Keeping Up with All the Conspiracies

It’s a good time to be a scientist, if you believe the various shouty, fearful corners of the Web.

Today, all across America (and indeed the rest of the world), scientists everywhere are swimming in dough courtesy of various dark, sinister forces paying them to conceal The Truth from you, the sheeple. These vast, complex conspiracies, bankrolled by vast corporations with almost unlimited wealth and power, run entirely unchecked…that is, until they’re unravelled by a tiny but determined handful of unsung Web site owners, who pierce the veil of conspiracies by revealing the real truth, often given to them by…people who stand to make money from getting others to believe the conspiracy theories.

But that’s not what’s important! What’s important is the vast legions of scientists being paid untold sums to conspire with other scientists. These huge conspiracies are directly responsible for the sharp increase in the number of research scientists driving Rolls-Royces1, owning enormous 200-foot luxury yachts, and buying tropical islands in the Caribbean.

Typical view from an average scientist’s living room window

A quick Google search using terms like “scientists conspiracy” and “scientists conspiring to hide *” turns up so many scientific conspiracies that these days, even a first-year grad student research assistant must be making serious bank. Some of the various scientific conspiracies people–and I mean a lot of people, not a handful of nutters in tinfoil hats muttering to each other down at the pub–actually believe include:

  • Scientists are being paid to conceal the truth that fluoride in drinking water and toothpaste causes impotence, erectile dysfunction, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, low IQ, high cholesterol, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, and AIDS
  • Climate scientists are creating phony evidence of global warming in order to get grant money
  • Monsanto is paying scientists to conceal the truth about the link between GMOs and autism, cancer, infertility, birth defects, baldness, IBS, colitis, “leaky gut,” autoimmune diseases, depression, and migraines
  • Scientists invented AIDS in a lab, and are being paid by the US military to keep quiet about it
  • There is no such thing as AIDS; scientists are being paid by pharmaceutical companies to publish phony papers about AIDS to frighten people and make them more easily controlled by the pharmaceutical industry
  • Scientists are being paid to say HIV causes AIDS in order to conceal the fact that AIDS is actually caused by recreational drug use2
  • Pharmaceutical companies have a cure for AIDS, but they are paying scientists to suppress the cure because treating AIDS is more profitable
  • Pharmaceutical companies are paying scientists to suppress the evidence that vaccines cause autism3
  • Scientists are taking payouts from oil companies to conceal “free energy” devices that would free us from dependence on oil, gas, and utility companies4
  • Scientists are taking payments from drug companies to conceal cancer cures
  • NASA is paying scientists to cover up evidence that the moon landing was a hoax
  • The government is paying scientists to fabricate evidence that the world is more than 6,000 years old and make up fake evidence supporting evolutionary biology, or alternately, paying scientists not to publish evidence that supports Creationism
  • The government is paying scientists to support the “official” story about what happened on 9/11 and conceal evidence that the attack was an inside job
  • The government is paying scientists to cover up evidence of a UFO crash-landing at Area 51
  • Big Oil is paying scientists to say that fracking is safe
  • The “climate change lobby” is paying scientists to say fracking is dangerous
  • Oil is not produced from the breakdown of fossil organisms; it’s produced by natural geological processes in endless quantities. We will never run out of oil; scientists are being paid to say oil is a limited resources in order to artificially inflate the price (or in order to try to get people to invest in alternative energy, depending on who you ask)
  • Scientists are being paid by cell phone makers/cellular service providers to cover up the dangers of cell phone radiation
  • Scientists are taking money to conceal the fact that eating food cooked with a microwave oven causes cancer, high blood pressure, slow heartbeat, baldness, joint pain, insomnia, and nervous disorders

Whew! That’s quite a list–and it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Looking at it, I can understand why scientists aren’t really living on idyllic tropical islands or sipping martinis on their yachts–all that conspiracy money is going toward whiteboards and dry-erase markers just so they can keep track of all the conspiracies they’re participating in!

And it’s not just scientists. Half the world’s bloggers, yours truly included, are regularly accused of taking money from Big Oil, Big Pharma, Monsanto, the government, and a host of other sinister organizations to write blog posts…well, just like this one.

