Useful Fictions Becoming Less Useful

Humanity has long been under the shadow of the Axial Age, no less true today than in centuries past. But what has this meant in both our self-understanding and in the kind of societies we have created? Ideas, as memes, can survive and even dominate for millennia. This can happen even when they are wrong, as long as they are useful to the social order.

One such idea involves nativism and essentialism, made possible through highly developed abstract thought. This notion of something inherent went along with the notion of division, from mind-body dualism to brain modules (what is inherent in one area being separate from what is inherent elsewhere). It goes back at least to the ancient Greeks such as with Platonic idealism (each ideal an abstract thing unto itself), although abstract thought required two millennia of development before it gained its most powerful form through modern science. As Elisa J. Sobo noted, “Ironically, prior to the industrial revolution and the rise of the modern university, most thinkers took a very comprehensive view of the human condition. It was only afterward that fragmented, factorial, compartmental thinking began to undermine our ability to understand ourselves and our place in— and connection with— the world.”

Maybe we are finally coming around to more fully questioning these useful fictions because they have become less useful as the social order changes, as the entire world shifts around us with globalization, climate change, mass immigration, etc. We saw emotions as so essentialist that we decided to start a war against one of them with the War on Terror, as if this emotion was definitive of our shared reality (and a great example of metonymy, by the way), but obviously fighting wars against a reified abstraction isn’t the most optimal strategy for societal progress. Maybe we need new ways of thinking.

The main problem with useful fictions isn’t necessarily that they are false, partial, or misleading. A useful fiction wouldn’t last for millennia if it weren’t, first and foremost, useful (especially true in relation to the views of human nature found in folk psychology). It is true that our seeing these fictions for what they are is a major change, but more importantly what led us to question their validity is that some of them have stopped being as useful as they once were. The nativists, essentialists, and modularists argued that such things as emotional experience, color perception, and language learning were inborn abilities and natural instincts: genetically-determined, biologically-constrained, and neurocognitively-formed. Based on theory, immense amounts of time, energy, and resources were invested into the promises made.

This motivated the entire search to connect everything observable in humans back to a gene, a biological structure, or an evolutionary trait (with the brain getting outsized attention). Yet reality has turned out to be much more complex with environmental factors, epigenetics, brain plasticity, etc. The original quest hasn’t been as fruitful as hoped for, partly because of problems in conceptual frameworks and the scientific research itself, and this has led some to give up on the search. Consider how when one part of the brain is missing or damaged, other parts of the brain often compensate and take over the correlated function. There have been examples of people lacking most of their brain matter and still able to function in what appears to be outwardly normal behavior. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, such that the whole can maintain its integrity even without all of the parts.

The past view of the human mind and body has been too simplistic to an extreme. This is because we’ve lacked the capacity to see most of what goes on in making it possible. Our conscious minds, including our rational thought, is far more limited than many assumed. And the unconscious mind, the dark matter of the mind, is so much more amazing in what it accomplishes. In discussing what they call conceptual blending, Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner write (The Way We Think, p. 18):

“It might seem strange that the systematicity and intricacy of some of our most basic and common mental abilities could go unrecognized for so long. Perhaps the forming of these important mechanisms early in life makes them invisible to consciousness. Even more interestingly, it may be part of the evolutionary adaptiveness of these mechanisms that they should be invisible to consciousness, just as the backstage labor involved in putting on a play works best if it is unnoticed. Whatever the reason, we ignore these common operations in everyday life and seem reluctant to investigate them even as objects of scientific inquiry. Even after training, the mind seems to have only feeble abilities to represent to itself consciously what the unconscious mind does easily. This limit presents a difficulty to professional cognitive scientists, but it may be a desirable feature in the evolution of the species. One reason for the limit is that the operations we are talking about occur at lightning speed, presumably because they involve distributed spreading activation in the nervous system, and conscious attention would interrupt that flow.”

As they argue, conceptual blending helps us understand why a language module or instinct isn’t necessary. Research has shown that there is no single part of the brain nor any single gene that is solely responsible for much of anything. The constituent functions and abilities that form language likely evolved separately for other reasons that were advantageous to survival and social life. Language isn’t built into the brain as an evolutionary leap; rather, it was an emergent property that couldn’t have been predicted from any prior neurocognitive development, which is to say language was built on abilities that by themselves would not have been linguistic in nature.

