A Compelling Story

“A year after that very popular novel came out I read an article summarizing a study about that novel conducted by scholars at a well-known university. The study documented that the vast majority of people who bought and read this popular book believed it was not a novel, but an absolutely true story, though the book was marketed as a work of fiction, and nowhere on or in the book did the publisher or author claim the story was true. The study further reported that when people who loved this book were informed that the story was not true, they reacted with either tremendous anger or enormous disappointment, or both.”

This is Todd Walton discussing an interesting phenomenon, from Know Your Audience. And it is something he has personally experienced with his own fiction writing:

“I became aware of this phenomenon—people believing fiction is true—some years before this mass delusion about a popular novel swept the nation. In those long ago days, I frequently gave public readings of my fiction; and it was during the mid-1980s that more and more people began to experience my stories as true rather than as fiction. In response to this phenomenon, I would preface my reading of each story by declaring that the tale was not autobiographical, not inspired by supposedly true events, and was most definitely a work of fiction.

“Even with this disclaimer, many people in my audiences continued to assume my stories were recollections of things that had really happened to me, regardless of how preposterous that possibility.”

It’s not only that people were adamant about believing his fiction was real. They would get quite upset when told once again that it was fiction, even though they already had this explained to them before the reading. Some of them accused the author of lying to them. And a few left the room in protest.

From a slightly different perspective, here is an anecdote shared by Harlan Ellison:

“He told me– and he said this happened all the time, not just in isolated cases– that he had been approached by a little old woman during one of his personal appearances at a rodeo, and the woman had said to him, dead seriously, “Now listen to me, Hoss: when you go home tonight, I want you to tell your daddy, Ben, to get rid of that Chinee fella who cooks for you all. What you need is to get yourself a good woman in there can cook up some decent food for you and your family.”

“So Dan said to her, very politely (because he was one of the most courteous people I’ve ever met), “Excuse me, ma’am, but my name is Dan Blocker. Hoss is just the character I play. When I go home I’ll be going to my house in Los Angeles and my wife and children will be waiting.”

“And she went right on, just a bit affronted because she knew all that, what was the matter with him, did he think she was simple or something, “Yes, I know… but when you go back to the Ponderosa, you just tell your daddy Ben that I said…”

“For her, fantasy and reality were one and the same.”

I quoted that in a post I wrote about a similarly strange phenomenon. It’s how people are able to know and not know simultaneously (a sub-category of cognitive blindness; related to inattentional blindnesscontextual ignorancehypocognition, and conceptual blindness). With that in mind, maybe some of those people in Walton’s various audiences did know it was fiction, even while another part of them took it as real.

This kind of dissociation is probably more common than we might suspect. The sometimes antagonsitic responses he got could have been more than mere anger at having their perception denied. He was going beyond that in challenging their dissociation, which cuts even deeper into the human psyche. People hold onto their dissociations more powerfully than maybe anything else.

There is another factor as well. We live in a literal-minded age. Truth has become conflated with literalism. When something feels true, many people automatically take it as literal. This is the power of religion and its stories, along with politics and its rhetoric. But some argue that literal-mindedness has increased over time, starting with the Axial Age and becoming a force to be reckoned with in this post-Enlightenment age of scientism and fundamentalism. That is what leads to the black-and-white thinking of something either being literally true or absolutely false (a blatant lie, a frivolous fantasy, etc). Iain McGilchrist describes this as the brain dominance of the left hempisphere’s experience and the suppression of right hemisphere’s emotional nuance and grounded context.

This mindset isn’t just a source of amusing anecdotes. It has real world consequences. The most powerful stories aren’t told by fiction writers or at least not by those openly identifying as such. Rather, the greatest compelling storytellers of our age work in news media and politics. The gatekeepers have immense influence in determining what is real or not in the public mind. This is why there is a battle right now over fake news. It’s a battle among the gatekeepers.

This connects to the smart idiot effect. It’s interesting to note that, according to studies, the least educated are the most aware of the limits of their knowledge and expertise. It requires being well educated to fall into the trap of the smart idiot effect (hence why it is called that). This is the reason media personalities and politicians can be so dangerous, as they are people who talk a bit about everything while often being an expert in nothing or, at best, their expertise being narrowly constrained. This is fertile ground for storytelling. And this is why attention-grabbing politicians like Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump first became famous as media personalities — their being experts only in entertainment and egotism. Those like Reagan and Trump are storytellers who embody the stories they tell. They pretend to be something they are not and their audience-supporters take the pretense for reality.

This is seen in many areas of society but particularly on right-wing media. Interestingly, according to research, it is most clearly evidenced among the most well informed audience members of right-wing media who simultaneously are the most misinformed. The average Fox News viewer does know more factoids than the average American (maybe no great accomplishment), but they also know more falsehoods than the average American. What they don’t know very well is how to differentiate between what is true and not true. To be able to make this differentiation would require they not only be able to memorize factoids but to understand the larger context of knowledge and the deeper understanding of truth — the subltety and nuance provided primarily by the right hemisphere, according to Iain McGilchrist. Otherwise, factoids are simply fodder for talking points. And it leads to much confusion, such as a surprising percentage of conservatives taking seriously Stephen Colbert’s caricature of conservatism. Isn’t that interesting, that many conservatives can’t tell the difference between supposedly authentic conservatism and a caricature of it? The election of Donald Trump, an apolitical demagogue posing as a conservative, emphasizes this point.

It is maybe no accident that this phenomenon manifests the strongest on the political right, at least in the United States. It could be caused by how, in the US, authoritarianism is correlated to the political right — not so in former Soviet countries, though. So the main causal factor is probably authoritarianism in general (and, yes, authoritarianism does exist within the Democratic Party, if not to the extreme seen within the GOP; but I would note that, even though Democratic leaders are to the left of the far right, they are in many ways to the right of the majority of Americans… as observed in decades of diverse public polling). Research does show that authoritarians don’t mind being hypocritical, assuming they even comprehend what hypocrisy means. Authoritarians are good at groupthink and believing what they are told. They are literal-minded, as for them the group’s ideology and the leader’s words are identical to reality itself, literally. One could interpret authoritarianism as an extreme variety of dissociation.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Todd Walton’s most offended audience members would test as higher on authoritarianism. Such people have a strong desire to believe in something absolutely. Self-aware use of imagination and the imaginal is not an area of talent for them nor the trait of openness upon which it depends. This is because they lack the tolerance for cognitive dissonance, a necessary component of suspension of disbelief in the enjoyment of fiction. It makes no sense to them that a story could be subjectively true while being factually false (or factually partial). Hence, the sense of being deceived and betrayed. The fiction writer is an unworthy authority figure to the authoritarian mind. A proper authoritarian demagogue would tell his followers what they wanted to hear and would never then tell them that it was just fiction. The point of storytelling, for the authoritarian, is that it is told with utter conviction — it being irrelevant whether or not the authoritarian leader himself believes what he says, just that he pretends to believe.

Authoritarians aside, it should be noted that most people appear to be able to distinguish between truth and falsehood, between non-fiction and fiction. People will say they believe all kinds of things to be true. But if you give them enough of an incentive, they will admit to what they actually believe is true (priming them for rational/analytical thought would probably also help, as various studies indicate). And it turns out most people agree about a lot of things, even in politics. Dissociation has its limits, when real costs and consequences are on the line. But most storytelling, whether fictional or political, won’t effect the concrete daily life of the average person. People want to believe stories and so will take them literally, especially when a story has no real impact. For example, believing in the literal reality that bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Christ is an attractive story for it being largely irrelevant, just a pleasant fiction to create a social bonding experience through ritual (and evidence indicates that many ancient people perceived such things metaphorically or imaginally, instead of literally; the mythical being a far different experience from the literal). Literal-minded people forget that something can have truth value without being literally true. That is what stories are about.

So, it’s possible that if there had been some concrete and personal incentive for self-aware honesty (at least some of) those seemingly naive audience members would have admitted that they really did know that Todd Walton’s readings were fictional. It’s just that, under the actual circumstances with little at stake, their only incentive was their own emotional commitment in being drawn into the story. To be told it is fiction is like being told their experience is false, which would be taken as a personal attack. What they are missing, in that situation, is the willingness to separate their experience of the story from the story itself. It feels so real that they it would ruin their experience of it to imagine it not being real. That is a successful story.

(By the way, this helps explain why Plato so feared the poets, the storytellers of that era. See some context for this in an earlier post of mine, On Truth and Bullshit: “Frankfurt talks about the ‘bullshit artist’. Bullshitters are always artists. And maybe artists are always bullshitters. This is because the imagination, moral or otherwise, is the playground of the bullshitter. This is because the artist, the master of imagination, is different than a craftsmen. The artist always has a bit of the trickster about him, as he plays at the boundaries of the mind.”)

