Open Thread

This is where you share interesting stuff you’ve come across since the last time I posted one of these.

I figured I should post a bit of content as well, so here we go:


(Chichen Itza is not located in ‘Southern America’, but aside from that I don’t have a lot of stuff to complain about in relation to that lecture. As I’ve mentioned before I generally like Crawford’s lectures.)

ii. I haven’t read this (yet? Maybe I won’t – I hate when articles are gated; even if I can usually get around that, I take this sort of approach to matters as a strong signal that the authors don’t really want me to read it in the first place (if they wanted me to read it, why would they make it so difficult for me to do so?)), but as it sort of conceptually relates to some of the work Boyd & Richerson talk about in their book, which I read some chapters of yesterday, I figured I should link to it anyway: Third-party punishment increases cooperation in children through (misaligned) expectations and conditional cooperation. Here’s the abstract:

“The human ability to establish cooperation, even in large groups of genetically unrelated strangers, depends upon the enforcement of cooperation norms. Third-party punishment is one important factor to explain high levels of cooperation among humans, although it is still somewhat disputed whether other animal species also use this mechanism for promoting cooperation. We study the effectiveness of third-party punishment to increase children’s cooperative behavior in a large-scale cooperation game. Based on an experiment with 1,120 children, aged 7 to 11 y, we find that the threat of third-party punishment more than doubles cooperation rates, despite the fact that children are rarely willing to execute costly punishment. We can show that the higher cooperation levels with third-party punishment are driven by two components. First, cooperation is a rational (expected payoff-maximizing) response to incorrect beliefs about the punishment behavior of third parties. Second, cooperation is a conditionally cooperative reaction to correct beliefs that third party punishment will increase a partner’s level of cooperation.”

I should note that I yesterday also started reading a book on conflict resolution which covers the behavioural patterns of social animals in some detail, and which actually also ‘sort of relate, a bit’ to this type of stuff. A lot of stuff that people do they do for different reasons than the ones they usually apply themselves to explain their behaviours (if they even bother to do that at all..), but scientists in many different areas of research are making progress in terms of finding out ‘what’s really going on’, and there are probably a lot more potentially useful approaches to these types of problems than most people usually imagine. Many smart people seem at this point to me to be familiar with some of the results of the heuristics-and-biases literature/approach to human behaviour because that stuff’s been popularized a lot over the last decade or two, and they probably have a tendency to interpret human behaviour using that sort of contextual framework, perhaps combined with the usual genes/environment-type conceptual approaches. Perhaps they combine that stuff with the approaches that are most common among people with their educational backgrounds (people with a medical degree may be prone to using biological models, an economist might perhaps apply game theory, and an evolutionary biologist might ask what a chimpanzee would have done). This isn’t a problem as such, but many people might do well to try to keep in mind every now and then that there are a lot other theoretical frameworks one might decide to apply in order to make sense of what humans do than the one(s) they usually apply themselves, and that some of these may actually add a lot information even if they’re much less well-known. Some of the methodological differences relate to levels of analysis (are we trying to understand one individual or a group of individuals?), but that’s far from the whole story. To take a different kind of example, it has turned out that animal models are actually really nice tools if you want to understand some of the details involved in addictive behaviours, and they seem to be useful if you want to deal with conflict resolution stuff as well, at least judging from the stuff I’ve read in that new book so far (one could of course consider animal models to be a subset of the genetic modeling framework, but in an applied context it makes a lot of sense to keep them separate from each other and to consider them to be distinct subfields…). I have a nagging suspicion that animal models may also be very useful when it comes to explaining various forms of what people usually refer to as ’emotional behaviours’, and that despite the fact that a lot of people tend to consider that kind of stuff ‘unanalyzable’, it probably isn’t if you use the right tools and ask the right questions. You don’t need to be a doctor or a biologist to see why hard-to-observe purely ‘biological effects’ having behavioural effects may be important, but are these sorts of dynamics taken sufficiently into account when people interact with each other? I’m not sure. Mathematical modeling approaches like the one above are other ways (of course various approaches can be combined, making this stuff even more complicated…) to proceed and they seem to me to be, certainly when they generate testable predictions, potentially useful a well – not necessarily always only because we learn whether the predictions are correct or not, but also because mathematical thinking in general allows/requires you to think more carefully about stuff  and identify relevant variables and pathways (but I’ve talked about this before).

