On the Right & Civilisations

This is a rewrite of a Tweet thread that started here:

However, Tweets aren’t a great medium for the point I was trying to make, so I’m making it more essay-like here.

“Western Civilisation” or “Judeo-Christian civilisation” are almost content-free markers in right wing discourse these days. In both cases, there is a fundamental incoherence that arises from deep problems with how people like Shapiro think about the world.

‘Civilisation’ implies an ongoing exchange of ideas between people. A civilisation will manifest in many ways (politics, architecture, art) but the idea that these multifold things all connect together comes from people swapping ideas and concepts. However, the right wing rhetorical use of the term ‘civilisation’ implies the opposite: that somehow ideas cannot cross between ‘civilisations’ even though the very examples they use of the wonders of Western Civilisation are prime examples of a very fluid exchange of ideas way beyond the boundaries of the West.

Shapiro concedes grudgingly some maths from India, while ignoring the influence of that same maths in other parts of Asia, or its transmission to the west. There’s no sensible way of considering the cultural and philosophical history of Europe without considering its connection to the Middle East, central Asia and the Indian sub-continent, through migration, trade, war and general proximity. Shapiro cites Aristotle (who was neither Christian nor Jewish) and simultaneously ignores the role of Islamic Aristotelian scholarship on European thought in the middle-ages.

Obviously, the term “Western Civilisation” isn’t wholly meaningless as an idea in general but the alt-right uses it in a way that is little more than a marker for their racism. “Judeo-Christian” is used by sections of the right in a similar way to mask their hatred of Islam. It’s even more absurd as a term, generally only applied to Western European ideas (and often specifically Anglophone ones) while ignoring other cultures with a Christian background (partly out of habit of seeing Eastern Europe as a non-Christian ‘other’) and at the same time partly-ignoring non-Christian influences on European culture (pre-Christian Northern Europe, classical Greece and Rome) while co-opting those classic parts that have been Christianised (see Aristotle above). The “Judeo” part is strictly tokenistic: Maimondes is as likely to be ignored as Averroes.

That Western European thought was influenced by multiple cultures both as an internal dynamic (the many cultures within Europe) or an external dynamic (the many cultures Europe has interacted with by trade, war, invasion, migration, exploration, colonisation etc) is not something that can be admitted to because then any endorsement of the wonders of “Western Civilisation” would by implication be seen an endorsement of multi-culturalism.

Both terms as used by the right are bad history and in Shapiro’s example a bad understanding of how science developed. He actively obscures why Issac Newton did his work where and when he does, turning him into just some sort of brief expression of a kind of miasma of “Judeo-Christian” civilisation. The path that leads to the particular sweet spot that Shapiro seems to be pointing towards, where abstract philosophy meets empirical practicality isn’t something that just pops up if you believe in god in just the right way. If it where then we’d have far more Issac Newtons in Christian and Jewish history. Consequently Shapiro’s analysis (if that’s not too generous a term for it) makes it both harder to understand what was going on in 17th century England and also undermines what actually WAS special about it AND also undermines how Newton’s insights connect with his religious beliefs.

The halting steps towards the modern sense of scientific thinking, in which broad abstract principles are examined with an eye towards experimentation and empirical testing, was a long road full of missteps. It is one in which Aristotle’s work (as he keeps coming up) was both an aid and a hindrance and where contact (both good and bad) with other cultures and beliefs was vital. Religion is not irrelevant here and had positive and negative influences just as a figure like Aristotle had positive and negative influences.

Shapiro needs to set up the relationship as purely one way: that specific religious beliefs begat science because he also needs to hide the opposite effect: that religious beliefs changed because of scientific & philosophical ideas (as well as economy & politics & exploration & colonialism & empire etc) And also, that Islam, Judaism and Christianity kept changing each other over time and still do so. This is hard to accept if your view of religion is one where they are repositories of universal truths (or lies) rather than human attempts to grapple with those truths and as subject to human foibles and historical forces as any other human endeavour.

Instead Shapiro imagines religion as a kind of operating system for civilisation-machines rather than as ongoing dialogues people have with each other. Hence him tying himself up in knots in a manner that leaves him in a position where he cannot defend his analysis from the alt-right. His intellectual incoherence on this topic has multiple roots but one in particular is revealed in this particular topic of “civilisations”.

