Science, Medicine & Me (or You)

One of the problems, or challenges, if you prefer, with medicine is that few people who become doctors do it because they love science. They become doctors typically because they want to help people, a very fine reason. But this means that when the situation calls for a more scientific examination of the evidence before them, or of the value or pertinence of this or that finding or practice, your doctor is likely operating at a disadvantage.

Ultimately, tradition, law, and their insurance companies all but force them to stick to conventional, approved approaches to everything. In general, this is not a bad thing – you certainly don’t want your doctor freestyling it when it is your health on the line. If doctors everywhere treat a given constellation of symptoms in a particular way, that would probably be the place to start. But it’s not in itself science.

I recall a couple decades ago that every time we took a kid to the pediatrician – and we loved our pediatrician – she would feel compelled to advise us not to let the little ones sleep with us, family bed style. I can just hear her teachers, or her professional bulletins or her insurance company telling her it was best practice, that kids die every year smothered in a bed with an adult, and just don’t do it. Now, of course, pediatricians in the US (it was never policy in the rest of the world) have come to realize that the benefits to both the child and the parents of having the child in the parent’s bed far outweigh the miniscule risks. Such risks effectively disappear if the child and parents are healthy and the parents sober, while the sense of comfort and attachment gained by the child and the extra sleep gained by the parents is a serious win-win.

Now a scientifically inclined person might ask about the data and methodology behind the claim that hundreds of thousands of years of natural selection had somehow gotten the whole baby sleeps with parents thing wrong.  Maybe it has – but the issue should have at least been addressed. But it wasn’t, in America, at least up until a few years ago. So every American pediatrician was expected to toe the official line, and our doctors did. For, what if you hadn’t advised parents against ‘co-sleeping’ and a baby died? You’d be asking for a lawsuit.

Another example I’ve mentioned before is salt intake. This one is a little different, in that for some people, there seems to be a fairly strong correlation between salt intake and blood pressure, so at least being concerned about it isn’t crazy.

For most people, however, there is little or no correlation between salt intake and blood pressure, at least within realistic levels of consumption. In one of the earliest studies, rats were given the human equivalent of 500g of salt a day, and their blood pressure shot right up! But humans tend to consume around 8.5g of salt a day. Um, further study would be indicated?

The science would seem to support some degree of caution regarding salt intake for people with high blood pressure. Instead, what we get are blanket recommendations that everybody – everybody! – reduce salt intake. It will save lives! Medicine cries wolf. People learn to ignore medical advise. Further, Medical Science! fails to consider what it is asking for – a complete overhaul of people’s diets. Few real people are going to do this without serious motivation. Wasting ammo on a battle not worth winning.

Again, if doctors were essentially scientists attracted to medicine for all the opportunities for scientific discovery human health presents, such errors and poor judgement might be more limited. But doctors became doctors to help people, not to debate scientific findings with them. They want to DO something. Thus, conventional medical practice is full of stuff to do for every occasion. Whether or not there’s really any science behind it is not as important, it seems, as developing practices to address issues so that medicine itself can be practiced. Clearly, for the average doctor, having *something* to do is better than having nothing to do, even when that something isn’t all that well supported or even understood.

These thoughts are on my mind because of all the trouble I’m having with blood pressure medicines at the moment. Since there’s an obvious trade-off here – somewhat higher blood pressure with a higher quality of life versus acceptably lower blood pressure but with lower quality of life – I decided I needed to do a little basic research. Here’s where I’m at after a very preliminary web search:

What I’m looking for, and have so far failed to find, is a simple population level chart, showing the correlation between blood pressure and mortality/morbidity. Of course, any usefully meaningful data would be presented in a largish set of charts or tables, broken out by such variables as age, sex, and body mass index.  But I would settle at this point for any sort of data at all, showing how much risk is added by an additional 10 points or 10 percent, or however you want to measure it, above ‘normal’ blood pressure.

For example, I’m a 60 yr old man. Each year in America, some number of 60 year old men drop dead by high blood-pressure-related illnesses. OK, so, base data is at what rate do 60 year old men drop dead from high blood pressure related diseases? Let’s say it’s .1% (just making up numbers for now) or 1 out of every 1,000 60 year old men. That’s heart attack and stroke victims, with maybe a few kidney failures in there, severe enough to kill you, a 60 year old man.

Now we ask: what effect does blood pressure have on these results? Perhaps those 60 year old men running a 120/80 BP die at only a .05% rate – one out of every 2,000 drops dead from heart attacks, strokes or other stray high BP related diseases. Perhaps those with 130/90 (these results and possible ages would be banded in real life most likely, but bear with me) die at .09% rate, while those with 150/100 die at .2% rate, and those above 150/100 die at a horrifying 1% rate, or 10 times as much as the old dudes with healthy blood pressure. These numbers would all need to average out to the .1% across the population, but a high degree of variability within the population would not be unexpected.

Or maybe something else entirely.  But I have yet to find such charts. I’ve found interesting tidbits, like FDR’s BP in 1944 when his doctor examined a by that time very ill president “was 186/108. Very high and in the range where one could anticipate damage to “end-organs” such as the heart, the kidneys and the brain.” So I gather BP in that range is very bad for you, or indicates that something else very bad for you is going on (FDR had a lot of medical issues and smoked like a chimney).

Then there’s this abstract, suggesting in the conclusion that my quest is going to be frustrated:

Abstract

Objectives

Quantitative associations between prehypertension or its two separate blood pressure (BP) ranges and cardiovascular disease (CVD) or all-cause mortality have not been reliably documented. In this study, we performed a comprehensive systematic review and meta-analysis to assess these relationships from prospective cohort studies.

Methods

We conducted a comprehensive search of PubMed (1966-June 2012) and the Cochrane Library (1988-June 2012) without language restrictions. This was supplemented by review of the references in the included studies and relevant reviews identified in the search. Prospective studies were included if they reported multivariate-adjusted relative risks (RRs) and corresponding 95% confidence intervals (CIs) of CVD or all-cause mortality with respect to prehypertension or its two BP ranges (low range: 120–129/80–84 mmHg; high range: 130–139/85–89 mmHg) at baseline. Pooled RRs were estimated using a random-effects model or a fixed-effects model depending on the between-study heterogeneity.

