Thursday, December 21, 2017

Creeds & Creedal Defences: They're Adaptive & They Bi-normalize

A while ago I made some comments about how I was worried about a nascent trend in academia for formal creedal statements concerning the morality of certain positions.  While the original manifesto came from a religious studies department, the whole dynamics had me a bit worried for academia.

My main fears were that it could open the door for litmus tests about peoples' politics and political moralities.  "Where do you sit on the morality of position X?"  Morality tests are not something I generally think many academics should willingly bring into the pursuit of objective truth.  Of course I also don't think science should be "intersectional".  Research needs space to be research. It requires the space and freedom to  be able to look at controversial ideas with minimum deference to how people might use or interpret the results.

Of course once you start telling or suggesting how people should act, or what policies should be followed, moral ethics seem mandatory. From one frame, current tensions in academia reflect the tension of higher education as a pursuit of abstract knowledge versus a pursuit of applied knowledge. While the two intermingle, abstract pursuits are really only suited to a small minority of people. Applied pursuits appeal to a much broader range of people.  The expansion of higher ed into an ever increasing percentage of the population no doubt informs the shift in these tensions.


As most people know, Brett Weinstein of Evergreen college sent out an email where he said that telling people to leave college for a day due to their skin color was an act of racism.  The ultimate intentions of the act (to combat racism) did not justify the racist of the act itself.  One dimensionality is of course a hallmark of modern intersectional theories.  For this defence against classical racism he was branded a racist nazi.  He was racist because he did not accede to the right level of support for students of color.  Thus his act was racist by omission.  It was not racist by commission.  Second, he was a Nazi because his lack of support for people of color was a form of violence. It perpetuated and gave space for rhetorics of violence, which could cause actual violence.  Further, the flash-point this created spawned a backlash involving unsavoury people who created a hostile environment due to who they were and what they were perceived to support.

Luckily Brett had a pretty good memo.  He specifically called to end racism. But he defined racism in the classical sense (against a phenotype) rather than in an intersectional sense (one-way down punching).  Did many of his attackers look at the nuance in his memo?  No.  It didn't support the right side of things and so was wrong by omission.  He omitted the "right" kind of support.

The purposefully pejorative over application of "supremacist" labels,  mean many people are in the same boat, or have the potential to so be.  I think Lindsay Shephard is the latest example.


Over the last few years I've tried to listen to enough "alt-right" youtube feeds to get a sense of their paradigm.  Why?  I'm interested in understanding deep seated, genetic-level social dynamics.  This means coming to grips with the moral flash-points around which the left and right adaptively resonate.  Models are only as good as the data you feed into them.  Part of the picture I get is that at least some "alt-righters" are protesting what they see as white directed racism.  That is, classical racism against whites. "Kill all whites", "whiteness is the problem", "I lick your white tears", "No more old white men", etc;

What I worry about is that various supremacist groups on the left and right are going to see the value in creedal like statements.  For instance, imagine if like Brett Weinstein, you are protesting against white directed racism but are lumped in with a bunch of vile supremacists.  Instead of pleading your case, which seems utterly pointless in highly polarized environments, it is easier to refer people to a well vetted creedal statement that summarizes why you think all racism is bad, but which also indicates that you see your role as protesting against a specific incarnation of classical racism because no one else will.  Or, your creed could sophistically defend why racism, as a one-directional punch-up phenomenon, is valid and actually not phenotypically supremacist.

That sounds pretty reasonable.  It may not make much of a difference on the ground, but it may help a teeny bit with any larger media outlets which haven't fully fallen for click-bait polemics.  You just lump people into good or bad groups and encourage them to get on board with the right verbiage or right groups.  Sounds very religious like doesn't it?


The problem is that this type of orthodox foil can be used to protect against all sorts of hypocritical behaviour.  Hey, you can't call me a racist because I won't hire white people - see this academically accepted statement on intersectionality and the impossibility of punch-up racism. Our intent is to make America Equitable Again!

