Category: Mammoth Reads

Mammoth Reads: Scratching the Surface of Free Will (Determino-compatibo-dualism?)

I was going to write a whole post about my take on free will... but why? I will say nothing that hasn't been said before in much more worthy fashion by people with philosophical and scientific qualifications that can't be garnered simply by idly perusing RSS feeds on Saturday afternoon in one's underwear. So I'm just going to give you a list of articles and essays I've read over the past few months that, I think, adequately parse different aspects of the free will debate. (I first heard about Benjamin Libet's experiments—just Google him, you'll find them—a few years ago, where that seed languished more or less undeveloped until recently.)

Two things before the list:

  1. Based on the current extent of my reading, I fall into the determinist camp these days, and I don't believe that, given the same conditions, we can choose other than we do.  Even if, as some have posited, random events complicate this statement, I don't see where freedom or control exist in indeterminacy.  Either way, we're beholden to events of which we have little or no knowledge.
  2. I am now retroactively mildly embarrassed by some of my previous comments on inhibition, originally written in response to a post by Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias regarding culpability in sleep rape. My suspicion of the punitive instinct stands, as does my reluctance to equate waking and sleep states, but my current thinking on free will demands that I revise my insistence on an agent's having a choice to prevent or allow an action to take place once that person becomes aware of his/her behavior. Though so-called "free won't" isn't an entirely unhelpful concept, I'm backpedaling now on my insinuation that inhibition is a controlled reaction (duh). In my post I cited an article entitled "Do Conscious Thoughts Cause Behavior?", of which I only ever read about half, maybe a bit less, before deciding I understood Baumeister's point (read: tired of it). Conscious thoughts may have a role in decision-making, but they are determined as well—even if consciousness itself is astoundingly complex—and the experience of awareness is merely a byproduct of brain functions that we for the most part do not perceive. However, the review article does point to and attempt to counter Thomas Huxley's steam whistle hypothesis and, in so doing, perhaps unwittingly provides what I think is actually a pretty splendid shorthand for how consciousness probably works.  I provide, with caveats mostly irrelevant to this already overly long list item,  Baumeister's explanation of Huxley's analogy: "It [the steam whistle hypothesis] says conscious thought resembles the steam whistle on a train locomotive: it derives from and reveals something about activity inside the engine, but it has no causal impact on moving the train." There is a larger discussion to be had about the proper role of punishment in light of an increasingly nuanced understanding of consciousness, but I thought it important (for me, at least) to outline where I feel I erred in my original criticism of Hanson.

Ok. The list that follows is presented in whatever order will strike me as appropriate during the following minutes, suffice to say the first two are my favorites.

James B. Miles. 'Irresponsible and a Disservice': The integrity of social psychology turns on the free will dilemma. British Journal of Social Psychology.
Miles criticizes the view that knowledge of a lack of free will would send society into an amoral/immoral tailspin and that people would, by definition, become selfish cretins.  Largely a criticism of social psychology and its relationship with free will (as Miles puts it, philosophical libertarianism, which is distinct from the political philosophy of the same name), this paper also provides a nice summary of determinismcompatibalism, and libertarianism, essential concepts to understand in order to appreciate the debate.

Sam Harris. Free Will. Simon and Schuster.
In what is, besides Miles's paper, my favorite piece of the bunch, Harris publishes what he claims will be his "final word" on his opinions regarding free will. This is a highly digestible essay that tackles a number of issues, from culpability to legal implications and personal understanding. (If free will were truly an illusion, we'd have to accept, as Harris says, that psychopaths were simply unlucky to have been born as they were.  Thus, hatred could not be warranted, nor could cruel punishment.  Presumably we would do what is necessary to protect society from murders, rapists, etc., and forego the revenge instinct, which is a programmed survival reaction but one that is not coherent once we take agency out of the equation.)

If you don't ever read this piece, do one thing that he suggests therein: sit down one day and simply pay attention to how your thought process operates. Thoughts just pop in there, to cop a Ray Stanz line from Ghostbusters. How could they do anything but?

(UPDATE: 4/14/2012)
Joshue Greene, Jonathan Cohen. For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.
Unfortunately, I read Greene and Cohen's article after writing this post, and it may be, as far as the practical implications of a modified conception of free will are concerned, the most interesting one on the list.  Drawing a distinction between consequentalist and retributivist compunctions, the authors argue for the former as a progressive, scientifically justified view of punishment rather than the revenge-driven legal system that seeks to wring remorse out of the prisoner, or right some cosmic moral scale.  The law's default disposition, compatibalism, will be challenged as advances in neuroscience make the causal chains that lead to decision-making more apparent; with this advance knowledge, a system aimed at punishment, rather than prevention, will seem untenable.

Their basic position may be summarized thus:

Existing legal principles make virtually no assumptions about the neural bases of criminal behaviour, and as a result they can comfortably assimilate new neuroscience without much in the way of conceptual upheaval: new details, new sources of evidence, but nothing for which the law is fundamentally unprepared. We maintain, however, that our operative
legal principles exist because they more or less adequately capture an intuitive sense of justice. In our view, neuroscience will challenge and ultimately reshape our intuitive sense(s) of justice. New neuroscience will affect the
way we view the law, not by furnishing us with new ideas or arguments about the nature of human action, but by breathing new life into old ones. Cognitive neuroscience, by identifying the specific mechanisms responsible for behaviour, will vividly illustrate what until now could only be appreciated through esoteric theorizing: that there is something fishy about our ordinary conceptions of human action and responsibility, and that, as a result, the legal principles we have devised to reflect these conceptions may be flawed.