I should point out that I wrote the passage above in part because very occasionally I encounter a Fan of The Hard Sciences (on the internet) who seems to think that rejecting all kinds of human behavioural theory/-research (‘Social Science’) on account of it not being Hard Enough to generate trustworthy inferences is a good way to go – I actually had a brief encounter with one of those not too long ago, which was part of what motivated me to write the stuff above (and the stuff below). That guy expressed the opinion that you’d learn more about human nature by reading a Dostoyevsky novel than you would by reading e.g. Leary & Hoyle’s textbook. I’m perhaps now being rather more blunt than I usually am, but I thought I should make it clear here, so that there are no misunderstandings, that I tend to consider people with that kind of approach to things to be clueless fools who don’t have any idea what they’re talking about. Perhaps I should also mention that I have in fact read both so I feel qualified to judge on the matter, but this is probably arguably besides the point; the disagreement goes much deeper than just the truth content of the specific statement in question, as the much bigger problem is the methodological divide. Some skepticism is often required in behavioural sciences, among other things because establishing causal inference is really hard in many areas, but if you want your skepticism to make sense and be taken seriously you need to know enough about the topic and potential problems to actually formulate a relevant and cogent criticism. In that context I emphasize that ‘unbundling’ is really important – if you’re speaking to someone who’s familiar with at least some part of ‘the field of social science’, criticizing ‘The Social Sciences’ in general terms will probably just make you look stupid unless you add a lot of caveats. That’s because it’s not one field. Do the same sort of problems arise when people evaluate genetic models of human behavioural variance and ‘sociological approaches’? Applied microeconomics? Attachment theory? Evolutionary biology? All of these areas, and many others, play some role and provide part of the picture as to why people behave the way they do. Quantum physics and cell biology are arguably closer connected than are some of the various subfields which might be categorized as belonging to ‘the field’ of ‘social science’. Disregarding this heterogeneity seems to be more common than I’d wish it was, as is ‘indiscriminatory skepticism’ (‘all SS is BS’). A problem with indiscriminatory skepticism of this sort is incidentally that it’s sort of self-perpetuating in a way; that approach to matters pretty much precludes you from ever learning anything about the topic, because anyone who has anything to teach you will think you’re a fool whom it’s not worth spending time talking to (certainly if they’re in a bad mood on account of having slept badly last night…). This dynamic may not seem problematic at all to people who think all SS is BS, but of course it might be worth pointing out to those kinds of people that by maintaining that sort of approach to the subject matter they’re probably also cutting themselves off from learning about research taking place in areas they hadn’t even considered to belong to the field of social science in the first place. Symptom analyses of medical problems are usually not considered to be research belonging to the social sciences, but that’s mostly just the result of a categorization convention; medical problems, or the absence of them, impact our social behaviours in all kinds of ways we’re often not aware of. Is it medical science when a doctor performs the analysis, but social science when the psychologist analyzes the same data? Is what that guy is doing social science or statistics? Sometimes the lines seem to get really blurry to me. Discriminatory skepticism is better (and probably justified, given methodological differences across areas), but contains its own host of problems. Often discriminatory skepticism seems to imply that you disregard certain levels of analysis completely – instead of ‘all SS i BS’, it becomes ‘all SS belonging to this level of analysis is BS’. Maybe that’s better than the most sensible alternative (‘perhaps it’s not all BS’) if the science is really bad, but even in those situations you’ll have contagion effects as well which may cause problems (‘culture? That’s the sort of crap cultural anthropologists deal with, isn’t it? Those people are full of crap. I’m not going to spend time on that stuff.’ So you disregard those aspects of behaviour completely, even if perhaps they do matter and can be subject to scientific analysis of a different type than the one the Assigned Bad Guys (‘Cultural Anthropologists’) usually apply).

