An other order that ran the universe

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018

The ESP or “psychic phenomena” movement began to grow very rapidly in the new religious atmosphere of the Me Decade:

ESP devotees had always believed that there was an other order that ran the universe, one that revealed itself occasionally through telepathy, déjà vu experiences, psychokinesis, dematerialization, and the like. It was but a small step from there to the assumption that all men possess a conscious energy paralleling the world of physical energy and that this mysterious energy can unite the universe (after the fashion of the light of God). A former astronaut, Edgar Mitchell, who has a doctor-of-science degree from MIT, founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences in an attempt to channel the work of all the ESP groups. “Noetic” is an adjective derived from the same root as that of “the Noosphere” — the name that Teilhard de Chardin gave his dream of a cosmic union of all souls. Even the Flying Saucer cults began to reveal their essentially religious nature at about this time. The Flying Saucer folk quite literally believed in an other order: It was under the command of superior beings from other planets or solar systems who had spaceships. A physician named Andrija Puharich wrote a book (Uri) in which he published the name of the God of the UFO’s: Hoova. He said Hoova had a herald messenger named Spectra, and Hoova’s and Spectra’s agent on earth, the human connection, as it were, was Uri Geller, the famous Israeli psychic and showman. Geller’s powers were also of great interest to people in the ESP movement, and there were many who wished that Puharich and the UFO people would keep their hands off him.

You never hear about a tiger laughing

Wednesday, May 16th, 2018

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned from personality psychology?” Tyler Cowen asks Bryan Caplan:

At least one thing that might be a good answer is that cheerfulness loads on extroversion.

There’s something actually very social about happiness. When you read this, it makes so much sense — how little of happiness seems to be about material possessions and how much of it is about having good relationships with other people.

You can think about animals. When I read you something about animals, the animals that laugh, they’re all social animals. Dogs laugh, chimpanzees laugh, humans laugh. You never hear about a tiger laughing, these very asocial animals. At least that’s one that I often do think about, is this connection between social interaction and being happy.

Nonelite males routinely outperform the best elite females

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2018

A female Duke Law School professor who competed in track and field internationally in the 1980s discusses the International Association of Athletics Federations’ new rules limiting entry into women’s events to athletes who have testosterone levels that are capable of being produced solely by ovaries:

Understanding the rules and why they make sense is hard. They are based in biology people don’t know or don’t like to talk about and, let’s be honest, at least in some circles, they’re politically incorrect. They force us to talk about women’s bodies when it is increasingly taboo to do so, and they run counter to the movement that seeks to include transgender and intersex people in social institutions based on their gender identity rather than their biology.

She’s writing in the New York Times, in case you couldn’t tell:

Advocates for intersex athletes like to say that sex doesn’t divide neatly. This may be true in gender studies departments, but at least for competitive sports purposes, they are simply wrong. Sex in this context is easy to define and the lines are cleanly drawn: You either have testes and testosterone in the male range or you don’t. As the I.A.A.F.’s rules provide, a simple testosterone test establishes this fact one way or the other.

Testosterone throughout the life cycle, including puberty, is the reason the best elite females are not competitive in competition against elite males. This 10- to 12-percent sex-based performance gap is well documented by sports and exercise scientists alike. But it isn’t the most important performance gap. Rather, that’s the mundane fact that many nonelite males routinely outperform the best elite females.

Each year, the world’s best time in the women’s marathon is surpassed by hundreds of men. The women’s world records in all of the races on the track from 100 meters to 10,000 meters are also surpassed by many men each year, including by many high school boys. For example, in 2017, 36 boys ran faster than Florence Griffith Joyner’s seemingly unassailable 100-meter record of 10.49.

There is no characteristic that matters more than testes and testosterone. Pick your body part, your geography, and your socioeconomic status and do your comparative homework. Starting in puberty there will always be boys who can beat the best girls and men who can beat the best women.

Because of this, without a women’s category based on sex, or at least these sex-linked traits, girls and women would not have the chance they have now to develop their athletic talents and reap the many benefits of participating and winning in sports and competition. Eric Vilain, a geneticist who specializes in differences of sex development, has been blunt about it: removing sex from the eligibility rules would “be a disaster for women’s sport … a sad end to what feminists have wanted for so long.”