Green and Cohen's distinction between what law wants (retribution) and what people will want (compassion, or consequentalism) largely drives their assumption that certain types of large-scale change will be unavoidable, and warranted. However, they remain of the opinion that law has been molded in such a way that it may incorporate these new findings, as well a shift in philosophy, without requiring an entirely new framework. Rather, the mechanisms of the system may simply be applied in a manner accordant with an understanding of free will and culpability informed by the latest science.  Libertarianism is out, and soon, compatibalism will be, too, they say.

For fans of thought experiments, the Boys from Brazil problem is an absolute must. Are we really so different than Mr. Puppet?

Massimo Pigliucci. The Incoherence of Free Will. Psychology Today.
I haven't included any writing by Daniel Dennett, a prominent determinist, because I haven't read any yet. But both Pigliucci and Harris mention his concept of a "free will worth having," an explanation that Pigliucci summarizes as follows:

What all of this seems to suggest is that the undeniable feeling of "free will" that we have is actually the result of our conscious awareness of the fact that we make decisions, and that we could have — given other internal (i.e., genetic, developmental) and external (i.e., environmental, cultural) circumstances — decided otherwise in any given instance. That’s what Dennett called a type of free will that is “worth having,” and I consider it good enough for this particular non-dualist, non-mystically inclined human being.

Whereas Pigliucci likes this explanation, Harris, in Free Will, accuses Dennett of "changing the subject." Regardless of this disagreement (in which, for the record, I side with Harris at the moment), Pigliucci does a nice job of tearing down dualist notions of free will and summarizing reservations many people tend to have when they are forced to consider that they may not have control over their actions in ways they previously may have assumed.

Kerri Smith. Neuroscience vs philosophy: Taking aim at free will. Nature News.
This is a traditional news piece over at Nature News that describes the respectively different treatments free will receives from scientists and philosophers. Most neuroscientists, the article states, are content to attack dualist notions of free will without considering the more robust philosophical debate that surrounds the issue. Philosophers, however, must explain how freedom to choose otherwise might exist in a causal physical system such as the one in which we, and our brains, exist. One of the large issues has been a lack of consensus regarding a working definition of free will from which further research and rationalization can proceed. For any of you interested in Libet's research, as well as recent studies that confirm and build upon knowledge of unconscious decision-making, the article cites and summarizes a few references. I've only read summaries myself, and I'm not sure full-text is widely accessible.

Björn Brembs. Towards a scientific concept of free will as a biological trait: spontaneous actions and decision-making in invertebrates. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.
Of all the pieces included in this list, I am farthest removed from having read this one.  I have to go back through my highlighted PDF to refresh my memory, but Brembs, in searching for a different scientific understanding of free will, rejects both the dualist and determinist approaches.  Instead, he conjures quantum indeterminacy:

That said, it is an all too common misconception that the failure of dualism as a valid hypothesis automatically entails that brains are deterministic and all our actions are direct consequences of gene–environment interactions, maybe with some random stochasticity added in here and there for good measure [2]. It is tempting to speculate that most, if not all, scholars declaring free will an illusion share this concept. However, our world is not deterministic, not even the macroscopic world. Quantum mechanics provides objective chance as a trace element of reality. In a very clear description of how keenly aware physicists are that Heisenberg's uncertainty principle indeed describes a property of our world rather than a failure of scientists to accurately measure it, Stephen Hawking has postulated that black holes emit the radiation named after him [11], a phenomenon based on the well-known formation of virtual particle–antiparticle pairs in the vacuum of space. The process thought to underlie Hawking radiation has recently been observed in a laboratory analogue of the event horizon [12,13]. On the ‘mesoscopic’ scale, fullerenes have famously shown interference in a double-slit experiment [14]. Quantum effects have repeatedly been observed directly on the nano-scale [15,16], and superconductivity (e.g. [17]) or Bose–Einstein condensates (e.g. [18]) are well-known phenomena. Quantum events such as radioactive decay or uncertainty in the photoelectric effect are used to create random-number generators for cryptography that cannot be broken into. Thus, quantum effects are being observed also on the macroscopic scale. Therefore, determinism can be rejected with at least as much empirical evidence and intellectual rigor as the metaphysical account of free will. ‘The universe has an irreducibly random character. If it is a clockwork, its cogs, springs, and levers are not Swiss-made; they do not follow a predetermined path. Physical indeterminism rules in the world of the very small as well as in the world of the very large’ [9].

Brembs studies invertebrates, and in this paper he is most concerned with concocting working models of behavioral variability. Quantum mechanics is often used to obscure dishonest claims, to shield them behind the shroud of mystery the indeterminate world underlying our existence provides, but Brembs doesn't seem to be invoking it in such a way. Citing some interesting studies with fruit flies and leeches, he illustrates cases of seemingly spontaneous decision-making and behavioral variability in invertebrates exposed to controlled constant stimuli. It could be said, of course, that each action affects subsequent actions deterministically regardless of the constancy of the stimulus, but I'm already out of my ken with this entire post.

I highly recommend Brembs's paper.