* * *

For some further thoughts from Iain McGilchrist:

The Master and His Emissary
pp. 49-50

“Anything that requires indirect interpretation, which is not explicit or literal, that in other words requires contextual understanding, depends on the right frontal lobe for its meaning to be conveyed or received. 132 The right hemisphere understands from indirect contextual clues, not only from explicit statement, whereas the left hemisphere will identify by labels rather than context (e.g. identifies that it must be winter because it is ‘January’, not by looking at the trees). 133

“This difference is particularly important when it comes to what the two hemispheres contribute to language. The right hemisphere takes whatever is said within its entire context. 134 It is specialised in pragmatics, the art of contextual understanding of meaning, and in using metaphor. 135 It is the right hemisphere which processes the non-literal aspects of language, 136 of which more later. This is why the left hemisphere is not good at understanding the higher level meaning of utterances such as ‘it’s a bit hot in here today’ (while the right hemisphere understands ‘please open a window’, the left hemisphere assumes this is just helpful supply of meteorological data). It is also why the right hemisphere underpins the appreciation of humour, since humour depends vitally on being able to understand the context of what is said and done, and how context changes it. Subjects with right brain damage, like subjects with schizophrenia, who in many respects resemble them, cannot understand implied meaning, and tend to take conversational remarks literally.”

pp. 125-126

“Metaphor is the crucial aspect of language whereby it retains its connectedness to the world, and by which the ‘parts’ of the world which language appears to identify retain their connectedness one to another. Literal language, by contrast, is the means whereby the mind loosens its contact with reality and becomes a self-consistent system of tokens.”

p. 332

“Metaphorical understanding has a close relationship with reason, which seems paradoxical only because we have inherited an Enlightenment view of metaphor: namely, that it is either indirectly literal, and can be reduced to ‘proper’ literal language, or a purely fanciful ornament, and therefore irrelevant to meaning and rational thought, which it indeed threatens to disrupt. It is seen as a linguistic device, not as a vehicle of thought. What the literalist view and the anti-literalist view share is that, ultimately, metaphor can have nothing directly to do with truth. Either it is simply another way of stating literal truth or else it undermines any claim to truth. But as Lakoff and Johnson have shown, ‘metaphor is centrally a matter of thought, not just words’. 2 The loss of metaphor is a loss of cognitive content.”

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An Inconsistency on the Political Left

Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky had some strong disagreements a while back, about religion in its relation to extremism and terrorism. It was a dialogue that didn’t really go anywhere. Their ideological worldviews were too different. But it occurred to me what exactly is odd about the conflict.

Harris believes there is something inherent to certain religions and to the religious mindset in general. Chomsky takes the opposite tack by emphasizing conditions and context. Islamic terrorists are the result of a half century of geopolitical machinations that involved Western governments eliminating secularism and promoting theocracy.

It’s a difference of whether one emphasizes civilizational war or common humanity. The divergence of these worldviews extends back to the Enlightenment and even further back to the Axial Age.

That isn’t exactly what I want to discuss, though. It came to my mind that these two thinkers switch positions when it comes to the human mind. Harris denies that there is an inherent self, whereas Chomsky has long argued that there are inherent modules within the mind.

Both seem inconsistent, but as mirror images of each other. Some have noted that Chomsky’s linguistic theory doesn’t fit his political ideology. There is a drastic mismatch. Chomsky dismisses this as two separate areas, as though the human mind and human society had nothing to do with each other. That is odd. Harris, as far as I know, has never even attempted to explain away his inner conflict.

Most on the political right would argue that nearly everything is inherent: human nature, language, culture, religion, genetics, biology, gender, etc. It is assumed that there is a fundamental, unchanging essence to things that determines their expression. I disagree with this viewpoint, but at least it is consistent. There are other areas of inconsistency on the political right, some real whoppers such as with economics. Yet for this set of issues, the greater inconsistency appears to be on the political left.

Another Way

Health is a longtime interest of mine. My focus has been on the relationship between mental health and physical health. The personal component of this is my depression as it has connected, specifically in the past, to my junk food addiction and lack of exercise at times. When severely depressed, there isn’t motivation to do much about one’s health. But if one doesn’t do anything about one’s health, the symptoms of depression get worse.

It’s for this reason that I’ve sought to understand health. I’ve tried many diets. A big thing for me was restricting refined sugar and simple carbs. It’s become clear to me that sugar, in particular, is one of the most addictive drugs around. It boosts your serotonin which makes you feel good, but then it drops your serotonin levels lower than before you ate the sugar. This creates an endless craving, once you get into the addictive cycle. On top of that, sugar is extremely harmful to your health in general, not only maybe resulting in diabetes but also suppressing your immune system.

Most addictive behavior, though, isn’t necessarily and primarily physical. The evidence shows that it’s largely based on social conditions. That has been shown with the rat park research, with inequality data, and with Portugal’s model of decriminalization and treatment. Humans, like rats, are social creatures. Those living in optimal social conditions have lower rates of addiction, even when drugs are easily available. I’m sure this same principle applies to food addictions as well. It also relates to other mental illnesses, which show higher rates in Western industrialized countries.

This occurred to me a while back while reading about the Piraha. Daniel Everett noted that they didn’t worry much about food. They ate food when it was there and they would eat it until it was gone, but they were fine when there was no food to eat. They live in an environment of great abundance. They don’t lack anything they need.

Yet it’s common for them to skip eating for a day because they have something better to do with their time, such as relaxing and socializing. Everett had seen Piraha individuals dance for several days straight with only occasional breaks and no food. Hunger didn’t seem to bother them because they knew at any moment they could go a short distance and find food. A few hours of a single person hunting, fishing, or gathering could feed the entire extended family for a day.

The same thing was seen with their sleep patterns. The Piraha rarely slept through the entire night. There were always people awake and talking. They didn’t worry about not getting enough sleep. They slept sporadically through the night and day, whenever they felt like it. According to Everett, the Piraha are a happy and relaxed people. They don’t seem to fear much, not even death, despite living in a dangerous environment. They have a low anxiety existence.

Modern Westerners also live amidst great abundance. But you wouldn’t know it from our behavior. We are constantly eating, as if we aren’t sure where our next meal is coming from. And we obsess over the idea of getting a full night’s rest. Our lives are driven by stress and anxiety. The average Westerner has a mindset of scarcity. We are constantly working, buying, consuming, and hoarding. The only time we typically relax is to escape all the stress and anxiety, by numbing ourselves with our addictions: food, sugar, alcohol, drugs, television, social media, etc.

That has been true of me. I’ve felt that constant background of unease. I’ve felt that addictive urge to escape. It’s not healthy. But it’s also not inevitable. We have chosen to create this kind of society. And we can choose to create a different one. Addiction makes us feel helpless, just as it makes us feel isolated. But we aren’t helpless.

As Thomas Paine wrote at the beginning of this country, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Imagine a society where we could be at peace with ourselves, where we could have a sense of trust that our needs will be taken care of, to know that there is enough abundance to go around. A world where the hungry are fed, the homeless are housed, and the poor lifted up. All of that is within our means. We know how to do it, if only we could imagine it. That would mean creating a new mindset, a new way of being in the world, a new way of relating.

* * *

 

I was thinking about a particular connection to addiction, mental illness, and other health problems. This is part of the isolation and loneliness of a hyper-individualistic society. But American society adds another dynamic to this in also being highly conformist — for various reasons: the entrenched class hierarchy, the strictly oppressive racial order, the history of religiosity, the propagandistic nature of national media, the harsh Social Darwinism of capitalist realism, etc.

Right before this post, I was writing about authoritarian libertarianism. There is a weird, secret link between the extremes of individualism and the extremes of collectivism. There is a long history of libertarians praising individualism while supporting the collectivism of authoritarians.

Many right-wing libertarians are in love with corporatism which was a foundation of fascism. Corporations are collective entities that are created by the public institution of government through the public system of corporate charters. A corporate charter, by government fiat, doles out special privileges and protections. Business often does well under big government, at least big business does.

This dynamic might seem strange, but it has a certain logic. Carl Jung called it enantiodromia. That is a fancy word for saying that things taken to their extreme tend to become or produce their opposite. The opposite is never eliminated, even if temporarily suppressed into the shadow and projected onto others. It’s a state where balance is lacking and so the imbalance eventually tips the other direction.

That is the nature of the oppositional paradigm of any dualistic ideology. That is seen in the perceived divide of mind (or spirit) and matter, and this leads to Cartesian anxiety. The opposition is false and so psychologically and socially unsustainable. This false ideology strains the psyche in the futile effort to maintain it.

This has everything to do with health, addiction, and all of that. This condition creates a divide within the human psyche, a divide within awarenesss and thought, perception and behavior. Then this divide plays out in the real world, easily causing dissociation of experience and splintering of the self. Addiction is one of the ways we attempt to deal with this, the repetitive seeking of reconnection that the can’t be satisfied, for addiction can’t replace the human bond. We don’t really want the drug, sugar, or work we are addicted to, even as it feels like the best substitute available to us or at least better than nothing. The addiction eases the discomfort, temporarily fills the emptiness.

It is worth noting that the Piraha have little apparent depression and no known incidents of suicide. I would see this as related to the tight-knit community they live within. The dogmatic dualism of individual vs collective would make no sense to them, as this dualism depends on a rigidly defended sense of identity that they don’t share with modern people. Their psychic boundaries are thinner and more open. Social hierarchy and permanent social positions are foreign to them. There is no government or corporations, not even a revered class of wise elders. Inequality and segregation, and disconnection and division are not part of their world.

You might argue that the Piraha society can’t be translated into lessons applicable to Western countries. I would argue otherwise. They are human like the rest of us. Nothing makes them special. That is probably how most humans once lived. It is in our nature, no matter how hidden it has become. Countries that have avoided or remedied the worst divides such as inequality have found that problems are far fewer and less severe. We may not be able or willing to live like the Piraha, but much of what their lifestyle demonstrates is relevant to our own.

This can be seen in the Western world. Lower inequality states in the US have lower rates of mental illness, obesity, teen pregnancies, homicides, suicide, etc as compared to higher inequality states. Countries with less segregated populations have greater societal trust and political moderation than countries with highly segregated populations. In modern societies, it might be impossible to eliminate inequality and segregation, but we certainly can lessen them far below present conditions. And countries have shown when social conditions are made healthy the people living there are also more healthy.

The world of the Piraha isn’t so distant from our own. We’ve just forgotten our own history. From Dancing in the Streets, Barbara Ehrenreich discusses how depression becomes an increasing issue in texts over the centuries. If you go far back enough, anything akin to depression is rarely mentioned.

She puts this in the context of the loss of community, of communal lifestyle and experience. During feudal times, people lived cheek to jowl, almost never alone. As family and neighbors, they lived together, ate together, worked together, worshipped together, and like the Piraha they would wake up together in the night. They also celebrated and danced together. Festivals and holy days were a regular occurrence. This is because most of the work they did was seasonal, but even during the main work season they constantly put on communal events.