This may sound like hyperbole but it isn’t. In competitive sport, winning and room at the top are what ultimately matter, so relative numbers are irrelevant. It doesn’t matter that there are 100 females and three males in a girls’ race if the three males win spots in the final or on the podium because they are males. The unusually high incidence of intersex athletes in the women’s middle distances and their reported 100 percent win share in the women’s 800 meters at the Olympic Games in Rio show their disproportionate power.

Neo-Lysenkoism, IQ, and the press

Thursday, April 26th, 2018

Bernard D. Davis looked at Neo-Lysenkoism, IQ, and the press after Stephen J. Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man gained so much popular acclaim:

He personalizes his expository writing in a breezy, self-deprecating manner, and he comes across as warm-hearted, socially concerned, and commendably on the side of the underdog. Hence he is able to present scientific material effectively to a popular audience — a valuable contribution, and a public service, as long as his scientific message is sound.

It is therefore not surprising that Gould’s history of the efforts to measure human intelligence, The Mismeasure of Man, received many glowing reviews in the popular and literary press, and even a National Book Critics Circle award. Yet the reviews that have appeared in scientific journals, focusing on content rather than on style or on political appeal, have been highly critical of both the book’s version of history and its scientific arguments. The paradox is striking. If a scholar wrote a tendentious history of medicine that began with phlebotomy and purges, moved on to the Tuskegee experiment on syphilitic Negroes, and ended with the thalidomide disaster, he would convince few people that medicine is all bad, and he would ruin his reputation. So we must ask: Why did Gould write a book that fits this model all too closely? Why were most reviewers so uncritical? And how can non-scientific journals improve their reviews of books on scientific aspects of controversial political issues?

[...]

Unfortunately, the approach that Gould has used to combat racism has serious defects. Instead of recognizing the value of eliminating bias, his answer is to press for equal and opposite bias, in a virtuous direction — not recognizing the irony and the danger of thus subordinating science to fashions of the day. Moreover, as a student of evolution he might have been expected to build on a profound insight of modern genetics and evolutionary biology: that the human species, and each race within it, possesses a wide range of genetic diversity. But instead of emphasizing the importance of recognizing that diversity, Gould remains locked in combat with a prescientific, typological view of heredity, and this position leads him to oppose studies of behavioral genetics altogether. As the reviewer for Nature stated, The Mismeasure of Man is “a book which exemplifies its own thesis. It is a masterpiece of propaganda, researched in the service of a point of view rather than written from a fund of knowledge.”

In effect, we see here Lysenkoism risen again: an effort to outlaw a field of science because it conflicts with a political dogma. To be sure, the new version is more limited in scope, and it does not use the punitive powers of a totalitarian state, as Trofim Lysenko did in the Soviet Union to suppress all of genetics between 1935 and 1965. But that is not necessary in our system: A chilling atmosphere is quite sufficient to prevent funding agencies, investigators, and graduate students from exploring a taboo area. And such Neo-Lysenkoist politicization of science, from both the left and the right, is likely to grow, as biology increasingly affects our lives-probing the secrets of our genes and our brain, reshaping our image of our origins and our nature, and adding new dimensions to our understanding of social behavior. When ideologically committed scientists try to suppress this knowledge they jeopardize a great deal, for without the ideal of objectivity science loses its strength.

Because this feature of science is such a precious asset, the crucial lesson to be drawn from the case of Stephen Jay Gould is the danger of propagating political views under the guise of science. Moreover, this end was furthered, wittingly or not, by the many reviewers whose evaluations were virtually projective tests of their political convictions. For these reviews reflected enormous relief: A voice of scientific authority now assures us that biological diversity does not set serious limits to the goal of equality, and so we will not have to wrestle with the painful problem of refining what we mean by equality.

In scientific journals editors take pains to seek reviewers who can bring true expertise to the evaluation of a book. It is all the more important for editors of literary publications to do likewise, for when a book speaks with scientific authority on a controversial social issue, the innocent lay reader particularly needs protection from propaganda. Science can make a great contribution toward solving our social problems by helping us to base our policies and judgments upon reality, rather than upon wish or conjecture. Because this influence is so powerful it is essential for such contributions to be judged critically, by the standards of science.

