons encoded an array of sensory, motor and cognitive variables. These responses were functionally clustered, such that subpopulations of neurons transmitted information about a subset of behavioural variables, in addition to encoding reward. These functional clusters were spatially organized, with neighbouring neurons more likely to be part of the same cluster. Together with the topography between dopamine neurons and their projections, this specialization and anatomical organization may aid downstream circuits in correctly interpreting the wide range of signals transmitted by dopamine neurons.

4 Work-From-Home Tech Tricks I Learned From Twitch Streamers

Upgrade Your Space—in Order

As quarantine drags on, I’ve seen a lot of Facebook ads for small pieces of equipment to improve your video calls. If the number one goal is that you can contribute to meetings and be understood by your coworkers, clip-on lights and mini webcams shouldn’t be the first thing to buy. Consider upgrading your setup in this order.

Persuading the Unpersuadable

Let a Stubborn Person Seize the Reins

A second obstacle to changing people’s opinions is stubbornness. Intractable people see consistency and certainty as virtues. Once made up, their minds seem to be set in stone. But their views become more pliable if you hand them a chisel…

A solution to this problem comes from a study of Hollywood screenwriters. Those who pitched fully formed concepts to executives right out of the gate struggled to get their ideas accepted. Successful screenwriters, by contrast, understood that Hollywood executives like to shape stories. Those writers treated the pitch more like a game of catch, tossing an idea over to the suits, who would build on it and throw it back.

Not long ago I was introduced to a former Apple engineer named Mike Bell, who knew how to play catch with Steve Jobs. In the late 1990s Bell was listening to music on his Mac computer and getting annoyed at the thought of lugging the device with him from room to room. When he suggested building a separate box to stream audio, Jobs laughed at him. When Bell recommended streaming video, too, Jobs fired back, “Who the f— would ever want to stream video?”

Bell told me that when evaluating other people’s ideas, Jobs often pushed back to assert his control. But when Jobs was the one generating ideas, he was more open to considering alternatives. Bell learned to plant the seeds of a new concept, hoping that Jobs would warm to it and give it some sunlight.

Research shows that asking questions instead of giving answers can overcome people’s defensiveness. You’re not telling your boss what to think or do; you’re giving her some control over the conversation and inviting her to share her thoughts. Questions like “What if?” and “Could we?” spark creativity by making people curious about what’s possible.

Wednesday Round Up #37

How to Interpret Resting-State fMRI: Ask Your Participants

Resting-state fMRI (rsfMRI) reveals brain dynamics in a task-unconstrained environment as subjects let their minds wander freely. Consequently, resting subjects navigate a rich space of cognitive and perceptual states (i.e., ongoing experience). How this ongoing experience shapes rsfMRI summary metrics (e.g., functional connectivity) is unknown, yet likely to contribute uniquely to within- and between-subject differences. Here we argue that understanding the role of ongoing experience in rsfMRI requires access to standardized, temporally resolved, scientifically validated first-person descriptions of those experiences. We suggest best practices for obtaining those descriptions via introspective methods appropriately adapted for use in fMRI research. We conclude with a set of guidelines for fusing these two data types to answer pressing questions about the etiology of rsfMRI.

Public policy and health in the Trump era

This report by the Lancet Commission on Public Policy and Health in the Trump Era assesses the repercussions of President Donald Trump’s health-related policies and examines the failures and social schisms that enabled his election. Trump exploited low and middle-income white people’s anger over their deteriorating life prospects to mobilise racial animus and xenophobia and enlist their support for policies that benefit high-income people and corporations and threaten health.

His signature legislative achievement, a trillion-dollar tax cut for corporations and high-income individuals, opened a budget hole that he used to justify cutting food subsidies and health care. His appeals to racism, nativism, and religious bigotry have emboldened white nationalists and vigilantes, and encouraged police violence and, at the end of his term in office, insurrection. He chose judges for US courts who are dismissive of affirmative action and reproductive, labour, civil, and voting rights; ordered the mass detention of immigrants in hazardous conditions; and promulgated regulations that reduce access to abortion and contraception in the USA and globally.

