Thursday, December 20, 2012

Blogging break

Some bloggers will have holiday-themed blogging during the holidays, but my preference is to relax and take a break.  See you in a week or two.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

There's knowing and there's knowing

This was crossposted on The Asexual Agenda.

I have a lot of gay friends who are friends through my boyfriend.  Recently some of them heard that I was asexual, and they started quizzing my boyfriend when I wasn't around.  This is pretty nasty for reasons I'll get into later.  But what's odd is that I've known them for years and been out the entire time, and they only realize now?

Mind you, I don't come out to each and every one of my friends by sitting down with them to have a "talk".  Rather, I'm out on Facebook.  I say asexuality-related things a few times a year, and I have photos of myself at SF pride.  I'm carrying the X in "ASEXY".  How much more obvious can it get?

It's possible, and understandable, that some of my friends just don't pay attention to Facebook.  But I also think that people have to be paying very close attention, or the idea of asexuality just bounces off their head.  I say "I'm asexual." on Facebook, and people just carry on.  Then someone else says, "Did you hear, miller is asexual!"  Then suddenly they realize that it's a real thing, and it's important.  I wasn't just vaguebooking.

But in fact, I did the same thing before I was out to myself.  I learned about asexuality before really learning about asexuality.  I had asexuality explained to me years before I realized asexuality was a real possibility, but I had promptly forgotten it.

I had asexuality explained to me by T-rex:

dinocomics asexuality
See the full comic at Dinosaur Comics

I don't remember reading this comic but I know I read it.  Back in my freshman year of college I was really into Dinosaur Comics, and I read the entirety of the archives.  Which means I read this one as well.  But I must not have thought much of it.  It's just another one of T-rex's ideas (T-rex is enthusiastic about ideas).  Utahraptor himself corrects T-rex's attitude: "You're treating asexuality like an amusing trinket, rather than a real sexual orientation", but this still failed to penetrate into my head.

What it took was not merely a reference on a popular webcomic.  What it took was seeing a whole community of people discussing asexuality.

And for my friends, numerous references on Facebook weren't enough.  Only when it's part of the gossip does it seem significant.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Draining a tank

This is a puzzle of my own creation.

There are nine identical 10-gallon tanks in a 3 by 3 square (the image shows the view from above).  One of the corner tanks is full of water, while the rest are empty.

You may open or close any of the walls between adjacent tanks.  If any walls are open, then the amount of water in all the connected tanks will equalize.  Assume that they equalize fast enough that you can't close walls in the middle of the process.  You may have multiple walls open at once.  For example, if you open all the walls, then each tank will have 10/9 gallons in it.

Your task, should you choose to accept it, is to open and close walls in such an order that you drain as much water out of the filled tank as you can.  What's the best you can do?

See the solution

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The "Santa is real" narrative

Last year, I talked about how lots of kids actually believe in Santa.  This was surprising to me, because I  previously thought Santa-belief was a just as much a myth as Santa.

In particular, I remember lots of Santa-related movies, where the kids believe in Santa but the adults do not, and it's the kids who are right.  This is mostly a general impression, but to name a specific example, I watched The Santa Clause (starring Tim Allen) several times when I was young.  These movies did not strike me as strange at the time, but they strike me as strange now.

The moral of those movies was essentially, "Santa is real, and you kiddies should believe in him."  It just seems like a rather wacky moral to me.  It doesn't seem like the kind of thing which is appropriate to kids.

On kids shows when I was growing up, the morals were usually much more straightforward and incontrovertible.  "Don't give in to peer pressure."  "Don't be greedy.  Share."  "Be self-confident." "Eating too much candy is bad for you."  "Looting and polluting is not the way."  "One day you'll like girls.  Like like."  That kind of stuff.  The only things with questionable morals were the breakfast cereal commercials.

And then Santa.  Geez.  The moral is, "You should believe, because it's adorable when kids do that.  You should also believe because Santa happens to be real even though the parents believe otherwise.  Your parents are wrong."

I... I just don't understand the appeal of this narrative.  Why do parents promote this to kids?  I assume there's some religious appeal, but it doesn't make sense even within my mental model of a religious person.

(I believe the relevant TVTropes article would be Values Dissonance.  I also referred to Cereal Vice Reward.)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Inner triangle area solution

See the original puzzle

There's a more elegant way to do this puzzle, and a less elegant way.  First, I'll show you the less elegant way.