Of course, Fauconnier and Turner are far from being the only proponents of such theories, as this perspective has become increasingly attractive. Another example is Mark Changizi’s theory presented in Harnessed where he argues that (p. 11), “Speech and music culturally evolved over time to be simulacra of nature” (see more about this here and here). Whatever theory one goes with, what is required is to explain the research challenging and undermining earlier models of cognition, affect, linguistics, and related areas.

Another book I was reading is How Emotions are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett. She is covering similar territory, despite her focus being on something so seemingly simple as emotions. We rarely give emotions much thought, taking them for granted, but we shouldn’t. How we understand our experience and expression of emotion is part and parcel of a deeper view that our society holds about human nature, a view that also goes back millennia. This ancient lineage of inherited thought is what makes it problematic, since it feels intuitively true in it being so entrenched within our culture (Kindle Locations 91-93):

“And yet . .  . despite the distinguished intellectual pedigree of the classical view of emotion, and despite its immense influence in our culture and society, there is abundant scientific evidence that this view cannot possibly be true. Even after a century of effort, scientific research has not revealed a consistent, physical fingerprint for even a single emotion.”

“So what are they, really?,” Barret asks about emotions (Kindle Locations 99-104):

“When scientists set aside the classical view and just look at the data, a radically different explanation for emotion comes to light. In short, we find that your emotions are not built-in but made from more basic parts. They are not universal but vary from culture to culture. They are not triggered; you create them. They emerge as a combination of the physical properties of your body, a flexible brain that wires itself to whatever environment it develops in, and your culture and upbringing, which provide that environment. Emotions are real, but not in the objective sense that molecules or neurons are real. They are real in the same sense that money is real— that is, hardly an illusion, but a product of human agreement.”

This goes along with an area of thought that arose out of philology, classical studies, consciousness studies, Jungian psychology, and anthropology. As always, I’m particularly thinking of the bicameral mind theory of Julian Jaynes. In the most ancient civilizations, there weren’t monetary systems nor according to Jaynes was there consciousness as we know it. He argues that individual self-consciousness was built on an abstract metaphorical space that was internalized and narratized. This privatization of personal space led to the possibility of self-ownership, the later basis of capitalism (and hence capitalist realism). It’s abstractions upon abstractions, until all of modern civilization bootstrapped itself into existence.

The initial potentials within human nature could and have been used to build diverse cultures, but modern society has genocidally wiped out most of this once existing diversity, leaving behind a near total dominance of WEIRD monoculture. This allows us modern Westerners to mistake our own culture for universal human nature. Our imaginations are constrained by a reality tunnel, which further strengthens the social order (control of the mind is the basis for control of society). Maybe this is why certain abstractions have been so central in conflating our social reality with physical reality, as Barret explains (Kindle Locations 2999-3002):

“Essentialism is the culprit that has made the classical view supremely difficult to set aside. It encourages people to believe that their senses reveal objective boundaries in nature. Happiness and sadness look and feel different, the argument goes, so they must have different essences in the brain. People are almost always unaware that they essentialize; they fail to see their own hands in motion as they carve dividing lines in the natural world.”

We make the world in our own image. And then we force this social order on everyone, imprinting it onto not just onto the culture but onto biology itself. With epigenetics, brain plasticity, microbiomes, etc, biology readily accepts this imprinting of the social order (Kindle Locations 5499-5503):

“By virtue of our values and practices, we restrict options and narrow possibilities for some people while widening them for others, and then we say that stereotypes are accurate. They are accurate only in relation to a shared social reality that our collective concepts created in the first place. People aren’t a bunch of billiard balls knocking one another around. We are a bunch of brains regulating each other’s body budgets, building concepts and social reality together, and thereby helping to construct each other’s minds and determine each other’s outcomes.”

There are clear consequences to humans as individuals and communities. But there are other costs as well (Kindle Locations 129-132):

“Not long ago, a training program called SPOT (Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques) taught those TSA agents to detect deception and assess risk based on facial and bodily movements, on the theory that such movements reveal your innermost feelings. It didn’t work, and the program cost taxpayers $ 900 million. We need to understand emotion scientifically so government agents won’t detain us— or overlook those who actually do pose a threat— based on an incorrect view of emotion.”