The wider discourse in the right for decades now has been one that can be characterised as scepticism about the existence of, or influences of SOCIETY. Exemplified most starkly by Margaret Thatcher but present across the board. Now, fair enough, sociology is not the most robust of disciplines but imagine trying to discuss sociological events, dynamics etc while being hostile to the very concept of society. It would be like trying to do macroeconomics while actively avoiding the concept of “an economy”

Racists are mainly racists for petty & cynical reasons but in addition, a discourse about sociological phenomenon without a concept of society is one in which racism or some other partisan essentialism is inevitable. Why are their broad, epiphenomenal effects in a collection of atomic individuals? How do such things exist if you can’t think in terms of “society”? The alternatives are conspiracies, religious allegiance, race or supernatural intervention & right wing discourse is full of all four.

Without a concept of society, it is inevitable that shifts in taste or widespread behaviour become blamed on conspiracies or hidden intentional forces. That and racism will only get you so far though. Any attempt to present a historical account of the world that at least has a patina of intellectual respectability is to find a proxy for society that can fill the conceptual gap. “Civilisation” is another way for right wing pseudo-intellectuals to try to talk about society & culture without conceding that either are powerful factors in our lives. Of course a concept of civilisation without sociological ideas is a vacuum.

Poverty and IQ

Among the section of the right that regards IQ as the only explanatory variable in society aside from money, the relationship between poverty and IQ is used to defend the huge inequities in ours society as an outcome of a functioning meritocracy. It does not require much deep inspection of how modern capitalist societies work to see that they are neither functioning well not are they meritocracies.

The opposite view is that difference in performance on IQ is more caused by poverty than vice-versa. There are multiple reasons for believing this from access to education, motivation and attitudes towards the role of test taking in a person’s life (e.g. how much effort do you put into something that you expect to do poorly in?) However, specific causes are hard to demonstrate empirically. Hard to demonstrate, perhaps, but maybe a clever experimental design can shed more light on that.

I was just reading a 2013 paper that looked at the impact of poverty on cognition in an interesting way: Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function Anandi Mani, Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir, Jiaying Zhao (Abstract http://science.sciencemag.org/content/341/6149/976 )

“The poor often behave in less capable ways, which can further perpetuate poverty. We hypothesize that poverty directly impedes cognitive function and present two studies that test this hypothesis. First, we experimentally induced thoughts about finances and found that this reduces cognitive performance among poor but not in well-off participants. Second, we examined the cognitive function of farmers over the planting cycle. We found that the same farmer shows diminished cognitive performance before harvest, when poor, as compared with after harvest, when rich. This cannot be explained by differences in time available, nutrition, or work effort. Nor can it be explained with stress: Although farmers do show more stress before harvest, that does not account for diminished cognitive performance. Instead, it appears that poverty itself reduces cognitive capacity. We suggest that this is because poverty-related concerns consume mental resources, leaving less for other tasks. These data provide a previously unexamined perspective and help explain a spectrum of behaviors among the poor. We discuss some implications for poverty policy.”

Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function Anandi Mani et al. Science 341, 976 (2013); DOI: 10.1126/science.1238041

First some caveats. It’s two fairly narrow experiments both of which have some contrived circumstances (for good reasons). I don’t know if these results have been reproduced.

Having said that it is interesting to look at the two experiments and what the results were.

The basic hypothesis was this:

“We propose a different kind of explanation, which focuses on the mental processes required by poverty. The poor must manage sporadic in- come, juggle expenses, and make difficult trade- offs. Even when not actually making a financial decision, these preoccupations can be present and distracting. The human cognitive system has lim- ited capacity (12–15). Preoccupations with pressing budgetary concerns leave fewer cognitive resources available to guide choice and action.

Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function Anandi Mani et al. Science 341, 976 (2013); DOI: 10.1126/science.1238041

To test this they compared individual performance on cognitive test both with and without some degree of financial stress. The first was a ‘laboratory study’ that demonstrates the impact as a kind of proof of concept. The financial stress here is artificial but if anything that makes the results more interesting.

In the first study the researchers went to a New Jersey shopping mall and recruited shoppers (who got paid) to take part in four related experiments. The basic principle of each experiment was two tasks. One task asked people to consider a realistic but hypothetical financial problem. For example, they might be asked about their car having to get some urgent repairs. Participants randomly were given a ‘hard’ situation were the costs would be high or an ‘easy’ situation were the costs were low but both easy & hard situations were cognitively similar. The second task was a more classic IQ style test (Raven’s Progressive Matrices) and a spatial compatibility task.