Results

Thirteen studies met our inclusion criteria, with 870,678 participants. Prehypertension was not associated with an increased risk of all-cause mortality either in the whole prehypertension group (RR: 1.03; 95% CI: 0.91 to 1.15, P = 0.667) or in its two separate BP ranges (low-range: RR: 0.91; 95% CI: 0.81 to 1.02, P = 0.107; high range: RR: 1.00; 95% CI: 0.95 to 1.06, P = 0.951). Prehypertension was significantly associated with a greater risk of CVD mortality (RR: 1.32; 95% CI: 1.16 to 1.50, P<0.001). When analyzed separately by two BP ranges, only high range prehypertension was related to an increased risk of CVD mortality (low-range: RR: 1.10; 95% CI: 0.92 to 1.30, P = 0.287; high range: RR: 1.26; 95% CI: 1.13 to 1.41, P<0.001).

Conclusions

From the best available prospective data, prehypertension was not associated with all-cause mortality. More high quality cohort studies stratified by BP range are needed.

Ok, so here is some information. Let’s chart it out as best we can. Here is the diagnostic banding used by the medical profession here in the US. I note it is unadjusted for age or anything else, which is fine, got to start somewhere:

  • Normal blood pressure – below 120 / 80 mm Hg.
  • Prehypertension – 120-139 / 80-89 mm Hg.
  • Stage 1 hypertension – 140-159 / 90-99 mm Hg.
  • Stage 2 hypertension – 160 / 100 mm Hg or higher.

The meta-study above further divides the prehypertension range into a high and low as follows:

  • Low Prehypertension – 120–129/80–84 mmHg
  • High Prehypertension – 130–139/85–89 mmHg

This particular study does nothing with Stage 1 and 2 hypertension – too bad. But it’s mostly those prehypertension numbers I’m worried about personally. Anyway, here’s what we’ve got so far.

BP graph 1

We will here ignore what looks like a bit of statistical hoodoo – we’re blending different studies, calculating p-values and confidence intervals to the combined results – um, maybe? Perhaps if Mr. Briggs or Mr. Flynn drops by, they can give a professional opinion. Me, I’m just – cautious. So, what’s this telling us?

If I’m reading it correctly – not a given by any stretch – we’ve determined the total relative risk or RR (a term of art, but sorta means what it seems to mean) at the base state and the three partially overlapping prehypertension states based on both systolic and diastolic BP ranges, both on a ‘All Causes’ and a cardiovascular diseases basis. What this appears to say is that a meta analysis of 13 studies of nearly a million people over several decades shows that your risk of illness from any cause increases .03 RR points, or 3% over the base value, if your BP runs a little high, but that your risk of cardiovascular  disease increases 32%. Which doesn’t exactly make sense if one assumes cardiovascular diseases are part of ‘All Causes’ – and why wouldn’t they be? – unless slightly high BP somehow reduces the sum of all other risks. Also, the analysis run over the two sub-ranges of low and high prehypertension do not look like they could possibly add up to the values over the entire prehypertension range – which could well be an artifact of the statistical analysis used. If that is the case, does not logic indicate that the results are quite a bit less certain than the p-values and confidence intervals would suggest? Again, I am very much an amatuer, so I could be a million miles off, but these are the questions that occur to me.

The critical piece missing for my purposes: what scale of risk does the RR here represent? A 32% increase in a .01% chance of Bad Things Happening is hardly worth thinking about; a 32% increase in a 20% risk of Bad Things is a whole ‘nuther kettle of fish.

I’m about researched out for the moment, will continue to google around for more information when I get a moment.

UPDATE:

Is it obvious enough that I’m a LITTLE COMPULSIVE? Just found this, at the Wiley Online Library: 

BP chart 2

Don’t know if this is annualized (per year) numbers, or a total across the entire age range, that ‘all significant’ part worries me a little, but: this seems to be saying that I, a 60 year old man, could expect a 1.8% chance of cardiovascular disease (however that’s defined) if my blood systolic blood pressure falls between 120 and 139, or, more important to my purposes, minisculely more risk than if my BP was the more desirable 120.

This is in line with what one would expect from the data in the previous chart.

Still a lot more work to do here.

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AI-yai-yai.

Henry Kissinger (yes, he’s still alive – 95 yrs old. His dad made it to 95 and his mom to 98, I think, so he may be with us even longer.) has opined that we’ve got to do something about AI:

Henry Kissinger: Will artificial intelligence mean the end of the Enlightenment?

Two thoughts: Like Hank himself, it seems the Enlightenment is, surprisingly, still kicking. Also: End the Enlightenment? Where’s the parade and party being held? Oh wait – Hank thinks that would be a bad thing. Hmmm.

Onward: Dr. K opines:

“What would be the impact on history of self-learning machines —machines that acquired knowledge by processes particular to themselves, and applied that knowledge to ends for which there may be no category of human understanding? Would these machines learn to communicate with one another? [quick hint: apparently, they do] How would choices be made among emerging options? Was it possible that human history might go the way of the Incas, faced with a Spanish culture incomprehensible and even awe-inspiring to them?”

Note: this moment of introspection was brought about by the development of a program that can play Go way better than people. Little background: Anybody can write a program to play tic-tac-toe, as the rules are clear, simple and very, very limiting: there are only 9 squares, so there will never be more than 9 options for any one move, and no more than 9+8+7+6+5+4+3+2+1 possible moves. A simple program can exhaust all possible moves, dictate the next move in all possible scenarios, and thus guarantee whatever outcome the game allows and the programmer wants – win or draw, in practice.

Chess, on the other hand, is much harder game, with an effectively inexhaustible number of possible moves and configurations. People have been writing chess playing programs for decades, and, a few decades ago, managed to come up with programs sophisticated enough to beat any human chess player. Grossly put, they work by a combination of heuristics used to whittle choices down to more plausible moves (any chess game contains the possibility of any number of seemingly nonsensical moves), simply brute-force playing out of possible good choices for some number of moves ahead, and refinement of algorithms based on outcomes to improve the heuristics. Since you can set two machines to play each other, or one machine to play itself, for as long or as many games as you like, the possibility arises – and seems to have taken place – that, by playing millions more games than any human could ever play, measuring the outcomes, and refining their rules for picking ‘good’ moves, computers can program themselves – can learn, as enthusiasts enthusiastically anthropomorphize – to become better chess players than any human being.

