Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Sacred Values In Education

From http://www.reverendfun.com
This is from a series of excellent Atran articles up at Cliodynamics: The Journal of Quantitative History and Cultural Evolution.  What's interesting to consider is whether some of this applies to education?

Sincere attachment to sacred values entails: 

  1. commitment to a rule-bound logic of moral appropriateness to do what is morally right no matter the likely risks or rewards, rather than following a utilitarian calculus of costs and consequences , 
  2. immunity to material tradeoffs, coupled with a “backfire effect," where offers of incentives or disincentives to give up SVs heighten refusal to compromise or negotiate, 
  3. resistance to social influence and exit strategies, which leads to unyielding social solidarity, and binds genetic strangers to voluntarily sacrifice for one another, 
  4. insensitivity to spatial and temporal discounting, where considerations of distant places and people, and even far past and future events, associated with sacred values significantly outweigh concerns with here and now, 
  5.  brain-imaging patterns consistent with processing obligatory rules rather than weighing costs and benefits, and with processing perceived violations of such rules as emotionally agitating and resistant to social influence. (Atran, 2015, pp. 46)


When internalized, sacred values lessen societal costs of policing morality through self- monitoring, and blind members to exit strategies. (Atran, 2015, pp. 46)

To me, it seems likely that education experiences some sacredizing.  This accounts for some of the fairly non-rational sacrifices and decisions people make with regard to educational direction and change.  It also accounts for some of the rather incoherent protectionist strategies.

One of the issues is why more (any?) successful competitors to traditional institutionalized education haven't emerged?  There are lots of hybrids, but its hard to consider most of these as being fundamentally different from the status quo. The only thing I can think of as really different are radical versions of homeschooling and potpourri buffet hybrid learning options based on student created curriculum & outcomes.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Comparing Group Levels - Thinking Out Loud

In the spirit of the new year, I suppose it's about time to sum up some of the more rigorous approaches to group (level) formation. Here are the major disciplines I've been studying:
  • Sociology via Keith Sawyer
  • Economics via List & Pettit
  • Biology via Okasha & Wilson
  • Social Psychology via Haidt
  • Science of Religion via Norenzayan & Atran
  • Cultural Evolution via Turchin

Caveat:  This post is mostly a chance for me to work out-loud through the uncertain process of categorization.  My intent is to see if there is any way to piece together insights from the various traditions in order to

To start the thinking process, here's a cursory summary of the various approaches to multiple-group levels.

Rational Choice

Time scale  varies

(duration determines group level)

(long enough for structure to solidify & produce readily observable feedback effects)

(a couple of judgments)
observation of communication artifacts
structure's level of control over individual group agent  rationality & supercedence of indiv. rationality fitness
Loose Philo tradition
communication theory & process philosophy
social constructivism rational reductionism positivism?
Determinant of Group level 
duration of group
artefacts produced by interaction within group
causative power dynamics (with top-down bias) supercedence of rationality to higher level
(causative power dynamics)
covariant fitness

Based on this summary, how one deals with the nesting of groups seems like an interesting line of investigation.  Here's my first crack at categorizing nesting approaches.


  • By Group Size - While it might seem obvious that a higher level group necessarily has more members than a lower level one, this doesn't have to be the case.  Take for instance an authoritarian government.  It might control a very large population, but outside of a few sycophants there may be few agents who identify as part of the group. However, there may be many people who consider themselves part of the same nation's social institution, say education, a social movement or the nation's soccer fanatics.  These groups may be subservient to the larger group, but contain more members than the large group. Thus group size nesting is at odds with power relation nesting.
  • By Control - Control is easiest to visualize and model when it acts on adjacent group levels.  However, in practice, feedback is likely to be complicated and occur between non-adjacent levels. Multi-level selection theory certainly accepts this postulate.  Utility of non-adjacent group interaction is determined by fitness covariance. This measurement oriented approach avoids some of the conundrums that comes with sociology's functional oriented approaches.
    • Control by threshold level - if control from a group passes a certain threshold (probably low)  then a higher group is needed.  This type of control creates possible nesting problems.  A low level group has the theoretical possibility of controlling a high level group.  For instance, a particular team of soccer fanatics may theoretically control an authoritarian government even though they may be nested a couple of levels below the government (group of fans -> a team's fans -> soccer team -> sports body -> government)
    • Control by net level of feedback - the level that has the most control supercedes the other.  This sets the stage for chicken & egg priority problems - whose feedback comes first.  I suspect this is part of the intractable micro vs. macro paradigm problem
  • By Emergence - a higher level group is produced whenever emergent properties can't be be reduced down to the level of its agents. Complicated, non-adjacent nesting problems are possible. For instance, what happens when you have an emergent group entity functioning as part of another group of individual people?  Minimizing this would seem to require assuming groups rarely act as agents within the same level as individuals or pushing group effects back onto individuals.  The former, though plausible, seems rather arbitrary.  The latter takes you back to the reductionist problems of methodological individualism.

