Sunday, August 29, 2010

Unexpected poetry

Just some light academic humor. Enjoy, and please don't take too seriously!

He rode to war with pen in hand,
And worthy paper foes he slew.
The ivory warlords could not stand;
In alma mater, foreign land,
And even in the journals grand,
The deepest minds he did subdue.

But one blow made it through his shield;
An enemy -- Reviewer Two.
This sagged beast refused to yield,
Indeed would never leave the field.
Retired, to his lair he wheeled
To cry, "Revise! More data, too".

The crotchety reviewer aimed,
And academic blood he drew.
That editors, so bowed and shamed,
Permit prestige concerns so lame,
Our hero quipped -- "The rig is gamed!
Lord, let me live through this review".

But Lord The Editor is fickle.
What carest he for a career?
Or research slowing to a trickle?
Or that the cost's a good grant nickel?
All for the sake of one small stickle,
From some old man who needs a beer.

Such struggles ever heroes make.
As our man set his will, he knew --
Reviewers do not bend, they break.
What won't one do for science' sake?
And so, with guilty, heart-filled ache,
He puckered up and bought a brew.

Like dragons, all reviewers crave
Is for their belly to be rubbed.
Throw them citations, and they cave
To heroes valiant and brave,
Or just one who, a willing knave,
Is, at a conference, up for grub.

Why, does our story disagree?
Nepotic networks pull one through!
Didst thou think the academy
Does not reward skullduggery?
Well, then may your sweet soul be free
To act a mite bit differently,
When at your desk, reviewing me,
You see your name -- Reviewer Two.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Speed Friending

Oh boy. I was going to write a big post on "speed friending", thinking that I'd had a brilliant new idea. But before clicking that "publish" button, it somehow occurred to me for the first time to actually google it. And of course, I've been scooped. As the First Law of the internet dictates -- if you've thought of something, somebody has already made a website about it. (A corollary is that the website is at least 50% likely to be porn).

Well, I still think the idea is great and worth spreading. So here are some links!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The California Disease: Democracy and Magical Thinking

Many political observers have commented on the disconnect between what people want their government to do, and how much they are willing to pay their government to do it. Nowhere is this phenomenon clearer than in the case of California. The story starts in 1911, when California adopted a form of direct democracy, involving an initiative-referendum process. On this system, just about any proposed change to the law can be brought to a vote by the public with enough initial support. In 1973, using the initiative system, a wave of populist sentiment brought about proposition 13, which has forced property taxes to stay at, or below the level of inflation, reducing them by about 57% of their previous level. I won't go into the many problems Prop 13 has caused since its adoption, because I'd just be summarizing the Wikipedia entry.

This law is seen as the "political third rail" in California -- it is political suicide for anyone who wants to overturn it, because nobody wants higher taxes, and yet it cries out to be overturned, since it makes funding the state increasingly difficult as time goes on. Any sizable tax increase is going to require massive political willpower (involving a 2/3 majority in the state legislature) or another ballot initiative, neither of which are going to happen. Essentially, people want more for less. This is what I refer to as "magical thinking" on the part of voters in this context -- the idea that lower taxes don't have to cause a decrease in services.I could cite some psychological research here, but I don't think I need to. It's essentially a truism accepted by just about every academic and non-academic alike, that given the direct choice between paying two amounts -- one smaller and one larger -- for some product or service, people will choose to pay less. And the result of direct democracy like California's appears to be just that -- people want lower taxes, without a corresponding decrease in the services that those taxes provide.

There could be a few causes for this. One apparent cause is that Americans generally seem to think that over 50% of their tax money is "wasted". If that were true, it would make sense to think that the best way to increase what a person gets for the amount of tax money they pay is to reduce waste, and that paying more taxes would just mean that more of them are wasted. However, this belief is probably less of an explanation than a phenomenon in need of explanation itself. As Tom Schaller over at FiveThirtyEight points out, this belief is completely divorced from facts, and can't possible be true. So why do people subscribe to it?