Make my check payable to “Franklin Veaux”–make sure you spell my last name right, ‘kay?

There’s an essay on Patheos about six arguments commonly used by science denialists. The normal course of arguments against science or in favor of pseudoscience are:

1) Cast doubt on the science.
2) Question the scientists’ motives and integrity.
3) Magnify any disagreements among the scientists; cite gadflies as authorities.
4) Exaggerate the potential for harm from the science.
5) Appeal to the importance of personal freedom.
6) Object that acceptance of the science would repudiate some key philosophy

I would argue that #6 should actually be #1 on the list, because it has invariably been my observation that people accept or reject science based on whether or not the science agrees with whatever personal worldview they hold. So liberals might accept the science of climate change but scream adamantly that GMOs are dangerous (and the scientific consensus about their safety is the result of a massive conspiracy), whereas conservatives accept GMO safety but hoot and holler about a scientific conspiracy about climate change.

The idea of a scientific conspiracy is, of course, utter bollocks. Folks who talk about conspiracies of scientists have absolutely no idea what science is or how it works.

Take the conspiracy about scientists hiding a secret cure for AIDS. Any scientist who announces a cure for AIDS is going to be set for life. She’s guaranteed a Nobel Prize, her own research facility, and research funding from now until the end of time. I mean, what do these people imagine happened? Do they think the executives of Giant Pharmocorp convened a meeting of their top researchers and said “I understand you folks have come up with a cure for AIDS. Tell you what–we’ll just keep mum about that, okay?” What do they would think would happen? The scientists at the table would all nod their heads–and then race each other to the patent office. (And seriously, do people think you could threaten researchers into keeping quiet? Researchers talk. Research is a collaborative exercise. It’s not likely you’d be able to have one research team make significant progress on a cure for AIDS without other teams knowing it, and it’s really unlikely a company could threaten its scientists without other people knowing.)

Scientific consensus emerges when scientists review each other’s work and replicate one another’s experiments. Scientists do not accept something is true because someone says it is. The whole point of the scientific method is that you never have to trust what some bloke says. When someone says something, like “the CO2 in the air is driving a change in climate” or “vaccines don’t cause autism,” other scientists check his work.

The process is called “peer review,” and it’s ruthless. When you publish a paper, everything is examined, poked at, grilled, scrutinized, analyzed, inspected, dissected, reviewed, studied, checked, weighed, sifted, measured, and otherwise put under a figurative (and sometimes literal) microscope. The assumptions, the methodologies, the data, the conclusions–everything is looked at, with an eye toward finding any flaw at all. Scientists love finding flaws in other scientist’s research. They live for that, the way that one kid with the missing tooth lived for taking your lunch money when you were in fifth grade.

The peer review process in action

Now, not all scientists are perfect, of course. Scientists are human, and humans are corruptible.

But what’s more likely–that one scientist (like, say, Andrew Wakefield) will lie and say vaccines are dangerous when they aren’t, because he’s been paid 600,000 British pounds by a law firm hoping to sue vaccine makers, and he wants to release his own brand of “autism safe” vaccine he hopes to make millions on? Or that tens of thousands–possibly hundreds of thousands–of other scientists, all of whom are publishing their data for everyone to see, are engaging in a vast conspiracy to say vaccines are safe when they aren’t?

Seriously, it’s nearly impossible to keep a conspiracy of five or six people quiet. A conspiracy of tens of thousands? Staggering quantities of money flowing to all the world’s scientists to buy their voices, staggering mountains of evidence being suppressed…and there’s no paper trail? Is this really what people think is happening?

The implausibility of these gigantic conspiracies–as if scientists didn’t eat GMO food, get their kids vaccinated, and use microwave ovens themselves!–doesn’t deter the conspiracy theorists, many of whom are simply looking for a way to explain why scientists keep saying things that just plain don’t fit their pre-existing beliefs.