Like the Piraha, they worked to live, not lived to work. Early feudal villages were more like tribal villages than they were like modern towns. And early feudal lords very much lived among the people, even joining in their celebrations. For example, during a festival, a feudal lord might be seen wrestling a blacksmith or even playing along with role reversal. The feudal identity hadn’t yet solidified into modern individuality with its well partitioned social roles. That is partly just the way small-scale subsistence lifestyles operate, but obviously there is more going on than that. This involved the entire order and impacted every aspect of life.

Let’s consider again Paine’s suggestion that we begin over again. This was stated in the context of revolution, but revolution was understood differently at the time. It implied a return to what came before. He wasn’t only speaking to what might be gained for he had a clear sense of what had been lost. The last remnants of feudalism continued into the post-revolutionary world, even as they were disappearing quickly. Paine hoped to save, re-create, or somehow compensate for what was being lost. A major concern was inequality, as the commons were stolen and the public good was eroded.

Even though it wasn’t how it typically would’ve been framed at the time, the focus in this was public health. Paine on occasion did use the metaphor of health and sickness — such as when he wrote, “That the king is not to be trusted without being looked after, or in other words, that a thirst for absolute power is the natural disease of monarchy.” The monarchy wasn’t just about the ruler but about the whole social order that was ruled over, along with its attendant inequality of wealth and power. The sickness was systemic. As with the human body, the body politic could become sick and so it could also be healed.

It never occurred to the American revolutionaries that the problems they faced should be blamed on isolated individuals. It wasn’t limited to a few malcontents. A growing unease spread across colonial society. Even as we think of our society having progressed much over the centuries, we can’t shake the mood of anxiety that continues to spread. Surrounded by abundance and with greater healthcare than our ancestors could have dreamed of, we manage to lead immensely unhealthy and unhappy lives. We are never fully content nor feel like we like we fully belong.

As individuals, we hunger for our next fix. And as a society, we are rapacious and ravenous toward the world, as if our bountiful wealth and resources are never enough. Early colonial trade was strongly motivated by the demand for sugar and now we find present neo-colonial globalization being driven by the demand for oil. Sugar and oil, along with much else, have been the fuel of restless modernity. It’s an addictive social order.

The corrupt old order may have ended. But the disease is still with us and worsening. It’s going to require strong medicine.

Research on Jayne’s Bicameral Theory

The onset of data-driven mental archeology
by Sidarta Ribeiro

For many years this shrewd hypothesis seemed untestable. Corollaries such as the right lateralization of auditory hallucinations were dismissed as too simplistic—although schizophrenic patients present less language lateralization (Sommer et al., 2001). Yet, the investigation by Diuk et al. (2012) represents a pioneering successful attempt to test Jaynes’ theory in a quantitative manner. The authors assessed dozens of Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman texts from up to the second century CE, as well contemporary Google n-grams, to calculate semantic distances between the reference word “introspection” and all the words in these texts. Cleverly, “introspection” is actually absent from these ancient texts, serving as an “invisible” probe. Semantic distances were evaluated by Latent Semantic Analysis, a high-dimensional model in which the semantic similitude between words is proportional to their co-occurrence in texts with coherent topics (Deerwester et al., 1990; Landauer and Dumais, 1997). The approach goes well beyond the mere counting of word occurrence in a corpus, actually measuring how much the concept of introspection is represented in each text in a “distributed semantic sense,” in accordance with the semantic holism (Frege, 1884, 1980; Quine, 1951; Wittgenstein, 1953, 1967; Davidson, 1967) that became mainstream in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (Cancho and Sole, 2001; Sigman and Cecchi, 2002).

The results were remarkable. In Judeo-Christian texts, similitude to introspection increased monotonically over time, with a big change in slope from the Old to the New Testaments. In Greco-Roman texts, comprising 53 authors from Homer to Julius Cesar, a more complex dynamics appeared, with increases in similitude to introspection through periods of cultural development, and decreases during periods of cultural decadence. Contemporary texts showed overall increase, with periods of decline prior to and during the two World Wars. As Jaynes would have predicted, the rise and fall of entire societies seems to be paralleled by increases and decreases in introspection, respectively.

Diuk et al. show that the evolution of mental life can be quantified from the cultural record, opening a whole new avenue of hypothesis testing for Jaynes’ theory. While it is impossible to prove that pre-Axial people “heard” the voices of the gods, the findings suggest new ways of studying historical and contemporary texts. In particular, the probing of ancient texts with words like “dream,” “god” and “hallucination” has great potential to test Jaynesian concepts.

The featured study lends supports to the notion that consciousness is a social construct in constant flux. Quoting senior author Guillermo Cecchi, “it is not just the “trending topics,” but the entire cognitive make-up that changes over time, indicating that culture co-evolves with available cognitive states, and what is socially considered dysfunction can be tested in a more quantitative way.”

Delirium of Hyper-Individualism

Individualism is a strange thing. For anyone who has spent much time meditating, it’s obvious that there is no there there. It slips through one’s grasp like an ancient philosopher trying to study aether. The individual self is the modernization of the soul. Like the ghost in the machine and the god in the gaps, it is a theological belief defined by its absence in the world. It’s a social construct, a statement that is easily misunderstood.

In modern society, individualism has been raised up to an entire ideological worldview. It is all-encompassing, having infiltrated nearly every aspect of our social lives and become internalized as a cognitive frame. Traditional societies didn’t have this obsession with an idealized self as isolated and autonomous. Go back far enough and the records seem to show societies that didn’t even have a concept, much less an experience, of individuality.

Yet for all its dominance, the ideology of individualism is superficial. It doesn’t explain much of our social order and personal behavior. We don’t act as if we actually believe in it. It’s a convenient fiction that we so easily disregard when inconvenient, as if it isn’t all that important after all. In our most direct experience, individuality simply makes no sense. We are social creatures through and through. We don’t know how to be anything else, no matter what stories we tell ourselves.

The ultimate value of this individualistic ideology is, ironically, as social control and social justification.

The wealthy, the powerful and privileged, even the mere middle class to a lesser degree — they get to be individuals when everything goes right. They get all the credit and all the benefits. All of society serves them because they deserve it. But when anything goes wrong, they hire lawyers who threaten anyone who challenges them or they settle out of court, they use their crony connections and regulatory capture to avoid consequences, they declare bankruptcy when one of their business ventures fail, and they endlessly scapegoat those far below them in the social hierarchy.

The profits and benefits are privatized while the costs are externalized. This is socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor, with the middle class getting some combination of the two. This is why democratic rhetoric justifies plutocracy while authoritarianism keeps the masses in line. This stark reality is hidden behind the utopian ideal of individualism with its claims of meritocracy and a just world.

The fact of the matter is that no individual ever became successful. Let’s do an experiment. Take an individual baby, let’s say the little white male baby of wealthy parents with their superior genetics. Now leave that baby in the woods to raise himself into adulthood and bootstrap himself into a self-made man. I wonder how well that would work for his survival and future prospects. If privilege and power, if opportunity and resources, if social capital and collective inheritance, if public goods and the commons have no major role to play such that the individual is solely responsible to himself, we should expect great things from this self-raised wild baby.

But if it turns out that hyper-individualism is total bullshit, we should instead expect that baby to die of exposure and starvation or become the the prey of a predator feeding its own baby without any concerns for individuality. Even simply leaving a baby untouched and neglected in an orphanage will cause failure to thrive and death. Without social support, our very will to live disappears. Social science research has proven the immense social and environmental influences on humans. For a long time now there has been no real debate about this social reality of our shared humanity.

So why does this false belief and false idol persist? What horrible result do we fear if we were ever to be honest with ourselves? I get that the ruling elite are ruled by their own egotistic pride and narcissism. I get that the comfortable classes are attached to their comforting lies. But why do the rest of us go along with their self-serving delusions? It is the strangest thing in the world for a society to deny it is a society.

Symbolic Dissociation of Nature/Nurture Debate

“One of the most striking features of the nature-nurture debate is the frequency with which it leads to two apparently contradictory results: the claim that the debate has finally been resolved (i.e., we now know that the answer is neither nature nor nurture, but both), and the debate’s refusal to die. As with the Lernian Hydra, each beheading seems merely to spur the growth of new heads.”

That is from the introduction to Evelyn Fox Keller’s The Mirage of a Space between Nature and Nurture (p. 1). I personally experienced this recently. There is a guy I’ve been discussing these kinds of issues with in recent years. We have been commenting on each other’s blogs for a long while, in an ongoing dialogue that has centered on childhood influences: peers, parenting, spanking, abuse, trauma, etc.

It seemed that we had finally come to an agreement on the terms of the debate, his having come around to my view that the entire nature-nurture debate is pointless or confused. But then recently, he once again tried to force this nature-nurture frame onto our discussion (see my last post). It’s one of these zombie ideas that isn’t easily killed, a memetic mind virus that infects the brain with no known cure. Keller throws some light on the issue (pp. 1-2):

“Part of the difficulty comes into view with the first question we must ask: what is the nature-nurture debate about? There is no single answer to this question, for a number of different questions take refuge under its umbrella. Some of the questions express legitimate and meaningful concerns that can in fact be addressed scientifically; others may be legitimate and meaningful, but perhaps not answerable; and still others simply make no sense. I will argue that a major reason we are unable to resolve the nature-nurture debate is that all these different questions are tangled together into an indissoluble knot, making it all but impossible for us to stay clearly focused on a single, well-defined and meaningful question. Furthermore, I will argue that they are so knitted together by chronic ambiguity, uncertainty, and slippage in the very language we use to talk about these issues. And finally, I will suggest that at least some of that ambiguity and uncertainty comes from the language of genetics itself.”