Premodern and prenationalist

Friday, April 20th, 2018

India seems postmodern and postnationalist, Steve Sailer notes, but it might be more accurately called premodern and prenationalist:

India is the land of diversity, which is another word for inequality. India is kind of a subcontinental-scale version of a Democratic-ruled American city, such as Baltimore, where world-class talent such as Johns Hopkins resides side by side with intractable social problems.

India puts much of its effort into higher education, while allowing its mass schooling to be awful. Two Indian states tried the PISA test in 2009 and both scored at sub-Saharan levels, with the northern state doing even worse than the southern state. In math, Indian eighth graders performed at the level of South Korean third graders.

India’s ruling party at present is the strident Hindu nationalists under Prime Minister Modi, who are unfashionable in the West. They are trying to introduce the kind of old-fashioned patriotic indoctrination, such as playing the national anthem before movies, that Western countries adapted a century ago.

Good luck to them. You can see why they are trying so hard to instill the kind of national pride that the Chinese accomplished through violently throwing out the foreign devils. Indian infrastructure, for instance, remains shoddy, especially its shameful lack of sewage systems.

But that’s a small price to pay in the minds of American elite opinion for India rising above patriotism.

Another feature that makes our commentariat comfortable with India is that Indians don’t seem to be all that mechanically facile, perhaps especially not the priestly Brahmin caste, with whom Western intellectuals primarily interact.

And the Indians tend to be more verbally agile than the Chinese and more adept at the kind of high-level abstract thinking required by modern computer science, law, and soft major academia. Thousands of years of Brahmin speculations didn’t do much for India’s prosperity, but somehow have prepared Indians to make fortunes in 21st-century America.

[...]

Indians are made up of roughly three groups comparable to those who populated Europe since the last Ice Age. First came hunter-gatherers, then Dravidian-speaking farmers from the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East (more Turkish for Europe, more Iranian for India). Finally, the Yamnaya steppe nomads, who were more or less the Aryans of 19th-century German racist legend, invaded both vast peninsulas.

[...]

In India, however, unlike Europe, the Aryan conquerors eventually imposed a stupendously elaborate caste system dividing the subcontinent into thousands of inbreeding jatis. While the medieval European system of Three Estates (clergy, nobility, and commoners) could conceivably have some deep Aryan ties to the four main castes of Hinduism, there’s little in Europe like the jatis.

Who are the Brahmins? They appear to be the descendants of Aryan conquerors who rigged Indian culture to keep their heirs on top for thousands of years. [...] In other words, some of the racist Aryan theories of European scholars have turned out to be partially correct.

Heat management is crucial

Sunday, April 15th, 2018

If you’re not already familiar with “hard” science fiction from Atomic Rockets and Tough SF, this “Because Science” video on the truth about space war serves as a light introduction:

People can tell if you’re upper class or working class from your face

Saturday, April 14th, 2018

A new study demonstrates that people can tell if you’re upper class or working class from your face, with decent accuracy:

Bjornsdottir and her co-author, psychology professor Nicholas O. Rule, had undergraduate subjects of various ethnicities look at gray-scale photographs of 80 white males and 80 white females. None showed any tattoos or piercings. Half of the photos were of people who made over $150,000 a year, which they designated as upper class, and the other half were people who made under $35,000, or working class.

When the subjects were asked to guess the class of the people in the photos, they did so correctly 68 percent of the time, significantly higher than random chance.

I think most of us — here, at least — would assume that the kind of people who become upper class are different from the kind of people who become working class, but what kind of academic paper would suggest that?

The effect is “likely due to emotion patterns becoming etched into their faces over time,” says Bjornsdottir. The chronic contraction of certain muscles can actually lead to changes in the structure of your face that others can pick up on, even if they aren’t aware of it.

When the researchers showed the undergrads photos of people looking visibly happy, they could not discern socioeconomic status any better than chance. The expressions needed to be neutral for the subtle cues to have an effect.