Eddy Nahmias. Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will? The New York Times.
This article doesn't impress me much, as Nahmias seems more concerned with rhetorical gymnastics geared toward discussing an alternative definition of free will than he is dealing honestly with the gruesome holes neuroscience is poking in the formulation most people probably consider when the term is used: that we are autonomous agents able to choose between one or more outcomes and that, given the chance, we could choose otherwise.  (In other words, most people would probably concede that our actions are in some way affected by the physical characteristics of our brains, but unprompted, my guess is that most of those people would also likely assert that they are able to control the trajectory of resultant actions once conscious awareness sets in.)

Nahmias instead posits the following definition, which sounds a bit like Dennett's:

These discoveries about how our brains work can also explain how free will works rather than explaining it away. But first, we need to define free will in a more reasonable and useful way. Many philosophers, including me, understand free will as a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires. We act of our own free will to the extent that we have the opportunity to exercise these capacities, without unreasonable external or internal pressure. We are responsible for our actions roughly to the extent that we possess these capacities and we have opportunities to exercise them.

But what Nahmias seems to have described is consciousness, not free will. For him, free will represents the opportunity to perceive and experience the various facets of consciousness, including the prepackaged illusions with which it shipped, free from coercion.  To me, it sounds like we're now talking about something else altogether. But, read it for reference, if you'd like.

SHOWDOWN: Pigliucci v. Coyne
The following three articles represent a public discussion (argument) between Massimo Pigliucci and Jerry Coyne, in which Pigliucci takes a compatibalist tack while Coyne defends from the determinist's corner.  (Actually, Coyne started it with an op-ed for USA Today.)  Coyne tends to rub some people the wrong way, even those who might otherwise agree with him, as he's often both quick and a bit fervent on the draw.  Still, I think any notion of free will must describe how that will circumvents or changes the outcome of physical events, for it seems any will beholden to physical laws as we understand them would exist within the broth of causal relationships that surround it, however obscured by complexity those relationships might be.  At any rate, I'll preempt the list of articles with the observations of a commenter on Jerry Coyne's second piece, Ron Murphy:

Given that there is no evidence yet of anything that might be considered non-physical then the null hypothesis is that everything does follow physical laws. We are looking for exceptions. On this basis the dualist notion of free-will is the alternative hypothesis, and that it does not exist is the null hypothesis.

That free-willies think that theirs should be the null hypothesis is based only on their ‘feeling’, the historical and personal notion that we have free-will. But ‘feeling’ that something is the case doesn’t cut it as sufficient evidence, or reason, to think that it should form the basis of the null hypothesis.

Whether it is traditional dualist free-will (or soul), or even this other form of free-will that is supposed to be non-dualist and yet has no concrete explanation, they are both alternative hypotheses awaiting even a good definition let alone the possibility of falsification.

The illusory nature of free-will is simply the common sense view derived from all we know about the universe so far. That some of us don’t like it, and even that all of us appear to act as if we have free-will, is no support for that alternative hypothesis, whichever way it is framed.

So now that I've attempted to prime you in favor of Coyne—oh, how dastardly of me—the respective parries and thrusts:


My Dubious and Tenuous Conclusions (*grain of salt not included)
As I said, I'm siding with the determinists for the time being, with no less wonder than I've ever had in this weak heart, with no less awe in this shackled mind. I will caution those who may be tempted to view a deterministic world as one in which actions mean nothing to differentiate determinism from fatalism (Harris makes this important distinction in Free Will). Were we all to stop acting, the world would be an unrecognizable place. A lack of free will, in the magical terms it has most often been described, is no cause for despair. After all, you have no choice but to live the illusion. And should free will one day be unequivocally proven to be such an illusion, you would not find yourself in a different plight than that of all prior generations. You would simply be better acquainted with your nature.

Personally, I find the concept "freeing" in a certain sense: my actions, good, bad, or indifferent, occur due to factors beyond my control, and in recognizing this I can "choose" to bend my "will" toward changing those actions and characteristics I don't like. I can show more compassion to others and deal better with their faults and shortcomings, knowing that I too am in the same boat. The instinct to tune out and give up does not, to me, hold much appeal. I feel, for whatever reason, that a path to self-improvement is more evident, which is not any sort of proof; it's just the manner in which I've come to view the matter. Some will view it otherwise.  But as you've no doubt noticed, our language is currently unequipped to deal with the implications of such a shift in thinking: I was unable to write this paragraph without the insinuation of agency and choice—a fact that may, admittedly, say more about my prowess as a writer than anything else. I have slipped, as I often do, into incoherence.

There is simply no escaping the storm and, as always, much more reading to be done.

Mammoth Reads: The Death Penalty

Lethal Injection Chamber*

The following list of articles skews toward the anti-death-penalty persuasion, and does not hit every cogent point, pro or con, regarding capital punishment. How could it? But the furor over Troy Davis's execution the other day—as well as some back-and-forth with fellow Sloth Jockey blogger Vinnie Bergl—has the topic fresh in my head. I don't know whether Troy Davis was innocent or guilty; I don't know whether doubt over his innocence or guilt was a false impression given by the media. For purposes of the following post, and the questions it asks, Troy Davis's specific case doesn't really inform the greater question: is the death penalty ever justified in a civilized society?

