Creative Destruction

April 8, 2006

On Non-Adaptive Memes and Game Theory, Politics and Demographics

Filed under: International Politics,Uncategorized — Tuomas @ 1:05 pm

This post and the excellent discussion it spawned prompted some reflection. Go read it if you haven't already.

Thoughts:

Memes are not always spread in a free marketplace of ideas, thus ideas do not die and prosper simply by their validity. Some memes have defense mechanisms make them remarkably resistent to conversion, and this resistance is further increased by social pressure and even laws (that are usually part of the meme). Nowhere is this more apparent than in religion: Religious communities punish those who leave them by ostracism, or even by death. Classical liberal values have to be whole lot better as ideas to compete (as they do not punish wrong thinking), or ironically, a free society must be an exclusive club for like-minded people.

There also seems to be a persistent meme that views non-adaptiveness as a virtue (no doubt furthered by other non-adaptive memes) , that views people who adapt to new situations as "reactionaries", or "traitors to the cause", and it seems that generally "my way or the highway" – thinking is held up as a sign of assertiveness and strength of character. This thinking is readily apparent on the far-left and the far-right. Political memes, unlike religion, generally view themselves as rational (and the opponents as irrational). Nicely demonstrated by the terms/descriptions some blogs with definite echo-chamber quality use for themselves: "Anti-idiotarian headquarters", or "Reality-based community" (I'm not going to provide links, but if you're at all familiar with the blogosphere, these should be familiar terms).

That was a preamble for talking about Game Theory.

Ampersand commented:
Also, I’d point out that even the concept of a “self-destructive idea” is dubious. It’s probably more accurate to say that an idea is self-destructive in a certain environment; that same idea may be harmless in a different environment.

I'd say it goes further than that, I'd say an idea that is self-destructive in some environment is actually good in some other, and tends to spread. In the prisoner's dilemma variation, theoretically "the tough but fair" is good (alway cooperates at first, but always cheats those who have cheated him). However, I don't believe this is the best one in modern first-world situations, as it completely lacks the benefit of doubt -aspect and forgiveness, which are usually quite useful in normal social dealings. Thus, I suspect that the model of reciprocal cooperation is, due to the privileged position of most first-worlders (hey, I used the dreaded language of privilege), subverted by the always cooperates -model, which tends to give fairly good outcomes (as the success of the Scandinavian welfare state indicates)in optimal conditions, among like-minded people.

On to politics.
This wouldn't be a problem, if the rational, forgiving and generally nice people just hanged out with each other. Someone steals? Oh, that happens, let's not get all out of shape for that. Bad day, he won't do it again. Someone gets violent? What made him that way? Did I say something wrong? Let's seek understanding. What do you mean we are at war with people who say they are at war with us? What are you, some reactionary?

Such thinking will look naive (hint: check the date. And sorry for beating the dead horse, this was just too good to let pass) in less-than-optimal conditions, and is self-destructive.

And since memes are fairly resilient in themselves, as is obviously the choice in game theory tactics, due to the fact that humans have a both natural and cultural tendency to become attached to pet theories (possibly fed to them by upbringing and culture), I believe the demographic problem is quite real, and not sufficiently debunked by "let's spread memes, not genes" -meme (heh).

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30 Comments »

  1. I knew I brought you here for a reason. You’ve said what I wanted to far more intelligently than I ever could have.

    Thank you, for saving me from making an ass of myself.

    Comment by Adam Gurri — April 8, 2006 @ 3:17 pm | Reply

  2. But two can play a this game! I have responded to your response in a post of my own!

    Hazzah!

    Comment by Adam Gurri — April 8, 2006 @ 3:43 pm | Reply

  3. Lots could be said about memes. I have just a couple things to add.

    The word was coined to sound like “gene,” but the central behavior is more like a virus. One becomes infected, as it were, with a meme. Some memes are more infectious, harmful, or thriving, others more harmless, salutary, or easily protected against.

    Ideas (memes) don’t exist without someone to think them, so humans are in effect meme hosts. A self-destructive meme is harmful to its host (e.g., the suidcide meme) but not necessarily extinguished by the death of the host. It’s replicated when someone learns of the suicide.

    A network of interrelated memes is sometimes called a meme complex. Knotty, robust ideas with many associations tend to be meme complexes, at least until rhetoric whittles them down to an emblems. Relatively thoughtless memes in the current culture are “democracy” and “family values,” which used to have useful meanings but now have been turned to so many conflicting uses that they’ve become empty rhetoric to many who pause to think.

    Comment by Brutus — April 8, 2006 @ 8:33 pm | Reply

  4. A self-destructive meme is harmful to its host (e.g., the suidcide meme) but not necessarily extinguished by the death of the host. It’s replicated when someone learns of the suicide.

    Yeah, I think Gladwell had a good theory on this in The Tipping Point when he talked about how behavior can sometimes in it of itself be “persuasive”.

    Comment by Adam Gurri — April 8, 2006 @ 10:09 pm | Reply

  5. Classical liberal values have to be whole lot better as ideas to compete (as they do not punish wrong thinking), or ironically, a free society must be an exclusive club for like-minded people.

    Let’s look at this from another angle. Take two battles of competing memes, Evolution vs. Intelligent Design and Blank Slate vs. Population Genetics, and let’s see how they fare in battle under the host meme, classic liberal values, and which idea is the most dangerous.