This is one of the ways in which our fictions have become less than useful. As long as societies were relatively isolated, they could maintain their separate fictions and treat them as reality. But in a global society, these fictions end up clashing with each other in not just unuseful ways but in wasteful and dangerous ways. If TSA agents were only trying to observe people who shared a common culture of social constructs, the standard set of WEIRD emotional behaviors would apply. The problem is TSA agents have to deal with people from diverse cultures that have different ways of experiencing, processing, perceiving, and expressing what we call emotions. It would be like trying to understand world cuisine, diet, and eating habits by studying the American patrons of fast food restaurants.

Barret points to the historical record of ancient societies and to studies done on non-WEIRD cultures. What was assumed to be true based on WEIRD scientists studying WEIRD subjects turns out not to be true for the rest of the world. But there is an interesting catch to the research, the reason so much confusion prevailed for so long. It is easy to teach people cultural categories of emotion and how to identify them. Some of the initial research on non-WEIRD populations unintentionally taught the subjects the very WEIRD emotions that they were attempting to study. The structure of the studies themselves had WEIRD biases built into them. It was only with later research that they were able to filter out these biases and observe the actual non-WEIRD responses of non-WEIRD populations.

Researchers only came to understand this problem quite recently. Noam Chomsky, for example, thought it unnecessary to study actual languages in the field. Based on his own theorizing, he believed that studying a single language such as English would tell us everything we needed to know about the basic workings of all languages in the world. This belief proved massively wrong, as field research demonstrated. There was also an idealism in the early Cold War era that lead to false optimism, as Americans felt on top of the world. Chris Knight made this point in Decoding Chomsky (from the Preface):

“Pentagon’s scientists at this time were in an almost euphoric state, fresh from victory in the recent war, conscious of the potential of nuclear weaponry and imagining that they held ultimate power in their hands. Among the most heady of their dreams was the vision of a universal language to which they held the key. […] Unbelievable as it may nowadays sound, American computer scientists in the late 1950s really were seized by the dream of restoring to humanity its lost common tongue. They would do this by designing and constructing a machine equipped with the underlying code of all the world’s languages, instantly and automatically translating from one to the other. The Pentagon pumped vast sums into the proposed ‘New Tower’.”

Chomsky’s modular theory dominated linguistics for more than a half century. It still is held in high esteem, even as the evidence increasingly is stacked against it. This wasn’t just a waste of immense amount of funding. It derailed an entire field of research and stunted the development of a more accurate understanding. Generations of linguists went chasing after a mirage. No brain module of language has been found nor is there any hope of ever finding one. Many researchers wasted their entire careers on a theory that proved false and many of these researchers continue to defend it, maybe in the hope that another half century of research will finally prove it to be true after all.

There is no doubt that Chomsky has a brilliant mind. He is highly skilled in debate and persuasion. He won the battle of ideas, at least for a time. Through sheer power of his intellect, he was able to overwhelm his academic adversaries. His ideas came to dominate the field of linguistics, in what came to be known as the cognitive revolution. But Daniel Everett has stated that “it was not a revolution in any sense, however popular that narrative has become” (Dark Matter of the Mind, Kindle Location 306). If anything, Chomsky’s version of essentialism caused the temporary suppression of a revolution that was initiated by linguistic relativists and social constructionists, among others. The revolution was strangled in the crib, partly because it was fighting against an entrenched ideological framework that was millennia old. The initial attempts at research struggled to offer a competing ideological framework and they lost that struggle. Then they were quickly forgotten about, as if the evidence they brought forth was irrelevant.

Barret explains the tragedy of this situation. She is speaking of essentialism in terms of emotions, but it applies to the entire scientific project of essentialism. It has been a failed project that refuses to accept its failure, a paradigm that refuses to die in order to make way for something else. She laments all of the waste and lost opportunities (Kindle Locations 3245-3293):

“Now that the final nails are being driven into the classical view’s coffin in this era of neuroscience, I would like to believe that this time, we’ll actually push aside essentialism and begin to understand the mind and brain without ideology. That’s a nice thought, but history is against it. The last time that construction had the upper hand, it lost the battle anyway and its practitioners vanished into obscurity. To paraphrase a favorite sci-fi TV show, Battlestar Galactica, “All this has happened before and could happen again.” And since the last occurrence, the cost to society has been billions of dollars, countless person-hours of wasted effort, and real lives lost. […]