“Over time, your face comes to permanently reflect and reveal your experiences,” Rule told the University of Toronto. “Even when we think we’re not expressing something, relics of those emotions are still there.”

Finally, to show how these kinds of first impressions could come into play in the real world, they asked the undergrads to decide who in the photos would be most likely to land a job as an accountant. More often than not, they went with people from the upper class, showing how these kinds of snap judgment can create and reinforce biases.

“Face-based perceptions of social class may have important downstream consequences,” they concluded.

Aim for the waterline

Tuesday, April 10th, 2018

I always assumed that gun crews in the Age of Sail aimed at the waterline because that was where water could enter the enemy ship, but that’s not the whole story, Tom Ricks explains:

But, I kind of wondered, if that were the case, why not aim slightly lower, where a good shot likely would let even more water in the enemy’s hull, and be more difficult to plug? (I thought the answer was perhaps that at many angles, the cannonball might skip, rather than plunge into the water, but I wasn’t sure.)

Well, now I know better. There is a very specific reason to aim right at the waterline.

I was reading an discussion of wood rot in boats and trees by Richard Jagels, professor emeritus of forest biology at the University of Maine. He offers a much more precise explanation: On wooden ships, the weakest point on the hull is right along the waterline, because that’s where the most rot occurs.

There’s a biological explanation for that, having to do with oxygen and moisture. Fungi need a balance of both to thrive and rot wood. Let him tell you: “Above the waterline, planking is usually below 20 to 25 percent moisture content, which is too dry for fungal activity. Below the waterline, wood becomes progressively saturated until the oxygen requirement is not met; again decay is halted. Near the waterline, conditions are just right for decay to rapidly progress: the Goldilocks solution for rot.”

The old Robert E. Howard version is actually pretty much what happened

Thursday, April 5th, 2018

David Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here addresses some fascinating questions of prehistory, and reviewing it gives Steve Sailer the opportunity to repeat what he’s found in his own reading:

For example, India played a large role in the development of European conceptions of race. In 1786 British judge William Jones delivered a lecture in Calcutta suggesting that Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin were all descended from the same lost language, a ghost tongue now called Proto-Indo-European.

Jones went on to hypothesize that an ancient invasion of Dravidian-speaking India by Proto-Indo-European-speaking Aryans from Iran could help explain the curious distribution of language, skin color, and caste within the Hindu world today.

[...]

Hitler thus culturally appropriated the Hindu swastika.

Since 1945, the notion of Aryan invaders has been unsurprisingly unpopular.

In Europe, anthropologists have promoted the “pots not people” theory to argue that trade and changes in fashion must explain why Corded Ware pots suddenly showed up all over Europe about 4,900 years ago. (So did battle axes; indeed, early scientists called this the Battle Axe Culture. But that sounded too awesome. Hence, more recent academics renamed it after its pottery style to make these brutal barbarians sound dweebier and thus less interesting to boys.)

In India, the notion of Hindu culture as a giant conspiracy by Aryan invaders to enshrine their descendants at the top of the social order for the rest of eternity perhaps struck a little too close to home.

But Reich’s laboratory has found that the old Robert E. Howard version is actually pretty much what happened. Conan the Barbarian-like warriors with their horse-drawn wagons came charging off the Eurasian steppe and overran much of Europe and India.

[...]

Much more acceptable to Indian intellectuals than the idea that ancient conquerors from the Russian or Kazakhstani steppe took over the upper reaches of Indian culture has been the theory of Nicholas B. Dirks, the Franz Boas Professor of History and Anthropology at Columbia, that the British malignantly transformed diverse local Indian customs into the suffocating system of caste that we know today.

Now, though, Reich’s genetic evidence shows that caste has controlled who married whom in India for thousands of years.

[...]

This is in harmony with economic historian Gregory Clark’s recent discovery in his book of surname analysis, The Son Also Rises (Clark loves Hemingway puns), that economic mobility across the generations is not only lower than expected in most of the world, but it is virtually nonexistent in India.

Just as you’d imagine, Reich found that the highly nationalist Chinese turn out to be genetically quite homogeneous, while the Indians are genetically diverse due to caste divvying them up into thousands of inbreeding groups.

[...]