I'm against capital punishment for what some might consider a simplistic reason: that, when doling out an absolute punishment, one innocent killed at the hands of the state is one too many. I'm also sympathetic to skepticism over revenge, and my loose understanding of the greater effectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent is that it doesn't work. To me, the death penalty is a difficult institution to defend, even if I probably wouldn't lose too much sleep over the execution of a mass murderer or serial killer.

Consider the following:

Why Does the United States Love the Death Penalty?

In this piece for Lapham's Quarterly Christopher Hitchens considers why the United States is the last country within its so-called peer group to maintain the death penalty:

To be in the company of Iran and China and Sudan as a leader among states conducting execution—and to have pioneered the medicalized or euthanized form of it that is now added to the panoply of gassing, hanging, shooting, and electrocution and known as “lethal injection”—is to have invited the question why. Why is the United States so wedded to the infliction of the death penalty? I have heard a number of suggested answers: two in particular have some superficial plausibility. The first is an old connection between executions and racism, and the second is the relatively short distance in time that separates the modern U.S. from the days of frontier justice.


The reason why the United States is alone among comparable countries in its commitment to doing this is that it is the most religious of those countries. (Take away only China, which is run by a very nervous oligarchy, and the remaining death-penalty states in the world will generally be noticeable as theocratic ones.)

There are a couple of good paragraphs omitted from this excerpt in order to tie the thought together. Later in the article, Hitchens also considers the Nuremberg trials and the hanging of Saddam Hussein—executions that bookended larger cultural/political movements and could not be considered standard application of capital punishment—bringing, as he almost always does, an interesting perspective to the issue, wondering where we might draw the line were we the surviving victims.

Will Wilkinson on Morality and State-Sanctioned Killing

Wilkinson has three posts on this list because capital punishment seems to be an issue about which he feels exceptionally strongly. Apart from questions about its effectiveness, both in the court system as well as in its place as a deterrent, Wilkinson questions the very root of the revenge impulse that leads to capital punishment, arguing that it has no place in modern society.

"Plush and Unusual Punishment"
This post was written after Anders Breivik went on his sick rampage in Norway. Many people in America were screaming for his blood, while Norwegians seemed to be coming to grips with the sheer gravity of the event, their Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, civil and calm and reflective in the aftermath of the tragedy.

Some news outlets got wind that Norway's maximum sentence was only 21 years (though it carries the potential for extension) and were understandably miffed. Furthermore, we also discovered that Norway's prisons are not the dungeons that American prisons are, a fact that did not sit well with retributionists.

Wilkinson considers these points, and while I'm not sure I am in total agreement with him on all points, including the following excerpt, I think he is genuinely concerned about humaneness and civility, two traits that are, I think, more important than the capacity for retribution:

Nothing can be done to bring Mr Breivik's victims back to life. The most compelling, non-mystical case for vengeance is that it offers some consolation to those wracked by desolation and fury at the murder of their loved one. But the point of a criminal justice system in a civilised society is not the mental peace of those collaterally wounded by crime. All evidence supports the proposition that Norway's criminal justice system is both practically and morally superior to America's. If America's abominably cruel and unjust system delivered results even remotely comparable to Norway's enviable level of civil peace and order, then there might be some reason to take seriously American animadversions against Norway's short sentences and humane prison. But we don't. We're not even close. So Americans should just shut up and watch. It could do us some good to see how a civilised society handles such a horrifying crime.

(Vinnie originally cited this quote, and I remember arguing that I didn't know why our court system should necessarily ignore the mental peace of the bereaved. I think my argument ran along that lines that we should consider whose rights we prioritize: victims' or perpetrators'. That supposes we cannot consider both, and I'm not sure I'd defend my original comments all that fervently at this point.)

"The Killing of Troy Davis"
Wilkinson on the difference between justice and revenge:

Now, I don't know how to convince you that even especially heinous murderers don't deserve to suffer the same fate they meted out. I suppose I would start by distinguishing justice from vengeance. I would observe that there is no pervasive ethereal moral substance that must be kept in some sort of cosmic balance lest society devolve into chaos. We may feel deeply, in our marrow, in our prickling indignant skin, that the yin of crime calls out for the yang of punishment. But I would warn against putting much trust our retributive instincts. I would suggest that civilization demands setting these feelings aside, that it requires that we ask ourselves in a cool hour the point of criminal justice.

As an atheist I find the moral claim of this statement—essentially that no cosmic balance exists to be righted—persuasive, and I think we do need to be careful when our instincts to exact revenge hew to such lines of thinking. However, overcoming the sense of violation and, for lack of a better term, evil that most decent humans feel at the thought of murder is a tall order, especially if we consider that animals, humans included, are likely programmed to retaliate.

Our baser instincts should not govern our policy, and while I'm a bit torn on the absolute question of the death penalty, I think its continued existence mandates that we use it sparingly—that is to say, almost never. Rationality and civility are best served when we can prevent certain atavistic impulses, like those Wilkinson deems objectionable in his post, from finding purchase.

"Moral Progress and Arguments Against the Death Penalty" 
I'm including this one for a few interesting graphs that Wilkinson includes which show the decline, over time, of capital punishment in Europe, of execution rates in the United States, and of executions in the United States for crimes other than homicide.