Perhaps a better way to categorize nesting methods is as follows:
  • principle based methods - control, group size, other subjective lenses, & perhaps emergence
  • covariance methods - fitness, & perhaps some narrow quantifiable subjective measures
  • property methods - emergence 


However this still begs the question of how to minimize overlapping within nested groups.  

Principle based methods seem to rely on the quality of used lenses.  Lens quality seems based on a hope that qualitative research can reveal accurate descriptors and researcher bias can be minimized by rigorous reflexive practice.  That type of stamp collecting has never interested me much. Bootstrapping doesn't wiggle my toes.

I like covariant methods.  They seem able to reveal the extent to which overlapping nests are or are not a factor.  They also seem better at minimizing subjective bias than principle methods . The timeframe of analysis seems problematic though.  How do you measure fitness for human groups that may produce counter-fitness results on a short time scale (say rich people having few kids), but increase fitness over long time scales (say rich people after a couple famines)?

Property methods seem intriguing.  However, emergent properties seem problematic to deduce.  List & Pettit have probably done the most work here (that I know of).  Their approach is based on deducing group-agent rationality. However, their rationality test seems overly cognitive.

Another way to minimize nesting overlaps is to only include certain types of groups.  List & Pettit have done this with their rational actor approach: only rational groups count.  Multi-level selection has indirectly done this due to the timescales inherit in its modelling.  (One gets around the timescale issue a bit by being able to look at whether genes present in some populations and not others correlate with historical fitness differences.)  Similarly, Sawyer suggest structural sociologists have created very narrow definitions for their group levels. However, by whittling down the focus on individual interaction they have challenges explaining the emergence of the structure they take for granted (Sawyer, 2013): Structure is what is socially stable.

Sawyer's sociological Emergence paradigm broadens standard sociological group levels.  He adds a couple of group levels based upon time stability.  This is done from a communicative tradition.  It includes the following levels:

  1. Structure - written texts like laws, infrastructure
  2. Stable emergents - group subcultures, group slang, collective memory, shared social practices
  3. Ephemeral emergents - topic, relative roles, status assignments
  4. Interaction - discourse patterns, collaboration
  5. Individual - personality, cognitive processes, agency

Unfortunately he isn't explicit in mentioning the role of time.  Ephemeral's differ from stables only in terms of their survivability.  This backward looking approach isn't ideal.  What non-arbitrary and non-subjective measures could you use to accurately distinguish ephemerals from stables?  Subjective rates of change?  Arbitrary time scales that disregard context?  Subjective time scales that are sensitive to context? Having some characteristics of what likely correlates with survivability would be nice.

For instance, the science of religion via Atran has postulated a number of markers associated with stable group functioning.  If one trusts Norenzayan's conclusion that religion is an evolutionary adaptive group structure, then one can start to pick away at the markers correlated with adaptive groups at any level.  This mirrors List & Pettit's rational approach.  However, instead of just postulating two markers:
  1. rationality via truth orientation & independent judgment, and 
  2. group decision supravenience (i.e group control over the individual),
one would posit several markers such as:
  1. freeloader detection & punishment
  2. costly commitment displays
  3. moral "Big Brother"
  4. deference to group norms
  5. sacred values & norms
  6. assessment of individuals based upon their inferred intents
  7. quasi-propositional truths (rationalization of cognitive dissonance)
  8. etc.

The marker approach may represent another way of looking at emergents.  Instead of taking the standard approach by defining emergence as that which produces something novel from its constituents, the marker approach stipulates which emergent properties are acceptable (based upon their likeliness).  However, this greatly reduces scalability and limits the approach to a certain region of group levels.


While I'm partial to the science of religion's marker approach, how do you measure any of that!  What seems to be coming out of this open-thinking process is the glossed over role of time.

From Sawyer (2013),
Most sociological discussion of emergence have focused on the broader macrostructures that emerge and how those emergent patterns constrain future interaction.  Yet these studies have not had much success in tracing the exact details of the moment-to-moment emergence processes whereby macrostructures are collectively created.  In contrast, the Interaction Paradigm has focused exactly on the moment-to-moment details of how ephemeral emergents result from interaction.  However, in shifting their focus to interactional process, they have tended to neglect the nature of what emerges and of what perdures across repeated encounters. (pp. 215)
Biology indirectly tackles the time issue with its adoption of a non-socially constructed fitness measure.  This enables covariant study. Instead of finding the historical record associated with a certain gene, you can just investigate populations that do and don't have it, looking at their fitness over time. Thus you get control groups.


The following points seem to emerge from this discussion:
  • narrow down the definition of "group" which is used to produce group-levels
  • instead of using arbitrary definitions to limit "groups", use an objective measure
  • pick a workable time frame for that measure's collection
  • pick a measure that naturally facilitates finding control groups
  • pick a measure whose collection is binary (like fitness)
  • ensure the measure scales up and down
  • I like science of religion markers

So, to me, it boils down to finding the most objective measure possible that catches the insights gleaned from the science of religion marker analyses.  Why?  Because I assume very wise people, especially those in sociology, have already thought hard about the standard ways of putting these points together.