Note, that it doesn't actually matter whether the individual's intention was actually for equity or whether the intention was unbridled white racism.  Reference to formal creedal statement ends conversation. Sure intrepid investigators can try to tease out whether you're actually following the creed or not.  In fact it provides the investigator an easy way to see theoretical tension points.  But, creedal confessions tend to only require basic understandings and acquiescence to creedal intent. How many Nicenists are really up on homoousia or homousia distinctions vs. how many are up on the creed's overall intent?  I force you, the journalist, to get lost in sophisticated sophistry whose cover frees up my action space.

In practice, what creeds allows is individuals to hide under a cloak of group acceptance. Groups are adaptive for a reason! Never underestimate human propensity for "freeloading" (advantage taking self-interest).  When I publicly acquiesce to a creed I also enable orthodoxic protection, which for those so inclined, can free them up for much greater ranges of motion.  For others though, it provides a unifying goal.  The whole thing is rather bimodal...

In this sense it mirrors what gene-culture models suggest.  Large groups require transparent norms. You can't judge individuals (too much anonymity). You can only judge power acquiescence.  The loosening of norms, compensated by their easier comprehension, enables group size to expand. But is also bifurcates the population. You get a core group of altruists who supply much of the group's day-to-day adaptive fitness.  You also get a large group of freeloaders who pursue self-interest and advantage taking.  Out-group (between-group) competition keeps things in check.  But without existential doom hanging over you, what keeps the freeloaders in check?

Creeds without existential pressure serve as a pandora's box for advantage takers.

But for those of us in academia, the adaptive groups they facilitate might just be the only way we can protect ourselves against Spanish Inquisitions.  What a conundrum!

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Metaphorical Truth / Practical Reality vs. Hyper Rationalism

Post modernism injected a lot of new energy into academic thinking.  Some of it for the better.  Some of it for the worse. Coming to grips with the "irrational" side of human nature is a major challenge for social science.

Some approaches try to get at this by extending game theory interactions while holding onto homo-economicus reasoning.  Behavioural economics is one field that does this. Other approaches assume everything is subjective to some degree or another and figure free-hand explorations curtailed by progressive moral guidelines will lead to just neo-marxist ends. Many "studies" departments do this.

Here's a list of how different researcher's I'm familiar with have tackled the question of the adaptiveness of human "irrationality".

BRET WEINSTEIN: Metaphorical Truth

Bret Weinstein raised the achilles heel of hyper-rationalism in a recent interview with Sam Harris.  The issue is whether things like religious belief (which are non-factual) can still be adaptive.  Unfortunately Harris didn't push the debate too much. But that is alright, they covered a lot of ground. I suspect Harris didn't want to get antagonistic in a conversation that was going so well.

Bret's reasoning on the adaptiveness of counter-factual religious beliefs was entirely evolutionary. His logic, as far as I can remember it, goes like this:

  1. Religion is adaptive.  It is a universal human expression up until the era of modernity.
  2. Religious beliefs are adaptive. The weak form of this argument is that the belief system as a whole is adaptive.  The strong form of this argument is that individual beliefs which have persisted are in and of themselves adaptive. Bret took the strong form of this argument, much to Harris' surprise.
  3. Beliefs which have persisted for a "long" period of time are not just memetically fit, but are gene-culturally (culturegen) fit.  They provide a real fitness advantage for group members.
  4. If the beliefs were not fit, they would have been selected out by competing, lower cost beliefs.
  5. Only beliefs which are stable enough over time are likely to have been adaptive.
  6. We can not infer that any of this applies to modern beliefs.  Modern beliefs have not necessarily been stable enough to justify point 4. You might only be able to say that a certain belief lineage is likely to have been adaptive, and even then, only for past conditions.
It is really nice to see Bret taking dynamic evolution into play here.  When combined with his caveat to modernity you escape many of the easy criticisms people have with respect to evolutionary thinking.