Wilkinson equates these declines, speculatively, as effects of a society that is growing more "moral". Now, to make this assumption, or to agree with Wilkinson's suggestion, we have to assume a moral position that supports the notion of killing as wrong, whether it comes at the hands of an individual or the state. If you don't subscribe to to this philosophy, you will see a number of problems with the assumptions contained in the article.

I'm not certain that a decline in death penalty rates is necessarily indicative of a society that is making moral progress; I could imagine other reasons for such declines. Our society, however, does appear to be growing more inclusive, more accepting of moral ambiguity in general (i.e. non-dualistic thinking), and more capable of considering alternatives to current paradigms (I'm not implicitly nodding to any ideological movements here, by the way).

Are these shifts in perspective and others like them indicators of enhanced intelligence and morality?

Our Angels Aren't Smart Enough

Jason Brennan on Bleeding Heart Libertarians:

Even if we grant for the sake of argument that some people deserve to die, it does not follow that the state may be authorized to kill them. For a state to have the right to kill criminals, it must make decisions about guilt and hear appeals in a fair, competent, and reliable manner. It must have rules that reliably let the innocent–or those whose guilt is reasonably in doubt–go free. The American criminal justice system fails to meet these standards. Perhaps a government of smart angels should be granted the right to kill. We could debate that. But no state in America deserves any such right.

Wilkinson reproduces Brennan's post in its entirety in "Moral Progress and Arguments Againts the Death Penalty", and I've just done the same thing here because Brennan's bottom line essentially states my own.

The discussion that follows in the comments is an interesting one that I haven't been able to read in full just yet. However, I highly recommend taking a look at the discourse between the commenters and a couple of the BHL writers, a back-and-forth that prods at the notion of irreversibility and compensation for false imprisonment: For instance, is a person's spending twenty wrongful years in jail any more reversible than killing them? That twenty years is lost, and they can never be compensated for the time. (For the record, I don't think this notion disqualifies the anti-death-penalty position, nor do I think the distinction means we must do away with all punishment, as one commenter seems to; the comparison, however, is something we might want to think about in order to check our presumptions. But if we can compensate falsely imprisoned people at all, it stands to reason that we have a better chance to do so if they are alive than if they are dead, in which case we could not compensate them at all.)

Much of the grunt work on good blogs is now done in the comments section, by the way, and leafing through differing immediate perspectives can be useful.

The Death Penalty Digest

I just happened across the blog Just Above Sunset while looking for trackbacks to the Brennan piece.

Editor Alan takes the following Gandalf quote as a sort of thesis, or frame, for his article:

Many that live deserve death. And some die that deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice, fearing for your own safety. Even the wise cannot see all ends.

He provides a digest of some recent writings on the death penalty that cover a wider array of opinions than I've linked to in this post, and it's well worth the read, as he touches upon the contemporaneous (to Troy Davis's) execution of a white supremacist whose crimes are sure to spark disgust and an impulse for revenge—all in all, a much different kind of execution than one tinged by the specter of doubt, the perception of the specter of doubt, or any case in which a confirmed innocent was killed.


Obviously, we have a lot to think about relating to the death penalty. To read meaningful discussion and consider differing opinions is, I think, invaluable and utterly necessary, especially when considering challenges to our own humanity. In my introduction I stated that I wouldn't lose too much sleep over the execution of a mass murderer or serial killer, and while I still admit to feeling this way, I think the Gandalf quote is a fitting statement of caution in favor of humility and against self-righteousness, and a wise starting point from which to deal with the question of administering death.

I'm interested to hear any thoughts.

* Image courtesy of publik15 (image link) under a CC BY 2.0 license.

Mammoth Reads: Attraction, Death, Medicine, and Punctuation

Baby, You Can Drive My Car

Here's an interesting one:

The present study experimentally manipulated status by seating the same target model (male and female matched for attractiveness) expressing identical facial expressions and posture in either a ‘high status’ (Silver Bentley Continental GT) or a ‘neutral status’ (Red Ford Fiesta ST) motor-car… …Results showed that the male target model was rated as significantly more attractive on a rating scale of 1-10 when presented to female participants in the high compared to the neutral status context. Males were not influenced by status manipulation, as there was no significant difference between attractiveness ratings for the female seated in the high compared to the neutral condition.

On first glance, this doesn't seem all that surprising.  The evolutionary conjecture probably goes something like this:  Traditionally, males of the species are responsible for wooing their female counterparts by way of impressive feats, activities that showcase the male's ability to build a home, hunt prey, or exhibit brute strength; females therefore instinctively pick up on these sorts of success queues from men.  Males, on the other hand, choose their female targets based on the perception of fertility, normally showcased by the female via purely physical traits; males are therefore queued into females' physical characteristics rather than their possessions of status.  So a nice car wouldn't affect a male's perception of attractiveness, whereas it would a female's.

I can't promise my parsing is correct, mind you.  I'm sure an evolutionary biologist would have a thing or two  to say about it, my assessment of which is based on a non-trivial number of hours spent watching nature documentaries and some fairly light reading on the subject.

Putting 9/11 on the Backburner

Robin Hanson is pulling me in two directions again.

Here's the part of his recent post entitled "Forget 9/11" that I agree with:

Yet, to show solidarity with these three thousand victims, we have pissed away three trillion dollars ($1 billion per victim), and trashed long-standing legal principles...

Here's the part I don't:

...And now we’ll waste a day remembering them, instead of thinking seriously about how to save billions of others. I would rather we just forgot 9/11.

