Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Problem With Anthropology and Sociology

It's natural that scholars will try to understand the world with the tools they are familiar with, just as a surgeon might be more likely to think of a surgical solution to a medical problem. The problem is when your tools have an implicit theory embedded in them.

Ever heard of the nature-nurture debate? The debate is over whether behavior is caused by a genetic/biological factor or a cultural/learning factor. It's ages old, predating psychology. Philosophers once split themselves into empiricists (nurture) and rationalists (nature). In artificial intelligence there is an analogous debate regarding symbolic knowledge (nature) and probabilistic and numeric learning (nurture). There's a good reason this debate is important-- for many behaviors, there are genetic and cultural factors.

Cognitive science tries to understand intelligent systems, and the nature/nurture debate rages in it. This is very fortunate. We end up with useful findings, such as that 60% of your happiness is due to a predisposition, and the other 40% are based on your environment.  See The How of Happiness.

Unfortunately, (cultural) anthropology and sociology do not have means to study genetic predispositions in their methodological toolbox. As a result, predictably, they tend to be very dismissive of "nature" explanations. They seem to have a knee-jerk reaction against them. This is a shame. At its worst, they end accusing scientists of being sexist, stupid, or racist.

Here is how I believe it works: an anthropologist, say, becomes an expert in studying culture. She thinks in terms of culture. She sees its vast effects. She is familiar with cultural explanations of why things are. This triggers the availability heuristic, which is that we tend to think things that are easily brought to memory to be more probable, common, and plausible. Genetic explanations suffer from this heuristic, and the anthropologist has (unconscious) factors making them seem useless. In addition, their lack of understanding of genetics and and the methods used to study them make them unqualified to even judge their quality, just as I'm not qualified to dismiss a physics theory based on what I know of cognitive science.

There are other factors at work here, of course: anthropologists tend to be liberal, and equality is a strong liberal value. Anthropologists (as with others in the humanities and social sciences) might be reacting against the harder sciences because they feel marginalized by them. They might resent how quickly the media picks up, distributes, and overstates genetic findings.

None of these are reasonable excuses, however.

The research on the genetic component to behavior is strong enough that outright dismissal of the resultant theories is unacceptable.  It is particularly troubling because there are many instances of behavior triggering genetic expression (that is, some genes will start working (making proteins) when triggered by some environmental stimulus.) A great example of this is stress.
See also the book The Agile Gene. If a whole field of science is on the nurture side, these fascinating, important, and subtle ways of our world will remain undiscovered, at least by that field.

The debate will continue its healthy rage in cognitive science.  Anthropology and sociology should have their own nature/nurture debate, rather than dogmatically always being on one side of it.

PS: I love anthropology; I cite it and have done anthropological and ethnographic work. I am only quibbling with this one aspect of it.

Pictured: Sébastien Toutant, a snowboarder, at the downtown Québec big air competition. He won the event. He inherited powerful genes from his distant snowboarding ancestors, and might have had a bit of practice, too.

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Sunday, May 15, 2011

"Filter Bubbles" are So Much Better Than What We Had Before

Several people I know have told me about a TED talk online about content filtering on the web. The thesis of the talk is that if content is personalized when delivered to you (depending on what you like, etc.), you'll be missing out on important information.

You can see the talk here:

He complains that algorithmic editors do not have the "embedded ethics" (time 6:30) that human gatekeepers of information do.

How does he say that with a straight face?

Traditional editors for journalism have their eyes on the bottom line. They might mean well, but all news, anyway, is biased toward things that are timely, changing, and negative. Thus, if the war in Chad is still going on with no change, it won't make the front page, even if it is the most important problem facing the world day after day.

The traditional media make us hear about new things, sensational things. And since we have a bias to think important those things that we see often (the availability heuristic), we get a skewed notion of what's important.

At least with algorithmic customization, you have some influence on what you see, and you can often "dislike" something, be it with an explicit command, by not clicking on it, etc.  Some of us will still drift toward the sensational and fluffy, sure, but others won't.

The other problem with human gatekeepers of information is that they decide what masses of people will see. We all end up with the same information. This is much worse than everyone getting different things, from a societal point of view. I conjecture that the situation in which everyone knows the same information, even if it's broad, is worse than if everyone knows different information, even if it's narrow. If we all know the same stuff, we'll all think in more similar ways.

He advocates imbuing the algorithms with a sense of importance and of challenging the content consumers.  I think the importance idea is good, and possibly practical. I sure hope that if it happens it uses better guidelines than what traditional editors have (someday I'd like to write about book defending my loathing for all traditional news sources).

However, I fear that people, in general, do not want to be challenged, and content gatekeepers that force on us challenging views will lose eyeballs to those that do not.

That's a fancy way of saying they'll go out of business.

So I partially agree with him, but I guess I'm not emotionally with him. I find traditional media so infuriating, and content filtering so wonderful, that I'm still riding the initial wave of bliss.