“The official history of emotion research, from Darwin to James to behaviorism to salvation, is a byproduct of the classical view. In reality, the alleged dark ages included an outpouring of research demonstrating that emotion essences don’t exist. Yes, the same kind of counterevidence that we saw in chapter 1 was discovered seventy years earlier . .  . and then forgotten. As a result, massive amounts of time and money are being wasted today in a redundant search for fingerprints of emotion. […]

“It’s hard to give up the classical view when it represents deeply held beliefs about what it means to be human. Nevertheless, the facts remain that no one has found even a single reliable, broadly replicable, objectively measurable essence of emotion. When mountains of contrary data don’t force people to give up their ideas, then they are no longer following the scientific method. They are following an ideology. And as an ideology, the classical view has wasted billions of research dollars and misdirected the course of scientific inquiry for over a hundred years. If people had followed evidence instead of ideology seventy years ago, when the Lost Chorus pretty solidly did away with emotion essences, who knows where we’d be today regarding treatments for mental illness or best practices for rearing our children.”


What Scientific Idea Is Ready For Retirement?

This is a question asked by They ask a different question each year and that is the question this year, 2014. Several of the responses fit into my recent thinking about human nature, race, genetics, intelligence, behavior, scientific methodology, etc..

* * * *

Biological Anthropologist and Paleobiologist; Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at The Pennsylvania State University

“Race has a hold on history, but it no longer has a place in science. The sheer instability and potential for misinterpretation render race useless as a scientific concept. Inventing new vocabularies of human diversity and inequity won’t be easy, but is necessary. ”

Senior Lecturer in Behavioural Biology School, University of Bristol
Life Evolves Via A Shared Genetic Toolkit

“A conserved genome can generate novelties through rearrangements (within or between genes), changes in regulation or genome duplication events. For example, the vertebrate genome has been replicated in their entirety twice in their evolutionary history; salmonid fish have undergone a further two whole genome duplications. Duplications reduce selection on the function of one of the gene copies, allowing that copy to mutate and evolve into a new gene whilst the other copy maintains business as usual. Conserved genomes can also harbour a lot of latent genetic variation—fodder for evolving novelty—which is not exposed to selection. Non-lethal variation can lie dormant in the genome by not being expressed, or by being expressed at times when it doesn’t have a lethal effect on the phenotype. The molecular machinery that regulates expression of genes and proteins depends on minimal information, rules and tools: transcription factors recognise sequences of only a few base-pairs as binding sites, which gives them enormous potential for plasticity in where they bind. Pleiotropic changes across many conserved genes using different combination of transcription, translation and/or post-translation activity are a good source of genomic novelty. E.g. the evolution of beak shapes in Darwin’s finches is controlled by pleiotropic changes brought about by changes in the signalling patterns of a conserved gene that controls bone development. The combinatorial power of even a limited genetic toolkit gives it enormous potential to evolve novelty from old machinery.”

Journalist; Author, Us and Them
People Are Sheep

“Perhaps the behavior of people in groups will eventually be explained as a combination of moment-to-moment influences (like waves on the sea) and powerful drivers that work outside of awareness (like deep ocean currents). All the open questions are important and fascinating. But they’re only visible after we give up the simplistic notion that we are sheep.”

founder and president of the non-profit Preventive Medicine Research Institute
Large Randomized Controlled Trials

“We need new, more thoughtful experimental designs and systems approaches that take into account these issues. Also, new genomic insights will make it possible to better understand individual variations to treatment rather than hoping that this variability will be “averaged out” by randomly-assigning patients.”

Psychiatrist; Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry, NYU School of Medicine
Neuroscientist; Canada Research Chair in Philosophy & Psychiatry, McGill University
Mental Illness is Nothing But Brain Illness

“That a theory of mental illness should make reference to the world outside the brain is no more surprising than that the theory of cancer has to make reference to cigarette smoke. And yet what is commonplace in cancer research is radical in psychiatry. The time has come to expand the biological model of psychiatric disorder to include the context in which the brain functions. In understanding, preventing and treating mental illness, we will rightly continue to look into the neurons and DNA of the afflicted and unafflicted. To ignore the world around them would be not only bad medicine but bad science.”