    Intelligent Design is competing in two environments – high school science classes and university biology departments. In the case of the former, if the ID meme can be hosted within the institution it would be successful for it would be find an environment in which it could spread. The hosts (H.S. science depts) that took it up would adhere to the idea but their usefulness in advancing the ID meme would be very limited. Why do I say this? Consider what happens when the children exposed to ID choose to pursue the idea when they arrive at a University Biology class. Within the University we find an environment aligned with classical liberal values and when victory is assured then those values are placed front and center. There exist today a few scientists, who for whatever reason, have decided to be hosts for the ID meme. The research that comes out of their labs is worthless. So, the students who will go on to be meme creators and extenders within the world of science will have the ID meme killed quite early in their advanced science studies and come to adopt the evolution meme. The result here is that ID can only find a host in a limited population. (Note I’m not advocating teaching ID in HS – just saying that it wouldn’t be as disasterous as we fear.)

    However, the classical liberal values environment adopts a defensive strategy when confronted with a meme that threatens a related and favored meme, which is erroneously thought to be essential to the existance of a classical liberal values environment. Consider the meme battle between Blank Slatism and Genetics. Here the battlefield is mainly within the confines of the University and what we see is quite unlike the openness afforded to the voodoo of Intelligent Design, where enough rope is given while knowing the ID will hang itself, but here we see a dramtic defensive mechanism is invoked. Professors are dismissed, suspended, attacked, protested against, defunded or fear for their reputations if they violate the idea of Blank Slatism and seek to set up genetics against the Standard Social Sciences Model. Why even eminent scientists like Dr. David Botstein fear the professional consequences:

    Go to any university, research center, no one — NO ONE — will talk to you about this. Why? Simple. Because of the fear that there will be a racial correlation.

    In this case the classical liberal values environment is no longer conducive to a battle of ideas, like it is with evolution versus I.D., because the victory of the Blank Slate is not assured.

    So, you contend that a classical liberal idea has to be better to compete or the result is a society of like minded people. When the idea actually is better, like evolution vs. I.D., then we see a battle between the ideas, however when classical liberal values, which nurtures memes like Blank Slateism, are threatened by another idea, then the host (classical liberal values, aka university) mounts defenses to support the threatened idea and what results is a like minded society, a monoculture, and monocultures have some very dramtic pitfalls.

    So, your either-or analysis seems to accurately portray what happens in some meme battles.

    Comment by TangoMan — April 8, 2006 @ 10:24 pm | Reply

  6. I think TangoMan conflates “better” with “truer.” For a meme to be a better competitor, it needn’t be true.

    Comment by Brutus — April 8, 2006 @ 10:50 pm | Reply

  7. Professors are dismissed, suspended, attacked, protested against, defunded or fear for their reputations if they violate the idea of Blank Slatism and seek to set up genetics against the Standard Social Sciences Model.

    None of this is true.

    The comparison between the so-called “blank slaters” and intelligent design is without foundation, because only the latter movement actually exists. That is, there are actual people who explicitly say they favor something they call “intelligent design.” In contrast, no actual “blank slate” movement exists. Perhaps some English professors believe in a blank slate, but they’re an isolated minority.

    Second of all, evolutionary psychology (which is, as I understand it, the opposite of blank slate-ism) is routinely and widely taught at the undergraduate and post-graduate levels. There is no general fear of teaching evo-psych, nor are professors routinely fired or disciplined for “violat[ing] the idea of Blank Slatism.”

    Why even eminent scientists like Dr. David Botstein fear the professional consequences:

    Go to any university, research center, no one — NO ONE — will talk to you about this. Why? Simple. Because of the fear that there will be a racial correlation.

    In context, the “this” no one will talk about is the possibility of a connection between genetics and violence.

    Without having to look hard or long:

    J Neuropsychiatry Clin Neurosci. 1999 Summer;11(3):307-14. The neurobiology of violence: an update. Volavka J.

    Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am. 2000 Oct;9(4):765-76. Genetics and violence. Alsobrook JP 2nd, Pauls DL. (“As is evident from this brief review, the genetic study of violence is maturing at an ever-increasing rate….”)

    J Neurogenet. 1996 Dec;11(1-2):1-43. Mean genes and the biology of aggression: a critical review of recent animal and human research.

    American Journal of Medical Genetics, Volume 105, Issue 3, Pages 239 – 245 Family-based association study of serotonin transporter promoter in suicidal adolescents: No association with suicidality but possible role in violence traits

    J R Soc Med. 2003 May;96(5):211-4. Violence–a noxious cocktail of genes and the environment.

    Neuropsychiatry Neuropsychol Behav Neurol. 2001 Jan;14(1):1-14. Toward an understanding of violence: neurobehavioral aspects of unwarranted physical aggression: Aspen Neurobehavioral Conference consensus statement.

    I could easily come up with dozens more examples from peer-reviewed journals showing that the nature and extent of the connection between violence and genes is, in fact, an area that is actively studied by researchers whose careers do not seem to be suffering for it (I think Alsobrook is at Yale, for example).