Go presents yet another level of difficulty, and it was theorized not too many years ago to not be susceptible to such brute-force solutions. A Go master can study a board mid-game, and tell you which side has the stronger position, but, legendarily, cannot provide any sort of coherent reason why that side holds an advantage. The next master, examining the same board, would, it was said, reach the same conclusion, but be able to offer no better reasons why.

At least, that was the story. Because of the even greater number of possible moves and the difficulty mid-game of assessing which side held the stronger position, it was thought that Go would not fall to machines any time soon, at least, if they used the same sort of logic used to create the chess playing programs.

Evidently, this was incorrect. So now Go has suffered the same fate as chess: the best players are not players, but machines with programs that have run through millions and millions of possible games, measured the results, programmed themselves to follow paths that generate the desired results, and so now cannot be defeated by mere mortals. (1)

But of course, the claim isn’t that AI is mastering games where the rules clearly define both all possible moves and outcomes, but rather is being applied to other fields as well.

After hearing this speech, Mr. Kissinger started to study the subject more thoroughly and learned that artificial intelligence goes far beyond automation. AI programs don’t deal only with the rationalization and improvement of means, they are also capable of establishing their own objectives, making judgments about the future and of improving themselves on the basis of their analysis of the data they acquire. This realization only caused Mr. Kissinger’s concerns to grow:

“How is consciousness to be defined in a world of machines that reduce human experience to mathematical data, interpreted by their own memories? Who is responsible for the actions of AI? How should liability be determined for their mistakes? Can a legal system designed by humans keep pace with activities produced by an AI capable of outthinking and potentially outmaneuvering them?”

“Capable of establishing their own objectives” Um, what? They are programs, run on computers, according to the rules of computers. It happens all the time that following the rule set, which is understood to be necessarily imperfect in accordance with Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, computer programs will do unexpected things (although I’d bet user error, especially on the part of the people who wrote the programming languages involved, is a much bigger player in such unexpected results than Godel).

I can easily imagine that a sophisticated (read: too large to be understood by anyone and thus likely to be full of errors invisible to anyone) program might, following one set of instructions, create another set of instructions to comply with some pre existing limitation or goal that may or may not be completely defined in itself. But I’d like to see the case where a manufacturing analysis AI, for example, sets an objective such as ‘become a tulip farmer’ and starts ordering overalls and gardening spades off Amazon. Which is exactly the kind of thing a person would do, but not the kind of thing one would expect a machine to do.

On to the Enlightenment, and Hank’s concerns:

“The Enlightenment started with essentially philosophical insights spread by a new technology. Our period is moving in the opposite direction. It has generated a potentially dominating technology in search of a guiding philosophy. AI developers, as inexperienced in politics and philosophy as I am in technology, should ask themselves some of the questions I have raised here in order to build answers into their engineering efforts. This much is certain: If we do not start this effort soon, before long we shall discover that we started too late.”

Anyway, go watch the videos at the bottom of the article linked above. What you see are exactly the problem Dr. K is worried about – “AI developers, as inexperienced in politics and philosophy as I am in technology” – although in a more basic and relevant context. The engineer in the videos keeps saying that they wrote a program that, without any human intervention and without any priming of the pump using existing human-played games of Go, *programmed itself* from this tabla rasa point to become the (machine) Master of (human) Masters!

When, philosophically and logically, that’s not what happened at all! The rules of the game, made up by humans and vetted over centuries by humans, contain within themselves everything which could be called the game of Go in its logical form. Thus, by playing out games under those rules, the machine is not learning something new and even less creating ex nihilo – it is much more like a clock keeping time than a human exploring the possibilities of a game.

The key point is that the rules are something, and something essential. They are the formal cause of the game. The game does not exist without them. No physical manifestation of the game is the game without being a manifestation of the rules. This is exactly the kind of sophomore-level philosophy the developers behind this program can almost be guaranteed to be lacking.

(Aside: this is also what is lacking in the supposed ‘universe simply arose from nothing at the Big Bang’ argument made by New Atheists. The marvelous and vast array of rules governing even the most basic particles and their interactions must be considered ‘nothing’ for this argument to make sense. The further difficulty arises from mistaking cause for temporal cause rather than logical cause, where the lack of a ‘before’ is claimed to invalidate all claims of causality – but that’s another topic.)

The starry-eyes developers now hope to apply the algorithms written for their Go program to other areas, since they are not dependent on Go, but were written as a general solution. A general solution, I hasten (and they do not hasten) to add: with rules, procedures and outcomes as clearly and completely defined as those governing the game of Go.

Unlike Dr. Kissinger, I am not one bit sorry to see the Enlightenment, a vicious and destructive myth with a high body count and even higher level of propaganda to this day, die ASAP. I also differ in what I fear, and I think my reality-based fears are in fact connected with why I’d be happy to see the Enlightenment in the dustbin of History (hey, that’s catchy!): What’s more likely to happen is that men, enamoured of their new toy, will proceed to insist that life really is whatever they can reduce to a set of rules a machine can follow. That’s the dystopian nightmare, in which the machines merely act out the delusions of the likes of Zuckerberg.  It’s the delusions we should fear, more than the tools this generation of rootless, self-righteous zealots dream of using to enforce them.

  1. There was a period, in the 1980s if I’m remembering correctly, where the best chess playing programs could be defeated if the human opponent merely pursued a strategy of irrational but nonfatal moves: the programs, presented repeatedly with moves that defied the programs’ heuristics, would break. But that was a brief Star Trek moment in the otherwise inexorable march forward of machines conquering all tasks that can be fully defined by rules, or at least getting better at them than any human can.

Key Psychological Study is a Fraud. Who’da Thunk It?

Confession time: This is a case, somewhat, of personal confirmation bias for me. I should have read this, when I came across it years ago, with a solid double dollop of skepticism. Instead, I was too willing to just swallow it as presented as a yet another sad example of fallen human nature. Cautionary tale, folks.

This one:

The Stanford prison experiment was an attempt to investigate the psychological effects of perceived power, focusing on the struggle between prisoners and prison officers. It was conducted at Stanford University between August 14–20, 1971, by a research group led by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo using college students. It was funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research as an investigation into the causes of difficulties between guards and prisoners in the United States Navy and United States Marine Corps. The experiment is a topic covered in most introductory (social) psychology textbooks.