Although his effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act failed, he weakened its coverage and increased the number of uninsured people by 2·3 million, even before the mass dislocation of the COVID-19 pandemic, and has accelerated the privatisation of government health programmes. Trump’s hostility to environmental regulations has already worsened pollution—resulting in more than 22 000 extra deaths in 2019 alone—hastened global warming, and despoiled national monuments and lands sacred to Native people. Disdain for science and cuts to global health programmes and public health agencies have impeded the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, causing tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths, and imperil advances against HIV and other diseases. And Trump’s bellicose trade, defence, and foreign policies have led to economic disruption and threaten an upswing in armed conflict.

What is Complexity Science?
Github primer on the topic. Here’s the intro statement:

Complexity science, also called complex systems science, studies how a large collection of components – locally interacting with each other at small scales – can spontaneously self-organize to exhibit non-trivial global structures and behaviors at larger scales, often without external intervention, central authorities or leaders. The properties of the collection may not be understood or predicted from the full knowledge of its constituents alone. Such a collection is called a complex system and it requires new mathematical frameworks and scientific methodologies for its investigation.

Beside the dynamic website, you can get a more linear pdf of the materials here.

Martin Luther Rewired Your Brain

You are likely highly literate. As you learned to read, probably as a child, your brain reorganized itself to better accommodate your efforts, which had both functional and inadvertent consequences for your mind.

So, to account for these changes to your brain—e.g, your thicker corpus callosum and poorer facial recognition—we need to ask when and why did parents, communities, and governments come to see it as necessary for everyone to learn to read. Here, a puzzle about neuroscience and cognition turns into a historical question.

Of course, writing systems are thousands of years old, found in ancient Sumer, China, and Egypt, but in most literate societies only a small fraction of people ever learned to read, rarely more than 10%. So, when did people decide that everyone should learn to read? Maybe it came with the rapid economic growth of the Nineteenth Century? Or, surely, the intelligentsia of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, imbued with reason and rationality, figured it out?

No, it was a religious mutation in the Sixteenth Century. After bubbling up periodically in prior centuries, the belief that every person should read and interpret the Bible for themselves began to rapidly diffuse across Europe with the eruption of the Protestant Reformation, marked in 1517 by Martin Luther’s delivery of his famous ninety-five theses. Protestants came to believe that both boys and girls had to study the Bible for themselves to better know their God. In the wake of the spread of Protestantism, the literacy rates in the newly reforming populations in Britain, Sweden, and the Netherlands surged past more cosmopolitan places like Italy and France. Motivated by eternal salvation, parents and leaders made sure the children learned to read.

(New) Realist Social Cognition

Low-level descriptions of interaction dynamics have been canonically approached by cognitive neuroscience through a representation-oriented and inference-based perspective, leading to a stable paradigmatic plateau, that no longer allows further construction of a completely coherent semiotic framework capable of accounting for currently unobserved characteristics of social cognition, which is forcibly situated and mostly occurs in interaction. Social contexts are saturated with information that remains invisibilized because of the use of mutually incommensurable conceptual metaphors throughout contemporary scientific discursive practices, despite the embodied turn led by 4E Cognition. A new turn toward realist ontology and epistemology is thus rendered as necessary to inform the gaps within cognitive neuroscience and ground its currently unfulfilled interdisciplinarity. Examples are drawn from research on language to make the case for each argument.

How to Write a Novel, According to 10 Really Good Novelists
Really just tips for writing…

Don’t overcomplicate it:
“Keep it simple: complexity is the enemy. Task yourself narratively, eg ‘Tomorrow I have to write a particular scene’, rather than ‘Tomorrow I must write 800 words’. Plot can be structured as: situation, complication, new equilibrium. And this applies to scenes as well as whole books: the new equilibrium is the hook for the next scene. Verbs are very important, that’s where the action is. Metaphorise them if possible. Write: ‘The red-haired man shouldered his way through the door’; not: ‘The big-shouldered, red-haired man pushed through the door.'”

