In which I examine the unity of mind and body

Over on the Nonprofiteer I consider the expression “pain in the ass” and its application to actual asses everywhere. The money graf:

So when you go home for the holidays and abruptly find yourself troubled by an injury you’d
thought long healed, look around the room: maybe it’s Mama and maybe it’s Uncle Jim, but I’ll
bet somebody familial is the cause. And if you notice a brother who seems to manifest a limp
every time he sees you, consider this: you might be the pain in the ass of which you’ve always

Poverty, Meet Cash Transfers

In my guise as The Nonprofiteer, I suggest that the solution to poverty might be money.

dorothea lange depression era photographs 13

Alert the media.  No, really.

More Claptrap on Science on the NYT webpage

The NYT has done it again — posted more claptrap on science.  But this time it’s by a respected philosopher, Thomas Nagel.   Nagel’s post is a cliff notes version of his book published last year, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.  

This book title alone provides a good indication that Nagel should be ignored on these matters,  since any scientific theory is likely to be “false” in an old-fashioned philosophical  sense of an exact description of nature– as Newtonian mechanics is “false” because it does not comprehend relativistic or quantum interactions.    So we need to ask what is it about our academic institutions and intellectual cultures that allow tenured faculty at NYU (at least a second-tier University) and Oxford University Press (a premier publishing house that publishes academic and quasi-academic books) to advance misleading nonsense that proceeds in ignorance of  how other professors in nearby offices do their work.

Let’s try to go through Nagel’s argument and see what it relies on and what it misses.

First he builds a strawman that physics aspires to be a “theory of everything.”  Leave out the silly grammar where a field of study is anthropomorphically given aspirations.   When physicists talked about a “theory of everything” they didn’t mean a theory that comprehends such things as consciousness, morality, aesthetics, free will, or even  the stock market —  they meant, to use informal terms,  a theory that provided unified explanations of gravitation and the previously unified theory of electricity, magnetism, and strong forces within atomic nucleii.  This was an ambition to unite the world of physics, not to use physics to subsume all other sciences.

So let’s not beat up on physics.

When we get to neuroscience and psychology, there is a hard  question about what is the relation of the biochemistry and connective structures of the brain to conscious life –part of the conundrum is about subjective experience, and another part of this is about agency and free will.    Neuroscientists, psychologists, philosophers, and humanists struggle with these issues.  Granted there is a lot of nonsense in these fields, but there is a lot of serious investigation also, involving both theoretical constructs and experimentation of various kinds — in other words, science.

Nagel’s response is to wave his wand and act as if none of this science exists.  He argues that if physics cannot explain subjective experience, then we need wholly new theories “of a different type from any we have seen so far.”    But we have lots of scientific theories that have no direct contact with physics, and many of these relate to understanding complexes of  human behavior.  Nagel acts as if he has never met an economist or an information theorist or a computer scientist or a  social psychologist or an ecologist or even a logician (obviously impossible for a modern philosopher) — but these people routinely deploy theories that are different in character from those of physics, and many of them deal with systems that behave teleogically.  Teleology turns out to be the wholly different element that Nagel says needs to be melded into natural science.

Nagel wants to declare “mind” as a fundamental part of “nature”  — certainly one would have a hard time explaining the historical trajectory of the post 1900 evolution of the Earth environment without reference to mind, so it’s clearly important now, but that does not mean it’s a fundamental part of the natural order everywhere.  Nagel seems to believe that mind cannot not spring up from nothing, and so it can’t have arisen by evolution.  Never mind that this is formally equivalent to saying that we need a fire element because you can’t create fire from nothing.   He wants morality and reason to exist outside of history and evolutionary contingency because he can’t seem to vanquish the bugaboo of relativism otherwise.  (This is spelled out in detail, if speciously, in the book).  So his response is to insist on somehow mentalizing nature itself, in some way yet to be determined — maybe like the aether was needed to conduct light.

I suppose we should not foreclose this possibility — but what sort of theory would it be and how would it be testable?  More tellingly, it is not at all necessary to make progress.  In fact,  Nagel considers and rejects the primary overall frame within which active scientists are making progress on these issues– the notion of “emergent properties.”  So far as I can tell, Nagel’s rejection is purely aesthetic — he doesn’t think you can create something just by increasing complexity of interactions and changing the level of analysis.  Similarly, his rejection of the evolutionary emergence of reason is also primarily aesthetic — he fears that recognizing that reason and morality arose historically and contingently undercuts their legitimacy by making them appear more unreliable.   In my view this recognition engenders a more critical stance that should open up the possibility to make them more reliable, but I wouldn’t use this personal judgment as a way to sniff out truth and falsehood.