Assistant Professor of Psychology, Stanford University
The Altruism Hierarchy

“It often appears to me that critics of “impure” altruism chide helpers for acting in human ways, for instance by doing things that feel good. The ideal, then, seems to entail acting altruistically while not enjoying those actions one bit. To me, this is no ideal at all. I think it’s profound and downright beautiful to think that our core emotional makeup can be tuned towards others, causing us to feel good when we do. Color me selfish, but I’d take that impure altruism over a de-enervated, floating ideal any day.”

Eugene Higgins Professor, Department of Psychology, Princeton University
Rational Actor Models: The Competence Corollary

“People are most effective in social life if we are—and show ourselves to be—both warm and competent. This is not to say that we always get it right, but the intent and the effort must be there. This is also not to say that love is enough, because we do have to prove capable to act on our worthy intentions. The warmth-competence combination supports both short-term cooperation and long-term loyalty. In the end, it’s time to recognize that people survive and thrive with both heart and mind.”

Scientist; Inventor; Entrepreneur
Intelligence As a Property

“Based on recent discoveries, I have now come to suspect that the reason for this lack of progress in physically defining intelligence is due to the entire scientific concept of treating intelligence as a static property—rather than a dynamical process—being ready for retirement.

Science Writer; Consultant; Lecturer, Copenhagen; Author, The Generous Man

“But then this concept is rooted in the notion that human beings (and animals) are really dominated by selfishness and egoism so that you need a concept to explain why they sometimes behave unselfish and kind to others.

“But the reality is different: Humans are deeply bound to other humans and most actions are really reciprocal and in the interest of both parties (or, in he case of hatred, in the disinterest of both). The starting point is neither selfishness nor altruism, but the state of being bound together. It is an illusion to believe that you can be happy when no one else is. Or that other people will not be affected by your unhappiness.

“Behavioral science and neurobiology has shown how intimately we are bound: Phenomena like mimicry, emotional contagion, empathy, sympathy, compassion and prosocial behavior are evident in humans and animals. We are influenced by the well-being of others in more ways than we normally care to think of. Therefore a simple rules applies: Everyone feels better when you are well. Your feel better when everyone is well.

“This correlated state is the real one. The ideas of egoism and hence its opposite concept altruism are second-order concepts, shadows or even illusions.”

Assistant Professor and Canada Research Chair in Developmental Psychology, University of British Columbia
Moral Blank State-ism

“Again, experience matters. Several studies have now documented that experience may influence moral outcomes via a “gene-environment interaction.” That is, rather than a simple equation in which, say, adverse experiences lead to antisocial children: [child + abuse – ameliorating experiences = violence], the relationship between abuse and antisocial behavior is only observed in children with particular versions of various genes known to regulate certain social hormones. That is, whether they have been abused or not, children with the “safe” gene alleles are all about equally (un)likely to engage in antisocial behavior. Children with the “at risk” alleles, on the other hand, are more susceptible to the damages of abuse.”

Associate Professor of Psychology, Director, NYU Infant Cognition and Communication Lab, New York University
Natural Selection is the Only Engine of Evolution

“These findings fit in a relatively new field of study called epigenetics. Epigenetic control of gene expression contributes to cells in a single organism (which share the same DNA sequence) developing differently into e.g. heart cells or neurons. But the last decade has shown actual evidence–and possible mechanisms–for how the environment and the organism’s behavior in it might cause heritable changes in gene expression (with no change in the DNA sequence) that are passed onto offspring. In recent years, we have seen evidence of epigenetic inheritance across a wide range of morphological, metabolic, and even behavioral traits.

“The intergenerational transmission of acquired traits is making a comeback as a potential mechanism of evolution. It also opens up the interesting possibility that better diet, exercise, and education which we thought couldn’t affect the next generation–except with luck through good example–actually could.”

Philosopher; Director, Scientific Vortex, Inc
Crime is Only About The Actions Of Individuals

“Despite the significant role of these “gray” actors, social scientists interested in analyzing crime usually focus their attention only on criminal individuals and criminal actions. Those scientists usually study crime through qualitative and quantitative data that informs only of those “dark” elements, while omitting the fact that transnational and domestic crime is carried out by various types of actors who don’t interact solely through criminal actions. This is a hyper-simplified approach—a caricature—because those “dark” elements are only the tip of the iceberg regarding global crime.