Neuroscience shows how interconnected we are – even in a time of isolation

Before Covid-19, body budgeting in modern life was already treacherous. Many of us were sleep deprived, stressing out on social media, not exercising enough and eating pseudo-foods loaded with budget-warping refined sugar and bad fats. The pandemic exacerbated these problems, along with financial worries, parenting pressures, social isolation and, of course, the fear of dying. Depression rates doubled in the UK and tripled in the US. Overall, our body budgets are seeing more withdrawals and fewer deposits.

But in these challenges we face we may discover seeds of resilience, with neuroscience as the flashlight. Many things in the outside world can nudge (or shove) your body budget, and that includes other human beings. In a very real, biological way, we are connected to one another through body budgeting. Friends, family and strangers can do and say things that send your spider sense creeping (or careening) this way or that, and you return the favour. In a moment of trust or affection, for example, heart rates or breathing may synchronise. When you raise your voice, or even your eyebrow, you might affect the chemicals carried in someone else’s bloodstream. These sorts of physical connections happen between infants and their caregivers, between therapists and their clients, among friends or lovers and even among people moving together in a yoga class or singing in a choir. People notice these body-budget tweaks mainly as changes in mood.

Structured Flows on Manifolds as guiding concepts in brain science

Any discussion of brain repair, rehabilitation, and functional recovery imperatively requires a working definition of “function” (Jirsa et al. 2019). If such definition is not explicitly provided, which is more common than not, then the precedent statement still remains valid and is implied by the choice of methods applied in the investigation. An illustrative and recent example is the use of resting state paradigms in modern neuroscience, in which spa-tiotemporal brain activity is recorded using neuroimaging techniques such as functional MRI or EEG and then cast into a measure, e.g., functional connectivity, which captures the Pearson correlation of brain activations. Measures assign a value on the relationship between two brain regions in a systematic way, which implicitly evokes an underlying model and understanding of brain function.

Functional connectivity assumes that the co-variation of brain activations in time is related in a meaningful way to brain function. What does meaningful refer to in this case? Here meaning can be assigned in two ways. Either it can be linked to a causal description of brain activity, as only the latter provides us with entry points for interventions in case of brain dysfunction, and ultimately brain repair. The juxtaposition of empirical brain data and a causal description thereof is commonly performed through the building of a mechanistic brain model. Once one or multiple key mechanisms are identified, then the actual confrontation between empirical data and model is made by the parameters in the model. In fact, this is what any scientific interrogation reduces to at this stage.

The assignment of values (whether through explicit numbers, parameter ranges, or co-dependent subsets) to model parameters establishes the critical link between our understanding (aka the model) and the real-world (aka the data). It will generally not be unique, but degenerate in the sense that the brain exhibits the one-to-many and many-to-one behavior well-known from complex systems. Virtually indistinguishable network activity patterns can for instance arise from many distinct biophysical mechanisms

The Mind at Work: Lisa Feldman Barrett on the metabolism of emotion

“Essentialism is really at the heart of many ills in our society,” Barrett tells me, looking Vermeer-esque against a dramatic velvet curtain on our Zoom call. “Essentialism is the belief that a category of things share a particular nature because they share a deep, immutable core, an unchanging essence.” Racism, sexism, and snobbery are all forms of essentialist bias that hinge on this fixed mindset. They also assume, Barrett says, “that a visible feature (like skin tone, or a vagina, or a certain type of car) is symbolic for something else, the deeper essence, that makes a person the type of person they are.”

Essentialism is also behind the classical view of emotion that Barrett encountered as a psychology student.

The Inner Voice

Hurlburt had envisioned a way to accurately sample others’ random inner experiences. Today a professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, he’s been honing the technique ever since.