I think the main counterpoint to this argument is that one can never guarantee that any idea is in fact adaptive.  Can't maladaptive memes and culturegens persist over time?  Yes. But Bret's argument makes it a case of probabilities.  What is the probability that any meme or culturegen stable over a "long time period" is maladaptive? This is a productive area of discussion.  Nowak's work on virulence seems informative.  Viruses moderate their virulence over time.  The steady state solution for parasitic behaviour exists in tension between high virulence and low longevity vs. low virulence and high longevity. Moderation in both is Nash stable.  Mutation rates also decrease to match moderation.

DAVID SLOAN WILSON: Practical Reality

Wilson spent pretty much a whole book expounding his view on how religion is adaptive.  Darwin's Cathedral is an under appreciated work of art.  If the arguments aren't convincing, read Norezayan's Big Gods and then go back to it.

Here is D.S. Wilson's take on adaptively false belief.  In Darwin's Cathedral he states:

If there is a trade-off between the two forms of realism [factual & practical], such that our beliefs can become more adaptive only by becoming factually less true, then factual realism will be the loser every time. … Factual realists detached from practical reality were not among our ancestors. 

For context, here's how he frames the two forms of realism:

What do I mean by factual and practical realism? A belief is factually realistic when it accurately describes what’s really out there (e.g., there are no people up there sitting on clouds). A belief is practically realistic when it causes the believer to behave adaptively in the real world.

Wilson's approach in inexorably tied to multi-level selection theory and the biological reality (real-enough reality) of human groups.

As of 2002 he said "Thinking of religious groups as adaptive units comparable to guppies and finches is so new that it is impossible at present to identify the appropriate spatial and temporal scale."  And,

The concept of local adaptation allows religion to be studied from an evolutionary perspective using the same methods employed on nonhuman species, as I discussed in chapter 2.  If the environment changes over time and space, and if religions adapt human groups to their environments, we should be able to predict the properties of religion at a fine spatial and temporal scale as surely as we can predict the properties of upstream and downstream guppies.
Belief systems must cope with
  • Justification
  • Cheating
  •  Economical (easy to understand)
  •  More motivating than a real system
  •  More efficient at producing behaviour
An adaptive belief systems must be economical.  The beliefs that justify the behaviors must be easily learned and employed in the real world.  A fictional belief system that is user-friendly and that motivates an adaptive suite of behaviors will surpass a realistic belief system that requires a Ph.D. to understand and that leads to a paralysis of indecision.

Wilson explicitly states that "religions [or any group] adaptiveness must be judged by the behaviours they motivate not by their factual correspondence to reality."  The counterpoint to this is that over time, correspondence to reality is usually more fit than a-factuality.  While this is likely true, it is pragmatics not theory that is the ultimate arbiter of what is fit.

This is where things get messy with hyper-rationalists.  New atheists like Harris take a utopian position here, arguing that our ability to chose enables us to pursue transformative paths that can exceeds the cold hearted calculus of nature (evolution).  Weinstein explicitly mentioned this in his conversation with Harris.  All organisms have the same ultimate goal - spread their genes.  Thus, evolution's goal may not be what we actually want - maximal domination.  Instead what we might want is some balance.  This means a conscious limiting of fundamentally insatiable proclivities.

Thus, I am sensitive to Harris' stance. But, like many others, I smirk at the ironically "religious" utopian aspects he has to make. While they might be rational, they are still dogmatic.  But, ultimately, the question comes down to who do we want to be in control, us or nature?

The real issue then becomes over what time period do we need to "supress" out genetic proclivities to get benefits which outweigh the real human costs a quick change to hyper-rationalism might entail?  After all, most people aren't likely to give up the yoke of pro-social religion for the yoke of pro-social hyper-rationalism without a fight.  Pro-social hype rationalism hasn't yet shown itself a very adept, very friendly hegemon.  Pro-social religion, though messy, is at least a known entity with evolutionary robust mechanisms and norms (like inescapable eternal damnation and Big God arbiters who can't be fooled nor bribed). 