    Comment by Ampersand — April 9, 2006 @ 12:42 am | Reply

  8. Oh, Amp, you and your “facts” and your “logic”.

    Comment by bobhayes — April 9, 2006 @ 12:49 am | Reply

  9. There is no general fear of teaching evo-psych, nor are professors routinely fired or disciplined for “violat[ing] the idea of Blank Slatism.

    Nice substitution of evo-psych. for genetics there. As for the links to papers on genetics and violence, keep looking for the ones that venture into population differences and genetics.

    In contrast, no actual “blank slate” movement exists.

    What I wrote was “if they violate the idea of Blank Slatism and seek to set up genetics against the Standard Social Sciences Model.” The entire premise of the SSSM is Blank Slatism. Go to any economics, political science, or sociology department and find researchers who are free to describe phenomona in terms of genetic variance across populations. It isn’t done for the way these disciplines model the world is that all variance is explained by social factors only.

    What do you think awaits the career of a geneticist who discovers a linkage between violence and an allele that has predominant representation within populations originating in Sub-Saharan Africa? You think that this person will not be crucified as Botstein fears?

    None of this is true.

    Here’s the latest news which refutes your rebuttal. Even The Guardian!!! recognizes the problem in their commentary on the Frank Ellis Affair. Sure, there are a lot of technical errors in their commentary, but even they see the broad issue.

    Comment by TangoMan — April 9, 2006 @ 1:28 am | Reply

  10. Nice substitution of evo-psych. for genetics there.

    Are you seriously suggesting that professors in the US have a widespread fear of teaching genetics? You don’t think genetics is taught in college?

    Go to any economics, political science, or sociology department and find researchers who are free to describe phenomona in terms of genetic variance across populations.

    I agree that it’s not much taught in those departments, but that’s most likely due to the fact that most of the professors there don’t have much training in genetics; aren’t qualified to teach it; and don’t agree with the views you’d like them to teach.

    I don’t find it a problem that polisci teachers don’t teach genetics, any more than it’s a problem that biology teachers don’t teach game theory. Nor do I think the fact that most professors disagree with your views is evidence that your views are censored; it is merely evidence that most intelligent, educated people don’t agree with you.

    It’s easy to think of American professors from the humanities who have taught a racist version of genetics, and who have been criticized for it. However, being criticized is not the same as “not being free.” Professors like Michael Levin, Jonathan Bean [Note: The inclusion of Jonathan Bean on this list was wrong; Professor Bean has not “taught a racist version of genetics.” I apologize to Professor Bean for my error. –Amp] and Edward Miller can teach and publish without fear of being fired; the only punishment they face is harsh criticism. (Of course, it helps that they’re tenured, but that’s true for all professors).

    [Updated to

    In contrast, your example is from Britain, where there’s never been as strong a free speech tradition as in the U.S..

    You think that this person will not be crucified as Botstein fears?

    No, I don’t, if the science is sound and persuasive. And even if the science isn’t sound, all that person will face is the “crucification” of being criticized.

    Comment by Ampersand — April 9, 2006 @ 3:17 am | Reply

  11. TangoMan:
    However, the classical liberal values environment adopts a defensive strategy when confronted with a meme that threatens a related and favored meme, which is erroneously thought to be essential to the existance of a classical liberal values environment. Consider the meme battle between Blank Slatism and Genetics.

    and

    In this case the classical liberal values environment is no longer conducive to a battle of ideas

    Erroneously indeed!

    Personally I don't think that classical liberals are the culprits here, I think humanist Marxists (neo-Lysenkoists) have simply so loudly protested against everything that violates their dogma, and they do have power, especially in some European countries.

    Basically, I think you're sort of conflating classical liberal values with modern liberalism, that is a chimera of various dogmatic memes, and has nit-picked (or, rather, selectively picked) the "All men are created equal" from Declaration of Independence (the US one). But you already knew that, I suspect.

    Ampersand:
    In contrast, your example is from Britain, where there’s never been as strong a free speech tradition as in the U.S.

    The problem with many laws European countries (that can reduce Freedom of Speech) is that the laws themselves are somewhat outdated, vague and not really used that much (exceptions would be: Holocaust denial, race and criticism of Islam, lately). But the existence of these highly subjective, selectively enforced laws theoretically give Governments far too much power.


    I agree that it’s not much taught in those departments, but that’s most likely due to the fact that most of the professors there don’t have much training in genetics; aren’t qualified to teach it; and don’t agree with the views you’d like them to teach.

    I don’t find it a problem that polisci teachers don’t teach genetics, any more than it’s a problem that biology teachers don’t teach game theory.

    Me neither. But biology teachers do teach game theory, btw. I've attended a voluntary* (university)course on evolutionary biology where game theory factored in the teachings heavily (the whole course wasn't, as one might expect, popular among Christians and Leftists).

    Brutus: The virus comparison is a good one. Like a good virus, a good meme must contain an imperative to spread itself, not have too negative consequences on the host, and be resistant to anti-virus programs like reason. All the major, succesfully spread religions contain all those characteristics.

    *: Of course all are voluntary, but this isn't required for graduation).

    Comment by Tuomas — April 9, 2006 @ 7:04 am | Reply

  12. Amp,

    When I respond to you I do so with respect even though I may be disagreeing with you. Could you please try to do the same by not insulting me with dodges and redefinitions. For instance:

    I wrote: "Blank Slate vs. Population Genetics"

    You redefined: "There is no general fear of teaching evo-psych"

    I wrote: about a racial correlation to the genetics of violence.