In general, “migration” and “mixture” tend in Reich’s book to serve as euphemisms for genocide of the native males and rape of the native females. Reich lists numerous examples from around the world where genetic data show that newcomers enslaved or murdered the local men and turned their women into concubines.

Fortunately, for the past 4,500 years, “ancient Britons harbored a blend of ancestries very similar to that of present-day Britons.” The Roman conquest didn’t leave much of a genetic mark, and the later Anglo-Saxon, Danish, and Norman invaders were genetically similar enough to earlier Britons that geneticists have only recently begun to disentangle them.

After 1066, the island race enjoyed a long halcyon era without new invaders raping and pillaging. But all good things evidently have to come to an end. As Benjamin Schwarz has pointed out, “In fact, Britain today receives more immigrants in a single year than it did in the entire period from 1066 to 1950.”

Reich is upset that his genetic discoveries have more or less upheld the old German archaeologist Gustaf Koussina’s theory that Germans were descended from Aryans.

Hanging irregulars and firebombing Dresden

Friday, March 30th, 2018

Mark Safranski (Zen Pundit) mentioned that we need to start trying and hanging “irregulars” who break the laws of war, I noted how odd it is that this concept has completely disappeared, and Tweet Wiv Me pointedly asked if I’d ever posted anything about Dresden. I had, and this led to a larger discussion of Freeman Dyson and Operational Research during the war — including everyone’s favorite OR story about bombers returning after a run:

For the survey, Bomber Command inspected all bombers returning from bombing raids over Germany over a particular period. All damage inflicted by German air defenses was noted and the recommendation was given that armour be added in the most heavily damaged areas.

[...]

Blackett’s team instead made the surprising and counter-intuitive recommendation that the armour be placed in the areas which were completely untouched by damage, according to the survey. They reasoned that the survey was biased, since it only included aircraft that successfully came back from Germany. The untouched areas were probably vital areas, which if hit would result in the loss of the aircraft.

Oddly enough, Dyson never mentions that story, but Douglas Reay (of Less Wrong) traces it back to Abraham Wald:

Wald was a Jewish mathematician from Romania who in 1943 published a series of 8 memoranda via the Statistical Research Group at Columbia University while working for the National Defense Research Committee in America. These were republished collectively in 1980 as “A Method of Estimating Plane Vulnerability Based on Damage of Survivors.” by the Center for Naval Analyses, and are still in use today.

In 1984 Mangel and Samaniego published a fairly accessible summary of Wald’s work in the Journal of the American Statistical Association (Vol 79, Issue 286, June)

Abraham Wald’s Work on Aircraft Survivability

So it seems that Wald is the one who should get the credit for being the first to try to compensate for the evidential problem. Tragically he himself died in an airplane crash, just a few years later (in 1950, aged 48).

The ‘bible’ on this topic, Robert Ball’s “The Fundamentals of Aircraft Combat Survivability Analysis and Design” confirms the problem is a real one, and mentioned the F-4 as an example. When they looked at the F-4s which survived combat, there were no holes in the narrowest part of the tail, just forward of the horizontal stabilizers. They figured out that all of the hydraulic lines for the elevators and rudder were tightly clustered in there, so that a single hit could damage all of them at once, leaving the plane uncontrollable. The solution in that case was, rather than increasing the armour, to spread the redundant lines out to reduce the chances of losing all of them to a single hit.

Differences in genetic ancestry that happen to correlate to many of today’s racial constructs are real

Monday, March 26th, 2018

David Reich, professor of genetics at Harvard, dances around the stark biological reality of race:

With the help of these [DNA-sequencing] tools, we are learning that while race may be a social construct, differences in genetic ancestry that happen to correlate to many of today’s racial constructs are real.

He then goes on to throw other scientists — and popularizers of science — under the bus:

To understand why it is so dangerous for geneticists and anthropologists to simply repeat the old consensus about human population differences, consider what kinds of voices are filling the void that our silence is creating. Nicholas Wade, a longtime science journalist for The New York Times, rightly notes in his 2014 book, “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History,” that modern research is challenging our thinking about the nature of human population differences. But he goes on to make the unfounded and irresponsible claim that this research is suggesting that genetic factors explain traditional stereotypes.

One of Mr. Wade’s key sources, for example, is the anthropologist Henry Harpending, who has asserted that people of sub-Saharan African ancestry have no propensity to work when they don’t have to because, he claims, they did not go through the type of natural selection for hard work in the last thousands of years that some Eurasians did.

He totally mischaracterizes Wade and Harpending, Steve Sailer notes:

I can’t see anywhere in Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance where he cites Harpending to that effect. As far as I can tell, Wade’s book cites Harpending solely for his landmark 2005 paper with Cochran and Hardy: Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence.

The late Professor Harpending, a National Academy of Science member, was a rare individual who was both a cultural anthropologist and a genetic anthropologist, spent 3.5 years living with hunter-gatherer tribes in Africa. He loved Africa so much that he seriously considered moving there permanently to live in the bush.

Harpending noted in his West Hunter blog with Greg Cochran that in typical African farming cultures, where weeding is done more with hoes than plows, black women tend to work harder than black men, an observation rather similar to the results found in Stanford economist Raj Chetty’s brand new paper on the gender gap in earnings of African-Americans.

This anthropological observation that most of the farming work in sub-Saharan Africa was done by women was not original to Harpending. The leftist anthropologist Jack Goody pointed out the African reverse gender gap in labor in the 1960s.

[...]

Indeed, Harpending noted that the in the two African peoples he lived with this anthropological stereotype was not true. In the hunter-gatherer Bushmen, the husbands tended to bring home the bacon much like among Europeans, and in the herding Herrero the husbands did much of herding.

An alternative universe in which golf courses are a prime subject for intellectualizing

Friday, March 23rd, 2018

The New York Times laments that its obituaries have been dominated by white men since 1851 and decides to rectify this by eulogizing the overlooked Ada Lovelace — who wasn’t actually overlooked in her lifetime, and whose death made the front page of the New York Times on December 15, 1852:

Nor has Ada, the Countess Lovelace, been ignored over the last 40 or 50 years. In the late 1970s the Pentagon named after her its new programming language Ada that it tried to impose on all defense contractors.

[...]

The real Ada was, like her friend Charles Babbage, a major celebrity in her own time. It hardly hurt that she was the only legitimate child of the most famous man in Europe in the post-Waterloo era, the poet Lord Byron. Nor did it hurt that she was born an aristocrat and married an aristocrat.

In particular, her having a rather masculine turn of intellect made her more renown during her life.

In fact, when an 1844 bestseller anticipating Darwin’s theory of evolution was published under a pseudonym, Ada Lovelace was one of the prime suspects. This is where the story takes a very Steve Sailer turn:

As it turned out to the surprise of most, the real author was a hard-working but fairly obscure Scottish journalist and golf course architect named Robert Chambers, who had come up with the idea that everything is the product of “development” while recovering from overwork by playing golf daily on The Old Course at St. Andrews, a links that had developed over centuries of play without much in the way of intelligent design until about Chambers’ day.

The reason the contributions to the theory of computer science by Lovelace (and Babbage) was overlooked in late 19th and early 20th century was of course because there were no computers. Babbage’s famous (at the time) and well-funded Analytical Engine project had failed. Similarly, nobody much cared about Leonardo da Vinci’s helicopter sketch until after the helicopter had been invented.

It would be interesting to look into whether Lovelace’s idea that her friend Babbage’s engine could turn into a general purpose computer contributed to Babbage’s notorious problem with specification creep. If he’d been able to say Enough! to what his engine was supposed to do, he might have gotten it finished. But I don’t know if Lovelace’s ideas worsened Babbage’s failings.

Interestingly, Chambers was mostly overlooked during his own lifetime (not revealing himself as the author of the bestseller until decades later), nor since then, although Secord’s book does much to revive the man’s memory.

The link between Chambers’ evolutionary thinking and his obsession with links golf courses that had originally evolved without a designer has likewise been forgotten. This is even though Chambers’ great-grandson, golf architect Sir Guy Campbell, cowrote a history of golf in the 1950s with Darwin’s grandson Bernard Darwin, spelling out how the St. Andrews links had evolved over the eons.