We can associate the points with vectors t, u, and v.  This is useful because you can express any point on the line between t and u as x*t + (1-x)*u for some value of x.  See spoiler image.

Anyway, you can go through the algebra and calculate that point A is at (4/7*t+3/7*u+1/7*v).  The rest will be left as an exercise to the reader because I'm going to move on to the more elegant solution.

There's a more elegant solution involving center of mass.  Let's suppose that there are weights at each of the corners of the triangle, and that the center of mass is at point A.  How much weight must you place at point A?

See spoiler image

You have to place weights with ratios 4:2:1 on points t, u, and v respectively.  If you only consider the weights on t and u, then their center of mass is at B, with weight 6.  And so we can conclude that point A is 6/7ths of the way from point v to B.

The rest is simple geometry.  Triangle tAB is 1/7th the area of tvB, which is 1/3rd the area of tuv.  So triangle tvA is 6/21 of the entire area.  The same argument can be applied to triangles tuC and uvE.

If you sum up tvA, tuC, and uvE, the remaining area is 1/7th of the total, so that is our answer.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Help me go to Creating Change

Creating Change is an annual conference held by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.  The next conference is January 23-27, in Atlanta, Georgia.  I will be on a panel called "Asexual Voices", which will represent many different parts of the asexual spectrum.

There is currently a fundraiser to pay for hotel and administration costs.*  Please help if you can.  Below is a video explaining why this is important.

*I pay for my own flight, and I have a scholarship to pay for registration.  If the project is overfunded, the extra will be used to get non-profit status for AVEN and AAW.

Last year was the first year that Creating Change had any asexual workshops, and I hear it was a huge success.  Among other things, that led directly to the inclusion of asexuality in the Trevor project.  This is wonderful, because if there are any common causes between asexuals and other queer folk, suicide prevention is certainly one of them.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Just how bad is evolutionary psychology?

This week there was more bloggy drama because Rebecca Watson and evolutionary psychology (eg see John Wilkins).  I won't comment on the Watson-related drama, but I am interested in the evolutionary psychology (henceforth EP).

Nearly everyone on both sides of this drama agrees that popular EP is terrible.  The question is, how deep does it go? 
  1. Journalists are misinterpreting and exaggerating studies.
  2. Journalists understand correctly, but pick out terrible studies from a generally reputable field.
  3. There are large sections of EP which are just bad, but attract more media attention.
  4. EP is rotten all the way through.
Case study: Argumentative Theory

The trouble is that you can hardly talk about EP without talking about specific examples of EP.  And if you only have a few examples, people can accuse you of not having a large enough survey.  But it's hard to investigate more than a few examples, because we're lazy and/or have jobs.

I'm among those people who are lazy and/or have jobs, so I'm just going to use one example, and it's not even a new example.  I wrote about this in 2011:
Someone sent me a link to a NY Times article called "Reason Seen More as Weapon Than Path to Truth". [...]  It's about "argumentative theory", which claims that human reasoning evolved to win arguments, rather than to reach truth.  In this view, even our many cognitive biases are adaptations to improve debate skills.  This goes against the more common view that cognitive biases represent limitations of natural selection.

Given these two diverging views, I was curious about the evidence for each side.  But I was disappointed in how little evidence the article presented.  In fact, it presented no evidence at all!  I've decided the article is a self-referential parody.
So the NY Times article was terrible.  But was it terrible because there's no evidence for argumentative theory, or is it terrible because the journalist botched the evidence for argumentative theory?  The answer lies buried in this fifty-page review on which the NY Times article was based.

Yeah, I'm not going to read through fifty pages.  But my boyfriend read through it.  He said that it was a good review of fallacies and cognitive biases, but did not advance any other kind of evidence for argumentative theory.  In his opinion, the biggest hole in the paper was its failure to give any account of the evolution of persuadability.  How can anyone win arguments if no one ever gets persuaded?  I asked him if the paper at least showed evidence that cognitive biases lead to winning more arguments, and in his recollection it did not.

Naturally I'm obligated to believe what my boyfriend says, but you're welcome to look at the paper yourself.  Massimo Pigliucci also read the paper independently, and had an even more negative opinion.

But maybe this is just one bad paper that the journalists picked out because it was bad.  It's hard to say without being familiar with the field.  However, there are measures that even a non-expert can use.  According to the Web of Science, "How do Humans Reason? Arguments for Argumentative Theory" was the most cited paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences in 2011, receiving 38 citations.  As for Behavioral and Brain Sciences, it has the highest impact factor in the category of behavioral science, and third highest impact factor in the category of neuroscience. It's possible that all 38 citations are saying, "Look at this terrible paper", but I doubt it; by all accounts this is a very authoritative paper.