What occurred to me is that maybe this is intentional. It seems to be part of the design, a feature and not a flaw. That is how the debate maintains itself, by being nearly impossible to disentangle and so not allowing itself to be seen for what it is. It’s not a real debate for what appears to be an issue is really a distraction. There is much incentive to not look at it too closely, to not pick at the knot. Underneath, there is a raw nerve of Cartesian anxiety.

This goes back to my theory of symbolic conflation. The real issue (or set of issues) is hidden behind a symbolic issue. Maybe this usually or possibly always takes the form of a debate being framed in a particular way. The false dichotomy of dualistic thinking isn’t just a frame for it tells a narrative of conflict where, as long as you accepts the frame, you are forced to pick a side.

I often use abortion as an example because symbolic conflation operates most often and most clearly on visceral and emotional issues involving the body, especially sex and death (abortion involving both). This is framed as pro-life vs pro-choice, but the reality of public opinion is that most Americans are BOTH pro-life AND pro-choice. That is to say most Americans want to maintain a woman’s right to choose while simultaneously putting some minimal limitations on abortions. Besides, as research has shown, liberal and leftist policies (full sex education, easily available contraceptives, planned parenthood centers, high quality public healthcare available to all, etc) allow greater freedom to individuals while creating the conditions that decrease the actual rate of abortions because they decrease unwanted pregnancies.

One thing that occurs to me is that such frames tend to favor one side. It stands out to me that those promoting the nature vs nurture frame are those who tend to be arguing for biological determinism (or something along those lines), just like those creating the forced choice of pro-life or pro-choice usually are those against the political left worldview. That is another way in which it isn’t a real debate. The frame both tries to obscure the real issue(s) and to shut down debate before it happens. It’s all about social control by way of thought control. To control how an issue is portrayed and how a debate is framed is to control the sociopolitical narrative, the story being told and the conclusion it leads to. Meanwhile, the real concern of the social order is being manipulated behind the scenes. It’s a sleight-of-hand trick.

Symbolic conflation is a time-tested strategy of obfuscation. It’s also an indirect way of talking about what can’t or rather won’t otherwise be acknowledged, in the symbolic issue being used as a proxy. To understand what it all means, you have to look at the subtext. The framing aspect brings another layer to this process. A false dichotomy could be thought of as a symbolic dissociation, where what is inseparable in reality gets separated in the framing of symbolic ideology.

The fact of the matter is that nature and nurture are simply two ways of referring to the same thing. If the nature/nurture debate is a symbolic dissociation built on top of a symbolic conflation, is this acting as a proxy for something else? And if so, what is the real debate that is being hidden and obscured, in either being talked around or talked about indirectly?

False Dichotomy and Bad Science

Someone shared with me a link to a genetics study. The paper is “Behavioural individuality in clonal fish arises despite near-identical rearing conditions” by David Bierbach, Kate L. Laskowski, and Max Wolf. From the abstract:

“Behavioural individuality is thought to be caused by differences in genes and/or environmental conditions. Therefore, if these sources of variation are removed, individuals are predicted to develop similar phenotypes lacking repeatable individual variation. Moreover, even among genetically identical individuals, direct social interactions are predicted to be a powerful factor shaping the development of individuality. We use tightly controlled ontogenetic experiments with clonal fish, the Amazon molly (Poecilia formosa), to test whether near-identical rearing conditions and lack of social contact dampen individuality. In sharp contrast to our predictions, we find that (i) substantial individual variation in behaviour emerges among genetically identical individuals isolated directly after birth into highly standardized environments and (ii) increasing levels of social experience during ontogeny do not affect levels of individual behavioural variation. In contrast to the current research paradigm, which focuses on genes and/or environmental drivers, our findings suggest that individuality might be an inevitable and potentially unpredictable outcome of development.”

Here is what this seems to imply. We don’t as of yet understand (much less are able to identify, isolate, and control) all of the genetic, epigenetic, environmental, etc factors that causally affect and contribute to individual development. Not only that but we don’t understand the complex interaction of those factors, known and unknown. To put it simply, our ignorance is much more vast than our knowledge. We don’t even have enough knowledge to know what we don’t know. But we are beginning to realize that we need to rethink what we thought we knew.

It reminds me of the mouse research where genetically identical mice in environmentally identical conditions led to diverse behavioral results. I’ve mentioned it many times before here in my blog, including a post specifically about it: Of Mice and Men and Environments (also see Heritability & Inheritance, Genetics & Epigenetics, Etc). In the mice post, along with quoting an article, I pointed to a fascinating passage from David Shenk’s book, The Genius in All of Us. Although I was previously aware of the influence of environmental conditions, the research discussed there makes it starkly clear. I was reminded of this because of another discussion about mice research, from Richard Harris’ Rigor Mortis with the subtitle of “How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions” (pp. 79-81):

“Garner said that mice have great potential for biological studies, but at the moment, he believes, researchers are going about it all wrong. For the past several decades, they have pursued a common strategy in animal studies: eliminate as many variables as you can, so you can more clearly see an effect when it’s real. It sounds quite sensible, but Garner believes it has backfired in mouse research. To illustrate this point, he pointed to two cages of genetically identical mice. One cage was at the top of the rack near the ceiling, the other near the floor. Garner said cage position is enough of a difference to affect the outcome of an experiment. Mice are leery of bright lights and open spaces, but here they live in those conditions all the time. “As you move from the bottom of the rack to the top of the rack, the animals are more anxious, more stressed-out, and more immune suppressed,” he said.

“Garner was part of an experiment involving six different mouse labs in Europe to see whether behavioral tests with genetically identical mice would vary depending on the location. The mice were all exactly the same age and all female. Even so, these “identical” tests produced widely different results, depending on whether they were conducted in Giessen, Muenster, Zurich, Mannheim, Munich, or Utrecht. The scientists tried to catalog all possible differences: mouse handlers in Zurich didn’t wear gloves, for example, and the lab in Utrecht had the radio on in the background. Bedding, food, and lighting also varied. Scientists have only recently come to realize that the sex of the person who handles the mice can also make a dramatic difference. “Mice are so afraid of males that it actually induces analgesia,” a pain-numbing reaction that screws up all sorts of studies, Garner said. Even a man’s sweaty T-shirt in the same room can trigger this response.

“Behavioral tests are used extensively in research with mice (after all, rodents can’t tell handlers how an experimental drug is affecting them), so it was sobering to realize how much those results vary from lab to lab. But here’s the hopeful twist in this experiment: when the researchers relaxed some of their strict requirements and tested a more heterogeneous group of mice, they paradoxically got more consistent results. Garner is trying to convince his colleagues that it’s much better to embrace variation than to tie yourself in knots trying to eliminate it.

““Imagine that I was testing a new drug to help control nausea in pregnancy, and I suggested to the [Food and Drug Administration (FDA)] that I tested it purely in thirty-five-year-old white women all in one small town in Wisconsin with identical husbands, identical homes, identical diets which I formulate, identical thermostats that I’ve set, and identical IQs. And incidentally they all have the same grandfather.” That would instantly be recognized as a terrible experiment, “but that’s exactly how we do mouse work. And fundamentally that’s why I think we have this enormous failure rate.”

“Garner goes even further in his thinking, arguing that studies should consider mice not simply as physiological machines but as organisms with social interactions and responses to their environment that can significantly affect their health and strongly affect the experiment results. Scientists have lost sight of that. “I fundamentally believe that animals are good models of human disease,” Garner said. “I just don’t think the way we’re doing the research right now is.”

“Malcolm Macleod has offered a suggestion that would address some of the issues Garner raises: when a drug looks promising in mice, scale up the mouse experiments before trying it in people. “I simply don’t understand the logic that says I can take a drug to clinical trial on the basis of information from 500 animals, but I’m going to need 5,000 human animals to tell me whether it will work or not. That simply doesn’t compute.” Researchers have occasionally run large mouse experiments at multiple research centers, just as many human clinical trials are conducted at several medical centers. The challenge is funding. Someone else can propose the same study involving a lot fewer animals, and that looks like a bargain. “Actually, the guy promising to do it for a third of the price isn’t going to do it properly, but it’s hard to get that across,” Macleod said.”

This is the problem with the framing debate as nature vs nurture (or similar framings such as biology vs culture and organism vs environment). Even when people are aware of the limitations of this frame, the powerful sway it holds over people’s minds causes them to continually fall back on them. Even when I have no interest in such dualistic thinking, some people feel it necessary to categorize the sides of a debate accordingly, where apparently I’m supposed to play the role of ‘nurturist’ in opposition to their ‘biology’ advocacy: “feel your life-force, Benjamin. Come with me to the biology side!” Well, I have no desire to take sides in a false dichotomy. Oddly, this guy trying to win me over to the “biology side” in debate (about human violence and war) is the same person who shared the clonal fish study that demonstrated how genetics couldn’t explain the differences observed. So, I’m not entirely sure what he thinks ‘biology’ means, what ideological commitments it represents in his personal worldview.

(As he has mentioned in our various discussions, his studies about all of this are tied up with his experience as a father who has struggled with parenting and a husband who is recently separated, partly over parenting concerns. The sense of conflict and blame he is struggling with sounds quite serious and I’m sympathetic. But I suspect he is looking for some kind of life meaning that maybe can’t be found where he is looking for it. Obviously, it is a highly personal issue for him, not a disinterested debate of abstract philosophy or scientific hypotheses. I’m starting to think that we aren’t even involved in the same discussion, just talking past one another. It’s doubtful that I can meet him on the level he finds himself, and so I don’t see how I can join him in the debate that seems to matter so much to him. I won’t even try. I’m not in that headspace. We’ve commented on each other’s blogs for quite a while now, but for whatever reason we simply can’t quite fully connect. Apparently, we are unable to agree enough about what is the debate to even meaningfully disagree about a debate. Although he is a nice guy and we are on friendly terms, I don’t see further dialogue going anywhere. *shrug*)

When we are speaking of so-called ‘nature’, this doesn’t only refer to human biology of genetics and physiology of development but also includes supposed junk DNA and epigenetics, brain plasticity and gut-brain connection, viruses and bacteria, parasites and parasite load, allergies and inflammation, microbiome and cultured foods, diet and nutrition, undernourishment and malnutrition, hunger and starvation, food deserts and scarcity, addiction and alcoholism, pharmaceuticals and medicines, farm chemicals and food additives, hormone mimics and heavy metal toxicity, environmental stress and physical trauma, abuse and violence, diseases of affluence and nature-deficit disorder, in utero conditions and maternal bond, etc. All of these alter the expression of genetics, both within a single lifetime of individuals and across the generations of entire populations.