    You redefined: "connection between genetics and violence" and omitted reference to race.

    I wrote: "Nice substitution of evo-psych. for genetics there."

    You strawmanned: "widespread fear of teaching genetics?"

    Why not either own up to the mischaracterization or defend it? Further, the context of my comments makes clear that I'm referring to the subset of genetics which looks to group differences for insight into real life consequences, and only a fool would conclude that there is a fear of teaching genetics.

    I wrote: "find researchers who are free to describe phenomona in terms of genetic variance across populations."

    You redefined: "don’t have much training in genetics; aren’t qualified to teach it"

    I'm writing about research and you're reframing it as standing before a class of PolSci students and teaching a seminar on the fine points of genetics.

    What social scientists do is they investigate social phenomona. The key premise underlying all of their investigations is that all phenomona are explained by strictly environmental factors. This, while most of us who aren't buried in an English department somewhere realize that there is genetic variance between individual people and that genetics is a very important behavioral determinant, and that there are substantial genetic differences between population groups. The very valid question of how much variance in social phenomona can be explained by group genetic variance is the natural consequence that is derived from the stated premises. To not even address the question does a disservice to the goal of more fully understanding the phenomona under study, if for no other reason than to simply eliminate genetic variance as a causal factor. The entire enterprise of social science is built upon a purposely skewed vision of reality.

    And even if the science isn’t sound, all that person will face is the “crucification” of being criticized.

    Considering that I've been witness to the witchhunts which killed the Human Genome Diversity Project which was very sound science that was planning on extending the work of the Human Genome Project I beg to differ with your pollyannish views on this topic. Further, we'll see what happens to a research program that is proposed to look into the pathogenic nature of homosexuality. My prediction is that it will never see the light of day for fear that a bacteria may be involved. Think of the situation that concerning Helicobacter Pylori.

    So, after this entire diversion with you, all of my points still stand, despite the strawmen you've thrown into the mix. 

    Comment by TangoMan — April 9, 2006 @ 2:51 pm | Reply

  13. Close italics tag

    Sorry, there was no preview available.

    [No problem, closed. -Tuomas] 

    Comment by TangoMan — April 9, 2006 @ 2:54 pm | Reply

  14. Could you please try to do the same by not insulting me with dodges and redefinitions.

    TangoMan, I made one mistake which I implicitly admitted to when you (correctly) pointed it out – I mixed up this debate with one on another website, and so said “evo-psych” instead of “genetics.” Clearly, I should have made it more explicit that I was acknowledging my error. Sorry about that.

    However, I’m not convinced that my error makes any difference to the substantive questions at issue in our disagreement. Both genetics and evo-psych are widely taught and researched at the university level, without any punishment of professors, and both are incompatible with “blank slatism.” Therefore, your claim – that “Professors are dismissed, suspended, attacked, protested against, defunded or fear for their reputations if they violate the idea of Blank Slatism” – is proved to be nonsense by the prevalence of genetics and by the prevalence of evo-psych in university teaching and research.

    As for the rest, I think you’re the one who is trying to bail out a sinking case through dodging and weaving. Let’s review, since you seem to have forgotten it, the passage of yours that I refuted:

    Consider the meme battle between Blank Slatism and Genetics. Here the battlefield is mainly within the confines of the University and what we see is quite unlike the openness afforded to the voodoo of Intelligent Design, where enough rope is given while knowing the ID will hang itself, but here we see a dramtic defensive mechanism is invoked. Professors are dismissed, suspended, attacked, protested against, defunded or fear for their reputations if they violate the idea of Blank Slatism and seek to set up genetics against the Standard Social Sciences Model. Why even eminent scientists like Dr. David Botstein fear the professional consequences:

    Go to any university, research center, no one — NO ONE — will talk to you about this. Why? Simple. Because of the fear that there will be a racial correlation.

    Now you write the following:

    I wrote: about a racial correlation to the genetics of violence.

    You redefined: “connection between genetics and violence” and omitted reference to race.

    I’m looking for anywhere in that passage where you said that the issue was “about a racial correlation to the genetics of violence.” But you never said it. The one and only mention of race is the quote from Dr. Botstein, but Dr. Botstein wasn’t complaining that no one is studying a racial correlation; he said that no one is studying the violence/genetics connection for fear of a racial correlation.

    My response to Botstein – which is that he is incorrect, because evidence clearly shows that the possible violence/genetics connection is a topic of active research – was a perfectly on-topic rebuttal to Botstein’s statement.

    You continue:

    I wrote: “find researchers who are free to describe phenomona in terms of genetic variance across populations.”

    You redefined: “don’t have much training in genetics; aren’t qualified to teach it”

    I admit that I didn’t realize you were referring to research exclusive of teaching. But I don’t think it makes any difference to my response, so your objection here isn’t substantive. Let me reprhase my earlier response:

    I don’t find it a problem that polisci teachers don’t research genetics, any more than it’s a problem that biology teachers don’t (by and large) research game theory.