Guards and prisoners had been chosen randomly from the volunteering college students. Some participants developed their roles as the officers and enforced authoritarian measures and ultimately subjected some prisoners to psychological torture. Many of the prisoners passively accepted psychological abuse and, by the officers’ request, actively harassed other prisoners who tried to stop it. Zimbardo, in his role as the superintendent, allowed abuse to continue. Two of the prisoners left mid-experiment, and the whole exercise was abandoned after six days following the objections of graduate student Christina Maslach, whom Zimbardo was dating (and later married). Certain portions of the experiment were filmed, and excerpts of footage are publicly available.

The way it’s usually presented is this experiment revealed that apparently normal people (you know, white male college students. What could be more normal than that?) harbor wellsprings of sadism that only require an opportunity to reveal themselves. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of (white college student) men? The Stanford Prison Experiment does! It is referenced in connection with the My Lai Massacre and the Armenian Genocide (no, really) to explain how American troops could shoot unarmed villagers and nice Turks could strip naked and crucify teenage girls.

More often these days, even the little bit of professional scientific restraint shown by psychologists is shed in favor of using this study as a stick to beat a particular drum. We’re supposed to believe that the Power Structure creates bad behavior. It’s Rousseau all over again, but now wearing the Sacred Lab Coat of Science! College students – gentle, loving college students who wouldn’t hurt a fly, no doubt –  would, in a state of nature (1) never dream of being sadistic, power-obsessed meanies, become sadistics, power-obsessed meanies once given POWER over other students.

It’s the power dynamic all the way down, man. Any time you see people acting sadistically, killing people, stuff like that, it’s really not their fault! Theories of sin or any other form of personal responsibility that place even part of the blame on the individual are WRONG. You want people to behave better, New Soviet Man style? Expecting them (me. us.) to behave isn’t going to get you anywhere. You need to destroy the Power Structure! This attitude, Marx’s simplification and streamlining of Hegel’s notion of the Spirit acting through History, effectively absolves individuals from all responsibility for Bad Stuff. If, as Hegel posits, the Spirit – God Himself! – is behind all this History, (frog) marching the World dialectically forward, then what difference does individual human actions – human will – make? The only virtue, such as it is, would be getting on the History train. You get run over otherwise. Marx’s trick is to remove the vaguely Judeo-Christian flavoured God of Hegel and just assigning agency to the not-at-all-a-God-History, who nonetheless is a jealous God one must not get on the wrong side of.

But I saw none of this clearly. Until now: 

It was late in the evening of August 16th, 1971, and twenty-two-year-old Douglas Korpi, a slim, short-statured Berkeley graduate with a mop of pale, shaggy hair, was locked in a dark closet in the basement of the Stanford psychology department, naked beneath a thin white smock bearing the number 8612, screaming his head off.

“I mean, Jesus Christ, I’m burning up inside!” he yelled, kicking furiously at the door. “Don’t you know? I want to get out! This is all f**ked up inside! I can’t stand another night! I just can’t take it anymore!”

It was a defining moment in what has become perhaps the best-known psychology study of all time….

Zimbardo, a young Stanford psychology professor, built a mock jail in the basement of Jordan Hall and stocked it with nine “prisoners,” and nine “guards,” all male, college-age respondents to a newspaper ad who were assigned their roles at random and paid a generous daily wage to participate. The senior prison “staff” consisted of Zimbardo himself and a handful of his students.

The study was supposed to last for two weeks, but after Zimbardo’s girlfriend stopped by six days in and witnessed the conditions in the “Stanford County Jail,” she convinced him to shut it down. Since then, the tale of guards run amok and terrified prisoners breaking down one by one has become world-famous, a cultural touchstone that’s been the subject of books, documentaries, and feature films — even an episode of Veronica Mars.

The SPE is often used to teach the lesson that our behavior is profoundly affected by the social roles and situations in which we find ourselves. But its deeper, more disturbing implication is that we all have a wellspring of potential sadism lurking within us, waiting to be tapped by circumstance. It has been invoked to explain the massacre at My Lai during the Vietnam War, the Armenian genocide, and the horrors of the Holocaust. And the ultimate symbol of the agony that man helplessly inflicts on his brother is Korpi’s famous breakdown, set off after only 36 hours by the cruelty of his peers.

There’s just one problem: Korpi’s breakdown was a sham.

“Anybody who is a clinician would know that I was faking,” he told me last summer, in the first extensive interview he has granted in years. “If you listen to the tape, it’s not subtle. I’m not that good at acting. I mean, I think I do a fairly good job, but I’m more hysterical than psychotic.”

Read the article.  What interest and saddens me is that the subjects of this fraud did not in fact out the dude and drag him into court for illegally imprisoning them. Why? Just a guess here: because they, too, had academic ambitions. Certainly Kopri did. Academics seem to have a certain immunity to having to behave like adults and accept consequences, because they can so easily destroy the careers of the little people under them.

So, has anybody tried to replicate this thing? Glad you asked:

According to Alex Haslam and Stephen Reicher, psychologists who co-directed an attempted replication of the Stanford prison experiment in Great Britain in 2001, a critical factor in making people commit atrocities is a leader assuring them that they are acting in the service of a higher moral cause with which they identify — for instance, scientific progress or prison reform. We have been taught that guards abused prisoners in the Stanford prison experiment because of the power of their roles, but Haslam and Reicher argue that their behavior arose instead from their identification with the experimenters, which Jaffe and Zimbardo encouraged at every turn. Eshelman, who described himself on an intake questionnaire as a “scientist at heart,” may have identified more powerfully than anyone, but Jaffe himself put it well in his self-evaluation: “I am startled by the ease with which I could turn off my sensitivity and concern for others for ‘a good cause.’”

Finally, here’s the real issue that comes up whenever the so-called Replication Crisis is brought up: careers get built on half-baked if not out and out dishonest ‘studies’ done to promote, in some order, a particular political agenda and the researcher’s career. Those screaming loudest about the evil, evil people trying and failing to replicate their studies are exactly those people who have ridden the fame of such flawed and dishonest studies to prominence and tenure.

Because that’s the way it works in the soft ‘sciences’.