Hurlburt calls his methodology Descriptive Experience Sampling (DES), and it works by sampling the inner thoughts of a given interviewee during those moments when a beeper randomly goes off. After extracting the contents of inner experience from countless interviews, Hurlburt has defined an array of phenomena typically shared by humans – auditory and visual imagery, emotion, awareness of real stimuli and a category of thoughts that occur without words, images or symbols of any kind. The main contribution here, though, is actually DES itself. Before its inception, introspective methods had been shunned for decades, if not centuries, as being too highly influenced by bias to be taken seriously. Now, with DES, Hurlburt believes in the possibility of obtaining unbiased, accurate snapshots of inner experience that includes inner speech.

Freed from the mundane confines of a laboratory, the data come from ‘the wild’, as Hurlburt puts it.

Wednesday Round Up #36

He Wants to Save Classics From Whiteness. Can the Field Survive
Outstanding magazine article which uses the story of one professor – Dan-el Padilla Peralta – to examine what decolonizing a discipline can mean. It is focused on one of the most white of disciplines – classics – that is often used to justify white supremacy. It also illustrates the debate around what decolonizing means and why it can matter. For most of you, it might be behind a paywall. I also post a YouTube video below of a lecture this past fall by Padilla Peralta, which has an academic delivery rather than a popular one.

To see classics the way Padilla sees it means breaking the mirror; it means condemning the classical legacy as one of the most harmful stories we’ve told ourselves. Padilla is wary of colleagues who cite the radical uses of classics as a way to forestall change; he believes that such examples have been outmatched by the field’s long alliance with the forces of dominance and oppression. Classics and whiteness are the bones and sinew of the same body; they grew strong together, and they may have to die together. Classics deserves to survive only if it can become “a site of contestation” for the communities who have been denigrated by it in the past. This past semester, he co-taught a course, with the Activist Graduate School, called “Rupturing Tradition,” which pairs ancient texts with critical race theory and strategies for organizing. “I think that the politics of the living are what constitute classics as a site for productive inquiry,” he told me. “When folks think of classics, I would want them to think about folks of color.”

Meet Carl Hart: parent, Columbia professor – and heroin user

African Americans remain far more likely to be incarcerated for drug crimes than white Americans. And they are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their white counterparts. In the UK, while the inequality is not so extreme, racial bias in sentencing still exists. Last week, it was reported that black drug dealers are 1.4 times more likely to be handed immediate custodial sentences than white people convicted of similar crimes.

Hart displays the passion of the convert in attacking misconceptions of African American drug use, because, as he confesses in the book, he once “wholeheartedly believed that drugs destroyed certain black communities”.

It was visiting white friends in pleasant neighbourhoods who were engaging in the same drug use he believed led to community dysfunction that made him realise it wasn’t the drugs but the context in which they were taken that harmed people. All the same, he says it took him a long time to acknowledge to himself what his scientific research and personal experience were telling him. So why did he resist for many years the logic of his own findings on drugs such as heroin?

How to be a genius

The question ‘Nature or nurture?’ always provoked debate. The quant types (mathematics and science majors) thought genius was due to natural gifts; parents and teachers had told them that they’d been born with a special talent for quantitative reasoning. The jocks (varsity athletes) thought exceptional accomplishment was all hard work: no pain, no gain. Coaches had taught them that their achievement was the result of endless hours of practice. Among novice political scientists, conservatives thought genius a God-given gift; liberals thought it was caused by a supportive environment. No answer? Call in the experts: readings from Plato, William Shakespeare and Charles Darwin to Simone de Beauvoir followed, but each had his or her own take.

The students hoped for something more concrete. Some wanted to know if they were already geniuses and what their futures might hold. Most wanted to know how they, too, might become a genius. They had heard that I’d studied geniuses from Louisa May Alcott to Émile Zola, and thought that I might have found the key to genius. So I asked: ‘How many of you think you already are or have the capacity to be a genius?’ Some timidly raised their hands; the class clowns did so emphatically. Next: ‘If you’re not one already, how many of you want to be a genius’? In some years, as many as three-quarters of the students raised their hands. Then I asked: ‘OK, but what exactly is a genius?’