Options seem to be:
  • create an aggregate measure of "adaptiveness" based upon previously observed markers
  • follow a hybrid social interactionist path and, in terms of group levels, just talk about increasing, decreasing or very stable structures (on an arbitrarily long time)
  • keep plugging away to find a novel measure construct.

The Aaronson - Feminist Dialogue

Culture war explosions are interesting from an adaptive group theory level.  Progressive sin battles are especially informative.  It gives academics the chance to observe the emergence and coalescent process of adaptive groups.  Plus, it's a chance to put to use esoteric historical context knowledge: the foils are endless.  The Aaronson - Penny dialogue is, in this regard, fascinating.


The Chronicle on Higher Education sums up the situation:

  • A famous MIT physics professor is "convicted" by a University committee of severe online sexual harassment.  His popular online lectures are taken down and his emeritus professorship is revoked.
  • Another professor suggests this level of shaming goes to far.  Even heinous crimes don't magically cause the validity/utility of the accused's speech/works in other area to disappear.  There is an issue of non-overlapping magisteria.
  • Many feminist bloggers attack this stance.
  • The professor "comes out of the closet" to disclose the extent to which he as a nerd has been marginalized.
  • Many feminist bloggers employ a "privilege" argument to minimize the dissenting voice.
Here's the initial post, the most coherent & fair initial rebuttal, and a long but very worthwhile re-rebuttal.

The basic gist is that one side is claiming a structural privilege argument while the other is saying universalized gendered & racial groupings are too coarse of a granularity for privilege arguments.  Coarse granularity encourages abuse, especially when using one-dimensional zero sum reasoning.  Shaming techniques used for social equity ends cause tremendous damage to vulnerable sub-groups, especially when zero-sum arguments based on statistically supported over-generalizations are used.


What we're seeing can't be separated from the recent contexts of shirtstorm, gamergate and UVA rape implosion.  As the Aaronson - Structural privilege dialogue goes viral we're seeing a coalescence of an adaptive level "nerd" group.  I suspect the polarizing attacks and responses to shirtstorm raised the stakes of the game.  Similarly the very real threat of unsubstantiated sexual assault, misconduct charges has raised the stakes of the game.  Nerds, who as Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex suggests, are hypersensitive, based on their history, to having their voices and culture shamed. Thus what we see is emergent collective push-back to the here-to-fore unchallenged feminist structural privilege argument and shaming tactic.The emerging severity of consequences for being on the wrong side of progressivism facilitate the emergence of groups who provide some sort of defence.

Individual arguments countering the privilege argument haven't gotten much traction.  They are typically dismissed as coming from privilege.  Thus counter-arguments are inverted to support the very assumption they are critiquing. While rational logic and the scientific method are theorized to solve every issue, it's pretty clear rhetoric and power are trump.

Thus we have an empowered emergent group (feminist structuralists) with sacrosanct sin based norms of power employing religious like shaming techniques on a hitherto unstructured (in the adaptive sense) sub-group of theoretically privileged nerds. 

To function as an adaptive group academic literature suggests the new emergent nerd group should start to: 
  • rally around a collective purpose
  • establish clear ways of distinguishing in-group from out-group
  • subsume some individual self-interest for group-interest.
Additionally, science of religion suggests the emergent group may gain additional adaptive depth by:
  • creating a moralizing purpose (and norms) which operates with some degree of embodiment
  • supporting costly commitment displays
  • establishing sacralized routines and rituals.


If you're a group social psychologist, sociologist, or just an interested nerd, the extent to which this confrontation engenders adaptive group formation is extremely interesting.  Here's what I would look for:
  • Nerds rally around a stigma story (we are an oppressed group that is ridiculed when we don't have power and when we do).  Think of this as the equivalent of the Judeo-Christian Egypt exodus story or the Mormon pioneer story.
  • Nerds increasingly signal group membership via easily discernible signals such as clothing, hair, or other costume artifacts.
  • A coherent, rationalized worldview story starts to emerge.  This could be something like a libertarian political meme interfused with some odds and ends.
  • Self-sacrifice acts will increase.  This may involve things like wearing sexist shirts, direct confrontation with politically correct academic power structures (HR departments, feminist departments, etc.).  In the formation of adaptive groups, this is a key point.  It creates feedback that strengthens group commitment and self-justifying belief.
  • Nerds as well as the general population will start to suggest that nerds are indeed a clear and distinct sub-group of the white male patriarchy. Once the feminist structural privilege argument is no longer seen as applying to the nerd-sub-group, then the group will be able to recruit new members because their grouping functions as a protective barrier for feminist structural privilege and shaming attacks