Do I sound insensitive? If so, good — 9/11 deaths were less than one part in a hundred thousand of deaths since then, and don’t deserve to be sensed much more than that fraction. If your feelings say otherwise, that just shows how full fricking far your mind has gone.

(Click the link in that excerpt, as you might not get the gist of that sentence unless you read Hanson's previous post on near vs. far thought modes.)

Hanson's anger regarding the disproportionate weight we put on native deaths is well taken.  That the World Trade Center bombing provided such potent imagery, seared into our brains by nearly constant coverage, does not help us look past all of the impotent memorializing ten years later.  I am still haunted by the image of people throwing themselves from the towers as flames devoured the upper floors, not because these people were Americans but because they were human beings.  Human loss is difficult to swallow, and it's worse to swallow when we see it close to home.  But we do disproportionately realize these sufferings:  Consider the 12 million people threatened by famine and sickness in Africa right now (4 million in Somalia alone), or the ongoing cholera outbreak in Haiti, or any of the other billions of people who live in  relative poverty, faced with the prospect of dying every single day.

What Hanson doesn't seem to appreciate in the context of his post, though I doubt the distinction is entirely lost on him, is the potential for 9/11 to remind us of our responsibilities to remember this greater scope of human suffering.  September 11 ended the naive dream many of us were living (my high-school self included) that saw us safe and secure and indefinitely prosperous, that acknowledged specters of violence like those we saw on the news in places like Lebanon and Israel as mere theoretical risks.  To forget the slide the WTC attacks precipitated, however, would be foolish.  Hanson himself mentions the wasted treasure and degradation of legal principles we witnessed; what makes him think forgetting all of this would somehow benefit us, I don't know.

Why forget and pretend that 9/11 was a blip on the radar?  Why not simply remember it as the complex story of pain, strength, political malfeasance, paranoia, and cultural shift that it is?  I can't imagine that Hanson fathoms death as the only salient metric by which to judge history.

The caveat, of course, is that 9/11 should not be used as an excuse to stagnate; unfortunately, these events, and the dead, have been used as political capital by pretty much everyone in Washington.  So, in that sense, we are not remembering 9/11 correctly or constructively; I'll give Hanson that, wholeheartedly.

Screening for Breast Cancer

The NEJM has an interesting piece on clinical guidelines for breast-cancer screening.  You may remember that the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recently changed the mammography recommendations for women in their forties, supporting a reduction in the number of scans, even while finding that regular scans reduced mortality in this demographic by 15%.

The author of the NEJM piece, Dr. Ellen Warner, has this to say:

How should one approach the question of screening mammography in a patient in her 40s, such as the woman described in the vignette? The decision should be individualized, with the recognition that the probability of a benefit is greater for women at higher risk. This patient has no major risk factors, such as a family history of breast cancer or a history of a premalignant lesion on biopsy, that would put her at even moderately increased risk. Her chance of having invasive breast cancer over the next 8 years is about 1 in 80, and her chance of dying from it is about 1 in 400. Mammographic screening every 2 years will detect two out of three cancers in women her age and will reduce her risk of death from breast cancer by 15%. However, there is about a 40% chance that she will be called back for further imaging tests and a 3% chance that she will undergo biopsy, with a benign finding. Lifestyle modifications (e.g., weight control and avoidance of excessive alcohol consumption) that might lower her risk should also be discussed.

Read the whole article for a discussion on the evidence regarding breast-cancer screening; it's a complex issue, and considering the backlash in response to the new recommendations, it's worth reading about the sorts of observations and evidence that go into producing clinical guidelines.

Oxford Comma Blues

I'm going to tell you this once:  use the Oxford comma.

Why?  Well, imagine we have a list of things which includes:

  • Merle Haggard's ex-wives
  • Kris Kristofferson
  • Robert Duvall

That list is taken from a newspaper article the linked-to Language Log blog cites as having incorrectly, or ambiguously, punctuated the listed items in a picture caption showing Merle Haggard.  In the context of that caption, the sentence can be written one of two ways, depending on which theory of serial commas you prefer:

  • Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.
  • Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson, and Robert Duvall.

Which do you think is correct?  If you guessed the second sentence, congratulations!  The first sentence clearly reads as if "Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall" is an appositive renaming "ex-wives", when clearly those two are separate items in the list.  The only way to punctuate this sentence without ambiguity is to include this final serial comma, the Oxford comma.

Some publications traditionally omit the final serial comma, and while most lists don't lend themselves to the sort of ambiguity seen above, there will be instances in which an Oxford comma is necessary to preserve the writer's intended meaning.  But because publishers like to be consistent, and because consistency, to a publisher with low regard for this type of punctuation, will mean including a list with the serial comma omitted, editors will likely ask for a rewrite and end up wasting a bit of time. The simple answer:  just use Oxford commas all the time.  You will never be wrong, and if you ever need to equate the final two items in a series for any reason—omitting the comma also insinuates that the final two items are more closely related  to one another than they are to the other items—you can always leave it out.  Stylistically, you'll have more leeway.

Click through to the Language Log post for another funny and improperly punctuated list.  I'll give you two of three items from that one:  "Nelson Mandela" and "dildo collector".