I think the root cause is magical thinking. I think people want more for less, and don't much worry about how the "less" they vote for now (ie. lower taxes) will affect the "more" they're going to want later. But, ok, let's be more psychologically rigorous. I am very far from being an expert on this literature, but I'll summarize some of what I know. I'd be very interested in input from psychologically savvy readers into other likely causes and relevant phenomena.

A number of psychologists have examined how people reason about causation. While some of the results appear to be encouraging -- for example, infants appear to be pretty excellent Bayesian inference machines when it comes to figuring out basic contingencies between candidate causes and consequences, all observed together in an experimental setting, many theorists have pointed out that adults reasoning about causality on a larger scale, attempting to consider multiple potential causal factors simultaneously, are prone to a large number of biases. This research goes back as far as early work on the fundamental attribution error, which describes a psychological phenomenon in which people ascribe more external causality (uncontrollable, outside factors) to unfavorable events affecting them, and more internal causality to favorable events -- vice versa when judging causal factors affecting other people.

Beyond general fallacies in causal reasoning, more recent research is more relevant here. Specifically, it appears that humans are prone to two fallacies when reasoning about some specific strong causal factor: conditionalization and discounting. In the former, people ignore the effect of a moderate causal factor in the presence of an accompanying strong factor when the effects of the two factors are not independent of each other, apparently holding all factors but the strong one constant when engaging in causal reasoning. Discounting also describes a phenomenon where people ignore a moderate factor in the presence of a stronger one, but happens even when conditionalization does not occur -- that is, even when the two causal factors are completely independent.

These phenomena may explain some of the magical thinking at the root of "the California disease". Voters may find the actions of their elected officials a more salient, direct and apparently "stronger" cause of the budget deficits their governments face. This may cause them to disregard the causal impact of their own referendum voting to freeze tax revenues. This is an empirical question, and one I would like to see explored in the (unfortunately relatively tiny) political psychology literature.

Furthermore, even if we correctly analyze the eventual consequences of our actions and our votes, our weighting of those consequences is subject to the well-known phenomenon of temporal discounting. As much research has shown, people tend to weigh immediate rewards more significantly than ones they will receive later. Conversely, negative effects occurring far in the future don't seem to be as bad as ones occurring now. In other words, even if I know that lower taxes now will cause fewer services later (which is a big IF), lower taxes now might just be worth more to me now than the corresponding services, which after all, are only some distant event on the horizon. Of course, temporal discounting applies to thinking about the future -- once the future becomes the present those decreased services start to look awfully undesirable, which is probably why California voters have repeatedly voted down measures to decrease the level of state-run services all the while insisting on keeping their lower taxes, providing no suggestion as to how these services should be funded, and generally giving ulcers to their elected officials.

The main point I want to make is that these (and probably other) biases, heuristics and cognitive mechanisms may make us simply incapable of knowing "what's best for us". It is the role of elected officials to make tough, unpopular choices that eventually prove to be in voters' best interest. I hope, for example, that the result of the recent federal health care bill, which was enacted while somewhat publicly unpopular, will be positive in this way. Certainly, historical cases like Medicare lend some support to this hope. Conservatives will, of course, perceive this as traditional "father-knows-best" liberalism, but that gets the direction of causality backwards. I do not believe in "father-knows-best" government because I am a liberal. I am a liberal (partly) because I believe there is good independent reason to think people are bad at making collective action decisions that are in their own long-term interest, let alone the general public's. This leads to a clear problem with the notion of direct democracy, and may imply that indirect, or representative democracy, is a better alternative. Of course, it is not so clear that other people can make better judgments for us than for themselves.

