Saturday, 27 October 2012

Even bees suffer from the Monday blues

Some research questions and experimental designs just leave us in awe of the incredible minds that thought them up, like the creation of CERN to see what happens when they fire tiny particles at each other at incredible speeds. Some leave us wondering if scientists aren't just little boys that never grew up, where instead of pulling the wings off flies or burning ants with a magnifying glass, they keep honeybees awake so that they become cranky and have difficulty learning how to navigate a maze. Interestingly enough, this entirely random preamble helps me segue into an interesting study I read today: Honeybees consolidate navigation memory during sleep:
ABSTRACT: Sleep is known to support memory consolidation in animals, including humans. Here we ask whether consolidation of novel navigation memory in honeybees depends on sleep. Foragers were exposed to a forced navigation task in which they learned to home more efficiently from an unexpected release site by acquiring navigational memory during the successful homing flight. This task was quantified using harmonic radar tracking and applied to bees that were equipped with a radio frequency identification device (RFID). The RFID was used to record their outbound and inbound flights and continuously monitor their behavior inside the colony, including their rest during the day and sleep at night. Bees marked with the RFID behaved normally inside and outside the hive. Bees slept longer during the night following forced navigation tasks, but foraging flights of different lengths did not lead to different rest times during the day or total sleep time during the night. Sleep deprivation before the forced navigation task did not alter learning and memory acquired during the task. However, sleep deprivation during the night after forced navigation learning reduced the probability of returning successfully to the hive from the same release site. It is concluded that consolidation of novel navigation memory is facilitated by night sleep in bees.
They use fancy technical words to try to distract us from their obviously evil intentions to drive honeybees crazy through sleep-deprivation but, in their defence, instead of blasting Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" for hours and hours on repeat, they simply placed them on a machine that would shake the colony on a regular basis to prevent a restful sleep. So they weren't absolute monsters.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

The Unpredictability of Humans

There is a common belief among the general public that humans are unpredictable. This seems to stem from the intuitive understanding that, at any point, we could simply choose to behave in a completely different way - so how could such a thing possibly be predicted? In contrast to this, I like to think of humans as meaty, irregular-shaped billiard balls.

This extends the billiard ball construct that is often used to characterise and demonstrate principles of physics but adds the component of irregularity (the "meaty" part is just for artistic effect). The importance of this distinction is that it describes the illusion of unpredictability, in that a regular billiard ball is said to be predictable as it travels in a way that is consistent with the direction of the initial force acting upon it, but an irregular shaped billiard ball will appear to almost have "a mind of its own" as multiple forces and impacts drive it in various directions. To illustrate this, I will appeal to my dog's favourite toy:
(For any hardcore behaviorists, I recommend you turn away now as I am about to engage in some mild anthropomorphism).

My dog loves this ball (currently sans a number of nodules that have been gnawed off) and I believe it is because, unlike a tennis ball, it will bounce in an unpredictable way when thrown. Sometimes it just bounces forwards like a tennis ball, but often it will swerve wildly to the left or right, and then bounce off in some other direction after making contact with the floor again. I can't say for sure but it seems to me that this captivates my dog as it almost mimics the unpredictability of living creatures (which, incidentally, seem to be the only other thing that can hold his attention for any extended period of time). 


My above analogy was a rather roundabout way of trying to distinguish between true unpredictability and pseudo-unpredictability. The former refers to aspects or agents in the world which cannot be predicted due to some inherent stochastic component, whereas the latter refers to things which only appear to be unpredictable due to our ignorance of the details of the situation. In the case of the irregular-shaped billiard balls, the "unpredictability" comes about as a result of us not having direct accessibility to the variables affecting its behavior at any point in time; that is, we don't know which nodule is being acted upon, or at what angle, or with what force, and this prevents us from making simple predictions like "if I hit the ball on this angle, it will travel in this direction". 

So what are these 'nodules' on humans? As you might have expected, humans have slightly more nodules than the ball my dog loves, and these nodules are composed of far more intricate substances than the rubber of the ball. They are the complex interactions between our genetics and environment, our histories and current situations, our perceptions and reality, and so on. When we are pushed by a force, we are not only behaviorally thrust in one simple direction, but instead we are essentially pushed into another force (e.g. our genetics) which pushes us into another direction that crashes into another force (e.g. our reinforcement history) which pushes into another direction again, ad infinitum

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Are science and naturalism compatible?

This may seem like an odd question to ask, especially given that the usual argument of compatibility is between science and religion, but it has recently been posed by Christian apologist Alvin Plantinga in his book, "Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism", and in more detail in this lecture:

Religious apologists are known for their ridiculous arguments, especially when venturing into discussions on science, but it is also wise for us to consider the fact that people like Plantinga and Craig are not stupid men; they are well-educated and often have impressive philosophical and logical skills. It is for this reason that when I read this quote:
“There is indeed a science/religion conflict, all right, but it is not between science and theistic religion: it is between science and naturalism. That’s where the conflict really lies”
I decided to try to deduce what possible rational line of thinking could give us such a conclusion. For those who are not sure why this would be a particularly strange claim, it might help to look at one of the main assumptions of science: methodological naturalism.