Role of uncertainty, and how resolving that quickly really matters to be able to act in culturally guided manners, elicit social support, and do all the other successful things that help make our species successful.

An Evolutionary Timeline of Homo Sapiens

These lines of evidence increasingly indicate that H. sapiens originated in Africa, although not necessarily in a single time and place. Instead it seems diverse groups of human ancestors lived in habitable regions around Africa, evolving physically and culturally in relative isolation, until climate driven changes to African landscapes spurred them to intermittently mix and swap everything from genes to tool techniques. Eventually, this process gave rise to the unique genetic makeup of modern humans…

The remains of five individuals at Jebel Irhoud exhibit traits of a face that looks compellingly modern, mixed with other traits like an elongated brain case reminiscent of more archaic humans. The remains’ presence in the northwestern corner of Africa isn’t evidence of our origin point, but rather of how widely spread humans were across Africa even at this early date [300,000 years ago].

Other very old fossils often classified as early Homo sapiens come from Florisbad, South Africa (around 260,000 years old), and the Kibish Formation along Ethiopia’s Omo River (around 195,000 years old).

Biological anthropologist Sheela Athreya would like to decolonise the human origin story

I wanted to talk first about the quote from your study that reads “the marginalised non-Western lands and their peoples leaving the order of superior and inferior more or less unchanged through the history of the discipline.” I found that fascinating and wanted to have you expand on that a little bit.

That came about from my co-author. She’s been working in South Africa for the last 20 some odd years, and I gave a talk about how the Asian fossil record has been represented, and she was frustrated because she pointed out that no matter how the narrative goes, Africa is always at the bottom. If it’s the site of human origins, they’re primitive. If it was the last place to become human, they’re primitive. So they can’t win. That’s actually how that came about was her frustration and observation that the starting point was the primitiveness of Africans and the elevation of Europeans. The irony is that novelties in human evolution—the youngest fossil record for our species and some of the latest developments—were in Europe, and somehow, that’s still the pinnacle of our achievement. Everything is then framed as “these various places had art, but it all came together in Europe”, whereas before, in the 1940s and ’50s, it was “it all started in Europe and no one else became civilised until after we developed art”.

Why the GameStop affair is a perfect example of ‘platform populism’

The inevitable process of “democratisation” touted by all the platforms as evidence of their own socially progressive nature, was often the result of simple arithmetic. In cases like WeWork, the maths did not even add up. Whether Robinhood, which has now urgently raised an extra $1bn, will be luckier remains to be seen.

For most of these companies, the sweet promises of “democratisation” have made such maths irrelevant, at least in the short term. This explains how the tech industry has emerged as the leading purveyor of populism around the globe.

This may seem an overstatement. While we tend to reserve the dreaded P word for the Bannons, the Orbáns and the Erdoğans of this world, can we think of Bezos or Zuckerberg – and the stock-trading Robinhood army – in those terms?

We can and we should. With everyone’s eyes fixed on Trump-style populism – primitive, toxic, nativist – we have completely missed the platforms’ role in the emergence of another, rather distinct type of populism: sophisticated, cosmopolitan, urbane. Originating in Silicon Valley, this “platform populism” has advanced by disrupting hidden, reactionary forces that stand in the way of progress and “democratisation” – all by unleashing the powers of digital technologies.

Our Collective Fixation on Productivity Is Older Than You Think

In his newest book, Work: A Deep History, From the Stone Age to the Age of Robots, [anthropologist] James Suzman, Ph.D., goes back much, much further than that. Ten thousand years, in fact, to the agricultural revolution, and to the beginning of food insecurity. In the case of drought or pests, farms would be destroyed and famine would ensue. Effectively, this was the beginning of the complementary notions of scarcity and productivity: You can never have enough, and so you should always be working to produce more. Sound familiar?