There are numerous varieties of confounding factors. I could also point to sociocultural, structural, and institutional aspects of humanity: linguistic relativity and WEIRD research subjects, culture of trust and culture of honor, lifeways and mazeways, habitus and neighborhood effect, parenting and peers, inequality and segregation, placebos and nocebos, Pygmalion effect and Hawthorne effect, and on and on. As humans are social creatures, one could write a lengthy book simply listing all the larger influences of society.

Many of these problems have become most apparent in social science, but it is far from limited to that area of knowledge. Very similar problems are found in the biological and medical sciences, with the hard sciences having clear overlap with the soft sciences considering social constructions get fed back into scientific research. With mostly WEIRD scientists studying mostly WEIRD subjects, it’s the same WEIRD culture that has dominated nearly all of science and so it is WEIRD biases that have been the greatest stumbling blocks. Plus, with what has been proven from linguistic relativity, we would expect that how we talk about science will shape the research done, the results gained, the conclusions made, and the theories proposed. It’s all of one piece.

The point is that there are no easy answers and certain conclusions. In many ways, science is still in its infancy. We have barely scratched the surface of what potentially could be known. And much of what we think we know is being challenged, which is leading to a paradigm change that we can barely imagine. There is a lot at stake. It goes far beyond abstract theory, hypothetical debate, and idle speculation.

Most importantly, we must never forget that no theory is value-neutral or consequence-free. The ideological worldview we commit to doesn’t merely frame debate and narrow our search for knowledge. There is a real world impact on public policy and human lives, such as when medial research and practice becomes racialized (with a dark past connecting race realism and genetic determinism, racial hygiene and eugenics, medical testing on minorities and the continuing impact on healthcare). All of this raises questions about whether germs are to be treated as invading enemies, whether war is an evolutionary trait, whether addiction is biological, whether intelligence is genetic, whether language is a module in the brain, and whether the ideology of individualism is human nature.

We have come to look to the body for answers to everything. And so we have come to project almost every issue onto the body. It’s too easy to shape scientific theory in such a way that confirms what we already believe and what is self-serving or simply what conforms to the social order. There is a long history of the intentional abuse and unintentional misuse of science. It’s impossible to separate biology from biopolitics.

Worse still, our imaginations are hobbled, making it all that more difficult to face the problems before us. And cultural biases have limited the search for greater knowledge. More than anything, we need to seriously develop our capacity to radically imagine new possibilities. That would require entirely shifting the context and approach of our thinking, maybe to the extent of altering our consciousness and our perception of the world. A paradigm change that mattered at all would be one that went far beyond abstract theory and was able to touch the core of our being. Our failure on this level may explain why so much scientific research has fallen into a rut.

* * *

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. My thoughts here aren’t exactly new, but I wanted to share some new finds. It’s a topic worth returning to on occasion, as further research rolls in and the experts continue to debate. I’ll conclude with some more from Richard Harris’ Rigor Mortis. Below that are several earlier posts, a few relevant articles, and a bunch of interesting books (just because I love making long lists of books).

Rigor Mortis:
How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and
Wastes Billions

by Richard Harris
pp. 13-16

There has been no systematic attempt to measure the quality of biomedical science as a whole, but Leonard Freedman, who started a nonprofit called the Global Biological Standards Institute, teamed up with two economists to put a dollar figure on the problem in the United States. Extrapolating results from the few small studies that have attempted to quantify it, they estimated that 20 percent of studies have untrustworthy designs; about 25 percent use dubious ingredients, such as contaminated cells or antibodies that aren’t nearly as selective and accurate as scientists assume them to be; 8 percent involve poor lab technique; and 18 percent of the time, scientists mishandle their data analysis. In sum, Freedman figured that about half of all preclinical research isn’t trustworthy. He went on to calculate that untrustworthy papers are produced at the cost of $28 billion a year. This eye-popping estimate has raised more than a few skeptical eyebrows—and Freedman is the first to admit that the figure is soft, representing “a reasonable starting point for further debate.”

“To be clear, this does not imply that there was no return on that investment,” Freedman and his colleagues wrote. A lot of what they define as “not reproducible” really means that scientists who pick up a scientific paper won’t find enough information in it to run the experiment themselves. That’s a problem, to be sure, but hardly a disaster. The bigger problem is that the errors and missteps that Freedman highlights are, as Begley found, exceptionally common. And while scientists readily acknowledge that failure is part of the fabric of science, they are less likely to recognize just how often preventable errors taint studies.

“I don’t think anyone gets up in the morning and goes to work with the intention to do bad science or sloppy science,” said Malcolm Macleod at the University of Edinburgh. He has been writing and thinking about this problem for more than a decade. He started off wondering why almost no treatment for stroke has succeeded (with the exception of the drug tPA, which dissolves blood clots but doesn’t act on damaged nerve cells), despite many seemingly promising leads from animal studies. As he dug into this question, he came to a sobering conclusion. Unconscious bias among scientists arises every step of the way: in selecting the correct number of animals for a study, in deciding which results to include and which to simply toss aside, and in analyzing the final results. Each step of that process introduces considerable uncertainty. Macleod said that when you compound those sources of bias and error, only around 15 percent of published studies may be correct. In many cases, the reported effect may be real but considerably weaker than the study concludes.

Mostly these estimated failure rates are educated guesses. Only a few studies have tried to measure the magnitude of this problem directly. Scientists at the MD Anderson Cancer Center asked their colleagues whether they’d ever had trouble reproducing a study. Two-thirds of the senior investigators answered yes. Asked whether the differences were ever resolved, only about a third said they had been. “This finding is very alarming as scientific knowledge and advancement are based upon peer-reviewed publications, the cornerstone of access to ‘presumed’ knowledge,” the authors wrote when they published the survey findings.

The American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) surveyed its members in 2014 and found that 71 percent of those who responded had at some point been unable to replicate a published result. Again, 40 percent of the time, the conflict was never resolved. Two-thirds of the time, the scientists suspected that the original finding had been a false positive or had been tainted by “a lack of expertise or rigor.” ASCB adds an important caveat: of the 8,000 members it surveyed, it heard back from 11 percent, so its numbers aren’t convincing. That said, Nature surveyed more than 1,500 scientists in the spring of 2016 and saw very similar results: more than 70 percent of those scientists had tried and failed to reproduce an experiment, and about half of those who responded agreed that there’s a “significant crisis” of reproducibility.

pp. 126-129

The batch effect is a stark reminder that, as biomedicine becomes more heavily reliant on massive data analysis, there are ever more ways to go astray. Analytical errors alone account for almost one in four irreproducible results in biomedicine, according to Leonard Freedman’s estimate. A large part of the problem is that biomedical researchers are often not well trained in statistics. Worse, researchers often follow the traditional practices of their fields, even when those practices are deeply problematic. For example, biomedical research has embraced a dubious method of determining whether results are likely to be true by relying far too heavily on a gauge of significance called the p-value (more about that soon). Potential help is often not far away: major universities have biostatisticians on staff who are usually aware of the common pitfalls in experiment design and subsequent analysis, but they are not enlisted as often as they could be. […]

A few years ago, he placed an informal wager of sorts with a few of his colleagues at other universities. He challenged them to come up with the most egregious examples of the batch effect. The “winning” examples would be published in a journal article. It was a first stab at determining how widespread this error is in the world of biomedicine. The batch effect turns out to be common.

Baggerly had a head start in this contest because he’d already exposed the problems with the OvaCheck test. But colleagues at Johns Hopkins were not to be outdone. Their entry involved a research paper that appeared to get at the very heart of a controversial issue: one purporting to show genetic differences between Asians and Caucasians. There’s a long, painful, failure-plagued history of people using biology to support prejudice, so modern studies of race and genetics meet with suspicion. The paper in question had been coauthored by a white man and an Asian woman (a married couple, as it happens), lowering the index of suspicion. Still, the evidence would need to be substantial. […]

The University of Washington team tracked down the details about the microarrays used in the experiment at Penn. They discovered that the data taken from the Caucasians had mostly been produced in 2003 and 2004, while the microarrays studying Asians had been produced in 2005 and 2006. That’s a red flag because microarrays vary from one manufacturing lot to the next, so results can differ from one day to the next, let alone from year to year. They then asked a basic question of all the genes on the chips (not just the ones that differed between Asians and Caucasians): Were they behaving the same in 2003–2004 as they were in 2005–2006? The answer was an emphatic no. In fact, the difference between years overwhelmed the apparent difference between races. The researchers wrote up a short analysis and sent it to Nature Genetics, concluding that the original findings were another instance of the batch effect.

These case studies became central examples in the research paper that Baggerly, Leek, and colleagues published in 2010, pointing out the perils of the batch effect. In that Nature Reviews Genetics paper, they conclude that these problems “are widespread and critical to address.”