The next time I see an article about a newspaper going bankrupt, I'm going to make sure I click "like."

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Monday, May 09, 2011

False Imagination, Madonna's "Express Yourself," and Lady Gaga's "Born This Way"

Note: people viewing this blog entry through Facebook might not be able to see the videos. I recommend going directly to the blog entry at

You might have heard of false memory-- it's when a suggestion by an interviewer or therapist is mistaken for an actual memory. Elizabeth Loftus, one of my heroes, pioneered research in false memory and found that many well-meaning therapists were accidentally planting memories of child abuse in their patients.

Less well known is false imagination, or "cryptomnesia." This is when you mistake a memory for something you've imagined. My man Joe Kraemer is scores films (he did the awesome and influential score for The Way of the Gun--  you can purchase the soundtrack on iTunes.) He told me that a danger was when he would have a melody in mind, and he would wonder if he'd invented it or accidentally remembered something he'd heard. That's cryptomnesia.

You can even have cryptomnesia with yourself, in a kind of inadvertent self-plagairism. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken created the song "Part of Your World" for The Little Mermaid before realizing that it was a rip-off of their earlier song "Somewhere That's Green" from their own Little Shop of Horrors. Having a sense of humor about it, they started calling the Mermaid song "Somewhere That's Dry."

It's relevant to a recent controversy in the music world. Lady Gaga recently came out with a single called "Born This Way." You can watch it here:

It's been accused of being a rip-off of Madonna's "Express Yourself." This video is worth watching-- it's one of my favorite videos of all time. It's directed by David Fincher of Fight Club, The Social Network, and Three Kings fame. All great movies.

The songs are indeed similar, as you can hear in this great mashup (it's audio only):

Did Gaga rip off Madonna? Maybe, but even if she did it might not have been deliberate. It might have been cryptomnesia.

There are only so many notes, so many chords. So-called rip-offs in music happen all the time.  The Ghostbusters theme was accused of ripping off Huey Lewis and the News's "I Want a New Drug" which was accused of ripping off M's "Popmuzik." They all have very similar basslines. It's inevitable that people will independently come up with the same things once in a while.

Indeed, "Express Yourself" itself was accused or ripping off The Staple Singers's "Respect Yourself."

Coincidence, intellectual theft, or cryptomnesia?

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Friday, May 06, 2011

When It's Okay To Be A Bit Materialistic

The video above is an interesting challenge to the morality of how we live our lives day-to-day in the industrialized world. It plays upon a bias we all have-- that we do not have the same moral obligations to people who we don't interact with. We all have this bias, but the question is whether or not it is ethically justified.

If you accept that that bias is not, then it makes ethical sense to do your part in helping the less fortunate. Some go to extremes, such as George Price, as described in this fascinating podcast episode of Radiolab:

Why do I say Price went to the extreme? Because he was a brilliant man who could have helped the world in better ways than simply by donating his money.

I'm one of those people too. Science is good for the world (I am not going to argue this here, but I have my reasons for thinking it), and I'm a scientist. And the fact is that a certain amount of material stuff helps me be a better scientist.

For example, I do most of my work on a computer. If my computer is old and slow, then my productivity is hindered. This happens for two reasons: 1) I get frustrated with the computer, which makes me less productive and more distracted, and 2) even if I were completely unemotional, a slow computer slows down everything I do. So for me to maximize my good effect on the world, I should have a good, fast computer.

In general I try not to be materialistic. I try to remind myself that I have everything I need and more. I try to think of people who are as happy as I am, but who have much less. Thinking like this helps keep me from buying too many things. I try to donate a percentage of my income every year to a good cause. Last year it was "Kenya Help," run by a trusted friend in Kingston, Ontario. If you are looking for something to donate to, I recommend this.

But I don't put on the brakes so much when I want something material that will help me be a better scientist. Computers, books, travel to conferences, etc. are things that cost money. Purchasing them hurts the environment (in the short term) and sometimes is a waste. But if I'm too risk averse with such purchases, I'll hinder my scientific impact.

My conclusion is this: try not to be materialistic. It's bad for the environment, usually, and doesn't lead to happiness. Donate the money you'd spend on things to people in need. This, it turns out, actually does lead to happiness. But if you are doing something really good for the world that requires stuff for you to work at capacity, then go ahead and buy what you need.

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Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Using Zen Brush for an Advertisement

I am in charge of publicity for the Creativity & Cognition Conference. As a member conference of the ACM, we got a free full-page advertisement in the ACM magazine. I gave the design of it a go. I'm pretty happy with it.

The background image, which appears to be done with ink and a brush, was actually done using one of my favorite iPad and iPhone applications, Zen Brush.

It mimics East Asian brush painting. I can do it from my sofa, and there's no cleanup.

I've practiced calligraphy and brush painting for a long time, but it still amazes me that I was able to make the design above in about one minute on my iPhone. Then I emailed the image to myself and made this advertisement by adding text, which was finished in Adobe Illustrator.

Here is the background alone:

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