Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Lack of Consensus About Assessment's Purpose

I've been attending a conference with Guskey.  One thing he mentioned got me thinking: what is the role of assessment in education.  He showed the standard list (something like this)

  1. info for parents
  2. info for students for self reflection / growth
  3. info for changes in teacher practices
  4. info for ranking and group selection
  5. info for systems level changes
  6. motivation for students
  7. creation of student responsibility.
Obviously teachers do not agree on the purpose of assessment.  They tend to be all over the map.  Is this a problem or not? 

To an instructional designer or educational reformer it certainly is.  But when you look at this question through a cultural multi-level selection lens, you get some interesting insights.  Rather than lack of coherence being a bug, sustainability over time suggests it is probably a feature instead (or at least a spandrel).

A Functional Analysis of Lack of Coherence
Homogeneous systems increase corruption pay offs.  In education this might mean that learning how to game the system can produce large pay offs.  Those who are quickest to determine gaming insights get the most benefit (minimal individual costs, maximal group benefits).  This is likely to lead to greater within group variance (the rich get richer, the poor get poorer).  On the other hand, lack of coherence makes corruption much harder.

One interpretation is that Western education operates in a landscape where within-group corruption is minimized.  Another interpretation is that education is a just a loosely coupled system where teachers are free to do whatever they want. I obviously don't think that reason holds up. Why has education stabilized at the degree of looseness it has.

But, functional reasoning is of course problematic. The main take-away is that evolutionary thinking generates very interesting questions and possible responses to questions that are otherwise hard to answer or are likely to give overly simplistic self-destructive answers.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Well Intentioned but Naive Polarization

Here is an example of well intentioned sentiment (violence is bad and thinking other people are inferior is nasty).

The problem is that the sentiment is rather naive of what is actually happening on the ground.  I certainly excuse politicians for this.  They get excoriated if they don't represent the right sentiment.  But, academically minded can and should do better.

The problem is, as I understand years of twitter feeds and youtube feeds, some of the protesters are protesting agains racism and demagoguery.  However, the racism they are protesting against is in terms of classical racism (based of skin phenotype) rather than new racism (based upon punch-down intersectionality).

How else do you explain "Nazi's" who are proud to have Jewish friends, who overtly stand against classical racism towards people of color, and rally around equality under the law, etc.  While there are certainly some (perhaps many) full on white supremacists, and while I fully understand the value of condemning anything associated with such movements, the problem is, statements like Notley's are likely to come across as exceptionally hollow to those who may have been protesting these exact things but are now condemned as deplorably racist Nazi's.

Thus the situation is sort of like how Evergreen professor Brett Weinstein was condemned as a racist for complaining against racism.  Perhaps the main difference being there was a crazy supremacist prof down the hall who did the same act for different reasons...and plans weren't in place for distancing and denouncing.  Perhaps that means the protestors are in fact soft of Nazi styled white supremacy.  That is a very logical point to consider.

My main worry isn't about how "Nazi" the group was - I think with current polarizations, accurate assessments would be hopelessly flawed.  My worry is that calling people racist who, in their minds, were protesting racism (even if just against whites) diminishes the social stigma of racism and creates a backlash that needn't have been created with a bit of wisdom.

But I certainly understand how people view the condemnation of anything associated with supremacist groups more valuable than any potential backlash.  I just worry that the backlash calculus has been underestimated and hence outcomes may strengthen rather than weaken racism.


I've long predicted that the popularization of privilege based identity politics would prove to be highly cancerous to civil society.  While the issue is now endemic to the US, there are likely still a number of turning points that need to be crossed before its (unintended) consequences fully metastasize.  #Charlotesville is one of those turning points.

For the unaware, alt-light groups have started trying to match the left's success at community organizing.  The Charlottesville protest centered on the removal of historical symbols.  Basically one side is purging history Taliban style in order to clean up the symbolic messaging government condones within the public sphere.  Obviously this hasn't gone well.  The car ramming is absolutely devastating both for the people killed and injured and for political discourse in the US.  Civil War, as I've long predicted is a real possibility.

I'm quite proud of Alberta's Cree nation approach to this same issue.  In Edmonton, rather than remove offensive illustrations of the traumatic Residential School era, they made offensive pictures into part of a larger story about the evolution of our people's understanding of Residential issues.  I have to say I was very proud of our Cree treaty partners in this regard.  Of course Cree philosophy evolved along a process philosophy line of thought which makes such approaches both likely and natural.  Good on them.

But US progressivism seems more inclined to follow a purge model rather than a multi-cultural model.  I won't speculate on cultural evolutionary reasons why this might be so.