“Every single assay we looked at, we could find examples where this problem was not only large but it could lead to clinically incorrect findings,” Baggerly told me. That means in many instances a patient’s health could be on the line if scientists rely on findings of this sort. “And these are not avoidable problems.” If you start out with data from different batches you can’t correct for that in the analysis. In biology today, researchers are inevitably trying to tease out a faint message from the cacophony of data, so the tests themselves must be tuned to pick up tiny changes. That also leaves them exquisitely sensitive to small perturbations—like the small differences between microarray chips or the air temperature and humidity when a mass spectrometer is running. Baggerly now routinely checks the dates when data are collected—and if cases and controls have been processed at different times, his suspicions quickly rise. It’s a simple and surprisingly powerful method for rooting out spurious results.

p. 132

Over the years breathless headlines have celebrated scientists claiming to have found a gene linked to schizophrenia, obesity, depression, heart disease—you name it. These represent thousands of small-scale efforts in which labs went hunting for genes and thought they’d caught the big one. Most were dead wrong. John Ioannidis at Stanford set out in 2011 to review the vast sea of genomics papers. He and his colleagues looked at reported genetic links for obesity, depression, osteoporosis, coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, asthma, and other common conditions. He analyzed the flood of papers from the early days of genomics. “We’re talking tens of thousands of papers, and almost nothing survived” closer inspection. He says only 1.2 percent of the studies actually stood the test of time as truly positive results. The rest are what’s known in the business as false positives.

The field has come a long way since then. Ioannidis was among the scientists who pushed for more rigorous analytical approaches to genomics research. The formula for success was to insist on big studies, to make careful measurements, to use stringent statistics, and to have scientists in various labs collaborate with one another—“you know, doing things right, the way they should be done,” Ioannidis said. Under the best of these circumstances, several scientists go after exactly the same question in different labs. If they get the same results, that provides high confidence that they’re not chasing statistical ghosts. These improved standards for genomics research have largely taken hold, Ioannidis told me. “We went from an unreliable field to a highly reliable field.” He counts this as one of the great success stories in improving the reproducibility of biomedical science. Mostly. “There’s still tons of research being done the old fashioned way,” he lamented. He’s found that 70 percent of this substandard genomics work is taking place in China. The studies are being published in English-language journals, he said, “and almost all of them are wrong.”

pp. 182-183

Published retractions tend to be bland statements that some particular experiment was not reliable, but those notices often obscure the underlying reason. Arturo Casadevall at Johns Hopkins University and colleague Ferric Fang at the University of Washington dug into retractions and discovered a more disturbing truth: 70 percent of the retractions they studied resulted from bad behavior, not simply error. They also concluded that retractions are more common in high-profile journals—where scientists are most eager to publish in order to advance their careers. “We’re dealing with a real deep problem in the culture,” Casadevall said, “which is leading to significant degradation of the literature.” And even though retractions are on the rise, they are still rarities—only 0.02 percent of papers are retracted, Oransky estimates.

David Allison at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, and colleagues discovered just how hard it can be to get journals to set the record straight. Some scientists outright refuse to retract obviously wrong information, and journals may not insist. Allison and his colleagues sent letters to journals pointing out mistakes and asking for corrections. They were flabbergasted to find that some journals demanded payment—up to $2,100—just to publish their letter pointing out someone else’s error.

pp. 186-188

“Most people who work in science are working as hard as they can. They are working as long as they can in terms of the hours they are putting in,” said social scientist Brian Martinson. “They are often going beyond their own physical limits. And they are working as smart as they can. And so if you are doing all those things, what else can you do to get an edge, to get ahead, to be the person who crosses the finish line first? All you can do is cut corners. That’s the only option left you.” Martinson works at HealthPartners Institute, a nonprofit research agency in Minnesota. He has documented some of this behavior in anonymous surveys. Scientists rarely admit to outright misbehavior, but nearly a third of those he has surveyed admit to questionable practices such as dropping data that weakens a result, based on a “gut feeling,” or changing the design, methodology, or results of a study in response to pressures from a funding source. (Daniele Fanelli, now at Stanford University, came to a similar conclusion in a separate study.)

One of Martinson’s surveys found that 14 percent of scientists have observed serious misconduct such as fabrication or falsification, and 72 percent of scientists who responded said they were aware of less egregious behavior that falls into a category that universities label “questionable” and Martinson calls “detrimental.” In fact, almost half of the scientists acknowledged that they personally had used one or more of these practices in the past three years. And though he didn’t call these practices “questionable” or “detrimental” in his surveys, “I think people understand that they are admitting to something that they probably shouldn’t have done.” Martinson can’t directly link those reports to poor reproducibility in biomedicine. Nobody has funded a study exactly on that point. “But at the same time I think there’s plenty of social science theory, particularly coming out of social psychology, that tells us that if you set up a structure this way… it’s going to lead to bad behavior.”

Part of the problem boils down to an element of human nature that we develop as children and never let go of. Our notion of what’s “right” and “fair” doesn’t form in a vacuum. People look around and see how other people are behaving as a cue to their own behavior. If you perceive you have a fair shot, you’re less likely to bend the rules. “But if you feel the principles of distributive justice have been violated, you’ll say, ‘Screw it. Everybody cheats; I’m going to cheat too,’” Martinson said. If scientists perceive they are being treated unfairly, “they themselves are more likely to engage in less-than-ideal behavior. It’s that simple.” Scientists are smart, but that doesn’t exempt them from the rules that govern human behavior.

And once scientists start cutting corners, that practice has a natural tendency to spread throughout science. Martinson pointed to a paper arguing that sloppy labs actually outcompete good labs and gain an advantage. Paul Smaldino at the University of California, Merced, and Richard McElreath at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology ran a model showing that labs that use quick-and-dirty practices will propagate more quickly than careful labs. The pressures of natural selection and evolution actually favor these labs because the volume of articles is rewarded over the quality of what gets published. Scientists who adopt these rapid-fire practices are more likely to succeed and to start new “progeny” labs that adopt the same dubious practices. “We term this process the natural selection of bad science to indicate that it requires no conscious strategizing nor cheating on the part of researchers,” Smaldino and McElreath wrote. This isn’t evolution in the strict biological sense, but they argue the same general principles apply as the culture of science evolves.

* * *

What do we inherit? And from whom?
Identically Different: A Scientist Changes His Mind
Race Realism, Social Constructs, and Genetics
Race Realism and Racialized Medicine
The Bouncing Basketball of Race Realism
To Control or Be Controlled
Flawed Scientific Research
Human Nature: Categories & Biases
Bias About Bias
Urban Weirdness
“Beyond that, there is only awe.”

Animal studies paint misleading picture by Janelle Weaver
Misleading mouse studies waste medical resources by Erika Check Hayden
A mouse’s house may ruin experiments by Sara Reardon
Curious mice need room to run by Laura Nelson
Male researchers stress out rodents by Alla Katsnelson
Bacteria bonanza found in remote Amazon village by Boer Deng
Case Closed: Apes Got Culture by Corey Binns
Study: Cat Parasite Affects Human Culture by Ker Than
Mind Control by Parasites by Bill Christensen

Human Biodiversity by Jonathan Marks
The Alternative Introduction to Biological Anthropology by Jonathan Marks
What it Means to be 98% Chimpanzee by Jonathan Marks
Tales of the Ex-Apes by Jonathan Marks
Why I Am Not a Scientist by Jonathan Marks
Is Science Racist? by Jonathan Marks
Biology Under the Influence by Lewontin & Levins
Biology as Ideology by Richard C. Lewontin
The Triple Helix by Richard Lewontin
Not In Our Genes by Lewontin & Rose
The Biopolitics of Race by Sokthan Yeng
The Brain’s Body by Victoria Pitts-Taylor
Misbehaving Science by Aaron Panofsky
The Flexible Phenotype by Piersma & Gils
Herding Hemingway’s Cats by Kat Arney
The Genome Factor by Conley & Fletcher
The Deeper Genome by John Parrington
Postgenomics by Richardson & Stevens
The Developing Genome by David S. Moore
The Epigenetics Revolution by Nessa Carey
Epigenetics by Richard C. Francis
Not In Your Genes by Oliver James
No Two Alike 
by Judith Rich Harris
Identically Different by Tim Spector
The Cultural Nature of Human Development by Barbara Rogoff
The Hidden Half of Nature by Montgomery & Biklé
10% Human by Alanna Collen
I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong
The Mind-Gut Connection by Emeran Mayer
Bugs, Bowels, and Behavior by Arranga, Viadro, & Underwood
This Is Your Brain on Parasites by Kathleen McAuliffe
Infectious Behavior by Paul H. Patterson
Infectious Madness by Harriet A. Washington
Strange Contagion by Lee Daniel Kravetz
Childhood Interrupted by Beth Alison Maloney
Only One Chance 
by Philippe Grandjean
Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky
Resisting Reality by Sally Haslanger
Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference by Justin E. H. Smith
Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You by Agustín Fuentes
The Invisible History of the Human Race by Christine Kenneally
Genetics and the Unsettled Past by Wailoo, Nelson, & Lee
The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould
Identity Politics and the New Genetics by Schramm, Skinner, & Rottenburg
The Material Gene by Kelly E. Happe
Fatal Invention by Dorothy Roberts
Inclusion by Steven Epstein
Black and Blue by John Hoberman
Race Decoded by Catherine Bliss
Breathing Race into the Machine by Lundy Braun
Race and the Genetic Revolution by Krimsky & Sloan
Race? by Tattersall & DeSalle
The Social Life of DNA by Alondra Nelson
Native American DNA by Kim TallBear
Making the Mexican Diabetic by Michael Montoya
Race in a Bottle by Jonathan Kahn
Uncertain Suffering by Carolyn Rouse
Sex Itself by Sarah S. Richardson
Building a Better Race by Wendy Kline
Choice and Coercion by Johanna Schoen
Sterilized by the State by Hansen & King
American Eugenics by Nancy Ordover
Eugenic Nation by Alexandra Minna Stern
A Century of Eugenics in America by Paul A. Lombardo
In the Name of Eugenics by Daniel J. Kevles
War Against the Weak by Edwin Black
Illiberal Reformers by Thomas C. Leonard
Defectives in the Land by Douglas C. Baynton
Framing the moron by Gerald V O’Brien
Imbeciles by Adam Cohen
Three Generations, No Imbeciles by Paul A. Lombardo
Defending the Master Race by Jonathan Peter Spiro
Hitler’s American Model by James Q. Whitman
Beyond Human Nature by Jesse J. Prinz
Beyond Nature and Culture by Philippe Descola
The Mirage of a Space between Nature and Nurture by Evelyn Fox Keller
Biocultural Creatures by Samantha Frost
Dynamics of Human Biocultural Diversity by Elisa J Sobo
Monoculture by F.S. Michaels
A Body Worth Defending by Ed Cohen
The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes
A Psychohistory of Metaphors by Brian J. McVeigh
The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist
From Bacteria to Bach and Back by Daniel C. Dennett
Consciousness by Susan Blackmore
The Meme Machine by Blackmore & Dawkins
Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari
Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel L. Everett
Dark Matter of the Mind by Daniel L. Everett
Language by Daniel L. Everett
Linguistic Relativity by Caleb Everett
Numbers and the Making of Us by Caleb Everett
Linguistic Relativities by John Leavitt
The Language Myth by Vyvyan Evans
The Language Parallax by Paul Friedrich
Louder Than Words by Benjamin K. Bergen
Out of Our Heads by Alva Noe
Strange Tools by Alva Noë
From Bacteria to Bach and Back by Daniel C. Dennett
The Embodied Mind by Varela, Thompson, & Rosch
Immaterial Bodies by Lisa Blackman
Radical Embodied Cognitive Science by Anthony Chemero
How Things Shape the Mind by Lambros Malafouris
Vibrant Matter by Jane Bennett
Entangled by Ian Hodder
How Forests Think by Eduardo Kohn
The New Science of the Mind by Mark Rowlands
Supersizing the Mind by Andy Clark
Living Systems by Jane Cull
The Systems View of Life by Capra & Luisi
Evolution in Four Dimensions by Jablonka & Lamb
Hyperobjects by Timothy Morton
Sync by Steven H. Strogatz
How Nature Works by Per Bak
Warless Societies and the Origin of War by Raymond C. Kelly
War, Peace, and Human Nature by Douglas P. Fry
Darwinism, War and History by Paul Crook