It’s entirely clear that one can fully resist Nagel’s conclusion on the need to mentalize nature without resorting to any of his supposedly exhaustive four-fold options for resistance.   You don’t need to mentalize physical nature to recognize the power of thought once mind comes into being — especially social mind backed up by culture and language.   I don’t mean to minimize questions about, for example, whether you could have a different logic and where logic comes from, and I am also not going to completely foreclose the possibility that one day a scientific theory might somehow look like what Nagel is proposing now.  This would be mere speculation.

It’s completely clear that Nagel has not made anywhere near the case he thinks he has.  There is lots of room for improved understanding of the nature of mind and consciousness in ways that are completely consistent with materialist physics and neo-Darwinism, with the addition of complex systems understanding.

A NYU professor who pronounces science’s conception of reality to be false without engaging with any current science should be ashamed of himself.    Oxford University Press should not have published this book.   The fact that Nagel is respected and picked up in the New York Times is a symptom of our fragmented and fundamentally un-serious intellectual culture.

If the universe had any sensible teleology or nature were infused with Mind we would no doubt be served much better than this.

Update:  A comment notes that, according to one apparently reputable ranking, the NYU Philosophy Department is the best in the English speaking world, which just makes me shake my head more.


A confession to the Reverend Bayes and a modest proposal

In which a blogger sees the Bayesian light.

A footnote (154) in Daniel Kahneman’s great book Thinking, Fast and Slow had me puzzled.

Consider a problem of diagnosis. Your friend has tested positive for a serious disease. The disease is rare : only 1 in 600 of the cases sent for testing actually has the disease. The test is fairly accurate. Its likelihood ratio is 25:1, which means that the probability that the person who has the disease will test positive is 25 times higher than the probability of a false positive. Testing positive is frightening news, but the odds that your friend has the disease …

(Before clicking to the jump for the answer, make your own estimate.) Continue reading “A confession to the Reverend Bayes and a modest proposal”

The Most Misleading Feature of Public Opinion Polls

The biggest inaccuracy of polls is the inbuilt assumption that respondents care about the questions they are asked

There are many ways, either through error or chicanery, that a poll can misrepresent public opinion on some issue. For example, the chosen sample can be unrepresentative, the questions can be poorly worded, or, as in this classic demonstration from Yes, Minister, respondents can be lead by the nose to give a certain answer.

Yet none of those problems is as serious as the one that afflicts almost every poll: The presumption that those polled care a whit about the issue in question. Whoever commissioned the poll of course considers it important, but that is no guarantee that respondents have ever thought about it before they were polled, or will act on their opinions in any way afterwards.

Advocacy organizations exploit this aspect of polls relentlessly. If the Antarctic Alliance polls 1000 people and asks “Would you like it if there were a law that protected penguins?”, probably 80% of people will say yes because it’s hard to hate on penguins: They are always well-dressed, they waddle in a cute way and many people are still feeling bad for them because of that egg they lost in that movie where they marched all that way in the cold — what was it called? — anyway, man that was sad, so yeah, happy to tell a pollster that we should protect those furry little guys.

Antarctic Alliance will then argue that Congress should pass the Protect the Penguins Act immediately because their new poll shows that 80% of Americans “want penguins to be protected”. But if you asked those same poll respondents if they’d be willing to donate even $10 to help the law pass, most of them would say no. And if you asked them if they would vote for the Congressional Representative on the basis of how s/he responded to the Protect the Penguins Act, most of them would say no. And if you asked them the open ended question “What are the 10 biggest challenges Congress should be addressing now?”, probably none of them would put penguin protection on their list.

To give a darker variant of this problem, gun control laws generally poll well yet don’t pass. How can we not pass something that we “support”? Easily, if the people who say they support it are not willing to do much to see it pass and the people who are against it are willing to do a lot. Polls usually miss this sort of nuance because they don’t assess how much people care about what they are being polled about.

The few polls that somewhat surmount this problem are those that assess the voting intentions only among people who intend to vote, and, those that try to assess how intensely people feel about the opinions they express (e.g., With a follow-up question of “would you be willing to have your taxes rise to make this happen?”).

The only way I can see to consistently avoid the problem of assuming respondents actually care about the issue of interest as much as do poll commissioners is to expand the usual response format of “Yes, no, or don’t know” to include the option “Don’t care”. But I doubt pollsters would ever do this because it would put them out of business to tell their clients that most people simply don’t give a fig.

An Intriguing Innovation in Academic Publishing

Giant-BookIn academic publishing, there is a long tradition of “The Big Book of Everything”. These edited, multi-authored tomes have titles like “The Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine”, “The Comprehensive Textbook of Substance Abuse” and “The Annual Review of Psychology”. They comprise a huge number of chapters written by respected figures in the field.

Having your field’s Big Book of Everything on your shelf or in your department library is incredibly handy both for established experts and students because, obviously, they’ve got everything in them even if it can’t be at a fine level of detail. On the other hand, they are as portable as anvils and they cost a mint.

Enter an innovation of which I just learned after agreeing to write a chapter in a forthcoming Big Book of Everything: The publisher is going to let each buyer order the subset of chapters he or she wants rather than hawking the work as an all-or-nothing venture.