I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point where we have a Big All-Encompassing Theory of How Humans Work because there are too many variables, but that does not mean that the analysis of specific behaviours and specific variables is without merit. Understanding that I may feel argumentative right now because I’ve misjudged my insulin requirements (or didn’t sleep enough, or haven’t had enough to eat, or had a fight with my mother yesterday, or…) is important knowledge to take into account, and you can add a lot of other similarly-useful observations to your toolbox if you spend some time on this type of stuff. A big problem with not doing the research is that not doing the research does not protect you from adopting faulty models – rather it seems to me that it almost guarantees that you do. Humans need explanations for why things happen, and ‘things that happen’ include social behaviours; they/we need causal models to make sense of the world, and having no good information will not stop them from coming up with theories about why people behave the way they do (social scientists realized that a while back..). And as a result of this, people might end up using a novel written 150 years ago to obtain insights into why humans behave the way they do, instead of perhaps relying on a textbook written last year containing the combined insights of hundreds of researchers who looked at these things in a lot of detail. The researchers might be wrong, sure, but even so this approach still seems … stupid. ‘I don’t trust the social scientists, so instead I’ll rely on the life lessons and social rules taught to me by my illiterate grandmother when I was a child.’ Or whatever. You can easily end up doing stuff like this, without ever even suspecting, much less realizing, that that’s what you’re doing.

Comments on the topics covered above are welcome, but I must admit that I didn’t really write this stuff to start a dicussion about these things – it was more of a, ‘this is where I’m coming from and these are some thoughts on this topic which I’ve had, and now you know’-posting.

iii. Enough lecturing. Let’s have a chess video. International Master Christof Sielecki recently played a tournament in Mallorca, and he’s made some excellent videos talking about his games. Here’s one of those videos:

I incidentally think I have learned quite a bit from watching his material on youtube. I may have talked about his youtube channel here on the blog before, but even if I have I don’t mind repeating myself as you should know about it if you’re interested in chess. He is one of the strongest players online providing this sort of content, and he provides a lot of content. If you’re a beginner some of his material may be beyond you, but not all of it; I don’t think his opening videos for example are particularly difficult to understand or follow, even if you’re not a very strong player. And if you’re a ‘strong club player’ I think this is the best chess channel on youtube.


May 25, 2014 - Posted by | Astronomy, Chess, Lectures, Open Thread, Physics


  1. “I actually had a brief encounter with one of those not too long ago” — Out if curiosity, where did this take place? How did you respond to him/her? (I imagine that your approach was a lot more diplomatic than telling him/her that he/she was being obtuse.)

    Comment by Manfred Bühler | May 25, 2014 | Reply

    • I think it was a comment section at the marginalrevolution site, but I didn’t bookmark the exchange when it took place and it’s been a while so I’m not completely sure. It may have been on reddit (askscience) – most likely one of those; I rarely comment on other sites, and there are only very few sites where I occasionally do that; I’m incidentally sure it wasn’t slatestarcodex. I’m probably about 95% certain the exchange took place on MR.

      When I wrote the post I decided that it wasn’t worth it trying to find out precisely where and when the exchange had taken place (I was considering doing that so that I could provide a link at the post) because that sort of discussion really doesn’t seem to me to be worth spending time going looking for (I have a hard enough time keeping track of the good stuff on the internet, never mind inane exchanges like these).

      “I imagine that your approach was a lot more diplomatic than telling him/her that he/she was being obtuse” – I’m sure I did not call him obtuse, but I can’t recall the details (it may actually have been Tolstoy, rather than Dostoyevsky…). I most likely gave a ‘science is better than fiction’-reply and disengaged, but I’m not sure. I might have disengaged without replying to him, on account of being dumbfounded by the comment and also realizing that ‘this debate is going nowhere’.