Now that doesn't mean that all of EP is bad.  It could be that only one segment of EP is bad, a large enough segment to cite this paper 38 times.  Given that even anti-EP people agree that at least some parts of EP are decent, this is a good place to settle our inquiry.

TL;DR: I read an awful article about EP, and found that the awfulness comes from the researchers, not the journalists.  It was also a very authoritative study in its field, though this does not imply that all of EP is bad, just parts of it.

Discussion: What is the problem?

First let me note that there is nothing politically "incorrect" or "correct" about argumentative theory.  I have no problem with it, and argumentative theory seems like a reasonable possibility.  Unlike many of the other EP studies that people complain about, it clearly has nothing to do with race or sex.  You may hypothesize that people oppose EP because its conclusions are at odds with liberal politics.  My own hypothesis is that the racism and sexism just draws people's attention to the shoddy arguments that exist in EP.

And what are those shoddy arguments?

If I may generalize based on the above case study and a few other examples I have seen,* evidence for EP (at least that which appears in major media) comes in this form: Based on our theory, human evolution should have selected for trait X.  We did an experiment confirming the prevalence of X across cultures.

*Since I am only waving at other examples vaguely, you are welcome to distrust my conclusions from this point on.

Part of the problem is that it's hard to guard against post-hoc theories constructed just to fit the evidence (whatever that evidence might be).  There's nothing to stop researchers from performing the experiment first and then coming up with an EP theory to justify the results.  Alternatively, it could be common wisdom that X is common, and the EP theory is created to explain X.  Occasionally it turns out that the common wisdom is mistaken, and EP theories can be falsified in this way.  Yes, EP is falsifiable!

But you can imagine there are plenty of cases where the common wisdom is correct, just not for the reasons supposed by EP researchers.  In these cases, the EP theory will never be falsified by the kind of evidence they come up with.

In the case of argumentative theory, an alternative hypothesis that correct reasoning is more adaptive, but also costs a lot of other resources, or is otherwise difficult for evolution to achieve.  The paper points at all our cognitive hiccups, but this is just as consistent with my theory as it is with argumentative theory.  You can also imagine other reasons why cognitive biases might be adaptive.  For example, perhaps they allow you to lose arguments more often, which is good because winning arguments doesn't win friends.  Or cognitive biases could lead to more cautious behaviors (eg mistaking the wind for a tiger is better than mistaking a tiger for the wind).

TL;DR: The study is not bad because it is politically incorrect, it is bad because it makes "obvious" predictions.  These "obvious" predictions might be wrong, falsifying the EP hypothesis.  But falsifiability is not enough, because even if the "obvious" predictions are right, there are many explanations besides EP.

Some defenses of Evolutionary Psychology

The great thing about this drama is that several people are mounting defenses of EP, making it easier for me to gather some of their points.

Chris Hallquist talks about why large brains must be an adaptation.  Big brains are very costly, so there has to be some adaptive value to offset this.  He also mentions the theory that women are more "picky" about sex partners than men because women have to invest more in children.  This theory is evidenced by a cross-species study which verifies that in animal species with two sexes, the sex with more investment in offspring is the pickier one.

Those kinds of evidence overcome my objections, and so I do not object to them.  There could be further objections that I am not aware of, but for now I accept the null hypothesis that this is good science.  However, neither of these arguments apply to argumentative theory, which I still think is bad science.

Ed Clint also gives a quote by Elliot Sober from Philosophy of Biology:
Adaptationism is first and foremost a research program. Its core claims will receive support if specific adaptationist hypotheses turn out to be well confirmed. If such explanations fail time after time, eventually scientists will begin to suspect that its core assumptions are defective. Phrenology waxed and waned according to the same dynamic (Section 2.1). Only time and hard work will tell whether adaptationism deserves the same fate ( Mitchell and Valone 1990).
My interpretation of this quote is that adaptationism is not the assumption that everything is adaptive, it is a way of picking research topics.  You look at a trait and start with the theory that it is adaptive, not because you believe it's true, but because among all the possible hypotheses that's the best one to start with.  (This could be compared to methodological naturalism.)  Something like argumentative theory is just the beginning of a project.  And once argumentative theory becomes a big enough question, scientists will finally perform a solid, expensive experiment.  (I'm sure the cross-species study, for instance, must be quite expensive.)