To explain why and how this happened, Suzman draws heavily on the decades-long work he has done studying the Bushmen of southern Africa. In particular, the Ju/’hoansi, a tribe whose members, up until the latter half of the 20th century, were still hunting and gathering like their ancestors some 200,000 years before. (To pronounce Ju/’hoansi without the click they use, Suzman advises combining the French “jus” with “waahsi.”)

By juxtaposing this anomalous foraging community—where members worked only 15 hours a week—with the farming societies that followed, Suzman highlights the shifts that ushered in the ideas that now define modern work. It’s not just that we became obsessed with productivity, but that we fundamentally changed our relationship to things like time, history, the land, and one another.

Neuroscience Readies for a Showdown Over Consciousness Ideas

You can hardly do experiments on consciousness without having first defined it. But that’s already difficult because we use the word in several ways. Humans are conscious beings, but we can lose consciousness, for example under anesthesia. We can say we are conscious of something — a strange noise coming out of our laptop, say. But in general, the quality of consciousness refers to a capacity to experience one’s existence rather than just recording it or responding to stimuli like an automaton. Philosophers of mind often refer to this as the principle that one can meaningfully speak about what it is to be “like” a conscious being — even if we can never actually have that experience beyond ourselves…

But to Koch, the argument that all of cognition, including consciousness, is merely a form of computation “embodies the dominant myth of our age: that it’s just an algorithm, and so is just a clever hack away.” According to this view, he said, “very soon we’ll have clever machines that model most of the features that the human brain has and thereby will be conscious.”

He has been developing a competing theory in collaboration with its originator, the neuroscientist Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They say that consciousness is not something that arises while turning inputs into outputs but rather an intrinsic property of the right kind of cognitive network, one that has specific features in its architecture. Tononi christened this view integrated information theory (IIT).

In contrast to GWT, which starts by asking what the brain does to create the conscious experience, IIT begins instead with the experience. “To be conscious is to have an experience,” Tononi said. It doesn’t have to be an experience about anything, although it can be; dreams, or some “blank mind” states attained by meditation also count as conscious experiences. Tononi has sought to identify the essential features of these experiences: namely, that they are subjective (they exist only for the conscious entity), structured (their contents relate to one another: “the blue book is on the table”), specific (the book is blue, not red), unified (there is only one experience at a time) and definitive (there are bounds to what the experience contains). From these axioms, Tononi and Koch claim to have deduced the properties that a physical system must possess if it is to have some degree of consciousness.

From Tech Critique to Ways of Living

The philosopher Yuk Hui, a native of Hong Kong who now teaches in Germany, thinks that Heidegger is the most profound of recent Western thinkers on technology — but also that it is necessary to “go beyond Heidegger’s discourse on technology.” In his exceptionally ambitious book The Question Concerning Technology in China (2016) and in a series of related essays and interviews, Hui argues, as the title of his book suggests, that we go wrong when we assume that there is one question concerning technology, the question, that is universal in scope and uniform in shape. Perhaps the questions are different in Hong Kong than in the Black Forest. Similarly, the distinction Heidegger draws between ancient and modern technology — where with modern technology everything becomes a mere resource — may not universally hold.

Hui explores, for instance, Kant’s notion of the cosmopolitan, and the related role of print technology. A central concept in Enlightenment models of rationality, the cosmopolitan is the ideal citizen of the world engaged in public reasoning, and Kant believed that a “universal cosmopolitan condition” would one day be the natural outcome of history. But Kant’s understanding of what that means is thoroughly entangled with the rise and expansion of print culture. It is directly through print culture that the “Republic of Letters,” the very epitome of cosmopolitanism as Kant knew it, is formed. But, then, what might a cosmopolitan be within a society whose print culture is either nonexistent or radically other than the one Enlightenment thinkers knew?