Fallen State of America

The Language of Pain, from Virginia Woolf to William Stanley Jevons
by Corey Robin
(from comment section)

Glenn wrote:

Americans account for 99 percent of the world’s hydrocodone (Vicodin) consumption, 80 percent of the world’s oxycodone (Percocet and Oxycontin) consumption and 65 percent of the world’s hydromorphone (Dilaudid) consumption, according to the New York Times.

The federal government’s health statisticians figure that about one in every 10 Americans takes an antidepressant. And by their reckoning, antidepressants were the third most common prescription medication taken by Americans in 2005–2008, the latest period during which the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) collected data on prescription drug use.

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better was published in 2009. Written by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, the book highlights the “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption”. It shows that for each of eleven different health and social problems: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal rich countries.

Donald Pruden, Jr. wrote:

Let me introduce the “World Happiness Report 2017”.

Yes, this is a thing. The Report, published under the auspices of the United Nations, states boldly that (in its words) that “Happiness Has Fallen in America”.

Below is an excerpt from Chapter 7, titled “Restoring American Happiness”, it is written by Jeffrey D. Sachs and it focusses on the United States:

“The predominant political discourse in the United States is aimed at raising economic growth, with the goal of restoring the American Dream and the happiness that is supposed to accompany it. But the data show conclusively that this is the wrong approach. The United States can and should raise happiness by addressing America’s multi-faceted social crisis—rising inequality, corruption, isolation, and distrust—rather than focusing exclusively or even mainly on economic growth, especially since the concrete proposals along these lines would exacerbate rather than ameliorate the deepening social crisis.”

And this from a footnote at the end of the Chapter in question:

“5. It is sometimes suggested that the degree of ethnic diversity is the single most powerful explanation of high or low social trust. It is widely believed that Scandinavia’s high social trust and happiness are a direct reflection of their high ethnic homogeneity, while America’s low and declining social trust is a reflection of America’s high and rising ethnic diversity. The evidence suggests that such “ethnic determinism” is misplaced. As Bo Rothstein has cogently written about Scandinavia, the high social trust was far from automatically linked with ethnic homogeneity. It was achieved through a century of active social democratic policies that broke down class barriers and distrust (see Rothstein and Stolle, 2003). Social democracy was buttressed by a long tradition and faith in the quality of government even before the arrival of democracy itself in Scandinavia. Moreover, highly diverse societies, such as Canada, have been able to achieve relatively high levels of social trust through programs aimed at promoting multiculturalism and inter-ethnic understanding.”

[I especially like this last as some have tried to suggest that social strife in the U.S. is, bluntly, to be blamed on the (disruptive) presence of Blacks in the United States — Michael Moore’s “Bowling For Columbine” made a point of exposing this belief that Americans seem to hold by displaying it in a montage of person-on-the-street interviews. That film goes on to challenge that view. D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of A Nation” was probably the very first broadly distributed cultural product in the U.S. to issue such blame at Blacks.]

* * *

See my previous post:

What kind of trust? And to what end?

There is one book that seriously challenges the tribal argument: Segregation and Mistrust by Eric M. Uslaner. Looking at the data, he determined that (Kindle Locations 72-73), “It wasn’t diversity but segregation that led to less trust.”

Urban Weirdness

In a summary of a study from this year, it was concluded that “young city-dwellers also have 40% more chance of suffering from psychosis (hearing voices, paranoia or becoming schizophrenic in adulthood) is perhaps is less common knowledge.” The authors in the paper claim to have controlled for “a range of potential confounders including family SES, family psychiatric history, maternal psychosis, adolescent substance problems, and neighborhood-level deprivation.”

These are intriguing results, assuming that the study was successful in controlling the confounding factors and so assuming they were making a genuine comparison. Some of the features they noted for the effected urban populations were adverse neighborhood conditions and community breakdown, but I’d point out that these are increasingly found in rural areas. For example, if they further focused in on the hardest hit areas of rural Appalachia, would they find the same results? Is this really a difference between urban and rural areas? If so, that requires explaining, maybe beyond what the authors articulated.

Some of that might be caused by physical factors in urban environments.

Lead toxicity, for example, is worse in cities these days (although a century ago it was actually worse in rural areas because of heavy use of lead paint for barns). Lead toxicity has major impacts on neurocognitive development and mental illness. Also, keeping pets indoors is more common in cities. And where cats are kept as house pets, there are higher rates of toxoplasmosis which is another causal factor that alters the brain and leads to mental health issues.

Neither lead toxicity nor toxoplasmosis was mentioned in the paper. Those are two obvious confounders apparently not having been considered. That could be problematic, although not necessarily undermining the general pattern.

Other factors might have to do with crime or rather the criminal system.

There are actually lower violent crime rates in urban areas, both big and small cities, as compared to rural areas (the rural South is even worse). But it is true that specific urban communities and neighborhoods would have more crime and violence, meaning greater levels of victimization. Beyond crime itself, a major difference is that there are greater levels of policing in cities, which means more police targeting of particular populations (specifically minorities and the poor) and so more police harassment and brutality for the victimized populations. Many poor inner cities can feel like occupied territories, far from optimal conditions for normal psychological development.

Furthermore, there are more video cameras, public and private, watching the citizenry’s every move. Cities are artificial environments, highly ordered in constraining and controlling human behavior, with more walls than open spaces. In tending toward inequality and segregation, cities create divided populations that have separate life experiences. This undermines a culture of trust and makes it difficult to maintain community-based social capital. It’s understandable that all of this combined might make one feel paranoid or simply stressed and anxious. But we should be careful about our conclusions, since cities in more equal and well functioning social democracies might be far different than cities in a country like the United States.

Besides, there might be more going on than these external issues of urban environments.

Urban populations are larger and more concentrated than ever before. Maybe there are psychological changes that happen to populations under these conditions, as urbanization increases. Being in near constant close proximity to so many people has to have major impacts on human development and behavior. And this might go far beyond issues of stress alone.

This could relate to Julian Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism, as he argued that people hearing voices became more common with the emergence of the first city-states. Urban environments are atypical for the conditions under which human evolution occurred. It shouldn’t be surprising that abnormal conditions would lead to abnormal results, whatever are the specifics involved.

So, maybe it should be expected that “mental health deterioration” would follow. If the bicameral mind actually did once exist in the ancient world, I’m sure the first urban dwellers initially experienced it as negative and threatening. Any major societal change takes many generations (or centuries) to be fully assimilated, normalized, and stabilized within the social order.

But humans are so adaptable that almost anything can eventually be integrated into a culture. Recent research has shown how highly atypical is our WEIRD society (western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) and yet to us it is perfectly normal. Maybe these neurocognitive changes from increased urbanization are simply our WEIRD society being pushed ever further down the path its on. The WEIRD might get ever more weird.

A new mentality could be developing, for good or ill. If our society survives the transition, something radically different would emerge. As has been noted by others, revolutions of the mind always precede revolutions of society. Before the earthquake, the tectonic plates must shift. The younger generations are standing on the faultline and, in being hit by urbanization the hardest, they will experience it like no one else. But as it goes on, none of us will escape the consequences. We better hope for a new mentality.