The Stanford prison experiment established Zimbardo as perhaps the most prominent living American psychologist. He became the primary author of one of the field’s most popular and long-running textbooks, Psychology: Core Concepts, and the host of a 1990 PBS video series, Discovering Psychology, which gained wide usage in high school and college classes and is still screened today. Both featured the Stanford prison experiment.

  1. What is the natural environment for elite psychology students? Smoking dope on daddy’s yacht? That would indeed be pretty mellow. Meow.

Wednesday Update & r/K Strategy

Been a crazy busy/stressful last several days. Here’s where we stand:

A. Beta readers: Got feedback already from several of you – thanks! Just send the same story to a couple more people. Right now, I’ve got 6 beta readers! Wow! You guys are generous.

I want to give each of your comments proper consideration, which, given both time constraints and focus distracted by Real Life, I have yet to do. Thought a three-day weekend would give me an opportunity, but didn’t happen. Now looking at school camping trip this weekend (supposed to be 93F – oh, joy.) followed by the year end/graduation party next weekend, with Mrs Yardsale flying to SoCal to be with Elder Daughter for her graduation from an acting conservatory in L.A.. Meanwhile, 80 yr old mother in law lives with us, which is overall a beautiful thing for which I am grateful, but it does eat time and cramp any spontaneity. And all this is on top of Other Stuff that’s taking a toll on time, concentration, sleep – the usual.

Sooo – please be patient. I really do appreciate all your comments, and will make revisions as appropriate.

Rabbit
Don’t let those floppy ears and timid facade fool you. They all dream of being the Beast of Caerbannog

B. What’s up with this r/K theory of political alignment? Ran into it a few times over the last few months, even found a free book expounding it (by some anonymous author who says it’s his idea). Count me unimpressed.

Here’s how it goes:

In biology, r = rate of procreation; K = an environment’s carrying capacity for a particular creature. These variables became associated with two reproductive strategies, called r and K.

So: in an environment of relative abundance, an r strategy is proposed as best from a Darwinian/gene survival point of view: produce as many offspring as possible as fast as possible. Animals pursuing (in that weird sense in which animals are said to pursue gene-survival strategies ) an r-strategy exhibit 5 behaviors:

  1. Conflict avoidance. Avoid competing;
  2. Reproduce young and often;
  3. Breed indiscriminately – lots of mating with whoever is handy;
  4. Provide minimal or no care in raising the offspring;
  5. Show no group loyalty – no concern for other members of your tribe.

The r-strategy is said to occur in prey animals, where predation keeps their numbers down to a point where survival is never a question of competition for scarce resources. The population is always below the environment’s carrying capacity. The reasoning is thus: if there is plenty of food and water, don’t fight over it; if predators are likely to pick you off sooner rather than later, breed early and often; since survival is a numbers game, don’t waste time finding an optimal mate or raising your young; everybody gets eaten sooner or later, so no point worrying about who is getting eaten today.

The K-strategy is said to occur among predators, whose numbers tend to be constrained by the availability of prey. Thus, they live at or near the carrying capacity K of their environment. The optimal strategy is said to include:

  1. Competition is natural and unavoidable, so you’d better compete agressively;
  2. Only the most fit offspring survive, so delay and limit breeding to produce fewer but very fit offspring;
  3. Mates are chosen carefully and competed over, as the most fit mate produces the most fit offspring
  4. Large investment in raising the young, with both parents and the herd/pack taking care;
  5. Show loyalty and interest in the group you belong to, because that’s the group your mating prospects and survival depend upon.

You can see where this is going. Rabbits are the example typically given of an r-strategy species. It’s an appealing generalization – I recall seeing a video of a stoat hunting rabbits in a field full of rabbits. The stoat picked his target, and began to harass and exhaust it while the other rabbits continued to nibble away at the abundant grass. The stoat eventually killed it. (The stoat leapt on the rabbit’s back, bit through the rabbit’s spine at the neck, and then dragged the much larger prey away. Nasty little devils.)

Rabbit of Caerbannog | Villains Wiki | FANDOM powered by Wikia
You thought they were kidding about the Beast of Caerbannog? 

The other rabbits hardly looked up during the whole ordeal. Presumably, they went back to the warren and bred like, well, rabbits immediately after being sated with grass.

Wolves are given as the K-strategy poster-creatures. They compete with each other yet also hunt as a team, they spend comparatively large amounts of time and effort raising comparatively fewer young to be as fit as possible. Only mature, fit individuals get to breed. Wolves are loyal to their pack. They compete for the best mates.

Humans, it is proposed, are genetically disposed toward one or the other of these strategies, because our environments run to both extremes. When we’re settled and competing for resources with each other, K is successful and r would be out competed. But when we migrate to new places where there are no people, such as we hominids have done repeatedly for the last million years, then an r strategy wins. We’d just be wasting time with a K strategy, competing with each other when we could be out hunting the abundant game or gathering the abundant edibles – and breeding up a bunch of offspring.

Accordingly, r-strategy Americans end up Democrats or Socialists. while K-strategy Americans gravitate toward being Republicans or Libertarians.

There is more to read, which the author claims gives all the boring scientific evidence and reasoning for all this, but I think we’ve already arrived at a point where a boatload of prudent skepticism is called for. First off, like all sociobiological theories, there’s large dollop of Just So story here. The inquiring mind wants to know: how, exactly, would one even construct an experiment or field study to demonstrate any of this in the animal kingdom? Not saying it can’t be done, but it’s not obvious. How does one measure, for example, identify breeding preferences in wild populations, let alone group cohesion or how much a parent morns? While it’s easy to say an elephant mourns when its baby dies, and that a rat does not, how are we to measure this? How do we filter out the anthropomorphizing and confirmation biases?

Then, you’d need to replicate it across a bunch of species and environments to prove it out. Then you’d need the usual double-blind non-WEIRD study of people across a wide population – you know, like is almost never done – before applying any of this to human beings in general.

For starters. Then there’s the claim that there are genetic markers for behaviors as generally ill-defined as being liberal or conservative – or something, haven’t gotten to that part yet. I’m doubtful.

What I’m not doubtful of is the appeal of sociobiological explanations for complex human behavior. We’re into our second century of explaining what makes people tick based on some understanding of Darwin or other. Such explanations reveal much more about what the explainer is interested in than what’s going on in the world.