To be clear, I don't think this magical thinking phenomenon is anything new, or special to California. It is simply that direct democracy systems like California's give these biases more opportunity to cause negative effects. Whether we have a direct or indirect democracy, the California Disease is a constant threat to our economic well-being as a society -- not because people are evil and not even just because they are selfish (although the fundamental attribution error can be interpreted as some form of selfishness), but because we are built with limited and final cognitive machinery which does not allow us to fully analyze the impact of our own actions, or to weigh those impacts appropriately.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Laws of Nature

Why do psychologists ever worry about finding laws of nature for the mind? Isn't it kind of like looking for laws of computer output or laws of car behaviour?

Maybe more interestingly, why are laws possible in physics? Ie. what kind of thing is the physical universe, such that it is possible to discover laws about it?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Justice isn't for sale or Why are all lawyers not publically funded?

I've been on hiatus due to workload, and I am unlikely to be on anything like a regular posting schedule for a while. Nevertheless, I will try to post what I think might be particularly juicy ideas when they occur.

We've all heard about and been outraged by the cases where people accused of crimes buy their innocence through high-powered lawyers. OJ Simpson is probably the most notorious of these examples (and the one that got me thinking of this topic), but I'm sure there are countless lower profile cases (lawyer friends, help me out here?). And really, the point of this post is just to ask: Why do we allow this to happen? Why have we explicitly set up our legal system in such a way that people with more money are more likely to go free? Isn't justice supposed to be blind?

What I'm suggesting is simply that every attorney be a public attorney. From a moral perspective, do we not want the rich and the poor to have the same standing in the eyes of the law, when they are on trial for the same crime? I don't know if the proposal makes sense for non-criminal cases, but I can't immediately think why it wouldn't. Again, my knowledge of the law is lacking, so if someone has a good reason, let me know in the comments. I feel like I should say more in favor of my argument here, but I just can't find anything to say. The point seems to me to be extremely straightforward. So far, I can find absolutely no moral rationale for the system we currently have.

But perhaps there is an economic rationale. One objection I can see to this idea is that somebody's going to have to pay for it, and that probably means higher taxes for someone. One reasonable part of this objection is that if the tax is at a flat rate, it will be regressive, with lower income people paying disproportionately for a service they currently get for free (assuming low income people are already forced to rely on the public defender system, and would get nothing in return for paying the tax). However, there is really no reason for the tax to be flat. We already tax income progressively in just about every developed country in the world. In this case, a progressive tax seems even fairer than usual, since high income people are the ones who will be using the new extension of the service the most (again, presumably low income people were already relying on public attorneys). Of course, some of them might object -- they would no longer have the advantage of having better attorneys than the other guy. Highly paid attorneys might object too -- presumably, their salaries will go down. But aren't these things sort-of the point?

Think of the social outcome. No more teams of corporate lawyers being able to screw individuals who don't have the means to fight back (as in the RIAA lawsuits, or GMO companies suing farmers who end up with wind-blown GMO crop on their land). If a corporation has a grievance they can use a public prosecution system, just like any grievance anyone else has. No more OJ Simpson-type criminal cases. I'd be curious to hear if anyone sees a downside.

Friday, November 20, 2009

One reason I like Stoicism

More posts are on the way. But, for now, a quick one.

I was thinking about one of my favorite quotes from the Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, when something occurred to me. I wonder if it'll occur to you too.

Marcus says:

"Say to yourself every morning, I shall meet with meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, churlish men. All these things happen to them because they are ignorant of good and evil. But I, who have seen that the nature of the good is beautiful, and of the bad is ugly, and that the nature of him who does wrong is akin to me, not only because we are of the same blood or seed, but because we participate in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsmen, nor hate them. For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and acting against one another is to be vexed and to turn away."

Here are some very minor modifications to that quote that occurred to me. There is nothing particularly systematic or rigorously philosophical here -- just a fanciful play with the quote, but one that conveys a very different religious and philosophical tone.

"Say to yourself every morning, I am a meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, churlish man. All these things happen to me because I am ignorant of good and evil. But you, who has seen that the nature of the good is beautiful, and of the bad is ugly, and that the nature of him who does wrong is akin to you, not only because you are of the same blood or seed, but because you participate in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, you can neither be injured by me, for no one can fix on you what is ugly, nor can you be angry with me or my kinsmen, nor hate us. For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against you then is contrary to nature; and acting against you is to be vexed and to turn away."