The four versions were designed to control for cognitive impacts of the first activity. The first two versions changed the amount of maths needed in the financial scenario. The third version added incentives to correct answers. The fourth version separated the two activities so that the first was completely finished before the person sat the IQ style test.

The group being studied also provided information on their income and the the data was analysed by looking at the participants as either rich or poor. The point being to see not if the ‘rich’ participants performed better on the IQ test but rather how much impact did the first activity (i.e. having to engage with a potentially financial stressful situation) have on the cognitive scores

Accuracy on the Raven’s matrices and the cognitive control tasks in the hard and easy conditions, for the poor and the rich participants in experiment 1

The graph is for experiment 1 but the results were similar for all four. The impact of ‘hard’ versus ‘easy’ of the first activity on the second activity was much bigger for people with less money. For the wealthier participants, the ‘hard’ scenario had less impact, almost certainly because they were faced with a situation that would have less of an impact on their own finances. In short having to worry about money and how you will pay for things that you need has a genuine and measurable impact on your ability to perform some cognitive tasks… At least within this experimental scenario but that a PRETEND bit of financial stress had a measurable impact is itself notable.

The second study was quite different and looked at some real financial stress.

“Our second study examined 464 sugarcane farmers living in 54 villages in the sugarcane- growing areas around the districts of Villupuram and Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu, India. These were a random sample of small farmers (with land plots of between 1.5 and 3 acres) who earned at least 60% of their income from sugarcane and were interviewed twice—before and after harvest—over a 4-month period in 2010. There were occasional nonresponses, but all of our pre- post comparisons include only farmers we surveyed twice. “

Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function Anandi Mani et al. Science 341, 976 (2013); DOI: 10.1126/science.1238041

The work of the sugarcane farmers created a set of natural controls. An individual farmer has only one harvest a year and hence essentially only one pay-day a year. However, the timing of harvests are staggered over several months. So at a particular time of year it maybe post-harvest for one farmer but pre-harvest for another. The farmers naturally face greater financial pressure the longer it has been since their last harvest.

The results showed a similar but slightly smaller impact than the laboratory study. Farmers performed better on an IQ style test (Raven’s Progressive Matrices) after* they had been paid than before and the difference was large.

How large are these effects? Sleep researchers have examined the cognitive impact (on Raven’s) of losing a full night of sleep through experi- mental manipulations (38). In standard deviation terms, the laboratory study findings are of the same size, and the field findings are three quarters that size. Put simply, evoking financial concerns has a cognitive impact comparable with losing a full night of sleep. In addition, similar effect sizes have been observed in the performance on Raven’s matrices of chronic alcoholics versus normal adults (39) and of 60- versus 45-year-olds (40). By way of calibration, according to a common approximation used by intelligence researchers, with a mean of 100 and a standard deviation of 15 the effects we observed correspond to ~13 IQ points. These sizable magnitudes suggest the cognitive impact of poverty could have large real consequences.

Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function Anandi Mani et al. Science 341, 976 (2013); DOI: 10.1126/science.1238041

Put another way: we don’t think in isolation (even if you aren’t neurotypical). Background concerns and worries all have an impact on how you think and your capacity to problem solve. They definitely have an impact on your thinking in the artificial conditions of an IQ test.

*[There were also controls on the order they did the tests. Some of the participants took the test first after they had been paid and then were tested later in the year when their money had run low.]

Ye Olde Skull & Lobster: Reading Vox Day So You Don’t Have To: Part N+1

When P.Z. Myers is cited positively and unironically by Vox Day, you know there’s something amiss with the universe. There’s heresy in the air and right-on-right attacks going down.

On the one hand, we have Jordan Peterson: transphobic right-wing purveyor of semi-coherent self-help books for people frightened by women going to university. On the other hand, we have Vox Day: a man who regards the terrorist child-murder Anders Brevik as a hero and who pushes a violent nationalism based on pseudo-scientific race theories. While we could see Peterson as at least being more moderate than Day, we can’t ignore that Peterson is a kind of gateway drug into the morass of confused thinking based on male resentment at a changing society. What Vox has in toxicity, Peterson has twice as much in reach.