    It’s easy to think of American professors from the humanities who have published racist versions of genetics and sociology, and who have been criticized for it. However, being criticized is not the same as “not being free.” Professors like Michael Levin, Jonathan Bean [Note: The inclusion of Jonathan Bean on this list was wrong; Professor Bean has not “published racist versions of genetics and sociology.” I apologize to Professor Bean for my error. –Amp] and Edward Miller can teach and publish without fear of being fired; the only punishment they face is harsh criticism.

    Whether you’re discussing publishing research or teaching, you’re still mistaken.

    The key premise underlying all of their investigations is that all phenomona are explained by strictly environmental factors.

    Show me a citation of a standard, popular textbook from one of those fields explicitly stating this “key premise,” please.

    If you can’t find the premise explicitly stated, then I’d say it doesn’t exist at all. Because the premise is certainly not implicit in the social sciences. Social sciences do not have to claim to explain “all” phenomena to justify themselves; they merely have to claim that their approach has sufficient explanatory power to be worth researching and teaching.

    Considering that I’ve been witness to the witchhunts which killed the Human Genome Diversity Project which was very sound science that was planning on extending the work of the Human Genome Project I beg to differ with your pollyannish views on this topic.

    Do you have any links to mainstream sources backing up your claims about the HGDP?

    As for “we’ll see what happens,” surely you can’t expect me to find such rank speculation persuasive.

    Comment by Ampersand — April 9, 2006 @ 7:09 pm | Reply

  15. Show me a citation of a standard, popular textbook from one of those fields explicitly stating this “key premise,” please.

    Nice tactical move there 🙂 This is like asking me to show you a citation from economics, pol. sci, sociology which states that their purvue does not include appeals to religious miracles as a means of explaining social phenomona. Therefore, because there is no need to state the obvious those who point out that these disciplines don’t delve into that realm you would hold as being in error and instead assert, without proof, that those disciplines in fact do factor in religious miracles in their models of to explain phenomona.

    If you’re so sure that any of these disciplines do include population group genetic variance as a means of explaining social phenomona then please show me to be in error by providing me a citation of these disciplines understanding the social realm via genetic variance. Find me sociologists who say that social disparity is partially explained by a group’s environmental constraints and also by the mean value of the group’s temperment, intelligence, toleration of alcohol, etc as determined by the group’s genetic distribution when compared to control groups. Or economists who abandon the rational economic man postulate and are explaining economic decision making models for disparate groups that are parsed by population genetics and experimentally derived behavioral data. Or political scientists who seek to explain political power, political stability, etc via reference to genetic differences. It doesn’t happen.

    Do you have any links to mainstream sources backing up your claims about the HGDP?

    See this New York Times reference (note: Wade makes some errors in his account by implying that the project limped on when in fact it was killed and then relaunched as another project almost a decade later):

    The program is an effort to accomplish the goals of the Human Genome Diversity Project, an initiative that was proposed by population geneticists in 1991.

    That project ran into a political furor that prevented it from receiving substantial government support. It was denounced by some cultural anthropologists, who said that looking for genetic differences among populations was tantamount to racism. And advocates for indigenous peoples portrayed it as a “vampire project” for extracting valuable medical information from the blood of endangered tribes while giving nothing in return.

    The proponents viewed their plan as complementing the Human Genome Project, then getting under way, because it would show how the sequence of DNA units in the human genome varied from one population to another.

    Here is another source:

    The whole project is fraught with ethical issues, said Harry. Similar issues killed a similar venture, the Human Genome Diversity Project, 10 years ago.

    Comment by TangoMan — April 9, 2006 @ 9:37 pm | Reply

  16. Tangoman wrote:

    This is like asking me to show you a citation from economics, pol. sci, sociology which states that their purvue does not include appeals to religious miracles as a means of explaining social phenomona.

    It’s not at all the same. There’s a huge difference between negative and positive statements, but your comparison pretends there’s no difference.

    It would be unreasonable to ask for a citation for a negative claim, such as in the example you give above, because textbooks don’t say what a field “doesn’t include”; they say what a field does include.

    But the claim I asked you to provide some evidence for wasn’t a negative claim; it was a positive claim. You wrote:

    What social scientists do is they investigate social phenomona. The key premise underlying all of their investigations is that all phenomona are explained by strictly environmental factors.

    That’s a positive claim. If that’s “the key premise,” then it should be easy to come up with evidence for it; just as it is easy to show that one important premise of economics is that people attempt to maximize their self-interest or satisfaction.

    But I don’t think it really is a key premise.

    1) I’ve never read it before. But I was an econ major. So you’re saying it’s “the key premise” and yet they never tell anyone about it?

    2) Economists, sociologists, etc., are not all stupid people. Yet they’d pretty much have to be idiots to believe “all phenomena are explained by X,” for any value of “X” that’s not God.

    3) Your “it’s a key premise of the field, not because I can show it is, but because I s ay it is” style of argument, if accepted, gives you unlimited ability to create strawmen.

    And yes, by and large you can’t find “political scientists who seek to explain political power etc via reference to genetic differences.” Nor can you find many biologists who seek to explain adaption via reference to intelligent design. However, just because a crackpot theory – be it The Bell Curve or intelligent design – is not taken seriously by scholars doesn’t in and of itself prove that there’s anything wrong with the field in question.

    Gotta go – more later, perhaps.