Despite the popularization that all the marchers are Nazi alt-right white supremacists, such generalizations strike me just as hollow as the idea that protests involving antifa's automatically means all marchers were fascist rioters.  Both sides have their shock troops, their crazy troops and people with legitimate and often nuanced grievances.  Nazi's were prominent in the march, but unless one calls all white nationals Nazi's the crowds make-up and political intents are almost certainly more mixed than twitter and media mobs suggest.  For instance, I am certain to be labelled a Nazi for even suggesting this.  Think about what that implies for a moment...

Conveniently progressive doctrine has a solution - nuance in racism or any other sin doesn't matter.  Just like there is no legitimate way to draw the prophet Mohammed, from what I understand, Trumpish whites feel like they have no way to express or celebrate their identity.  From what I gather, they seem to feel their only permissible role is as a punching bag.  Social justice confession, and acquiesce to any and all intersectionality comes across as a new Nicene creed to which every knee must bend.  As a cultural evolutionist, I suspect this primes dynamics similar to those which occurred during medieval Christian-Barbarian confrontations.  Perhaps I'm wrong.  I doubt it though.

So, in an attempt to understand what is happening, here is my outsider sense of the sides...


My sense is that the alt-right and nazi groups represented in Charlottesville are probably better defined as nationalists than supremacists.  There are undoubtedly many supremacists mixed in.  But I confess ignorance here.  I have no interest delving into that world.  Nor would it be productive in our polarized world to tease out distinctions between direct supremacy and "failure to support-intersectional" de-facto supremacy.  Heck, even talking about these issues in a nuanced way is likely to get me labelled Nazi....  And people wonder why many scientists worry about the Stalinesque effects of political correctness has on academic discourse. and research....

But I suspect after Charlottesville, the minor racists will have to decide whether they are cursed no matter what and go full nazi, or purge for more mainstream positioning. I'm not sure which way they will go.  So the easy answer is to assume that the population will bifurcate.

To figure that out, here are the two competing narratives.  The car attack all but ensures narrative 2 has the moral high ground.

  1. These are people, almost certainly somewhat racist by todays standards, who are expressing a legitimate right to assembly.  They are protesting attacks against them and their history which are based upon their physical identities.  These attacks are verbal, job related (doxxing), economic (affirmative action discrimination and changes in government focus) and cultural.  They want individuals to have equal opportunities.  But ironically, group derived benefits are fine and should not be penalized.  Equality of group opportunities should not be forced.  If some groups are more successful than others, that is fine.  Group effects can accrue as long as individuals are not penalized (i.e.  classic affirmative action is fine - if there are two equal choices you're fine supporting your own group, but current affirmative action is wrong - by advancing a minority individual you necessarily penalize a majority individual).  Thus the protest is over their right to function as a group.
  2. These are supremacists who want to keep minorities down in order to maintain their own privilege.  They try to spin supremacy under a guise that "group-level benefits are fine". This is obviously problematic as it leads to or perpetuates systemic racism.  Worse than this, it leads to exponentially increasing systemic biases.  In exponential growth systems anything slightly racist is like a growth rate greater than 1. Hence, the validity of intersectional concerns.

Now I am not sure I fully captured each idea.  They both have logical problems.  But I did try to do justice to each side (at least using terms I understand).  What this does highlight though, is that the battle lines are likely to get drawn into a classic "individuals" vs. "group level" battle. 

Is the country a bunch of groups?  Or is it a bunch of individuals?  Both solutions are problematic.  I would hope groups as defined by phenotypical markers will be unstable.  It is incredibly racist in an #EvergreenStCol sort of way.  But I think it will take a long time for this to sink in.

I think the libertarian approach where everyone is an individual who is treated equally is problematic because group-level adaptations are natural and truly beneficial (for group members).  Because they are so beneficial they are inevitable.

Thus I think the current trajectory where a "white" majority is hindered from assembling and organizing remains likely.  The hypocrisy will frustrate this group immensely (from what I understand it already does).  Many will see the fight as an inevitable losing battle.  More and more will go suicidal because of this. Violence levels, like the car attack, will increase.  The other side will match the violence and polarization will increase.  A targeted-assassination level civil war will ensue.  A Trump removal from office (impeachment) or re-election will exasperate the conflict.  

Unfortunately I'm not sure of any valves that will prevent this from happening.  If the population can let "nazi's" march without violent attack, perhaps enough energy would be dispelled for the system to survive.  But I think the risk that such organization would get out of hand is too great a risk for the establishment / people to handle. 

Immigration and the creation of scarcity within commoners is another possible way to escape the civil war trap.  But as Turchin suggests, it is elite over-population rather than commoner immiseration which is the problem.  Immigration locks helped prevent the 1920's civil destabilization from getting out of hand.  But it was combined with elite class philanthropic competition.  I don't see that happening today.  The elite class is too large and nationalistic sentiment too low.