The ripples of modernity: How we can extend paleoanthropology with the extended evolutionary synthesis

Contemporary understandings of paleoanthropological data illustrate that the search for a line defining, or a specific point designating, “modern human” is problematic. Here we lend support to the argument for the need to look for patterns in the paleoanthropological record that indicate how multiple evolutionary processes intersected to form the human niche, a concept critical to assessing the development and processes involved in the emergence of a contemporary human phenotype. We suggest that incorporating key elements of the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES) into our endeavors offers a better and more integrative toolkit for modeling and assessing the evolution of the genus Homo. To illustrate our points, we highlight how aspects of the genetic exchanges, morphology, and material culture of the later Pleistocene complicate the concept of “modern” human behavior and suggest that multiple evolutionary patterns, processes, and pathways intersected to form the human niche.

And here is the Twitter thread on paleoanthropology and the extended synthesis from one of the authors, Agustin Fuentes.

Why Do So Many Researchers Still Treat Race as a Scientific Concept?

British science journalist Angela Saini tells this story in her exceptional and damning book, Superior: The Return of Race Science. “Race was the entire premise upon which they were doing their research, but they were unable to tell her what it was,” writes Saini. “Their work instead seemed to rest upon a hope that if they just persisted, they would eventually come to find meaning in these categories. What they couldn’t yet define would then be defined. Somehow it would become real.”

In the 16 years since the anthropologist made her observations, scientists have still not found any meaningful biological definition of race. All human genomes are 99.5 percent identical, and although it’s true that the remaining 0.5 percent can vary in ways that correlate with geographical ancestry, these correlations do not strictly map to racial categories. If you hand a scientist your genome, she might be able to tell you something about the geographical distribution of your ancestors, but she cannot tell you what race you are. There’s simply nothing in the genome that’s an unambiguous marker of race. And yet, many scientists and doctors continue to use race as if it’s a meaningful biological category.

Wednesday Round Up #35: Article Version


Doing something a bit different with this one – just straight-up research articles that I have found interesting and/or relevant.

Striatal activity topographically reflects cortical activity

The cortex projects to the dorsal striatum topographically1,2 to regulate behaviour3,4,5, but spiking activity in the two structures has previously been reported to have markedly different relations to sensorimotor events6,7,8,9. Here we show that the relationship between activity in the cortex and striatum is spatiotemporally precise, topographic, causal and invariant to behaviour. We simultaneously recorded activity across large regions of the cortex and across the width of the dorsal striatum in mice that performed a visually guided task. Striatal activity followed a mediolateral gradient in which behavioural correlates progressed from visual cue to response movement to reward licking. The summed activity in each part of the striatum closely and specifically mirrored activity in topographically associated cortical regions, regardless of task engagement. This relationship held for medium spiny neurons and fast-spiking interneurons, whereas the activity of tonically active neurons differed from cortical activity with stereotypical responses to sensory or reward events.

Distributed coding of choice, action and engagement across the mouse brain

Vision, choice, action and behavioural engagement arise from neuronal activity that may be distributed across brain regions. Here we delineate the spatial distribution of neurons underlying these processes. We used Neuropixels probes1,2 to record from approximately 30,000 neurons in 42 brain regions of mice performing a visual discrimination task3. Neurons in nearly all regions responded non-specifically when the mouse initiated an action. By contrast, neurons encoding visual stimuli and upcoming choices occupied restricted regions in the neocortex, basal ganglia and midbrain. Choice signals were rare and emerged with indistinguishable timing across regions. Midbrain neurons were activated before contralateral choices and were suppressed before ipsilateral choices, whereas forebrain neurons could prefer either side. Brain-wide pre-stimulus activity predicted engagement in individual trials and in the overall task, with enhanced subcortical but suppressed neocortical activity during engagement. These results reveal organizing principles for the distribution of neurons encoding behaviourally relevant variables across the mouse brain.