“This simplified approach also assumes that society is a digital and binary system in which the “good” and the “bad” guys—the “us” and “them”—are perfectly distinguishable. This distinction is useful in penal terms when simple algorithms—”if individual X executes the action Y, then X is criminal”—orient the decision of judges delivering final sentences. However, in sociological, anthropological, and psychological terms, this line is more difficult to define. If society is a digital system, it is certainly not a binary one.”

Psychologist, Autism Research Centre, Cambridge University; Author, The Science of Evil
Radical Behaviorism

“My scientific reason for arguing for Radical Behaviorism should be retired is not to revisit the now stale nature-nurture debate (all reasonable scientists recognize an organism’s behavior is the result of an interaction of these), but rather because Radical Behaviorism is scientifically uninformative. Behavior by definition is the surface level, so it follows that the same piece of behavior could be the result of different underlying cognitive strategies, different underlying neural systems, and even different underlying causal pathways. Two individuals can show the same behavior but can have arrived at it through very different underlying causal routes. Think of a native speaker of English vs. someone who has acquired total fluency of English as a second language; or think of a person who is charmingly polite because they are genuinely considerate to others, vs. a psychopath who has learnt how to flawlessly perform being charmingly polite. Identical behavior, produced via different routes. Without reference to underlying cognition, neural activity, and causal mechanisms, behavior is scientifically uninformative.”

Information Scientist and Professor of Electrical Engineering and Law, the University of Southern California; Author, Noise
Statistical Independence

“The world is massively interconnected through causal chains. Gravity alone causally connects all objects with mass. The world is even more massively correlated with itself. It is a truism that statistical correlation does not imply causality. But it is a mathematical fact that statistical independence implies no correlation at all. None. Yet events routinely correlate with one another. The whole focus of most big-data algorithms is to uncover just such correlations in ever larger data sets.

“Statistical independence also underlies most modern statistical sampling techniques. It is often part of the very definition of a random sample. It underlies the old-school confidence intervals used in political polls and in some medical studies. It even underlies the distribution-free bootstraps or simulated data sets that increasingly replace those old-school techniques.”

Distinguished Professor of Philosophy & Cognitive Science, Rutgers University
“Our” Intuitions

“About a decade ago, this question led a group of philosophers, along with sympathetic colleagues in psychology and anthropology, to stop assuming that their intuitions were widely shared and design studies to see if they really are. In study after study, it turned out that philosophical intuitions do indeed vary with culture and other demographic variables. A great deal more work will be needed before we have definitive answers about which philosophical intuitions vary, and which, if any, are universal.”

Physicist, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

“You probably already knew that naïve reductionism is often too simplistic. However, there is another point. It’s not just that you are composite, something you already knew, but you are in some senses not even human. You have perhaps a hundred trillion bacterial cells in your body, numbering ten times more than your human cells, and containing a hundred times as many genes as your human cells. These bacteria are not just passive occupants of the zoo that is you. They self-organize into communities within your mouth, guts and elsewhere; and these communities—microbiomes—are maintained by varied, dynamic patterns of competition and cooperation between the different bacteria, which allow us to live.

“In the last few years, genomics has given us a tool to explore the microbiome by identifying microbes by their DNA sequences. The story that is emerging from these studies is not yet complete but already has led to fascinating insights. Thanks to its microbes, a baby can better digest its mother’s milk. And your ability to digest carbohydrates relies to a significant extent on enzymes that can only be made from genes not present in you, but in your microbiome. Your microbiome can be disrupted, for example due to treatment by antibiotics, and in extreme cases can be invaded by dangerous monocultures, such as Clostridium difficile, leading to your death. Perhaps the most remarkable finding is the gut-brain axis: your gastrointestinal microbiome can generate small molecules that may be able to pass through the blood-brain barrier and affect the state of your brain: although the precise mechanism is not yet clear, there is growing evidence that your microbiome may be a significant factor in mental states such as depression and autism spectrum conditions. In short, you may be a collective property arising from the close interactions of your constitutents.”

Physician and Social Scientist, Yale University; Coauthor, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives
The Average

“Yes, we can reliably say that men are taller than women, on average; that Norwegians are richer than Swedes; that first-born children are smarter than second-born children. And we can do experiments to detect tiny differences in means—between groups exposed and unexposed to a virus, or between groups with and without a particular allele of a gene. But this is too simple and too narrow a view of the natural world.