I believe my interpretation is corroborated by this EP FAQ linked by Ed Clint:
It is true that many functional hypotheses have been offered for a variety of psychological phenomena, and it is also true that most of these hypotheses are probably wrong. However, hypotheses outnumber established theories in just about any field you care to name, and evolutionary psychologists are no less discriminating than other scholars.
I think this is a fair defense of EP, though it leaves a few questions.  Why do researchers so happily talk about their hypotheses to the media as if they were true?

And at most, it leads me to a middle ground between the two sides.  If I read a story, or a scientific study proposing an adaptive explanation for a human trait, should I believe it?  No, I should not.  Because in the field of EP, the adaptive hypothesis is just the starting hypothesis.  It's the idea that the researchers toss around, until it gains enough weight and they bring in the real evidence.  Should I believe in argumentative theory?  No, not at all.  Should I believe in the pickier women theory?  Yes, but only after I heard about the cross-species research.

TL;DR: There are some kinds of evidence in EP that I find persuasive, such as cross-species research.  Another defense of EP is that adaptationism is not so much an assumption of EP, as it is simply a good starting point.  If that is the case, then I should reject adaptive claims from EP until I'm sure that they've advanced beyond the starting point.

Holding hands

My new favorite webcomic is O Human Star (occasionally NSFW).  It's about a man who dies and goes to the future, where he must confront his gender identity issues in cyborg form.  Classic!

Anyway, these few panels made me nostalgic.

I remember back in middle school when my girlfriend wanted to hold hands with me.  Why?? I did not understand the appeal.  That's just something you do to be socially identifiable as a couple, right?  It didn't make sense at all.

Much later when I dated a guy for the first time, I was surprised that I actually wanted to hold hands with him.  Weeeeird!  Anyway, he refused, possibly because he was closeted.  I didn't realize quite how oppressive the taboo against men holding hands was until then.

Nowadays, my boyfriend and I hold hands all the time and generally engage in a lot of PDA.  Straight people are usually too embarrassed to say anything, but our gay friends occasionally complain.  Ha, like they can stop us!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Privilege as bias

Some months ago, there was a comment scuffle on my other blog.  One person, let's call them Alice, complains about transphobia and ablism in a particular forum.  Another person, let's call them Bob, says that the allegations are too vague.  Bob asks for a link and talks about recollection bias.  Alice responds angrily, and among other things accuses Bob of being part of a privileged group.  Bob asserts that this is ad hominem, and confesses dislike for the very idea of "privilege".

Bob is likely not alone in this perception, that the main function of "privilege" is to discount people's opinions based on who they are.  When a privileged person says something an underprivileged person doesn't like, they can claim that the privileged person's opinion comes from privilege, and should therefore be discounted.  This allows you to reject other people's views independently of their content, and thus it cannot help you achieve a greater approximation of truth.

It's hard to argue with that, if "privilege" is just used to indiscriminately dismiss people that you disagree with.

But there's also a way to translate "privilege" into skeptical terms.  When someone is called out on their privilege, the translation is that they've been accused of bias.  The paradigmatic case is when a white person expresses their personal impression that racism isn't a big deal these days.  Of course, impressions come from personal experiences, and it hardly needs saying that people have different personal experiences.  People also suffer from inattentive blindness, and thus are unlikely to notice comments or actions which don't hurt them personally.

That said, accusing people of privilege-induced blindness is a pretty shitty argument, because accusing people of cognitive bias is a shitty argument.  Or at least, it's very hard to make persuasive case out of it.

For example, suppose someone believes in chemtrail-related conspiracies, and your response is to talk about the systematic bias which causes people perceive agenticity where there is none.  It may be interesting to discuss, especially to third parties, but your debate opponent will likely remain unconvinced.  For one thing, simply asserting a cognitive bias doesn't mean that it's there.  Why should your opponent accept your assertion just on your say so?  And for another, just because they have a statistically higher probability of having a certain set of false beliefs does not mean that this particular belief is false.

Another example: suppose someone believes that a particular forum is terrible, and your response is to talk about recollection bias.  You're obviously not going to convince someone that their memory is wrong just because you've cited the fact that memories can be wrong.

(In general, I support the idea of privilege, but at some point I'd also like to enumerate its many problems and failings.  Also at some point I'd like to discuss the failings of "name that fallacy" style argumentation, but my thoughts aren't fully formed.)