      Comment by US | May 25, 2014 | Reply

      • I realized when reading your comment and thinking about these matters that I’ve actually had a not completely dissimilar encounter at slatestarcodex, although it was admittedly a little different and not quite as bad: I remember talking about some results from the field of educational economics in a comment section and getting a reply which quoted “educational economics” and added below: ‘two wrongs don’t make a right”, or something like that (I think that was exactly the words he used, but again I’m not going to spend time going looking for that exchange). What I learned from his comment was that the other guy was rude and uninterested in learning more about the topic and/or talking to me again, because in his social model of the world I was a member of a hostile tribe, and that he figured he’d gain status by displaying overt hostility towards me because that would signal to other members of the tribe how loyal he was towards Real Science. One might have learned other things from the exchange as well, but those seemed to be the salient points to me. Whether or not that was what he was aiming for I never found out.

        Comment by US | May 25, 2014

      • I wonder why that person is reading MR/SSC if he’s so anti-social science.

        Comment by Manfred Bühler | May 26, 2014

      • Oh, I think you misunderstood me – those were two separate encounters, with two different people.

        I think on reflection that the first one (at MR) mostly just considered the field of psychology to be invalid and useless, whereas he may well have been less critical of other areas of social science; perhaps he thought economics is more ‘Proper Science’ – this would be consistent with him reading MR. I actually on second thought think this type of discriminatory skepticism may well be the by far most common line of thinking among people who are critical of the social sciences; there are some ‘Not Completely Useless Areas of Inquiry’ (perhaps combined with an ‘I’m not saying it’s ‘Real Science’, but maybe it isn’t All Crap…’), and then there are the ‘Useless Areas of Inquiry’, and which boxes which fields go into is then depending on a large number of factors, many of which are closely related to which areas these people actually know even the slightest bit about (many people seem to me to be very comfortable rejecting fields about which they know basically nothing).

        As for the SSC encounter, I should note that I’ve encountered quite a few people with backgrounds in the Hard Sciences being very dismissive of economics in particular. It seems likely to me that this skepticism is closely related to the general impression that economics and macroeconomics are the same thing, and thus that economics is a highly politicized field which is not very good at what it does, except coming up with (often politically convenient, at least for some political group…) narratives for why things that have already happened happened. If people want to criticize macro I’m always willing to join in, but when they give the impression that they’re not familiar with other areas of economics at all, I have a tendency to get annoyed that they even think themselves knowledgeable enough to engage in such a discussion. It’s that unbundling thing again – I don’t judge the quantum mechanics textbook I’m currently reading (or for that matter ‘all of physics’) based on the string theory stuff in that field. A lot of economist don’t do macro at all. A related problem here is of course that a lot of the stuff that they do do is stuff that many people don’t consider to be economics at all, so this sort of miscategorization can lead people to reject perfectly good research in areas in which they’re interested, because the people doing that research happen to be economists. Not only is this stupid on the face of it, but it probably also means that they’re cutting themselves off from some of the best research in such areas, because economists doing ‘non-economics’ research – e.g. studies relating education stuff and e.g. various life outcomes (‘educational economics’) – are often the ones doing this kind of research because they’re the ones who have the skills (e.g. in data-analysis) to actually take on such research; and if you ignore the works of the economists in some areas of education research, there may both sometimes be little left, and what you then do end up with instead may be research conducted by e.g. education majors. This may not be optimal – for example you can compare the GRE scores of education majors and those of economists here.

        I incidentally mostly try not to think of myself as an economist – I’ve read much too much to identify too closely with any one field – so I sort of like to think I have an outside view of these matters, at least to some extent. Of course I get a bit perturbed when people claim a field I’ve worked on is a useless waste of time when they don’t seem to know much about the field, but I feel this way regardless of whether we’re talking about, say, psychometrics, epidemiology, or some subfield of economics. To stay with our example, a lot of the educational economics research I don’t consider to be particularly great, and some of the results I certainly consider to be less convincing than do the researchers who did this work. And of course it’s not just in macro that things like political affilations and ‘what I’d like to be true’-considerations play a role. But these are general observations which are too easy to apply – they can be used to discredit anything because particle physicists have opinions and personal preferences as well.

        Comment by US | May 26, 2014

  2. I discovered this link today, and I thought it might be of interest to you.

    Comment by Manfred Bühler | June 6, 2014 | Reply

    • Thank you for the link, I’ll have a look.

      Comment by US | June 7, 2014 | Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: