Archive for the GIGO Category

The One That Isn’t There

Posted in GIGO on November, 2009 by melendwyr

Q: What’s the most important leg of a three-legged stool?
A: The one that isn’t there.
– traditional joke-riddle

A specific neurological lesion can sometimes damage or impair specific neurological functions without touching others. In the condition famously known as “Ondine’s Curse”, for example, automatic control of breathing is destroyed while conscious control remains, so that without modern medical intervention nerve-damaged patients can survive only as long as they can remain awake. Such conditions are nevertheless unusual exceptions to the more general principle that complex, recently-developed, and ‘meta’-functions (those that monitor and control others) are first to be impaired and lost when the nervous system is stressed, damaged, or altered.

Demonstrations of this principle can be found by examining such phenomena as reversion under stress, oxygen deprivation, sleep deprivation, and various sorts of poisoning – most especially drugs with a gradual effect on nervous function. The primary reason it is considered necessary to have designated drivers who refrain from consumption of alcohol is that drinkers frequently underestimate the degree to which they’re affected by alcohol. Long before slowed reflexes and grossly impaired judgment become evident, the cognitive functions responsible for self-evaluation are dulled, and self-control diminished. A drinker who believes that they’re capable of driving safely may or may not be correct, even if their judgments would normally be trustworthy. Similar effects are found with other types of intoxication – people who say that they drive better after smoking marijuana have been shown to in fact drive more poorly. The more demanding and complicated the mental task is, the more likely it will be disrupted by any interfering factor, leading to poor performance.

The natural human’s an animal without logic. Your projections of logic onto all affairs is unnatural, but suffered to continue for its usefulness. You’re the embodiment of logic–a Mentat. Yet, your problem solutions are concepts that, in a very real sense, are projected outside yourself, there to be studied and rolled around, examined from all sides.”
“You think now to teach me my trade?” he asked, and he did not try to hide the disdain in his voice.
“The finest Mentats have a healthy respect for the error factor in their computations,” she said.

– exchange between the Lady Jessica and Thufir Hawat; Frank Herbert, Dune

Once a certain level of intelligence has been reached, any cognitive process can be emulated by any mind – it’s merely a question of available storage space and speed. The amount of processing capacity rapidly becomes immaterial. What’s important is not how powerful a mind is, but how well it detects, compensates for, and corrects its own errors.

It would be convenient if this capacity, which is difficult to gauge, were clearly associated with general intelligence. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. We know that the self-regulatory functions of cognition can be completely destroyed without affecting such things as IQ scores. Thus, high IQ does not serve as a reliable guide to the presence of higher cognitive functions. Furthermore, my experience with smart people strongly suggests that they are less likely to develop that capacity. Being cleverer than the people around them, they are more likely to be able to craft invalid yet convincing arguments that others can’t counter or respond to. They have no need to develop stringent self-evaluation to accomplish social goals, and it’s very easy to convince themselves that they’ve chosen the correct course of action. What’s worse, they’re more likely to be able to craft clever arguments which convince themselves – and then, secure in the knowledge of their cleverness, they become less likely to check and re-check their reasoning. Average people have more experience of being shown to be wrong, and often have developed a greater willingness to lack confidence in their conclusions. This is both a strength and a weakness, but the strength cannot be acquired otherwise while the vulnerability can be compensated for.

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” – Richard P. Feynman

Rationality, like reading or arithmetic, is a skill alien to the human mind. Useful, certainly, but not natural. Development of the capacity for rationality requires strict adherence to a set of formal principles, and such adherence requires advanced self-evaluation to be maintained. Otherwise practitioners will quickly convince themselves that short-circuited thinking really is valid. If it’s a terrible thing to believe your own propaganda, it’s even worse to never realize you’re issuing propaganda in the first place.

The principles of rationality aren’t difficult. What’s hard is to implement them consistently and completely; our older, better-developed tendencies to associate our way through a problem and accept or reject statements on the palatability of their consequences, tend to override our better judgment.

How, then, can we develop the ability to put rational thought into practice?

Pound of Feathers, Pound of Gold

Posted in GIGO, Useful Aphorisms with tags , on October, 2009 by melendwyr

Which weighs more: a pound of feathers, or a pound of gold?

Close consideration of this riddle – and the conditions under which people tend to get it wrong – is helpful in understanding the limits of human rationality. It is a specific example which leads us to general principles of rationality failure.

These sorts of riddles and similar interpersonal language tricks (such as “Stupid says what?”) are especially popular among children but not among adults. Why is this the case? Partly because adults are more likely to have previously encountered and become familiar with their patterns, but there are other factors – including one very relevant one. Children tend to have less-developed capacities of impulse control.

It takes very little analysis to discover the ‘trick’ in the question; the concepts involved are relatively simple. But we’re confronted with the fact that people do answer it incorrectly, and that by manipulating aspects of the context in which the question is delivered, we can significantly increase the chance people will fall for it. What does this imply? That analysis is not being conducted in the erroneous cases, and that context is a contributing factor to whether people successfully engage in conceptual analysis. Specifically, that context determines whether people will counter their impulses long enough for analysis to be completed.