“News from the guinea pig grapevine suggests that whatever it is, we won’t know until it’s way too late, you see? You see that we’re all canaries in the coal mine on this one?”
~ Barris, A Scanner Darkly

* * *

Cumulative Effects of Neighborhood Social Adversity and Personal Crime Victimization on Adolescent Psychotic Experiences
by Joanne Newbury, Louise Arseneault, Avshalom Caspi, Terrie E. Moffitt1, Candice L. Odgers, & Helen L. Fishe

Does urbanicity shift the population expression of psychosis?
by Janneke Spauwen, Lydia Krabbendam, Roselind Lieb, Hans-Ulrich Wittchen, & Jim van Os

Schizophrenia and Urbanicity: A Major Environmental Influence—Conditional on Genetic Risk
by Lydia Krabbendam & Jim van Os

Brain Structure Correlates of Urban Upbringing, an Environmental Risk Factor for Schizophrenia
Leila Haddad, Axel Schäfer, Fabian Streit, Florian Lederbogen, Oliver Grimm, Stefan Wüst, by Michael Deuschle, Peter Kirsch, Heike Tost, & Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg

City living and urban upbringing affect neural social stress processing in humans
by Florian Lederbogen, Peter Kirsch, Leila Haddad, Fabian Streit, Heike Tost, Philipp Schuch, Stefan Wüst, Jens C. Pruessner, Marcella Rietschel, Michael Deuschle & Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg

 

Clusters and Confluences

A favorite topic in my family is the personality differences, psychological issues, behavioral traits, and other idiosyncracies among family members. In the immediate family and on both sides of the extended family, there are patterns that can be seen. Some of this might be genetic in origin, but no doubt there is much involving epigenetics, shared environmental conditions, parenting style, learned behavior, etc. Besides, nature and nurture are inseparable, in terms of actual people in the real world.

One example of a familial pattern is learning disabilities. I was diagnosed with learning disabilities when younger, but before my generation such diagnoses weren’t common. There appears to be some learning disabilities or rather learning style differences among some of my mother’s family. Another example is a dislike of physicality that was passed down from my paternal grandmother to my father and then to my older brother.

That latter one is interesting. My older brother has always been physically sensitive, like my dad. This to some extent goes along with an emotional sensitivity and, at least in the case of my brother, the physical sensitivity of allergies. His daughter has also taken on these psychological and physiological traits. All of these family members also have a hypersensitivity to social conditions, specifically in seeking positive responses from others.

I, on the other hand, have had an opposite cluster of factors. I was socially oblivious as a child and still maintain some degree of social indifference as an adult. My psychological and social insensitivity, although compensated for in other ways, goes hand in hand with a physical hardiness.

Unlike my paternal grandmother, father, brother, and niece, I am big-boned and more physical like my mother’s family. I even look more like my mother’s family with thicker hair, big feet, a bump on my nose, an underbite, and hazel eyes. About my physicality, it goes beyond just my body type, features, and activity level. I have such a high pain tolerance that I commonly don’t notice when I get a cut. I also don’t worry about cuts when I get them because I’m not prone to infections. I’ve always had a strong immune system and rarely get sick, but neither do I have an over-active immune system that leads to allergies.

All of this is the opposite of my older brother. He and his family are constantly getting sick, even as they constantly worry about germs and try to protect themselves. I played in filthy creeks as a child with exposed cuts and was far healthier than my cleanliness-obsessed brother who, when younger, panicked if his new shoes got scuffed.

It’s strange how these kinds of things tend to group together. It indicates a possible common cause or set of causes. That would likely be some particular combination of nature and nurture. I not only take more after my mother’s family for I also spent more time with my mother as a child than did my brothers, since she took time off from work when I was born (I was the third and last child, although fourth pregnancy following a miscarriage). My brothers didn’t get the same opportunity. So, I was also more likely to pick up behaviors from her. Between my brothers and I, only I am able to relate well with my mother. In particular, my older brother’s sensitivity is in constant conflict with my mother’s insensitivity. But I’m used to my mother’s way of relating, allowing me to better understand and sympathize, not to mention be more forgiving, partly because I share some of her tendencies.

Why is one kind of high sensitivity often related to other high sensitivities: emotional, social, pain, immune system, allergies, etc? And why is the opposite pattern seen with low sensitivities? What causes these clustered differences? And how can two such distinct clusters be found among siblings, sometimes even identical twins, who shared many factors?

It makes me curious.

It’s not just conditions like allergies and intolerances. There are similar clusters of neurocognitive, behavioral, and health conditions observed in various immune system disorders, the autism spectrum, fragile x syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome and other nutritional/dietary/intestinal issues, migraines, ADHD, toxoplasmosis and parasite load, heavy metal toxicity such as lead and mercury, etc. When there is one abnormal symptom or developmental issue, there are often others that show up at the same time or later on. This can involve such things as depression, anxiety, IQ, learning disabilities, irritability, impulse control issues, emotional instability, suicidal tendencies, accident proneness, etc along with more basic issues like asthma, diabetes, obesity, and much else.

In some cases, such as lead toxicity, the causal mechanisms are known as the toxin impacts every part of the body, especially the brain and nervous system. Or consider toxoplasmosis which apparently can alter the rates of personality traits in a population, along with differences in health consequences and social results, whatever is the exact chain of causation. But sometimes the correlations are far less clear and certain in their causal relationship. For example, what is the possible connection(s) between depressive tendencies, anger issues, addictive behaviors, learning difficulties, and physical hardiness among my maternal family?

There was a particular conversation that inspired this line of thought. My parents and I were discussing many of the above issues. But a major focus was on sleep patterns. My brother, like my dad, has a difficulty getting up and moving in the morning. They both tend to feel groggy when first waking up and prefer to remain physically inactive for a long period after. They also both find it hard to fall asleep and, in the case of my dad, a problem of waking up in the middle of the night. My mom and I, however, don’t have any of these issues. We fall asleep easily, typically stay asleep throughout the night, and wake up quickly. So, the difference between sensitivity and insensitivity impacts every aspect of life, even sleeping and waking.

Oftentimes, in our society, we blame individuals for the way they are. We act like people have a choice about how they feel and what motivates them. But it’s not as if because of moral superiority and strength of will that I’ve chosen to sleep well, have a strong immune system, feel physically energetic, and generally be insensitive. No more than I chose to have a learning disability and severe depression. It’s simply the way I’ve always been.

There is obviously much more going on here than mere genetics. And so genetic determinism is intellectually unsatisfying, even as some might find it personally convenient as a way of rationalizing differences. We have too much data proving environmental and epigenetic causes. A recent study could only find a few percentage of genes correlated to intelligence and, even then, they couldn’t prove a causal connection. The same thing is seen with so much other correlation research. The way various clusters form, as I argue, implies a complex web of factors that as of yet we don’t come close to understanding.

One intriguing connection that has been found is that between the brain and the gut. There are more neurons in the lining of the gastrointestinal system (the enteric nervous system) than in either the spinal cord or the peripheral nervous system. This is often called the “second brain,” but in evolutionary terms it was the earliest part of the brain. This is why there has been proven such a close relationship between intestinal health, diet, nutrition, microbiome, neurotransmitters, and mood. The human brain isn’t limited to the skull. The importance of this is demonstrated by introducing a new microbiome into the gut which can lead to physiological and pyschological changes.

Much else, however, remains a mystery. Seemingly minor changes in initial conditions, even epigenetic changes from prior generations, can lead to major changes in results. There can be a cascade of effects that follow. As I’ve previously stated, “This is because of the cumulative effect of initial conditions. One thing leads to another. Lowered nutrition or increased toxicity has its impact which gets magnified by such things as school tracking. Each effect becoming a cause and all the causal factors combining to form significant differences in end results.”

Later conditions can either lessen or exacerbate these results. Even epigenetics, by way of altered environmental conditions, can be switched back the opposite direction in a single generation with results that we know little about. Now consider the complexity of reality where there are millions of factors involved, with only a tiny fraction of those factors having been discovered and studied in scientific research. Those multitudinous factors act in combined ways that couldn’t be predicted by any single factor. All of this has to be kept in mind at the very moment in history when humans are ignorantly and carelessly throwing in further factors with unknown consequences such as the diversity of largely untested chemicals in our food and other products, not to mention large-scale environmental changes.

We don’t live at a society ruled by the precautionary principle. Instead, our collective ignorance makes us even more brazen in our actions and more indifferent to the results. The measured increase in certain physical and mental health conditions could be partly just an increase in diagnosis, but it’s more probable that at least some of the increase is actual. We are progressing in some ways as a society such as seen with the Moral Flynn Effect, but this is balanced by an Amoral Flynn Effect along with many other unintended consequences.

Along with this, our society has a lack of appreciation for the larger context such as historical legacies and a lack of respect for the power of larger forces such as environmental conditions. We are born into a world created by others, each generation forming a new layer upon the ground below. We are facing some tough issues here. And we aren’t prepared to deal with them.

As individuals, the consequences are laid upon our shoulders, without our realizing all that we have inherited and have had externalized onto our lives, as we grow up internalizing these realities and coming to identify with them. Each of us does the best we can with the hand we’ve been dealt, but in the process we get more praise and blame than we deserve. The individual, as the product of collective forces, is the ultimate scapegoat of society. The lives we find ourselves in are a confluence of currents and undercurrents, the interference pattern of waves. Yet, in our shared ignorance and incomprehension, we are simply who we are.

* * * *

The Ending of the Nature vs Nurture Debate
Heritability & Inheritance, Genetics & Epigenetics, Etc
What Genetics Does And Doesn’t Tell Us
Weak Evidence, Weak Argument: Race, IQ, Adoption
Identically Different: A Scientist Changes His Mind
What do we inherit? And from whom?
To Put the Rat Back in the Rat Park
Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park
Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition
On Welfare: Poverty, Unemployment, Health, Etc
From Bad to Worse: Trends Across Generations
The Desperate Acting Desperately
It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!
Facing Shared Trauma and Seeking Hope
Society: Precarious or Persistent?
Plowing the Furrows of the Mind
Union Membership, Free Labor, and the Legacy of Slavery.
Uncomfortable Questions About Ideology