    Comment by Ampersand — April 10, 2006 @ 7:59 am | Reply

  17. Some people specialize in winning baseball games by hitting home runs. Some specialize in winning baseball games by striking out the other team’s batters. Although both types of players pursue the same outcome, they rarely adopt the skills of the other. Maybe it’s taboo.

    Johnny and Suzy are reading below grade level. Johnny was reading well, but is growing farsighted. Susy has perfect vision, but has never had any formal education. Some people specialize in changing Johnny’s situation; some specialize in changing Suzy’s. Few people developed an expertise in both. Maybe it’s taboo.

    Is anyone researching how the genetic variances between racial groups influence alcohol tolerance? I asked Google. It said that in 2003 the American Journal of Psychiatry reported on differences between the alcohol tolerance of African Americans, Asians, Caucasians of Jewish descent, Caucasians not of Jewish descent, South Africans of mixed ancestry, and Native American Mission Indians of mixed but no known African ancestry, and linked these differences to “two alcohol dehydrogenase genes (ADH2 and ADH3 on chromosome 4) and one aldehyde dehydrogenase gene (ALDH2 on chromosome 12)….” See http://www.ajp.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/full/160/1/41. The study cites at least 37 other studies. No taboos here.

    True, I didn’t see any studies published in the American Journal of Sociology or whatever. Similarly, I didn’t find any studies of the origins of the French Revolution in the American Journal of Neurology. Maybe is all taboo.

    But I wouldn’t rule out other possible explanations.

    Comment by nobody.really — April 10, 2006 @ 3:21 pm | Reply

  18. nobody.really,

    Note that I never made the argument that scientists aren’t doing this work, I pointed out that social scientists don’t use the data that we know. Take your example and see if any sociologists look at the rates of arrest, dysfunction, job loss, etc for different population groups and partially attribute any disparity to the genetic basis for alcohol tolerance. What you’ll most likely see is that the disparity is attributed entirely to environmental factors such as family tradition, peer pressure, poverty, racism, etc. There is no doubt that these environmental factors are present and play a part, but their significance is overstated if another variable is kept out of the equation. The overstatement of significance often leads to bad social policy which tries to use the wrong tools to fix a problem whose scope is misunderstood.

    Comment by TangoMan — April 10, 2006 @ 4:14 pm | Reply

  19. There is no doubt that these environmental factors are present and play a part, but their significance is overstated if another variable is kept out of the equation.

    Why? Most social scientists evaluating the significance of different environmental factors use some sort of multivariate analysis. If someone performs a standard multivariate analysis considering factors “A” “B” “C” but not “D,” the result won’t necessarily be that A B and C are overstated. The result could also be that A B and C will wind up with about the same level of significance that they would have had if D were included, but the “unexplained” category will be larger than it would have been if “D” had been accounted for.

    Comment by Ampersand — April 10, 2006 @ 5:02 pm | Reply

  20. I think the problem TangoMan is describing is that social science, at least when translated into simplified form that tends to guide social policy, does not leave all that much room for “unexplained”, partly because the unexplained may have something to do with taboo subjects. The fact some of the factors A, B, C and D are more acceptable than others.

    Social science can get away with this, because it has never been one of the “hard” sciences, but the problem is that it turns into social policy and public opinion (via “studies find that…”).

    For example, the fact that African, Muslim immigrants in Europe do not enter high education in the same numbers (the differnce is staggering) tends to be explained as a de facto evidence of discrimination towards the said group. Social science isn’t saying “unexplained”, it is presenting a bogus explanation.

    Comment by Tuomas — April 10, 2006 @ 5:24 pm | Reply

  21. To be sure, social science provides an incomplete picture of the world, and may lead to faulty conclusions. The same could be said of physical sciences, too. That’s a long way from saying that the shortcomings of social science are due to some kind taboo against genetic explanations.

    And it’s my understanding that genetic expression is a complex and evolving field. Admittedly, I guess a social scientist could simply run a regression comparing the prevalence of this or that gene in various social groups (African Americans, Caucasians, Native Americans, etc.) with the prevalence of this or that social variable (alcoholism) in the group. Admittedly, I am not aware of any such studies. What conclusions can we draw from that?

    1) I don’t know where to look for such results.

    2) The studies were performed, but the genetic variable did not prove to be useful. (For purposes of enhancing the reliability of a regression analysis -“corrected R squared” – the scientist wants to reduce the variance, which generally means eliminating any explanatory variable the a T statistic =

    Comment by nobody.really — April 10, 2006 @ 6:20 pm | Reply

  22. (continued) or less than 1. So unless the genetic variable helped the prediction more than it hurt, I would not expect to find studies including it.)

    3) The studies have not been performed because people are busy with other studies, because genetics is sufficiently complicated to discourage social scientists from using those variables and geneticists are busy studying the link between genes and disease, because people who offer grants in social science research want to study variables they can manipulate, and variables that are hard to change (genes, gravity, time) don’t attract a lot of funding, because studying genetics is more expensive than studying skin color or self-identified racial groupings, etc.

    4) The studies have not been performed because of taboo.

    I still find insufficient reason to select answer 4.