I would love to hear everyone’s speculations on how this will affect authors, editors, students and academic fields. Here are a few ideas:

(1) Affordability is much higher. A professor who would not assign such a costly book in order to expose students to a half dozen selected chapters can now assign the book of just those six at a more reasonable cost.

(2) Editorial control is much lower. An editor of a Big Book of Everything usually tries to have some consistency and cross-connection between chapters. This will become harder to impose on authors when the book is not going to be sold as a whole. This may make some people less likely to serve as editor whereas others may become moreso as one of the principal editorial tasks fades from consideration.

(3) Knowledge becomes more fractured. Everyone’s Big Book of Everything will become a Smaller Book of Some Things, with potentially less overlap in what everyone knows and is expected to know.

(4) Authors of some chapters will get a far larger readership as purchasers can get access to their work without buying a whole book. Other authors who could not have driven book sales by themselves will lose readers as the more popular chapters on whose coattails they would otherwise have ridden are now free to depart the binding without carrying their less popular brethren along.

(5) Publishers could win or lose depending on the economic viability of this new model. The gamble is that enough more people will buy chunks of the book to make up for the lower revenue per sale relative to people who used to buy the whole thing. Is that a winning gamble? I have no idea.

The Panetta-Burns statistic

Phony questions in polls are funny, but also useful.

Chuckles all round about PPP´s poll asking for opinions on the nonexistent ¨Panetta-Burns¨ deficit reduction plan (8% for and 17% against) and whether defunct ACORN stole the 2012 election (49% of Republicans think so).

Perhaps this is more than a nice once-off gag. Double-blind clinical trials of new medicines calibrate them against placebos and white coats, which usually have some effect. Lie detection sessions are calibrated on questions known to be true and known to be false.

Including phony questions systematically in polls would give an indication of the attention the public is paying to the issue, or at any rate to the pollster´s question. Informed pollees may just be taking the mickey. But the mickey-takers are there anyway, creating error. A ringer question flushes some of them out.

Imagine a Presidential election poll.

If the election were held tomorrow, who would you vote for?
Mitt Romney, Republican Party
Barack Obama, Democratic Party
Gary Johnson, Libertarian Party
Jill Stein, Green Party
James Wimberley, Eurocrat Party

Since the election was very important and media coverage was beyond saturation, the ringer (me) would get a near-zero response. Not so, as PPP has shown, for a highly technical and artificial Beltway flap like the fiscal cliff. You could call the percentage response the ¨Panetta-Burns statistic¨.

Are Porn Stars Really Healthier and Happier?

Andrew Sullivan flags a new study in the Journal of Sex Research that reports that women who appear in pornographic films experienced no more child abuse and has higher levels of self-esteem and social support than did a matched sample of women who did not appear in porn. The results have generated good publicity for the adult film industry. I am no expert in the substantive issue at question, but my experience in other areas of research on health issues and corporate industries make me more skeptical than is Sullivan about this study.

In my research area of addiction for example, we have had a number of cases in which scientists who worked for industries that make money from addictions (e.g., the tobacco industry) reported “objective evidence” that their product was not dangerous, to have the findings overturned later by disinterested parties. Likewise, pharmaceutical industry-funded research has in some case overstated the benefits and understated the risks of new medications.

An ethical, careful researcher can of course be employed by or accept grant money from an self-interested industry and try to do an objective study anyway, but all the experience we have in this area indicates that regardless of good intentions, research findings have a tendency to be favourable to whoever funded the research. It’s not typically a crass quid pro quo relationship between researchers and funders, but the usually subtle influence of funding on findings is present enough of the time to make a wise consumer of science cautious.

In the case of the pornography study, one of the authors was affiliated with the Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation, which had a long term fiduciary relationship with the adult film industry. The same organization helped pay for the research (I could not find this acknowledged in the article, but the lead author so confirmed when asked).

Does this mean the study’s findings are wrong? No. But just as we would not uncritically accept findings that all pornography actresses are abuse victims if one of the authors were a board member of the League to Stamp Out Porn we should be skeptical of the present findings until they are replicated by a disinterested team of researchers.

Self-command, community corrections, and desistance from crime

Can proper supervision on probation or parole improve offenders’ capacity to exercise self-control?

A key goal of community corrections (probation, parole or supervised release, juvenile supervision) is to encourage desistance from crime. It tries to do so using a mix of supervision and services. But success rates are mediocre, especially for those leaving prison, who are more likely than not to return within three years as a result of either violations of release conditions or new crimes.

HOPE-style probation – close monitoring with swift, certain, and minimal sanctions – demonstrably outperforms routine supervision-and-services. The question is why. And that leads me to step away from my usual policy-analyst role and consider doing actual research. A sketch of the idea is at the jump; comments and references would be most welcome.
Continue reading “Self-command, community corrections, and desistance from crime”