As a footnote, here’s my pet sociobiological theory: some people will only eat food with which they are familiar, others look forward to trying new dishes. (confession: heading off to a Peruvian restaurant tonight to celebrate our 31st anniversary. Why? Because I’ve never been to a Peruvian restaurant before. So you know where I fall.)

Here’s why, according to the theory which is mine: farms have been part of the environment of evolutionary adaptation for many thousands of years now. Settled people tend toward a set menu – what available on the farm and nearby. So natural selection has inclined them to be ‘eat what I know’ types. Meanwhile, other people migrate, such as across the Bering land bridge or on boats to Hawaii. They arrive at places full of edible stuff they’ve never seen before. For such people, the willingness to try new stuff is a must. Natural selection inclines them to go, say, to a Peruvian restaurant.

Of course, a spectrum of behaviors will exist here, as the fuddy-duddies and adventurous insist on marrying each other occasionally, mixing up all those genes. But the extremes prove the point.

Well? You convinced? How is this argument weak in a way other sociobiological arguments are not?

Data

(30 seconds of web searching didn’t uncover one of my favorite cartoons – a solid, no-nonsense business man at his desk, reading a magazine titled “Raw Data”. So you’ll just have to imagine it.)

Two items drifted across my computer screen recently brought to our attention by author and inventor Hans Schantz:

First off, a way-cool map

This is a way-cool map, but brought up a few questions. I responded:

Fascinating. Does this show that Europeans are much better at keeping track of their battles, engage in more formal battles, some combination, or what?

He didn’t know. I didn’t see this information on the map’s web page, but I didn’t really search hard, either. And:

Big picture data collection/validation problems are often ignored. e.g., what’s a battle? 10 guys throwing rock? 20? How about spears? Is a siege a battle? How about an invasion, with little resistance? All those Italian Renaissance ‘battles’ w/ mercenaries & few/no casualties?

A few other considerations: 10 guys throwing rocks might, indeed, be a battle if we’re talking Irish villages of 1,500 years ago or conflicts between hunter-gatherer tribes, while a hundred men with machine guns slugging it out on the periphery of major battle lines might not even qualify as a footnote. Was the bombing of Nagasaki a battle? Why or why not? And so on.

I dig a good map as much as anyone, and admire clever representations of data. But, alas! experience has taught me the sad truth: few, if any, popular maps/data representations are worth the electronic media they are encoded in. This map says, at a glance, that Europeans have many more recorded battles than anybody else. One is sore tempted to think, therefore, Europeans are just that much more violent than other peoples.

Well? Does the map actually say that? We can’t tell without a boatload more information. We do know that, in general, Europeans (and Southwest Asians and Egyptians) were very much into written (and engraved – you get the picture) records than most other cultures at most other times.

Next, this movie of the sun at various wavelengths and enhanced various ways.

Really beautiful stuff, and glorious to see the coronal mass ejections and the magnetic field lines.

But, obviously, we, meaning actual human beings, are not ‘seeing’ any of this directly. All the images of the sun are heavily filtered and enhanced to give us these views. This is true not only here, where simply looking at the sun would blind us, but also for all those glorious Hubble pictures and the fly-by images we get of the planets and other objects in the solar system.

This is a different kind of data problem: we’re trusting that the technicians that worked on this are trying to show us what’s there, in a way. What’s there is, strictly speaking, mostly invisible to us – too bright, too dim, not enough contrast, and so on. I trust the technicians are trying merely to give us the most beautiful and informative pictures they can, mostly because that serves both their mission and their interests. Not so much on the battles map, because it could be used to serve a popular political position. Not saying the map makers are necessarily doing that, just that is very easily could be done. Examples of just such underhanded dishonesty are unfortunately legion.

Data points get made into facts, as Mike Flynn often points out, via the assumptions and theories that surround their collection and presentation. No great landmines in these two examples, but even here it bears keeping in mind.

Bad Numbers. Bad Assertions.

Swamped. Brief notes:

Image result for incredulous face
I have my doubts.

A. Slipped up and listened to the news over the radio on the drive in today. Heard the assertion that the stock market is down due to uncertainty over the China trade situation. Such single causes are routinely proposed for whatever the markets do every day.

I am amazed that people can say stuff like this with a straight face. Thousands if not millions of individuals and institutions make buy and sell decisions on stock exchanges every hour. Many if not most of these trades reflect the workings of more or less sophisticated strategies worked out months or years or lifetimes in advance of any individual event. Even more basic, it’s people making decisions in private.  Fundamentally, that’s what a market is. Buyers buy at what sellers are willing to sell for; sellers sell for what buyers are willing to pay. Yet we accept that there is *a* cause to whatever the market is doing at the moment?

B. Saw a claim that the current administration is evil and stupid for wanting to create a database of social security numbers for all food stamp recipients, to fight double-dipping across state lines, since less than 1% of recipients in fact double dip.

I don’t know anything about this issue, whether it’s big enough to warrant this or any action. I sort of think not. But I have to wonder: lacking precisely the data such a database would collect, how would one come up with that “less than 1%” claim? You send out a bunch of sociology students to hang out at supermarkets asking people paying with food stamps if they double dip? Or what? Seems a totally made up number, that, given the political motivations for believing it, will soon attain to Scriptural levels of certainty. If it hasn’t already.

C. The human capacity to not mentally break in half from the whiplash caused by snapping from one extreme position to its opposite continues to amaze. The current manifestation: the claim that Trump was going to cause WWIII and the concomitant nuclear holocaust by being mean to North Korea has been replaced with nary a pause by the claim that the ending of hostilities in Korea after 70 years is really no big deal (1), dancing in the streets by actual Koreans notwithstanding. These positions seem to be spouted by exactly the same people more often than not.

Um, what? I’m reminded of cult leaders, who keep the loyalty and even love of their followers right up to and past drinking the cool-aide. It seems nothing so mundane as reality can dissuade the True Believers. Me? I share the evident joy of the Koreans, who seem to me to be in the best position to know what’s going on.

  1. The conspiracy theories that have mushroomed up around Trump’s success put fake moon-landing and flat earthers to shame.

Convoluted Nonsense: Chicago

(Something from the draft pile from a month or two ago, that is sadly still pertinent.)

Over the course of reading American history and especially the history of education in America, I’ve developed an interest in Chicago’s history. Also, there was a time about 15-20 years ago when I had a number of customers in Chicago, and so made a trip or three there each year. I still get there occasionally. I’m familiar enough with the city to get the Chicago references in the Matrix without having to look them up.