This combination of terms is sometimes rejected as mere "navel-gazing" by people who enjoy the more practical benefits of science rather than analysing the philosophical foundations of science, but when we look at what the concept actually means we find that it isn't very controversial at all. The "naturalism" part refers to the type of things we study; that is, we study things which are observable, measurable, repeatable, and so on.  The "methodological" part contrasts it with a metaphysical position, so since metaphysics is the study of what is "real" then a methodological position is one that simply assumes naturalism is true for pragmatic reasons, rather than claiming it is absolutely true. To put it most simply: methodological naturalism is the claim that no matter what is "real" or "true", science should just assume the world is observable and measurable and ignore anything else that doesn't fall within that category because that is what gives us meaningful results.

This is where my first possible explanation for Plantinga's claim came from: maybe Plantinga was conflating methodological naturalism with metaphysical naturalism. It would be a valid argument to claim that science is incompatible with metaphysical naturalism as metaphysical naturalism makes claims beyond what science can demonstrate or support. For example, there is no scientific experiment that could be devised to support the claim that the world is naturalistic rather than dualistic (the idea that reality is composed of two distinct substances; mind and matter) and instead we have to rely on logical arguments to disprove the idea that the brain is simply an antenna rather than being an organ that produces thoughts. Reading through his arguments though, this is not the argument he is making.

This led me to considering a second possible explanation for his claims: maybe Plantinga was conflating the natural/supernatural distinction that is considered in science and philosophy with the distinction that is often used in common language. Unlike the first possibility, this does not constitute a strong argument, however, it would be a reasonable mistake to make given that there is still a fair amount of debate and confusion over what the terms 'natural' and 'supernatural' refer to. As I mention above, what is 'natural' is generally agreed to be that which is observable, measurable, and repeatable, and the supernatural is thus its opposite (the unobservable, immeasurable, and unrepeatable). This is not how the terms are treated in common usage though, as 'supernatural' has come to take on the meaning of 'wacky' or 'magical'. What this means is that sometimes the judgement of what is or is not supernatural is made before considering how the concept is formulated, and instead it is often just claimed that things like ghosts, psychic abilities, gods, and so on are supernatural. This isn't necessarily the case though, as psychic phenomena like the kind that Daryl Bem searches for1 is most certainly "natural". So this would be a reasonable, yet incorrect argument, but again this is not the argument he is making.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Let's agree to disagree....

The phrase "let's agree to disagree" often occurs in everyday conversations as a way of communicating the notion that the discussion has reached an impasse; a point where the two debaters have proposed two incommensurable ideas that no amount of further discussion could overcome. But often, especially in discussions on science between opponents and detractors, this phrase is used in an attempt to conflate opinion with fact and philosopher Michael Stokes has written a good article on the topic: "No, you're not entitled to your opinion". He starts the entry with a speech he gives to his first year philosophy students:
“I’m sure you’ve heard the expression ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion.’ Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself, maybe to head off an argument or bring one to a close. Well, as soon as you walk into this room, it’s no longer true. You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can argue for.”
Stokes goes on to highlight the relevance of Plato's distinction between "opinion" (or common belief) and "knowledge" to this popular equivocation, with the former expressing uncertain claims and the latter representing claims which are certain. For example, subjective beliefs like, "Red is a prettier colour than blue!" or "Nirvana are way better than the Foo Fighters!" are uncertain and are essentially just a matter of taste or preference. They are not claims which could really be proved one way or the other. However, claims like, "All unmarried men are bachelors" and "There are no square circles" are certain and are not claims that can be reasonably questioned or attributed to subjective preference.

Anyone who has argued with people on "controversial" topics, like evolution, climate change, vaccinations causing autism, etc, will recognise this tactic where presenting the scientific consensus of a position is dismissed as being just "your opinion" and demand that you accept their opinion as equally valid. This is, more or less, the entire basis of the creationists' argument behind the "Teach the Controversy" movement. 

What this all means is that when people try to tell you that, for example, the fact of evolution is just your "opinion", or they try to weasel out of a discussion by suggesting that you should just "agree to disagree" as if the subject you're debating is something that you simply choose to 'agree' with, then don't be fooled into accepting it on the basis of misplaced etiquette and politeness. Scientific conclusions are not claims about the world that we have tastes or preferences for; we don't choose to accept that 'vaccinations work' in the same way we accept that blue is pretty. We accept scientific conclusions based on the evidential basis for these positions and the evidence either supports it or it doesn't, and so if someone wants to "disagree" then make sure that they understand that it is not a matter of opinion. Disagreement either suggests knowledge of evidence which refutes the scientific conclusion or it represents a rejection of reality itself.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Bridging the Gap: Stereotype Threat

A common disagreement to the cause championed by feminists, and social justice advocates in general, is that the fight is over. The idea being that because the moustached villains in black top hats and capes of days gone by are mostly extinct, no longer able to oppress their victims through overt laws banning them from voting or by relegating them to the "Mad Men"-esque secretaries of the past, then there are no longer any "real" problems that need to be addressed or solved.