The key to these sorts of riddles is time pressure. If people feel free to take as much time as they like thinking over the question, they rarely fall for the trick. But if they’re trying to answer rapidly, they’ll screw up. Examples of situations that often result in such behavior include: competing against others to see who can be correct first, trying to demonstrate competence by investing little effort in answering, or encountering the question as part of a limited-duration examination. If several superficially-similar questions whose answer depends on retrieving facts from memory rather than performing logical analysis of the question are asked before the riddle is presented, that also tends to result in a wrong response.

The error occurs because of our weight-related associations with the concepts of ‘feathers’ and ‘gold’, our conditioned assumptions about the sorts of questions people are likely to ask, and a failure to inhibit the first impulses towards response. Feathers are far less dense than gold; any given volume of feathers will weigh far less than the same volume of the metal. Questions about a property rarely contain their own answers in a trivial way – we do not expect the defined quantities in the question to be equivalent relative to the property being asked about. And – this is the most vital aspect – it takes longer for our brains to process the question at a conceptual level than it does to activate our associations.

In the state of nature, organisms are often under intense pressure to produce results quickly. If they take too long, the resource they’re trying to exploit may be taken by a competitor – or worse, they may become exploited resources by a predator. So stimulus-response methods which produce generally-useful reactions tend to be favored over extremely accurate and precisely analysis that takes longer. As a consequence, natural modes of though available to humans favor rapid responses more than rigorous correctness – and in much the same way that the limits of our visual processing systems lead to optical illusions, which can be understood and thus constructed, the limits of our conceptual processing lead to inherent tendencies towards fallacies of reason, which can be exploited to produce riddles and language gags.

Just as other aspects of our behavioral response involve the repression of rudimentary reflexes, our thinking involves the inhibition of associational activation and reflexive reactions. The “more advanced” cognitive functions can take place only because the simpler, less resource-intensive, and faster functions are prevented from initiating responses before them.

In the wrestling match between the modern functions and the ancient ones they try to control, the more subtle and advanced features are at a distinct disadvantage. Which brings us to the next post.

Thoughts on Charles Bonnet Syndrome

Posted in GIGO, Medicine, Science! on September, 2009 by melendwyr

Possibly the most important lesson that should be taken from the story of Charles Bonnet Syndrome (CBS) is that correlation implies nothing about causation and even less about etiology.

Patients with general dementia, Alzheimer’s, or strokes were far more likely to communicate seeing things that weren’t there. So if you merely look at reported population statistics, visual hallucinations would seem to be associated very strongly with brain damage.

But the real problem was that such patients were much more likely to be uninhibited in talking about their hallucinations. Older people with loss of sight but properly-working minds feared the consequences of mentioning what they saw to anyone – at least partially because of the existing association in physicians’ minds between visual hallucinations and senility – and so said nothing. And so there was no awareness of the true rate of the phenomenon.

If you look at the actual statistics – the ones collected once the stigma of CBS was reduced, physician awareness increased, and elders gently but insistently questioned – then there’s no particular association between senility or brain disease and the hallucinations.

Remember – it took hundreds of years for the condition to even be mentioned in the English language, despite all of the people who must have experienced vision loss and CBS in that time. Despite all of the physicians who must have aged or had eye damage and suddenly experienced it themselves.

The Absence of Evidence

Posted in GIGO, Medicine with tags , , , , on September, 2009 by melendwyr

In 1769, the Swiss naturalist and philosopher Charles Bonnet noticed that his nearly-blind grandfather reported vivid hallucinations of things which he knew to be non-existent. As his own sight worsened with age, Bonnet began to experience similar visions: birds, men and women, strange plants, and architectural patterns came and went. As he was the first person to describe this phenomenon, it was named after him: Charles Bonnet Syndrome.

The syndrome did not enter the English medical literature until 1982. Most physicians and nurses had never heard of it, and there was little literature about it even in non-English journals. Millions of people had seriously-impaired vision without experiencing CBS, so clearly it must be a very rare and unusual condition. If elderly people reported seeing things, it was considered to be overwhelmingly likely to be a sign of dementia or psychosis.

Until doctors actually sat down and questioned patients as to whether they had seen peculiar things, with no suggestions that they were insane or demented. Then it was recognized that more than half of all people with impaired vision, particularly those whose loss of sight occurred suddenly, experienced CBS.

Most of them were afraid they’d be considered mad if they mentioned what they saw to people, only about a third revealed the hallucinations to anyone, roughly a third lived in terror that they were losing their minds, and the vast majority did not tell their physicians. Unless actively encouraged to be honest, and given assurances that seeing things wasn’t a sign of insanity, many people simply denied their experiences if asked.

People who had strokes, were developing Alzheimer’s, and so on were indeed more likely to report having visions. Not necessarily because the visions resulted from neurological impairment, but because they were less likely to possess the contextual awareness of others and their expectations and repress mention of them.