Here's a final quote from Wilson (p. 156)

along with Durkheim, I predict that most enduring religions survive on the basis of their secular utility…  What will not be observed, or rather seldom observed, are major beliefs that have no function other than to satisfy the human urge to explain, or that actually handicap the believer by motivating dysfunctional behaviors.

a sect or cult doesn’t senesce [decay] as it grows into a church; it adapts to the changing wealth of its members caused by its own success.

JORDAN PETERSON: Darwinian Truth

Peterson takes a very Jungian approach to his idea of Darwinian Truth.  He views religion as a meta-truth as per a Joseph Campell monomyth.  However, Peterson adds some evolutionary colour to the monomyth.  Here is his logic (as near as I can tell)

  1. Stories emerged amongst early humans as a way to convey information, especially information that was morally/evolutionarily important. In other words, stories conveyed classically adaptive information.
  2. These stories have been refined for millennia, producing a series of near universal monomyths. 
  3. The length of refinement ensures fitness payoffs are stable over long time periods. While there may be competing payoffs, such as low cost commitment beliefs, the payoff of these cheaper beliefs are uncertain and are less likely to have been as (evolutionarily) vetted.
  4. These Darwinian truths are fit because they keep us in contact with basic aspects of human nature which are so deep seated that they only change on long genetic time scales.
The challenge about this view is its unfalsifiability and avoidance of dynamic evolution.  Is the "deep seated enough" inference enough to obviate modernity?  I doubt it.  But I also worry about the "just so" critique sloppy functional evolution is subject to.  How do you tease out that which is "deep seated" from that which is superficial and potentially maladaptive?  I interpret Peterson's likely answer to be that of probabilities.  If you find that the ideas and tensions which are most fundamental to long-lived human moral cultural, you increase the probability that any leaven added to these ideas is less maladaptively significant that any leaven added to modern dogma and hyper-rationality.  In essence, you need connection to deep metahistories to temper the forward-predicting blinders hyper-rationality and modern quasi-secular religion necessarily has.

To be honest, I'm sympathetic to this last critique. Purposeful recreation of secular religion has a bad track record. Marxism is a classic example. I think Animal Farm critiques are apropos here.  It is very hard to re-invent all the human dynamical checks and balances necessary to keep self-interest at bay.  While we get better at social engineering all the time, eons of "arms races" on this front make for a very nuanced and sophisticated space. In fact I suspect our hubris with respect to rational atheistic moral quasi-religion is akin to 19th century biological engineering.  What could possibly go wrong with cane toads?

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Market for Information Arbiters

There is little question that mainstream media's role as a trusted informational arbiter has crashed.  Some people suspect it may be due to ideological monoculture effects finally coming home to roost.  Others cite the role digital media plays with respect to popularism and click bait & tribal dynamics.
We'll skip this rabbit hole and just see what a market analysis has to say about landscape changes.


A market-based analysis is likely to show a big gap in the provision of authority-mediated communication. Religion certainly doesn't fill this role anymore. Rule of law has supplanted much of its functional (evolutionary) role. Neither does politics. There is no existential crisis unifying the populace. We're devolving into tribes rather than unifying. For politics to function as a broad-based trusted informational arbiter, it needs new-religious-movement momentum and dynamics.

The media has become tribabilized & hence delegitimized as a source of authority. While it still functions as a conveyer of interesting information, the way the left thinks of Fox news is the way the right thinks of all mainstream news - solidly in the tank for their political and ideological "group". Restraining tendencies are gone. There are no cross-platform authorities.

Or are there?


I'd suggest that popular "scientists" are on the verge of filling this market gap.

For example, look at the way Jordan Peterson has been popularized. 550,000 youtube subscribers and millions of interview views! It's not because he is a great orator nor a charismatic person.  He tends to the aspergery side of academic inquiry.  In other words, his perspective tends to be on technical concerns. He also come across as leaving any and all offence as a listener's duty to "get over".  This affect & approach is extremely off putting for many liberal minded folk - like Sam Harris.  But the same "tell it like it is" affect is extremely attractive for many Trumpers.  His affect is a leverage for both sides.  They both use it to validate or reject the academic research he cites and the inferences he draws from it.

One group uses his affect to disavow that socially objectionable ideas should have a place in open discourse.  One group uses his affect to justify that bigotry can't be bigotry if it is based upon objective research.  Obviously both groups talk past each other.*

Jonathon Haidt, another popular social scientist, tends towards more of a "harm" paradigm. Implications and nuance matter.  This assumes not everyone is up on the technicalities of what is being discussed, and therefore potential misapplications and the enabling of erroneous conclusions matter. Energy is spent on what basically amounts to interfaith dialogue dialectics.

Critical theorists (inter sectionalists) appear as Peterson's foil. Just switch the autistic focus on objectivity for an autistic focus on social "justice".

Twitter and youtube has raised the profile of popular scientists.  Major players I know about include:
  • Noam Chomsky
  • Richard Dawkins
  • Sam Harris
  • Nicholas Christakis
  • Jonathon Haidt
  • Steven Pinker
  • Bret Weinstein
  • Claire Lehmann
  • Clay Routledge
  • Peter Boghassian
  • Razib Khan
  • Michael Shermer
  • Lee Jussim
  • Christina Sommers
  • Gad Saad
  • Jordan Peterson
  • Sargon of Akkad
  • Dennis Prager

Judging from their net twitter subscribers and net youtube views, these folk play a noticeable role.  While their popularity does not yet approach that of journalists, I suspect things are changing.

In the cold culture war, having science on your side is the ultimate Trump card. Both political sides have their anti-science flanks.  The right has climate change and environmentalism.  The left has blank slatism and GMO's. The legitimacy of each "side's" scientists is a major battle zone.**

Any position gains protection and legitimization via science's seal of authority. If your group's position doesn't have a scientific backing, you're at a significant rhetorical disadvantage.  Further than this though, your whole worldview may need a coherent defensible position.  It is not enough to cite random articles. To survive today's rhetorical environment you must link to a robust paradigmiacal defence.  And this paradigm may also need a moral and ethical underpinning and explicit purpose (e.g. protecting blasphemous objectivity or promoting social justice equity)

I suspect this is part of the reason there is so much fight over Critical Theory departments. The imprimatur of scientific legitimacy for highly subjective and potentially unfalsifiable lines of reason create a nuclear bomb that has the potential to sidestep the restraints imposed by falsifiable scientific methods.

The weaponization of pure subjectivity is something to worry about. Jonathan Haidt has confronted this issue if his"two teloses" interpretation of post-secondary trajectories.


More relevant though, is how far lay people will be able to push association with hard science's imprimatur via association with "pop scientists".  In many ways Sam Harris' hyper-rational anti-religionists aren't much different from Jordan Peterson's anti-PC in-groupers.  Both use proximity to a well-spoken and knowledgeable figurehead to authorize and legitimize their own world views.  While many years ago people's theological bonfides were authorized by which protestant sect and theology they followed, today people may be doing the same by latching on to well known scientific figureheads.  You don't have to figure out a whole rational scientific paradigm, you just need to latch onto someone who is able to defend their own in a popular way which also connotes enough "authority" to buffer you from outside attacks.

The field is indeed weaponizing.


*  What's funny here is that both groups are using hypocritical based tools.  Intersectionalists who deny that punch-up racism is possible are a mirror image of academic libertarians who disavow that objective measures should ever be silenced.  Current differences are largely based on how far each approach has penetrated our larger sociality.  At one time "feminist" critical inquiries were an academic exercise within the confines of academia.  This is the same position rational objectivists take.  Un-PC objective inquiry is a key component of bounded academic spaces.  There needs to be a safe space where such ideas can be discussed.  It is easy to see both groups as dopplegangers who are just at a different evolutionary stage.

**Data suggests novices and experts tend to be the most dogmatic and inflexible with respect to their sacred values (here's a somewhat related paper on discrimination being equal across political spectrums - it just differs according to who you see as the out-group. And another similar paper).

For some more on the latest Jordan Peterson brouhaha....