    Regression analysis quantifies how much of a phenomena is explained by (correlates with) the explanatory variables, with the remainder being “unexplained.” I share Toumas’s understanding that, for purposes of regression analysis, “discrimination” means “unexplained.” For example, once we control for education, experience, hazards, etc., we find that women still earn less than men, and we do not know what else accounts for it. The burden of providing additional explanatory variables then falls to other social scientists. If Toumas knows of any other way to measure discrimination, I’d like to hear it.

    [edit: What is with the English-speakers, and O coming before U? -Tuomas]

    Comment by nobody.really — April 10, 2006 @ 6:21 pm | Reply

  23. The same could be said of physical sciences, too.

    Not so much. If I drop a ball from a rooftop it doesn’t matter if I’m rich or poor, whether I’m depressed, an alcoholic, have heart disease, whether I’m being discriminated against, etc. what the science will tell me about the falling ball is easily constrained within the physical realm and is completely apart from social influences.

    Social sciences on the other hand look at issues that play out in the social sphere, but the problem is that all of the factors that influence social outcomes are not constrained within the boundaries of social actions. Physical constrainst intrude into the arena and they are not systematically accounted for.

    I guess a social scientist could simply run a regression comparing the prevalence of this or that gene in various social groups (African Americans, Caucasians, Native Americans, etc.) with the prevalence of this or that social variable (alcoholism) in the group.

    It doesn’t have to be that scattershot, rather the social scientist who is studying Finnish suicide rates should also keep an eye out for medical literature that looks at the same issue. Alternatively, they can include co-authors. There they may find that the Finns have a higher frequency of the 5-HTT gene, which helps to control serotonin, a mood affecting brain chemical compared to the frequency of that gene found in another population or a series of populations.

    Let the genetic scientists do their thing but then take the knowledge that they develop and factor it into the analysis of the social issue that is under study.

    What this does is it paints a more accurate portrayal of reality. For instance, keeping with the Finnish suicide issue, absent the genetic information, the social scientist is likely to conclude that there is a problem within the society because of the high suicide rate and that measures must be taken to remedy the situation. They’ll point to job stress, lack of communication with partners, amount of sunlight received per day, etc. Therefore societal resources will be deployed to increase staffing at suicide hotlines, more stress leave from employment will be funded, etc and the effectiveness of these measures won’t be all that is hoped for. Now, if the population genetics was factored into the equation the social scientist may conclude that when the genetic distribution is controlled for that the suicide rate within Finland is near the rates seen in other countries, therefore the resources that would have been devoted to environmental remediation of the suicide problem aren’t wasted. Now the decision-makers can decide whether they’re happy directing the resources to the programs while realizing that the marginal gains will be lower than expected. Alternatively, they may deem it more appropriate to devote those resources to lowering the pharmaceutical costs of relevant drugs, or directing the money to medical research, or creating an outreach program which directs suicidal patients to a physician rather than a counsellor at a help-line.

    I think you offer an interesting range of alternative explanations, but if #4 didn’t have a ring of truth to it you would see discussion within papers pointing out the areas that weren’t studied in the paper because of such and such constraints. Specifically, the practice of researchers pointing out how their work can be extended or its limitations. None of that happens though.

    Comment by TangoMan — April 10, 2006 @ 7:09 pm | Reply

  24. >[S]ocial science provides an incomplete picture of the world, and may lead to faulty conclusions. The same could be said of physical sciences, too.

    Not so much If I drop a ball from a rooftop it doesn’t matter if I’m rich or poor, whether I’m depressed, an alcoholic, have heart disease, whether I’m being discriminated against, etc. what the science will tell me about the falling ball is easily constrained within the physical realm and is completely apart from social influences.

    Social sciences on the other hand look at issues that play out in the social sphere, but the problem is that all of the factors that influence social outcomes are not constrained within the boundaries of social actions. Physical constraints intrude into the arena and they are not systematically accounted for.

    At the risk of aping Brutus here, I think Thomas Kuhns would disagree. As far as I can tell, both social scientists and physical scientist interpret things from within their paradigms, and the choice to adopt and defend a paradigm is subject to the same dynamics either way. Yes, presumably objects fall uniformly. But oddly Newton saw the object differently than other people, and Einstein saw it differently than Newton, and future scientists will (or do?) see it differently than Einstein.

    There can be no “systematic accounting for” things, whether in physical sciences, social sciences, or otherwise, until you understand the entire system. And as Gödel’s incompleteness theorems suggest, some weaknesses of apparently consistent systems can only be appreciated from beyond the systems being analyzed. In other words, there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

    All that said, I think there is merit in incorporating and integrating the learning of different fields. I can’t help but suspect that if we could finally determine that mental illness, sexual orientation and body size are irreducibly the result of genetics, a whole lot of blaming and modification “therapy” might be avoided. I just don’t find anything suspicious about the fact that not every discovery that could be made has been made.

    But maybe I’m just naive. I’d be intrigued to learn whether geneticists footnote their research with discussions about how their findings might be expanded and better understood from the perspective of chemistry. And whether chemists speculate about how their findings might better be understood from the perspective of physics. And, if not, whether that suggests a kind of taboo among scientists about the work of other scientists.

    Finally, if Toumas can’t take a subtle hint from his English-speaking colleagues who don’t want to call attention to the fact that he keeps misspelling his own name, I don’t know what more we can do. 🙂 Sorry ‘bout that. I’m a lousy speller anyway, but my wordprocessor doesn’t recognize Tuomas name whether I spell it correctly or not.