Today’s absurdities/fake news comes out of Chicago – hardly a surprise. Chicago’s press, such as it is, is remarkable for its ability to ignore the obvious and simultaneously double down and minimize anything that makes the city, and, more importantly, the progressive project the city embodies, look bad. (1) I recall a while back, when googling around for information on Fred Roti, a lifetime Illinois politician, long-time city alderman, son of Mafia hit man Bruno “the Bomber” Roti, FBI-identified made man and convicted criminal, that I found an article about how Fred was just the nicest guy, a true lover of the city and patriot, that the FBI was clearly picking on him, and that law enforcement was the real criminal here. This appeared in one of the major Chicago papers back in the early 90s. This was the man who, for his decades as an alderman, always voted first – clearly, the rest of the city council, in their humility, needed the guidance of his example before doing something so stupid as voting against Roti.

The eminations coming out of the Chicago press defending Chicago are suspect in exactly the same way as the enthusiasm of the 2nd alderman to vote after Roti.

Problem: Chicago has a huge problem with gun violence. People kill each other with alarming frequency. Here’s not at all ever fake news CNN:

Chicago marked 2016 as the deadliest year in nearly two decades, data released by the Chicago Police Department shows.

The city saw a surge in gun violence in 2016: 762 murders, 3,550 shooting incidents, and 4,331 shooting victims, according to a statement released by the department on Sunday.

There were 480 murders in 2015, the most in the city since 1997.

Sounds like things are getting worse. Compare this with the situation in Houston, a similar sized city with a similarly diverse population:

Houston had 302 homicides in 2016, one fewer than a recorded 303 homicides in 2015, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced.

Houston has about 2.2 million people, Chicago about 2.7 million. By the magic of math, we see that Houston has a murder rate per 100,000 people of 14; while Chicago’s is 28. In other words, if murders are evenly distributed (fat chance), one would have twice as high a chance of getting murdered in Chicago as in Houston. However the murders are distributed, there were twice as many per capita in Chicago as in Houston in 2016. Further, Houston had a slight decrease in murders while Chicago had about a 59% increase.

Now, one might conclude from this that it seems likely, barring some pertinent additional information, that whatever the city of Chicago is doing to reduce murder rates isn’t working, while whatever Houston is doing seems to be working a better.

One might turn to the piece linked below in search of whatever might explain the murder rate differences. It is, after all, titled A Reporter Explains What Out-Of-Towners Keep Getting Wrong About Chicago Violence. Hey! I’m an out of towner! And I think Chicago’s murder rate – violence par excellence! – is twice as high as Houston’s because, well, it is. So, what am I getting wrong?

A reporter with the fine name of Evan Moore (no relation as far as I know) was approached by people wanting to make a documentary about Chicago, to get a sort of insider view.

After running down a list of what he liked about my work, he asked me to take him somewhere “relatively safe” on the South Side.

After shaking my head in disbelief, I wrote back asking what his definition of “safe” was. I didn’t hear back from him, but his associate offered a meeting at a coffee shop.

It was clear that the guy wanted to cover the violence in Chicago from a controlled environment. More importantly, he already had a preconceived notion about Chicago that he was going to use to shape his film.

I find this fascinating. I once visited the South Side – University of Chicago, to be specific – and *locals* were giving me all sorts of ‘stay away from there’ advise. They, people living on the South Side, seemed to have opinions more like the people doing the documentary than Mr. Moore. (2)

Also, as is so often the case among our media, our intrepid reporter has leet mind-reading skillz. He *knows* the documentary maker is going to use ‘preconceived notions’ to ‘shape’ his film.  Now, it is fair to assume that the filmmaker has notions about Chicago. They may even be ‘preconceived’ if by that phrase we mean ‘different from what he would have if he knew the city better’. What’s missing are reasons to suppose bad intent on the part of the filmmaker, other than the reporter supposing it.

Now, a simple man, especially a simple man with no bone to pick, might imagine that the documentary maker was soliciting input from locals precisely to ameliorate the effects of his ignorance, with the hope that he would then be able to present a better, truer picture of Chicago in his film. How Moore knows the filmmaker is going to ‘shape’ the film using ‘preconceived’ notions is, based on the information given in the article, borderline calumny – he wants us to believe that this unnamed documentary film maker is out to get Chicago, to sell preconceived notions – meaning negative notions, of course – to show how bad he imagines violence in the city to be. A responsible reporter (I slay me!) would never suggest such an unfavorable interpretation without, well, some facts.

Related image
Downtown, under the L. I’ve whiled away hours walking these streets. Fun. Very alive place. The picture captures, I think, something essential about Chicago’s soul: we need a train here. So stick it here! Not something you’d see in London or even LA.

Now, to be fair, I’ve lived in either LA and the Bay Area almost all my life, and people do get crazy notions about safety. You want to go to Watts or Compton or East LA? Fine, nobody will bother you if you just do your business. Just don’t leave stuff in your car, or park someplace out of the way where it might get stolen or stripped. And don’t just go hang out on the streets in the wee hours. Same goes for Oakland, except that about 75% of that city is really pretty suburban or even upscale. The only time I’ve gotten mugged in my life was at the LA Coliseum when I was a teen, and that was because I was lost in thought and got separated from my friends (who came back to check on me before things got ugly). Stuff happens. Personally, Berkeley, especially around Cal, is the worse, because people will steal your stuff in the blink of an eye. Kind of like in Rome.

So, yea, people get wrong ideas. But you straighten them out. You don’t accuse them of trying to set you up and produce propaganda – unless you’re willing to lay down a lot more evidence to support that idea than is presented in the article.

I understand why people want to come to Chicago to document the violence here. After all, Chicago has a long history of it—from Al Capone to Chief Keef. Chicago has always been considered sexy due to the violence. From the outside looking in, many media pundits, parachute journalists, and the people in the comment section in every media outlet known to man seems to believe that black and brown people on Chicago’s South and West Sides are killing each other on a daily basis and no one in those communities seems to care.