Thus, I am rather sad about what Charlottesville portends.  Not because it shows how many "Nazi's" there are.  But because I suspect there is no way out of the trap it reveals. The US seems incapable of escaping a purge-like mentality to social conflict.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Fake News Science

One thing the Google Memo Gate is sure to do is make a lot of geneticists take a hard look at the post modernist social justice genie.

For instance you don't need to be a high-level population geneticist to spot the obviously fake news in this headline...
Of course those steeped into cult like dynamics of of this in-group may be blind to the hyperbole (the headline is just presenting the zeitgeist - type of rationalization).  Educated people who actively seek out alternative viewpoints and enjoy associating with people of different ideological perspectives are likely to have a fairly different perspective; The headline in no ways mirrors anything that the memo actually said and even a liberal "zeitgeist" interpretation can't reconcile the error.

The history of the social destabilizations of other Great Religious Awakenings shows that pluralism (re)emerges when people see the evilness ascribed by their priests as demonstrably false.  Pat walked 1km on the Sabbath and so must be absolutely evil.  GoogleMemoGate and EvergreenPurge are but two of the latest examples of this.  Well informed people who lean to heterodox interactions tend to see the banality in fire-and-brimstone sin ascriptions.  Simple interaction with the people under attack show sin implications to be patently wrong. Pat is a kind person who loves church and just likes to walk.

At some point the priests lose their authority.  At that point you either have a critical mass for pluralism or you have a critical number of zealots for a hot civil war.  It is really hard to predict which way our current Great "Religious" Awakening will go.  We have the education and social tools for another pluralistic solution.  But we also have hordes of people with little religious conditioning, no experience with inter-denominational conflict, and little hope of smoothly navigating sacred value breaches.

There is one thing that seems certain though, media priests keep walking themselves into insignificance. They are quickly becoming as impartial and trustworthy as The National Enquirer or The Daily Show.  The main difference is that the MSM has many more pockets of objectivity.  But the baby is getting thrown out with the bathwater.  Trump may have egged them on, but GoogleMemoGate shows social civil war lines are inevitable. You can't just keep your head down. Most every institution is subject to diversity priests (professional and lay). Social media ensures this is so.


Google fired an employee who sent out a memo based on a standard evolutionary social science explanation of differences between groups.  This class of argument doesn't change much whether the groups were determined arbitrarily, randomly, or via self-selection.  As usual Slate Star Codex does a good job explaining the science to a non-specialist audience.

Aside from the obvious take-a-way that we are indeed in the midst of a hot culture war and cold civil war, it is interesting to see:

  1. how this pushes the formation of adaptive groups (groups where members offer true protection to their in-group from any out-group attack, or more generally, offer a probabilistic fitness advantage over long-time frames)
  2. how important framing is for the way people understand the conflict.

I've talked for years about how essential a correct understanding of adaptive groups are in the study of human social dynamics.  It is very hard to understand such dynamics unless you invoke multi-level selection.  One can certainly argue that the ephemeral nature of human groups makes fitness based perspectives over-extended.  However, GoogleGate shows that a number of evolutionary biologists are realizing just how threatened their branch of science is to social justice activism.  As a result, you're seeing prominent figures pulling together against Blank Slate Post Modern religion.

I suspect we'll continue to see such dynamics increasing in intensity.  The well this creates was one of my big worries against the nascent trend to academic creed statements.  Because formal creedal statements will eventually be needed for full academic protection of many minority or non PC positions, the risks of catastrophic tribablization increase. This type of thing is just too destructive of social asabiyah.

Here's one way I see the importance of framing in terms of the dynamics around GoogleGate.  

Someone in your family says you can never be attractive because you take after parent X and are likely to have sever acne. Versus, let's figure out why some parts of our family have acne and see what we can do to figure the problem out.

The Google diversity memo strikes many as an overt attack which reinforces bigoted positions.  But it also strikes others as a valid attempt to understand the problems.  Large group problems are ideally confronted via a mixture of utopian transformation and pragmatism. Unfortunately, the stability of heterodox solutions are sensitive to social asabiyah and exquisitely sensitive to changes in social asabiyah.

While I suspect the memo arose in the context of finding a solution to gender disparity (via accurate strategical analysis), I don't think there's much question that this is not how the opening paragraphs framed things.  So I see both sides of things here.  There is really no way to pull the sides together.  One side is taking the path of utopian transformation (which is indeed necessary in social change).  The other side is taking the path of hyper-objectivity (which is indeed necessary for change sustainability).