    Comment by nobody.really — April 10, 2006 @ 9:28 pm | Reply

  25. […] Here at Creative Destruction, a post of mine sparked quite a discussion. The original post took a quote from the Vulgar Moralist, and he has just stepped into the arena. I am interested in “ideas” only so far as they influence behavior. Suppose, then, that all of us non-Mormon Americans keeled over tomorrow, and left the country in the hands of the Latter Day Saints. With a greater degree of freedom than is the norm in the Muslim Middle East, the next generation might indeed see some individualists and free-thinkers who deviate from church teachings. But would they approximate the numbers of cultural liberals today? Traditions are not learned from a manual. They are taught in the school of family life, and in the shared rituals of the community. They are not a matter of intellectual assent or reasoned proof. We feel the moral vision implicit in our traditions in the form of powerful emotions, which link our lives to the larger story of the community, infuse them with meaning, and seem, not infrequently, worth dying for: dulce et decorum est. In a very literal sense, morality commands our biology. (Those interested in the biological drivers of morality, check the work of Antonio Damasio and Jonathan Haidt.) […]

    Pingback by Creative Destruction » They don’t exactly float in the air — April 12, 2006 @ 3:44 pm | Reply

  26. Ampersand wrote:

    “Go to any economics, political science, or sociology department and find researchers who are free to describe phenomona in terms of genetic variance across populations….
    It’s easy to think of American professors from the humanities who have taught a racist version of genetics, and who have been criticized for it. However, being criticized is not the same as “not being free.” Professors like Michael Levin, Jonathan Bean and Edward Miller can teach and publish without fear of being fired; the only punishment they face is harsh criticism.”

    Since you threw my name in with Michael Levin (who has written on race and genetics), I am puzzled at my inclusion. I have never lectured or propagated a “racist version of genetics.” Indeed, one of those who inspires me with his career and courage is Frederick Douglass who directly challenged the widespread racist theory of polygenism. Douglass advocated monogenism — that we are all one race (or, as he put it, “God Almighty Made But One Race”). Douglass will be included among similar figures in my forthcoming “Freedom, Race and the State: The Individualist Tradition.”

    What on earth any of this has to do with genetics or racial inferiority is beyond me. In fact, I have frequently argued that racial classifications are arbitrary, often to the point of absurdity, and ought to be done away with. As for science, I leave that to the scientists. I don’t believe there is any genetic difference between the “races” but I am not qualified to opine on the subject. Regardless, I hold to the individualist tradition which protects us from group-based stereotyping and the coercive power of government engineering us by race — for malign or supposedly “benign” purposes.

    Jonathan Bean

    Comment by Jonathan Bean — August 17, 2006 @ 10:09 pm | Reply

  27. Ampersand:

    It’s easy to think of American professors from the humanities who have taught a racist version of genetics, and who have been criticized for it. However, being criticized is not the same as “not being free.” Professors like Michael Levin, Jonathan Bean and Edward Miller can teach and publish without fear of being fired; the only punishment they face is harsh criticism.”

    Hmm… Considering Jonathan Beans’ response (welcome to CD, I appreciate your comment), and having googled him for good measure I found no evidence that he is involved in “racist version of genetics”.

    However, I did find this scandal, and I might remind you (paraphrasing slighty) that being accused of being a “purveyor of racist propaganda” is not the same as being involved in “racist genetics”.

    Comment by Tuomas — August 18, 2006 @ 6:21 am | Reply

  28. Since you threw my name in with Michael Levin (who has written on race and genetics), I am puzzled at my inclusion.

    Looking back over what I wrote, I’m puzzled by it, too. I have no idea what I was thinking, or how I came to put your name on that list. Googling you turns up the controversy over you assigning an article about “The Zebra Killings,” but I don’t recall ever hearing about that controversy before today.

    So I can’t provide any explanation. My best guess is that I accidentally copied and pasted your name when I intended to copy and paste some other professor’s name.

    In any case, I apologize to you without reservation. I was utterly wrong to suggest that you’ve ever taught or published “a racist version of genetics,” and I’m deeply sorry for having written that.

    I will edit my previous comment to warn readers that the comment about you is erroneous.

    (Regarding Tuomas’ link, a more intelligent and interesting article about that “scandal” is this article about “mobbing” in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The bit regarding Professor Bean begins about two-thirds down the page; you can also find it with a text search for “Bean.”)

    Comment by Ampersand — August 19, 2006 @ 10:45 am | Reply

  29. Apology accepted (Barry and I have corresponded offline). No hurt feelings.

    FYI: I had read the only book on the zebra killings but the only available short summary was the piece from frontpagemag. The following year, I bought networks news clippings (for $200!) and used a 2 minute clip. The tv coverage at the time was startling and corresponded with the controversial handout.

    If anyone ever needs a news video from 1968 onward, check out

    http://www.tvnews.vanderbilt.edu

    Abstracts are free and videotaped copies of each segment are $12.

    Sincerely,

    Jonathan Bean

    Comment by Jonathan Bean — August 19, 2006 @ 7:22 pm | Reply

  30. CORRECTION: The address is

    http://tvnews.vanderbilt.edu/

    Comment by Jonathan Bean — August 19, 2006 @ 7:25 pm | Reply


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