“Our focus on averages should be retired. Or, if not retired, we should give averages an extended vacation. During this vacation, we should catch up on another sort of difference between groups that has gotten short shrift: we should focus on comparing the difference in variance (which captures the spread or range of measured values) between groups.”

Physicist, Computer Scientist, Chairman of Applied Minds, Inc.; author, The Pattern on the Stone
Cause and Effect

“Unfortunately, the cause-and-effect paradigm does not just fail at the quantum scale. It also falls apart when we try to use causation to explain complex dynamical systems like the biochemical pathways of a living organism, the transactions of an economy, or the operation of the human mind. These systems all have patterns of information flow that defy our tools of storytelling. A gene does not “cause” the trait like height, or a disease like cancer. The stock market did not go up “because” the bond market went down. These are just our feeble attempts to force a storytelling framework onto systems that do not work like stories. For such complex systems, science will need more powerful explanatory tools, and we will learn to accept the limits of our old methods of storytelling. We will come to appreciate that causes and effects do not exist in nature, that they are just convenient creations of our own minds.”

Journalist; Editor, Nova 24, of Il Sole 24 Ore
The Tragedy Of The Commons

“Ostrom’s factual approach to the commons came with very good theory, too. Preconditions to the commons’ sustainability were, in Ostrom’s idea: clarity of the law, methods of collective and democratic decision-making, local and public mechanisms of conflict resolution, no conflicts with different layers of government. These preconditions do exist in many historically proven situations and there is no tragedy there. Cultures that understand the commons are contexts that make a sustainable behaviour absolutely rational.”

Anthropologist, National Center for Scientific Research, Paris; Author, Talking to the Enemy

“There is a long history of acrimonious debate over which, if any, aspects of IQ are heritable. The most compelling studies concern twins raised apart and adoptions. Twin studies rarely have large sample populations. Moreover, they often involve twins separated at birth because a parent dies or cannot afford to support both, and one is given over to be raised by relatives, friends or neighbors. This disallows ruling out the effects of social environment and upbringing in producing convergence among the twins. The chief problem with adoption studies is that the mere fact of adoption reliably increases IQ, regardless of any correlation between the IQs of the children and those of their biological parents. Nobody has the slightest causal account of how or why genes, singly or in combination, might affect IQ. I don’t think it’s because the problem is too hard, but because IQ is a specious rather natural kind.”

University Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Northeastern University; Research Scientist and Neuroscientist, Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School
Essentialist Views of the Mind

“Ridding science of essentialism is easier said than done. Consider the simplicity of this essentialist statement from the past: “Gene X causes cancer.” It sounds plausible and takes little effort to understand. Compare this to a more recent explanation: “A given individual in a given situation, who interprets that situation as stressful, may experience a change in his sympathetic nervous system that encourages certain genes to be expressed, making him vulnerable to cancer.” The latter explanation is more complicated, but more realistic. Most natural phenomena do not have a single root cause. Sciences that are still steeped in essentialism need a better model of cause and effect, new experimental methods, and new statistical procedures to counter essentialist thinking.

“This discussion is more than a bunch of metaphysical musings. Adherence to essentialism has serious, practical impacts on national security, the legal system, treatment of mental illness, the toxic effects of stress on physical illness… the list goes on. Essentialism leads to simplistic “single cause” thinking when the world is a complex place. Research suggests that children are born essentialists (what irony!) and must learn to overcome it. It’s time for all scientists to overcome it as well.”

Psychologist; Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations, Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University
Humans Are By Nature Social Animals

“At the same time, the concept of humans as “social by nature” has lent credibility to numerous significant ideas: that humans need other humans to survive, that humans tend to be perpetually ready for social interaction, and that studying specifically the social features of human functioning is profoundly important. ”

Professor of Psychology, University of Michigan; Author, Intelligence and How We Get It
Multiple Regression as a Means of Discovering Causality

“Multiple regression, like all statistical techniques based on correlation, has a severe limitation due to the fact that correlation doesn’t prove causation. And no amount of measuring of “control” variables can untangle the web of causality. What nature hath joined together, multiple regression cannot put asunder. ”

Evolutionary Biologist; Emeritus Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, Oxford; Author, The Greatest Show on Earth, The Magic of Reality

“Essentialism rears its ugly head in racial terminology. The majority of “African Americans” are of mixed race. Yet so entrenched is our essentialist mind-set, American official forms require everyone to tick one race/ethnicity box or another: no room for intermediates. A different but also pernicious point is that a person will be called “African American” even if only, say, one of his eight great grandparents was of African descent. As Lionel Tiger put it to me, we have here a reprehensible “contamination metaphor.” But I mainly want to call attention to our society’s essentialist determination to dragoon a person into one discrete category or another. We seem ill-equipped to deal mentally with a continuous spectrum of intermediates. We are still infected with the plague of Plato’s essentialism.”