From Patterns in Language to Patterns in Thought: Relativity Realized Across the Americas

Among the many results Boas envisioned for the documentation of American indigenous languages was a clearer delineation of some fundamental facets of human psychology. This paper examines the subsequent realization of that particular vision, outlining some of the ways in which research with speakers of American languages has helped illuminate human cognition. The focus is on key findings that offer support for linguistic relativity, the influence of linguistic disparities on thought evident in non-linguistic behavior. These findings relate to spatial, temporal, and numerical cognition. The relevant data surveyed offer compelling evidence that some cross-linguistic differences impact cognitive habits. A pivotal point is underscored throughout the paper: Despite the crossfield nature of the findings on this topic, those findings are ultimately contingent on the research of linguistic fieldworkers who have meticulously described typologically distinct languages. Through their research, the Boasian vision for psychological insights via the description of American languages has been realized.

Reconciling emergences: An information-theoretic approach to identify causal emergence in multivariate data

The broad concept of emergence is instrumental in various of the most challenging open scientific questions—yet, few quantitative theories of what constitutes emergent phenomena have been proposed. This article introduces a formal theory of causal emergence in multivariate systems, which studies the relationship between the dynamics of parts of a system and macroscopic features of interest. Our theory provides a quantitative definition of downward causation, and introduces a complementary modality of emergent behaviour—which we refer to as causal decoupling. Moreover, the theory allows practical criteria that can be efficiently calculated in large systems, making our framework applicable in a range of scenarios of practical interest. We illustrate our findings in a number of case studies, including Conway’s Game of Life, Reynolds’ flocking model, and neural activity as measured by electrocorticography.

Uncertainty and stress: Why it causes diseases and how it is mastered by the brain

As all cognitive systems strive to reduce their uncertainty about future outcomes, they face a critical constraint: Reducing uncertainty requires cerebral energy. The characteristic of the vertebrate brain to prioritize its own high energy is captured by the notion of the ‘selfish brain’. Accordingly, in times of uncertainty, the selfish brain demands extra energy from the body. If, despite all this, the brain cannot reduce uncertainty, a persistent cerebral energy crisis may develop, burdening the individual by ‘allostatic load’ that contributes to systemic and brain malfunction (impaired memory, atherogenesis, diabetes and subsequent cardio- and cerebrovascular events). Based on the basic tenet that stress originates from uncertainty, we discuss the strategies our brain uses to avoid surprise and thereby resolve uncertainty.

The relationship between cultural tightness–looseness and COVID-19 cases and deaths: a global analysis

The COVID-19 pandemic is a global health crisis, yet certain countries have had far more success in limiting COVID-19 cases and deaths. We suggest that collective threats require a tremendous amount of coordination, and that strict adherence to social norms is a key mechanism that enables groups to do so. Here we examine how the strength of social norms—or cultural tightness–looseness—was associated with countries’ success in limiting cases and deaths by October, 2020. We expected that tight cultures, which have strict norms and punishments for deviance, would have fewer cases and deaths per million as compared with loose cultures, which have weaker norms and are more permissive.

Situating the Embodied Mind in a Landscape of Standing Affordances for Living Without Chairs: Materializing a Philosophical Worldview

Sitting too much is unhealthy, but a widespread habit in many societies. Realizing behavioral change in this area is hard. Our societies promote being seated via the way its places are structured: they are filled with chairs for example. How can we make healthier environments that invite people to move around more? This article shows how philosophical research in the area of embodied/enactive cognitive science let to a built vision for the office of the future, of 2025. Multidisciplinary studio RAAAF [Rietveld Architecture-Art-Affordances] and visual artist Barbara Visser built this world without chairs, titled The End of Sitting. This large rock-like landscape integrates many affordances for standing. Affordances are the possibilities for action provided by the environment. This landscape of standing affordances allows people to work standing while being supported by the material structure of the environment. This unorthodox working landscape is both an enactive art installation and the materialization of a philosophical worldview that understands people as embodied minds situated in a landscape of affordances. It stimulates reflection on the way built environments can naturally invite more active and healthy behavior.

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.