One could imagine an alternative universe in which golf courses are a prime subject for intellectualizing and thus Chambers is a famous figure in intellectual history. But that’s not the one we live in.

How psychopaths see the world

Friday, March 16th, 2018

A new study looks at how psychopaths see the world:

Here are people who can understand what their victims are thinking but just don’t care. Hence their actions. But Baskin-Sommers found that there’s more to their minds than it seems.

Most of us mentalize automatically. From infancy, other minds involuntarily seep into our own. The same thing, apparently, happens less strongly in psychopaths. By studying the Connecticut inmates, Baskin-Sommers and her colleagues, Lindsey Drayton and Laurie Santos, showed that these people can deliberately take another person’s perspective, but on average, they don’t automatically do so to the extent that most other people do. “This is the first time we’re seeing evidence that psychopaths don’t have this automatic ability that most of us have,” Baskin-Sommers says.

[...]

The U.S. prison system doesn’t assess psychopathy at intake, so Baskin-Sommers administered a standard test herself to 106 male inmates from the Connecticut prison. Of them, 22 proved to be psychopaths, 28 were not, and the rest fell in a gray zone.

[...]

The psychopaths proved to be “glib, narcissistic, and conniving,” she adds. “They can be aggressive, and they like to tell us gruesome details of murders, I think to shock us. But it’s not like that all the time. They do a lot of impression management.”

After assessing the 106 volunteers, she then gave them a computer-based task. They saw a picture of a human avatar in prison khakis, standing in a room, and facing either right or left. There were either two red dots on the wall in front of the avatar, or one dot in front of them and one dot behind them. Their job was to verify how many dots either they or the avatar could see.

Normally, people can accurately say how many dots the avatar sees, but they’re slower if there are dots behind the avatar. That’s because what they see (two dots) interferes with their ability to see through the avatar’s eyes (one dot). This is called egocentric interference. But they’re also slower to say how many dots they can see if that number differs from the avatar’s count. This shows how readily humans take other perspectives: Volunteers are automatically affected by the avatar’s perspective, even when it hurts their own performance. This is called altercentric interference.

Baskin-Sommers found that the psychopathic inmates showed the usual level of egocentric interference — that is, their own perspective was muscling in on the avatar’s. But they showed much less altercentric interference than the other inmates — the avatar’s perspective wasn’t messing with their own, as it would for most other people.

This sounds a bit like another condition:

Other groups of people also show differences in their theory of mind. For example, in one study, Frith asked people to predict where a girl might search for a marble that had been moved without her knowledge. The onlookers knew the marble’s whereabouts, so could they override their own knowledge to step into the girl’s shoes? Eye-tracking software revealed that neurotypical adults look at the same place the girl would, but people with Asperger’s syndrome are less likely to. They don’t seem to spontaneously anticipate others’ actions. “It is a bit worrying if [Baskin-Sommers and her colleagues] are proposing the very same underlying mechanism to explain callousness in psychopathy that we used previously to explain communication problems in autism, albeit based on a different test,” Frith says. “These are very different conditions, after all.”

Waking up to hidden motives

Tuesday, March 13th, 2018

I haven’t read The Elephant in the Brain (yet), but I enjoyed Robin Hanson’s talk with Sam Harris about hidden motives:

They discuss selfishness, hypocrisy, norms and meta-norms, cheating, deception, self-deception, education, the evolutionary logic of conversation, social status, signaling and counter-signaling, common knowledge, AI, and many other topics.

I especially enjoyed the misguided questions from the audience.

Why some people become sudden geniuses

Saturday, March 10th, 2018

In 1860 Eadweard Muybridge was thrown from a stagecoach — and became a creative genius:

He abandoned bookselling and became a photographer, one of the most famous in the world. He was also a prolific inventor. Before the accident, he hadn’t filed a single patent. In the following two decades, he applied for at least 10.

In 1877 he took a bet that allowed him to combine invention and photography. Legend has it that his friend, a wealthy railroad tycoon called Leland Stanford, was convinced that horses could fly. Or, more accurately, he was convinced that when they run, all their legs leave the ground at the same time. Muybridge said they didn’t.