Professor of Genomics, The Scripps Research Institute; Author, The Creative Destruction of Medicine
One Genome Per Individual

“But we still don’t know if this is merely of academic interest or has important disease-inducing impact. For sure the mosaicism that occurs later in life, in “terminally differentiated” cells, is known to be important in the development of cancer. And the mosaicism of immune cells, particularly lymphocytes, appears to be part of a healthy, competent immune system. Beyond this, it largely remains unclear as to the functional significance of each of us carrying multiple genomes.

“The implications are potentially big. When we do use a blood sample to evaluate a person’s genome, we have no clue about the potential mosaicism that exists throughout the individual’s body. So a lot more work needs to be done to sort this out, and now that we have the technology to do it, we’ll undoubtedly better understand our remarkable heterogeneous genomic selves in the years ahead.”

Managing Director, Digital Science, Macmillan Science & Education; Former Publishing Director,; Co-Organizer, Sci Foo
Nature Versus Nurture

“Inheritability is not the inverse of mutability, and to say that the heritability of a trait is high is not to say that the environment has no effect because heritability scores are themselves affected by the environment. Take the case of height. In the rich world, the heritability of height is something like 80 per cent. But this is only because our nutrition is universally quite good. In places where malnutrition or starvation are common, environmental factors predominate and the heritability of height is much lower.”

Psychologist, UC, Berkeley; Author, The Philosophical Baby

“All three of these scientific developments suggest that almost everything we do is not just the result of the interaction of nature and nurture, it is both simultaneously. Nurture is our nature and learning and culture are our most important and distinctive evolutionary inheritance.”

Johnstone Family Professor, Department of Psychology; Harvard University; Author, The Better Angels of Our Nature
Behavior = Genes + Environment

“Even the technical sense of “environment” used in quantitative behavioral genetics is perversely confusing. Now, there is nothing wrong with partitioning phenotypic variance into components that correlate with genetic variation (heritability) and with variation among families (“shared environment”). The problem comes from the so-called “nonshared” or “unique environmental influences.” This consists of all the variance that is attributable neither to genetic nor familiar variation. In most studies, it’s calculated as 1 – (heritability + shared environment). Practically, you can think of it as the differences between identical twins who grow up in the same home. They share their genes, parents, older and younger siblings, home, school, peers, and neighborhood. So what could make them different? Under the assumption that behavior is a product of genes plus environment, it must be something in the environment of one that is not in the environment of the other.

“But this category really should be called “miscellaneous/unknown,” because it has nothing necessarily to do with any measurable aspect of the environment, such as one sibling getting the top bunk bed and the other the bottom, or a parent unpredictably favoring one child, or one sibling getting chased by a dog, coming down with a virus, or being favored by a teacher. These influences are purely conjectural, and studies looking for them have failed to find them. The alternative is that this component actually consists of the effects of chance – new mutations, quirky prenatal effects, noise in brain development, and events in life with unpredictable effects.”

Publisher, Skeptic magazine; monthly columnist, Scientific American; Author, The Believing Brain

“So it has been and will continue to be with other forms of the hard-wired=permanent idea, such as violence. We may be hard-wired for violence, but we can attenuate it considerably through scientifically tested methods. Thus, for my test case here, I predict that in another 500 years the God-theory of causality will have fallen into disuse, and the 21st-century scientific theory that God is hardwired into our brains as a permanent feature of our species will be retired.”

Political Scientist, University Professor, University of Washington & University of Sydney
Homo Economicus

“The reliance on homo economicus as the basis of human motivation has given rise to a grand body of theory and research over the past two hundred years. As an underlying assumption, it has generated some of the best work in economics. As a foil, it has generated findings about cognitive limitations, the role of social interactions, and ethically based motivations. The power of the concept of homo economicus was once great, but its power has now waned, to be succeeded by new and better paradigms and approaches grounded in more realistic and scientific understandings of the sources of human action.”