Mammoth Reads: Homeopathy, Philosophy, Monopoly

Water in the Pill

Pharmacist Scott Gavura reviews a paper titled "Against Homeopathy — A Utilitarian Perspective" from the journal Bioethics about when it might be ethical to use homeopathy in a clinical  setting.

Homeopathy is based on the "theory" that "like cures like."  In essence, find a substance that produces symptoms similar to those of a cold, and that substance should help to cure the cold itself.  Furthermore, homeopathy states that the more a substance is diluted in water the  more potent it becomes, which is, of course, bunk.  Claims like these (and those of many other homeopathic fantasies) fly in the face of everything we know about basic physics.  (Here is a search for "homeopathy" from Neurologica Blog; Steven Novella has done more writing on the topic than anyone else I know of, and his blogs are a terrific resource for anyone interested in the evolving fight to keep homeopathy and other dubious "alternative" medicine practices out of so-called mainstream medicine.)

To Gavura's point (and also Kevin Smith's, the author of the Bioethics article): the decision to use homeopathy in a clinical setting would be contingent upon no other feasible treatments being available.  A placebo would provide only the advantage of psychological comfort to the patient.

Neither Gavura nor Smith appear too convinced that prescribing a placebo in such a scenario would be ethical.  Neither am I; and Gavura provides a terrific outline of why placebos generally don't have a place in clinical treatment, tackling the ethical issues with more authority than I can pretend to.

As a patient, I don't want my doctor to deceive me with a fairy-tale medication, even if it means I have to grapple with an inconvenient truth.  Bottom line: a patient has the  right to provide informed consent.  One can only do so if they're provided with facts—not a vial of what's really nothing more than water.

...And Then Someone Asked "Why?"

I don't, frankly, have a whole lot to say about this one; I have been an outspoken, if somewhat intellectually lazy, critic of philosophy as a worthwhile endeavor, though I'll admit to using the term loosely, often referring more to the lame mental ejaculate that commonly passes for insight.

Katja Grace on the matter, from Meteuphoric:

...It matters whether the methods that were successful at providing insights in what were to become fields like psychology and astronomy—those which brought definite answers within reach—were methods presently included in philosophy. If they were not, then the fact that the word ‘philosophy’ has come to apply to a smaller set of methods which haven’t been successful does not particularly suggest that such methods will become successful in that way.

At any rate, the utility of philosophy is worth considering.  My sneaking suspicion is that the conjecture and loose framing of conceptual questions provided by philosophical thought is an important starting point.  Eventually, though, scientific inquiry takes over, redefines, and, ideally, answers the  questions we've posed.  In some cases, science viciously neuters philosophies.  For instance, those philosophers who continue to idly ponder the nature of the universe—its structure, the implications of its existence, etc.—would probably do well to let physicists answer those questions.

Perhaps philosophy is, in some respects, more equipped to investigate social and intellectual issues than it is problems with supposedly quantifiable solutions.

The Freedom to Compete

I've tried to follow the Net Neutrality wars over the past year or so, and I've been an advocate of the FCC baring its teeth for once to stand up to the telecommunications corporations.  (How long can an organization be so preoccupied with tits on TV, after all?)  Sadly, they offered a watered down plan and made too many concessions to the oligopoly that currently owns the pipe.  My interest in this regard is not in more or less regulation, but in good regulation.  As I see it, if too much regulation ends up stifling positive competition, then it should be loosened or done away with.  If the opposite is true, then the market should be regulated accordingly.

In North Carolina's case, municipalities and co-ops have been creating broadband networks that outperform—both in price and in speed—those of Time Warner and other commercial purveyors, but a bill passed the North Carolina House and Senate with veto-proof margins that restricts public competition.  Today, Gov. Perdue failed to veto the bill, perhaps because her veto would have probably been overturned.

Doc Searls explains the nature of the internet in its current capacity:

We also need to recognize that the Internet is a utility and not just the third act (after phone and TV) in the “triple play” that phone and cable companies sell. The Net is more like roads, water, electricity and gas than like TV or telephony (both of which it subsumes). It’s not just about “content” delivered from Hollywood to “consumers,” or about a better way to do metered calls on the old Ma Bell model. It’s about everything you can possibly do with a connection to the rest of the world. The fatter that connection, the more you can do, and the more business can do.

I think Searls is dead-on when he classifies the internet as a utility and then goes on to support the idea that competition related to broadband services, from whatever source, will be crucial to moving our web forward, especially in rural areas where broadband penetration is low.  Searls also posts a letter written to Gov. Perdue by Larry Lessig—whose books Code: Version 2.0 and Remix are two fantastic texts about the potential and future of the internet—that parses the issue as only Lessig could.

Searls' post is still worth a read even though the bill has now formally become law.  He sketches out the basics of why net neutrality needs to be protected at the state level, not just in Washington, as well as why improving internet service will require a multifaceted approach that involves both the cable/telephone companies and municipalities.  Beefing up our broadband  capabilities is not optional; our future requires widespread access to fast, affordable internet.


Mammoth Reads: The Anthropo-Pedagogio-Quantumnal Edition

The Mammoth Reads series is to be a (hopefully) regular to semi-regular shortlist of (hopefully) interesting things I've read recently.  (Hopefully) you'll click a link or two.

Most of these lists will not have long, ridiculous, impossible-to-read titles like this one, but I figured I would kick this series off in irritating fashion.