Who considers Chicago ‘sexy’ due to the violence? Any real people you can name? I would not use the word ‘sexy’ to describe anything about Chicago, let alone the violence. (And starting the violence with Capone is late – how about “Bathhouse” John Coughlin- or the Haymarket Riot, occasioned at least partly by voting fraud that never takes place? The not at all sexy history of violence in Chicago goes way back.) Millennium Park is cool, the Art Institute is lovely, the architecture down town is beautiful. Great restaurants. Nice museums. Other than that, it’s mostly a big, kinda dirty city – that is full of life, which is why, I suppose, people like big cities so much in the first place. I can dig it. Colorful might be a better overall term.

“…seems to believe that black and brown people on Chicago’s South and West Sides are killing each other on a daily basis and no one in those communities seems to care.” Let’s see: 762 divided by 365 would indicate that, on average, more than 2 people are getting murdered by *somebody* someplace in Chicago on a daily basis – which might explain the attitude. This would be the point at which a responsible reporter (can’t slay me, already dead) would throw down some facts, something that contradicts what seems on the surface a pretty reasonable position. The statistics I’ve seen largely support the idea that white people killing other white people or white people killing black people isn’t nearly the problem black people killing black people is – but hey, Mr. Reporter, I could be persuaded by some clear information here.

I’m thinking it’s the “…no one in those communities seems to care” that is the point of interest. But wait: Who, again, would imagine such a thing? I, for one, would not in a million years suppose that the people *in the community* in which the murders are taking place don’t “care” – I would assume that they care passionately. How could they not, if it’s their children and brothers and fathers getting killed? The idea that there are people imagining they don’t care is preposterous. One might get that impression cherry-picking the Internet, I suppose. But how about somebody on the record saying such a thing?

Who I would assume don’t care are those who do not live in the neighborhood. Political ideologues, for example, don’t care, those for whom murder is a complex and difficult problem the causes of which are nothing so simple as anger, jealousy, greed, and the desperation and insanity that spring up and thrive like so many mushrooms on the wreckage of destroyed families. (3)  If your ideology requires that you hate and oppose all the traditional supports for families – churches, making divorce hard, making abortion illegal, recognizing marriage and family as greater, more fundamental goods than any state – then you’ll be forced to come up with other supposed supports, such as ever-growing social services, even if such ‘help’ by its very nature divorces the individual from local ties and marries him to a distant bureaucracy. Like Vietnamese villages, we evidently must destroy the neighborhoods in order to save them.

Or maybe I’ve got it all wrong. If so, arguments and numbers might be presented to explain it, or at least to suggest an avenue of exploration. There are no numbers in the article itself. Numbers may be what are giving out of towners their wrong impressions, after all. There are a few links to other articles in the same paper that take exactly the same approach – but do have some numbers. Maybe I’ll take a crack at them later. On the surface, none struck me as very helpful presentations, in that they do, in fact, show Chicago as a comparative disaster in terms of murder rates, yet never really offer any reasons why that aren’t highly speculative and frankly self-serving.

They focus on the amount of deaths and shootings, but not the systemic issues that have festered over time. That’s where the meat of Chicago’s problems are at.

Here’s an assertion. Given the lack of data and argument, one might call it a religious dogma. What gives Chicago such a tragic high and lonely destiny, murder wise, as opposed to other large, diverse American cities? Why don’t those systemic issues show up in the same magnitude in New York? Or Houston?

Chicago is increasingly a talking point of white supremacists and conservative media. After all, Chicago is often looked upon as everything that can wrong when you let liberals run a big city. President Donald Trump recently threatened to send in the National Guard (or in his words, “the feds”), and recently discussed our city with a select group of black people. Previously, Trump falsely claimed that two people were shot during President Barack Obama’s farewell speech in Chicago. He tweeted the numbers of shootings and killings in Chicago, along with calling our city “War Zone,” in meeting with black “leaders” at the White House.

Ah! Now we play the white supremacist card, and link it with the simple word ‘and’ to conservative media. Sure. Why not? That a Chicago neighborhood dweller can’t see any material difference is not an indictment of his eyesight, but rather proof that the overlap of the Venn diagram is near perfect. In classic critical theory, everything is explained as a function of economics, thus rendering all non-economic causes invisible. Here, in accord with the current more flexible iteration of critical theory, race takes the place of economics – that the (undefined – kind of a running theme, here) conservative media might say something from a place other than mere racism is conclusively presumed to be impossible.

Next, if any black person deigns to talk with Trump, that fact alone proves conclusively that they are not black leaders, but black “leaders”.

As you may have noticed, our president, and those who chide our city from the outside, never mention how it’s a small sample of hurt people in hurt communities that commit violent acts towards one another. That stance is willfully ignorant of the importance of investing in poverty-fighting practices and anti-gun policies that can help our communities in the long-run.

There are no arguments. We are merely presented with a story about preconceived notions, the presumed bad intent of some filmmaker, wild and nonsensical accusations that unnamed out of towners think locals don’t care about their family members and neighbors getting killed, a dismissal of the idea – supported by the numbers we’re not seeing – that minorities in the neighborhoods tend to kill each other at a much higher rate than the larger community. We are then told, in conclusion, what to do: invest in “poverty-fighting practices and anti-gun policies”.  Because it’s not like Chicago has been at the forefront of such efforts for a century or more, with the results we see before our eyes….

We report, you decide has passed even from memory; we report and decide has been taken off life support. We’ll tell you what to think is passing before our eyes into we’ll tell you what to feel on its way to we’ll tell you what to do.

  1. Which, if they ever even acknowledge anything wrong with the way the city is run, is always nuanced and complicated, in their view, and in any event the possibility it might have something to do with 100 years of Progressive politics is never raised except to be mocked.  As the linked piece demonstrates.
  2. The University employs 140 police officers. Not security guards, but people with police powers, who patrol University grounds and also patrol some of the nearby streets. I don’t think UCLA or Stanford does this.
  3. I tended to discount stories about how social programs destroy families – seemed overstated, at least. However,  we’ve gotten to know a young family through the local Gabriel Project. Black, poor, from shattered families, but heroic – the mom kept her baby, dad didn’t run away but stayed and eventually married the mother of his child. They both work low end jobs. Crazy hard life, but they’re trying! Well, the mom told my wife recently that a social services person told her that her husband should move out, that as long as he stayed, there were severe limits on what they could do for her and the baby, but if he were out of the picture, there would be more aid available. Pure evil. I wish I could be sure this is an unintended consequence.