To prove it he placed 12 cameras along a horse track and installed a tripwire that would set them off automatically as Stanford’s favourite racing horse, Occident, ran. Next he invented the inelegantly named “zoopraxiscope”, a device which allowed him to project several images in quick succession and give the impression of motion. To his amazement, the horse was briefly suspended, mid-gallop. Muybridge had filmed the first movie – and with it proven that yes, horses can fly.

The abrupt turnaround of Muybridge’s life, from ordinary bookseller to creative genius, has prompted speculation that it was a direct result of his accident. It’s possible that he had “sudden savant syndrome”, in which exceptional abilities emerge after a brain injury or disease. It’s extremely rare, with just 25 verified cases on the planet.

There’s Tony Cicoria, an orthopaedic surgeon who was struck by lightning at a New York park in 1994. It went straight through his head and left him with an irresistible desire to play the piano. To begin with he was playing other people’s music, but soon he started writing down the melodies that were constantly running through his head. Today he’s a pianist and composer, as well as a practicing surgeon.

Another case is Jon Sarkin, who was transformed from a chiropractor into an artist after a stroke. The urge to draw landed almost immediately. He was having “all kinds” of therapy at the hospital – speech therapy, art therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, mental therapy – “And they stuck a crayon in my hand and said ‘want to draw?’ And I said ‘fine’,” he says.

[...]

Most strikingly there’s Jason Padgett, who was attacked at a bar in Tacoma, Washington in 2002. Before the attack, Padgett was a college dropout who worked at a futon store. His primary passions in life were partying and chasing girls. He had no interest in maths – at school, he didn’t even get into algebra class.

But that night, everything changed. Initially he was taken to the hospital with a severe concussion. “I remember thinking that everything looked funky, but I thought it was just the narcotic pain shot they gave me” he says. “Then the next morning I woke up and turned on the water. It looked like little tangent lines [a straight line that touches a single point on a curve], spiralling down.”.

[...]

There are two leading ideas. The first is that when you’re bashed on the head, the effects are similar to a dose of LSD. Psychedelic drugs are thought to enhance creativity by increasing the levels of serotonin, the so-called “happiness hormone”, in the brain. This leads to “synaesthesia”, in which more than one region is simultaneously activated and senses which are usually separate become linked.

[...]

But there is an alternative. The first clue emerged in 1998, when a group of neurologists noticed that five of their patients with dementia were also artists – remarkably good ones. Specifically, they had frontotemporal dementia, which is unusual in that it only affects some parts of the brain. For example, visual creativity may be spared, while language and social skills are progressively destroyed.

[...]

To find out what was going on, the scientists performed 3D scans of their patients’ brains. In four out of five cases, they found lesions on the left hemisphere. Nobel Prize-winning research from the 1960s shows that the two halves of the brain specialise in different tasks; in general, the right side is home to creativity and the left is the centre of logic and language.

But the left side is also something of a bully. “It tends to be the dominant brain region,” says Brogaard. “It tends to suppress very marginal types of thinking — highly original, highly creative thinking, because it’s beneficial for our decision-making abilities and our ability to function in normal life.”. The theory goes that as the patients’ left hemispheres became progressively more damaged, their right hemispheres were free to flourish.

This is backed up by several other studies, including one in which creative insight was roused in healthy volunteers by temporarily dialling down activity in the left hemisphere and increasing it in the right. “[the lead researcher] Allen Snyder’s work was replicated by another person, so that’s the theory that I think is responsible,” says Darold Treffert, a psychiatrist from the University of Wisconsin Medical School, who has been studying savant syndrome for decades.

[...]

It’s been estimated that as many as one in 10 people with autism have savant syndrome and there’s mounting evidence the disorder is associated with enhanced creativity. And though it’s difficult to prove, it’s been speculated that numerous intellectual giants, including Einstein, Newton, Mozart, Darwin and Michelangelo, were on the spectrum.

One theory suggests that autism arises from abnormally low levels of serotonin in the left hemisphere in childhood, which prevents the region from developing normally. Just like with sudden savant syndrome, this allows the right hemisphere to become more active.

Interestingly, many people with sudden savant syndrome also develop symptoms of autism, including social problems, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and all-consuming interests.