This is a superb example of how important it is to always keep in mind the distinction between reality and our knowledge of it. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Relying upon our collective knowledge base is often useful, but it prevents us from checking that base against reality and correcting it when wrong.

If you assumed that CBS must be rare and unusual, because there was no recognition of it in the literature and doctors knew nothing about it, you’d have make the implicit assumption that physicians’ knowledge was valid and complete. In reality, it wouldn’t be – not through any fault of the doctors, mind you. But you’d be ruling out in advance the possibility that the system itself was lacking, and so wouldn’t have been able to notice the problem and correct it.

Only once physicians actively considered the possibility that they were missing something, and sought out evidence from the patients themselves instead of what the profession thought it knew, was the gap between understanding and reality closed.

The Purpose of Power is Power

Posted in Doom, GIGO, Politics and Society, Useful Aphorisms with tags , , , , on September, 2009 by melendwyr

You cannot avoid the interplay of politics within an orthodox religion. This power struggle permeates the training, educating, and disciplining of the orthodox community. Because of this pressure, the leaders of such a community inevitably must face that ultimate internal question: to succumb to complete opportunism as the price for maintaining their rule, or risk sacrificing themselves for the sake of the orthodox ethic.

– from “Muad’Dib, The Religious Issues” by the Princess Irulan

– Frank Herbert, “Dune”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the nature of power. What it’s good for, what its limits are.

It’s increasingly clear to me that power, used in ways that are not compatible with the maintenance and continued existence of that power, tends to expend itself. Power that persists usually concerns itself with itself and its perpetuation. But there are inherent trade-offs that cannot be avoided.

Wealth is a tool of freedom, but the pursuit of wealth is the path to slavery.

– Frank Herbert

What is power to be used for? What goal is the end to which power is the means? Those who have purposes for their power will sometimes find that purpose in conflict with the perpetuation and increase of the power itself, and so must choose. Those whose purposes include the use of power in a certain way will face even more conflicts and more choices. But those who seek power only for the purpose of possessing and exercising power will not be conflicted, and will be forced to no difficult choices.

Maintaining a democratic system and keeping it functionally in touch with reality is an example of having standards for the use of power. Demagogues and popular tyrants – the most obvious threats to any democracy – are examples of seeking power for power’s sake.

I don’t think this is a conflict we can win.

Watching the Watchers

Posted in GIGO, Medicine, Politics and Society with tags , , on August, 2009 by melendwyr

TGGP asks whether it would be better to have the FDA regulate surgeries instead of drugs.

Even if it were surgeries as well as drugs, I’d say the answer is ‘no’. Why?

Many people do not realize that the FDA doesn’t actually perform any testing of drugs. It merely examines the reported results of tests submitted to it. Who performs the studies of the drugs? Why, the pharmaceutical companies who developed and are hoping to market them, of course.

Does that strike you as a conflict of interest? It should.

The biggest problem with this arrangement is that there’s really nothing preventing the drug makers from only reporting positive results. Yes, there are rules against that, but without keeping tabs on what the companies are doing or granting the authority to discipline violators, they’re paper tigers.

If you go out and look for them, you’ll find that there have been many cases of a drug that appeared to be useful in the experiments submitted to the FDA that turned out to be nigh-useless in actual clinical use. Given a drug that doesn’t appear to be doing better than placebo, you can always just perform lots of tests and then keep the ones in which the drug happens to do better than the control. What about the scientific ethics of the researchers paid to perform the tests? If they get a reputation for being ‘troublesome’, they’re likely to be let go – and find it difficult to obtain employment elsewhere in the pharmaceutical industry. Drug makers can sit on the negative results and never let them see the light of day.

The problem isn’t so much that what the FDA does is bad, but that it’s inadequate and horrifyingly ineffectual – and that, by existing, it helps create the impression that drugs are being properly vetted. People presume that drugs that make it through the process are valuable, that in-all their benefits are substantial and outweigh their costs. That trust is misplaced.

Irreducible Stupidity

Posted in Doom, GIGO with tags , , , , , , , on August, 2009 by melendwyr

By now, there’s a good chance you’ve already heard about the McWhorter-Behe diavlog on Bloggingheads.tv, and its removal for unknown reasons.

So I have very little to say about that.

I would like to point out this post over at BH’s thread regarding the video removal, written by someone with the handle “IRQ Conflict”:

As for entropy. When is the last time you saw an organism gain information and order rather than lose it with time?

Gee, he’s got us there. [takes bite of sandwich] [swallows] I don’t recall any biological organism ever increasing in order and energy in any way… [takes bite] bwff I suppos thair mai bee [swallows] – sorry, shouldn’t type with my mouth full – but I suppose there may be some way in which living creatures might be able to increase their energy. [takes sip of beverage] I wonder what that might be?

I am reminded of the infamous Internet exchange in which a Creationist ridiculed the laws of thermodynamics by noting that they imply that there’s some large source of negentropy pumping energy and order into Earth… thus suggesting that, in his colossal arrogance, he did not permit himself to recall the existence of the Sun.