Now, when I considered the quote after doing this pronoun replacement, its Christianity completely caught me off-guard. It sounds to me like it could be a very profound and orthodox Christian prayer. Maybe this little play is completely silly and pointless, but it struck me also that this is precisely why I prefer Stoicism as a way of life to a religion like Christianity. Christianity would acknowledge all of the same power and ability, but consider it belonging to someone else -- to someone who one must prostrate before, and in some sense, beg from. Stoicism, in contrast, seems directly and enormously empowering -- you have all of these wonderful faculties, and you can and must choose daily to exercise them. I should note no specific anti-Christian bias here. Judaism, for example, seems not too far away from Christianity in advocating this sort of humble, prostrating, enervating kind of approach to daily life.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Does your brain balance prediction and observation?

Sorry for the slight infrequency in my posts. Things are hectic in graduate school, as can be expected. I do still plan to update this blog with thoughts as frequently as I can find time.

So I just watched a talk by Moshe Bar of the Harvard Medical School. The thrust of his research program is that the mind (and neural substrates thereof) do not passively respond to environmental stimuli, but constantly attempt to predict what is about to happen -- what the eyes are about to see happen next, for example. Or, if seeing a blurry outline of an object, inferring what that object is from contextual and shape cues. Bar showed very neat MEG evidence showing that the time course for activation of the (prefrontal) brain area supposed to do the prediction is about right for his hypothesis. In other words, it activates before the area associated more directly with conscious recognition of an object does. Curiously, this means that the prefrontal cortex is involved directly in fairly low level vision. This, in and of itself, is interesting data, and Bar's hypothesis seems plausible. But to my mind, it says too little about the cognitive mechanisms involved. Here is a proposal about what could be going on, from a computational perspective.

This all struck me as very similar to the AI mechanism known as a Kalman filter. Without getting into the math, the basic idea behind a Kalman filter is that it adjusts the balance between prediction and observation in the model of the world that the organism dynamically builds. So, for example, a Kalman-filter-equipped robot that is navigating a ship could rely either on observations of the nearby shoreline combined with the speed reported by its engines to calculate its predicted position in the future. Alternatively, it could rely on "dead reckoning" -- knowing that it left harbor in a particular location, and headed in a particular direction with a particular speed. Which one the robot wants to rely on depends on how noisy each set of information is. If, for example, the robot is in a deep fog where the shoreline is hard to make out, and the engine speed-reporting device is malfunctioning, relying on dead reckoning may be a good idea. If, on the other hand, there is a strong but unpredictable current in the water (say, the ship passed through some whirlpool and came out facing a slightly different direction), then the robot probably wants to rely much more on the shoreline and engine speed readings.

The Kalman filter plays a role in all this by calculating the (mathematically provably) optimal balance between which set of information to rely on (prediction or observation), dependent on the noise of each, such that the model is maximally accurate.

The point of all of this is -- could it be that the neural architecture Bar provides evidence for is actually a neural instantiation of the Kalman filter? One way to test for this might be to see if activation of the prefrontal "predictive" area Bar identifies is lessened when the environmental input is clearer, and strengthened when it is noisier. Of course, even if the neural system is some sort of instantiation of a Kalman-filter-like device, it would not have to behave in this way. Perhaps the prefrontal area Bar identified is just the prediction element of the Kalman filter design, with a further "selective" element being present, which performs the actual computation of determining how the organism should balance relying on prediction versus observation.

Making specific predictions is complicated in this case, but it might also be worthwhile. The idea of a computational mechanism originally proposed in AI being instantiated in neural architecture unites the two fields in a pretty exciting way, shows exactly the kind of thing AI has to contribute to the study of the mind, and might even suggest that we instantiate a computationally, mathematically, theoretically optimal (!!!) mechanism.