You Are a Poor Scientist, Dr. Venkman

Prof. Andrew Gelman counters a few claims from a Weekly Standard editorial by emeritus professor David Rubinstein, formerly of the University of Chicago at Illinois, in which Rubinstein claims that professors are paid too much for their "cushy" jobs.  Rubinstein is of the opinion that the current system—namely tenure track—encourages laziness.  Gelman makes some interesting observations about the function of good salaries and benefits in luring top-notch professors, and seems not to buy Rubinstein's impression that these are necessarily bad things.  Gelman also suggests that Rubinstein simply might be a bit lazier than most college profs, that he might be erroneously using his own lack of zest for the classroom as a metric by which to measure his peers.  (In all fairness to Rubinstein, he does seem to lob some valid criticisms regarding professorship in his original piece, which Gelman also links to.)

Riding the Collapsing Wave

We all know by now that the quantum world doesn't make any kind of intuitive sense.  A photon goes along its merry way existing in a state of wave-particle duality, and the minute someone tries to measure it the wave state collapses.  (There's a joke about my Saturday nights in there somewhere, but I'll let someone else find it.) Well, the BBC has a nice human-readable explanation of a study that adds a new(ish) twist to the  double-slit experiment.  Traditionally in this experiment, photons are monitored individually as they pass through the slits, a form of "strong observation"  that inevitably weakens the interference pattern and causes the photons to act more  like particles.  The new twist is a successful use of "weak observation" that preserves the interference pattern, allowing the observer to infer photons' paths by averaging the activity of a large number of them rather than attempting to monitor each individual photon.

Anyway, the article does a much better job than I do of sketching out the basics.  I'm sure a scientist, or even a scientifically literate layman, would flog me for the rubbishy explanation in the  preceding paragraph.

The Age of Man

Are we living in the Anthropocene Epoch? Geologists think so, and based on their reasoning that we humans have left some permanent chemical and radioactive traces in our layer of the Earth, it's difficult to argue with them.

From the article:

Anthropocene, a term conceived in 2002 by Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen, means "the Age of Man", recognising our species' ascent to a geophysical force on a par with Earth-shattering asteroids and planet-cloaking volcanoes. Geologists predict that our geological footprint will be visible, for example, in radioactive material from the atomic bomb tests, plastic pollution, increased carbon dioxide levels and human-induced mass extinction.

Now that's a legacy to be proud of: planet killers.

(Disclosure/Tangent: I agree—based on my own uncanny and unchallengeable horse sense—with Bill Gates' assessment that small-scale green tech will not be enough to curb climate change; we need a paradigm shift in energy production.  Being "green" is nice, but oftentimes it's easy to fall into the culture of buzzwords.  Vinnie handles a few green pitfalls over at "Rifraff and Bugaboos.")

Vanishing Act

Why are researchers (especially medical researchers) unable to replicate experiments over time that initially yielded positive results?

Researcher and publication bias are obvious reasons that come to mind. Dr. Steven Novella, author of NeurologicaBlog, takes us through the Decline Effect as well as a few claims from a Nature News article that conflate quantum mechanics with the large scale. Novella is pretty reasonable about it, though, and acknowledges that the article does correctly identify the Decline Effect as (likely) a research artifact.

Remember, science is messy.  It is not dogma and is always subject to revision.

404 Error — This Qubit Cannot Be Found

Quantum computing scares and excites me.  If it ever becomes viable, all of our current encryption systems—as I understand it, every last one of them—will become obsolete.  Whereas current bits can exist as a 0 or 1, qubits can exist in both states at once and, thus, can process computations at mind-numbing rates.   We're in an either/or world on the brink of becoming a both/and one.  Because of this, quantum computing may become one of the most useful and powerful tools humans have invented.  We may not understand the solutions it yields at first, but the potential for discovery of all kinds will swell suddenly.

The problem, however, is that quantum computers are very unstable and can only exist on a small scale.  Current quantum computers rely on entanglement in order to work their magic, and the entangled state is an exceedingly fragile one:  Even minimal interference from outside energy sources can break the system.

But what if a quantum computer didn't need to rely on entanglement in order to work? What if it actually relied on (or at least accepted) a  certain amount of chaos while operating?

From the article:

In a typical optical experiment, the pure qubits might consist of horizontally polarized photons representing 1 and vertically polarized photons representing 0. Physicists can entangle a stream of such pure qubits by passing them through a processing gate such as a crystal that alters the polarization of the light, then read off the state of the qubits as they exit. In the real world, unfortunately, qubits rarely stay pure. They are far more likely to become messy, or 'mixed' — the equivalent of unpolarized photons. The conventional wisdom is that mixed qubits are useless for computation because they cannot be entangled, and any measurement of a mixed qubit will yield a random result, providing little or no useful information.

But Knill and Laflamme pondered what would happen if a mixed qubit was sent through an entangling gate with a pure qubit. The two could not become entangled but, the physicists argued, their interaction might be enough to carry out a quantum computation, with the result read from the pure qubit. If it worked, experimenters could get away with using just one tightly controlled qubit, and letting the others be battered by environmental noise and disorder. [...]

A debate continues about the efficacy of disorder in quantum computing systems, and I suppose we'll see just how much this technology evolves in the coming years.

Of course, I'm just another moron with a blog who can't be trusted to switch the laundry, but this one got me real excited.