Unfortunately, there are still obvious problems of inequality in society; blacks generally performing worse than other races in academic tests, women being paid less than men for doing the same jobs, all types of minorities having difficulties getting hired for various jobs, and so on. Some people argue that these differences are caused by innate or natural differences between these groups, and this is perhaps a possible explanation for some of the differences mentioned, however, it is important to ensure that our conclusions are based on evidence and not just our assumptions about what might be true. In order to figure out what could cause these differences, we must consider all possibilities and some of the best evidence seems to be coming from the research looking at social and cultural influences. What this means is that large-scale emergent differences can arise from very subtle behaviors, beliefs, and norms which are accepted by society. One of these contributing factors is a process known as "stereotype threat".


'Stereotype threat' describes the phenomenon where being aware of negative stereotypes about the stigmatised group you belong to can put you at risk of confirming that stereotype, as defined in the seminal paper by Steele and Aronson1. To put it more simply, it means that if you have a negative thought drilled into you, you will start to believe it and it will affect your performance. For example, the original study by Steele and Aronson looked at the racial gap in academic achievement to see if it could be explained in terms of stereotype threat. To do this, they presented a series of tests with varied instructions; sometimes they were told that the test measures intellectual ability (which should activate the stereotype threat) and sometimes they were told that the test did not measure intellectual ability at all (which should neutralise the stereotype threat). What they found were the results presented in the graph below:

So this study suggested that a key factor in the disparity in academic achievement is how the student perceived their abilities in relation to their race. Steele2 argued that these threats are "in the air" and by clearing the air, these group differences will be diminished.

Friday, 5 October 2012

William Lane Craig on Animal Suffering

For those who aren't aware of William Lane Craig, he is technically a philosopher of religion but it is probably more accurate to refer to him as a Christian apologist. He has made a number of ethically dubious claims over the years, like suggesting that the genocide of a people is morally right if God commands it, but recently he has been pulled back into the spotlight for arguing that animals lack the capacity to suffer.

In his article "Animal Suffering" and in multiple debates on related topics, WLC has made the following argument:
In his book Nature Red in Tooth and Claw, Michael Murray explains on the basis of neurological studies that there is an ascending three-fold hierarchy of pain awareness in nature1:
  • Level 3: Awareness that one is oneself in pain
  • Level 2: Mental states of pain
  •           Level 1: Aversive reaction to noxious stimuli
Level 3 is a higher-order awareness that one is oneself experiencing a Level 2 state. Your friend asks, “How could an animal not be aware of their suffering if they're yelping/screaming out of pain?" Brain studies supply the remarkable answer. Neurological research indicates that there are two independent neural pathways associated with the experience of pain. The one pathway is involved in producing Level 2 mental states of being in pain. But there is an independent neural pathway that is associated with being aware that one is oneself in a Level 2 state. And this second neural pathway is apparently a very late evolutionary development which only emerges in the higher primates, including man. Other animals lack the neural pathways for having the experience of Level 3 pain awareness. So even though animals like zebras and giraffes, for example, experience pain when attacked by a lion, they really aren’t aware of it.
The argument essentially accepts that animals feel pain but it goes on to make the more problematic assertions that: a) animals lack a meta-awareness of pain (which WLC seems to define as "suffering"), and b) that this meta-awareness necessitates a pre-frontal cortex. What this boils down to is the suggestion that animals cannot reflect on, or understand, the sensations of pain that they have and this is a condition required for "suffering".

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Priming Denialism

The concept of priming in psychology refers to the unconscious effect that a stimulus can have on future behavior. For example, one study looked at the effect that holding a hot or cold beverage before an interview would have on that person's opinion of the interviewer1. The stimulus in this situation is the hot or cold beverage and what they found was that the temperature translated almost directly into our metaphorical way of assessing the behavior of the people we meet; that is, after holding a cold drink people were more likely to interpret their behavior as cold and unwelcoming, whereas holding a hot drink people were more likely to interpret their behavior as warm and welcoming. As the researchers describe it, this is like "holding warm feelings towards someone" and "giving someone the cold shoulder".

Recently, a classic experiment in priming by Bargh, Chen, and Burrows2 was called into question by Doyen, Klein, and Pichon in their paper: "Behavioral Priming: It's All in the Mind, but Whose Mind?"3. The original study looked at the effect that including "old" words in a language task has on the speed at which subjects leave the lab following the experiment, so the expectation was that if a list of words a subject was asked to memorise included words like "old", "grey", or "bingo" (among others) then the participants would walk slower as they leave the room. Doyen, however, suspected that subtle behaviors of the experimenters may have affected the behavior of the subjects and so they attempted to replicate the study with a stricter methodology to rule out a number of possible confounds.

To do this, Doyen gave a set script to all 10 'experimenters' which they were to repeat to the subjects taking part in the study. The interesting twist in this study was that Doyen told half of the 'experimenters' that they should expect their subjects to walk slowly, and the other half that they should expect their subjects to walk more quickly. The 'experimenters' were given stopwatches to time the speed of the participants (as was done in the Bargh experiment), but there were also infra-red sensors that gave a more objective and more accurate measure of the walking speed.