Who is the more appalling of the two? Perhaps we need another candidate…

[more appalling people after the fold]

Continue reading “Ye Olde Skull & Lobster: Reading Vox Day So You Don’t Have To: Part N+1”

Geometry News!

I appreciate a nice polyhedron but as an area of interest it isn’t one prone to many events. The regular polyhedra were fully classified a very long time ago and while that’s just one set of an infinite space of 3D objects with polygonal faces. If you allow for curves or slightly curved, almost polygons then there is a lot to play with but not many objects stand out from the crowd.

Anyway, biology to the rescue! An article in Nature (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-05376-1 ) looks at the issue of cell-packing. Our cells are squishy 3D objects that pack together to form tissue. Now getting objects to pack together to fill a space efficiently is a well-known and difficult to solve problem if you dealing with anything other than cubes. Hexagonal prisms are a solution that crops up in nature in places such as basalt rock formations and bee hives (and presumably bee hives made out of basalt on some planet with magma bees and honey volcanoes).

In 2D one way of filling a plane with irregular but simple polygons is a Voronoi pattern. Arrnagments of cells in a layer looked at ‘top-down’ can (apparently) resemble that kind of pattern but that doesn’t help describe the 3D aspect of the cells. Prisms don’t work because the ‘top’ face may be smaller than the ‘bottom’ face. Frustrums (chopped off pyramids) don’t work because the ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ faces maybe polygons of different sizes and frustrums don’t neccesarily pack nicely. Enter the scutoid.

Scutoids are (apparently, I’m just reading the paper) messed up prisms. The example picture shows a shape with a pentagon-bottom and a hexagon-top and the vertices of each polygon joined by  curved edges with the exception of an additional triangular face. Flip the same shape upside down and they can nestle into each other. Which is sweet.

 

41467_2018_5376_fig1_html
Fig1 from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-05376-1 ‘Scutoids are a geometrical solution to three-dimensional packing of epithelia’ Nature Communications volume 9, Article number: 2960 (2018)

 

So not quite polyhedra, crazy mixed up nearly prisms that know how to pack. The picture of the beatle is there because of the distinct pattern of five shapes – specifically that little triangle at the top where the line between the carapace covering the wing splits. The combination of faces on the scutoid reminded the researchers of the beatle and the ‘scutoid’ name is derived from that.

Also I don’t know if you say “scoo-toid” or “scuh-toid”.

Other coverage:

https://gizmodo.com/the-scutoid-is-geometrys-newest-shape-and-it-could-be-1827924643?IR=T

https://www.newscientist.com/article/2175297-a-new-shape-called-the-scutoid-has-been-discovered-in-our-cells/

 

Vox Day is still dancing the anti-science two-step shuffle

I visit the self-styled dark lord’s blog less often these days. He’s still saying mostly the same things in the same way. One predictable pattern is if he writes a post about the poor quality of scientific research papers on a given day, then within a short period, he will be breathlessly quoting some particularly dodgy paper as if it holy writ — indeed he’s likely to assert stronger conclusions than the paper.

Case in point this post (*) he asserts that:

“Never forget that science cannot be considered reliable until it is called “engineering”. Until then, the most that one can accurately assume is that it has about a fifty percent chance of actually being correct.”

Is followed on the same day by a post pushing more anti-vaccine nonsense. This time his target is anti-HPV vaccines and a paper that claims reduced birth rates. The paper is here and it is bad in multiple ways: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15287394.2018.1477640?scroll=top&needAccess=true

There is a thorough take-down of quite how bad the paper is by the indefatigable Orac at the Respectful Insolence blog: https://respectfulinsolence.com/2018/06/13/antivaccine-pseudoscience-about-hpv-vaccination-gayle-delong/

Suffice to say it is a bad piece of very speculative epidemiologist by an economist with a bias against vaccines. The study ignores factors such as contraception or other behavioural differences between people who have or haven’t had the HPV vaccine to draw a fallacious conclusion.

Orac points out:

“After all, existing evidence largely contradicts Delong’s findings, with HPV vaccination having no effect on fertility except in one group. The group? In females with a history of sexually transmitted infections or pelvic inflammatory disease (i.e. a group at high risk of exposure to HPV infection), HPV vaccination made pregnancy more likely.”

Earlier in his essay Orac speculates on why vaccines against HPV get such pushback:

“For some reason, HPV vaccines seem to have an uncanny ability to turn such people into raging antivaccinationists almost as loony as the merry band of antivaccine loons over at Age of Autism. At the very least, they seem to make seemingly reasonable people susceptible to blandishments and tropes for which they’d normally otherwise never fall. Truly, Gardasil and Cervarix seem to be vaccines that make reasonable people lose their minds. I tend to think it’s about the sex. After all, HPV is largely a sexually-transmitted virus, hence the tendency for fundamentalist Christians to find it particularly objectionable.”

I’d add to say that it isn’t just the anti-sex attitude but also misogyny or both in tandem. The idea that sexually transmitted diseases are a punishment for sex and in particular a punishment for women, is one that is prevalent in right-wing circles. There really are people out there who would rather women died of cervical cancer than eliminate a virus.

At least with the apparent pro-cancer stance of the cigarette lobby, you could see how the money trail worked. In this case, we have Vox acting like he is being paid by the pro-virus lobby**.

*[I’m not bothering with archive links in this case – the links are here for completeness but there’s little to be gained by reading them:

http://voxday.blogspot.com/2018/07/the-unreliability-of-science.html

http://voxday.blogspot.com/2018/07/vaccinated-sterility.html

I don’t particularly want to archive this nonsense.]

**[That is a joke. Viruses don’t have a lobby as such and this is pro-bono lobbying work by Vox for viruses.]

 

No, that doesn’t settle it.

A Washington Post article about a research paper claims to have settled the question of whether to put one space or two spaces after a full-stop (or as Americans like to say a ‘period’*).

The research neatly encapsulates some of the elements of questions of objectivity and meaning that I keep returning to.

The research had two components. The first was about usage and is interesting but not consequential. The second is of more note. Using eye-tracking, the researchers measured how a number of people followed sentences they were reading. Using that data, they could compare the relative reading ease of texts that used a single space after a full-stop and texts that used two spaces.

The results showed a small advantage for two spaces. By ‘small’ I mean:

  • ‘comprehension was not affected by punctuation spacing’ i.e. there was no measurable difference in how well subjects understood the texts they were reading.
  • there was some evidence that ‘initial processing of the text was facilitated when periods were followed by two spaces’.

So practically, two-spaces was not obviously better but MAYBE it required a smaller effort to read, perhaps. Note this second conclusion requires its own chain of inference that’s not well established i.e. it assumes that the processing of the text was facilitated but that was not measured directly.

But the bigger issue (mentioned in the WP article but not in the abstract of the paper) was that the text used was…

 ...in a monospaced font.

That does not make any of the findings in the report invalid. It doesn’t undermine the quality of the methodology used. It doesn’t make the findings less objective BUT it does entirely miss the point of the underlying argument.

The two-space versus one-space debate pertains to the transition from typewriters to modern wordprocessing. Classic typewriters had to use common widths between letters due to the mechanics of a typewriter, including a degree of error as to exactly where a letter might be placed. Modern word-processing uses typefaces where letters and the spacing around them are customised for not just individual letters but also for punctuation. The two-space versus one-space argument is one about the transition from classic typing to modern word-processing.

There is a parallel with drug trials here. For example a new drug or treatment might be compared with a placebo. That’s a scientifically legitimate approach to collecting data and looking at efficacy. However, its often not the relevant question. More pertinent is how the new drug compares with existing treatment rather than a placebo.

The point being – what is the underlying issue or what is the question being asked? These are more vague, more wooly aspects of scientific inquiry but also deeply important. The more clarity on those aspects help us judge whether empirical evidence is relevant to the question being asked.

However, my point above does not mean the research was wasted. It does demonstrate a couple of things:

  • The typing habit of using two spaces after a full stop had some merit.
  • The possible advantage of using two spaces is very small.

I don’t think either conclusion helps out the two-spacers much. The first implies social habits and vague aesthetics of people who type can be trusted – and that would tend towards favouring the one-spacer’s attitude to modern texts with modern fonts. The second implies that the cost-benefit of using two spaces is a best marginal and at worst a waste of time. Although, I’m clearly showing my one-spaced prejudices here.

*(As we are engaged in trivial quibbles of no actual consequence, let me just say that ‘period’ should be retired as a name for the full-stop. It should then be re-allocated to the n-dash whose role is often to indicate a period of time, such as when it joins two dates together. I also have opinions about hyphens and dashes that I will reserve for another post – I feel the controversy would just be WAY too much for you all.)