Conspiracy theories help make sense of a world that seems in contradiction to what we feel must be true. They also make us feel good about ourselves; as one Web site devited to conspiracy theories says, “People who are not skeptics of “official stories” tend to be dull-minded. To believe everything these institutions tell you is a sign of mental retardation. To ask questions, on the other hand, is a sign of higher intelligence and wisdom.” We feel good about ourselves when we think we have pulled back the mask of the Great Conspiracy and figured out what’s really going on. We feel clever, wise, vindicated. We don’t have to accept a challenge to our worldview; we’ve outwitted them and, in so doing, totally proved the things we already wanted to believe are right.

That’s one nice thing about conspiracy theories. They are effective solvents, quickly dissolving even the most stubborn inconvenient facts.

1 Obviously, I’m joking. They’re not driving Rolls-Royces; they’re paying their chauffeurs to drive their Rolls-Royces.

2 It’s not clear to me in this conspiracy theory who’s paying the scientists. Big Cocaine?

3 I don’t really know why. Vaccines don’t make much, if any, profit. On the other hand, a hospital stay for whooping cough can generate tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue. So it’s not clear to me where the profit motive is for a pro-vaccination conspiracy.

4 Presumably, the same oil companies that aren’t able to pay scientists to say global warming isn’t a thing.

Astonishing Beauty

The world around us is fractally beautiful. Not only is it filled with the most extraordinary, breathtaking beauty, but that beauty exists no matter what level you set your gaze upon. At any scale, at any magnification, beauty persists.

Look at a flower.

It’s beautiful–the colors, the symmetry, the shape. These things are all pleasing in their own right.

But look closer. Much, much closer. What will you find? An enormous array of tiny cells, in a proliferation of shapes and functions, each working with the ones around it to give the flower its form and color, all of them filled with activity. Inside every cell, an array of bogglingly complex molecular machines, running all the time, consuming energy, producing still more molecular machines, and always, always striving to survive and make more of themselves.

Now look up, from the microscopic to the macroscopic.

Image: NASA/Hubble Space Telescope team

This is NGC 2818, a magnificent planetary nebula in the southern constellation Pyxis. This and other planetary nebulae are the remnants of violent explosions, the result of a star that has fused all its available hydrogen fuel and is no longer able to support itself against gravity. In the last few seconds of the star’s life, it explodes, leaving behind a glowing ember called a white dwarf and throwing off a shockwave of expanding gas.

These stellar remnants are beautiful, but like that flower, they are fractally beautiful. In fact, they are connected with that flower. Most of the elements necessary for life, all the molecules with an atomic weight greater than iron, are forged in these fiery explosions, when the unimaginable forces of a nova or supernova fuse lighter elements into heavier ones. The atoms in this flower, and in you and me, were birthed in fire and sent out into the universe, to eventually coalesce into this sun, this solar system, this planet, at this place and this time, and became us and kittens and chocolate and motorcycles and ice cream sundaes.

The universe is both incomprehensibly huge and incomprehensibly fine-grained, and it’s beauty all the way down.

Even when we look at the same scale over time, we see beauty. Beauty is enduring. It emerges, over and over again, wherever there is the possibility of change.

Indeed, there is quite literally more beauty around us than we are capable of seeing. White flowers are richly colored, to eyes that can see in ultraviolet. The sky above our heads is a tapestry whose richness we could not recognize until we built machines to augment our feeble vision.

But it isn’t just the grandeur of the natural world. Beauty lurks in every corner. It hides in a tumbler filled with colored glass stones on a restaurant table.

Color is a myth, of course. It’s a perceptual invention, created by the sorting of light of different frequencies into neural impulses by our visual system, with sensors tuned to respond best to different wavelengths of light. It’s a crude approximation of the diversity of photons filling the air around us. These photons chart extraordinarily complex paths through the tumbler, reflecting and refracting, sometimes being absorbed or scattered, and we glance at this intricate mathematical dance of physics for a moment and then look away.

The complexity and beauty of the physical world is both breathtaking and ordinary. Breathtaking because it exists on scales we can scarcely begin to understand; ordinary because it surrounds us all the time, beauty so abundant we forget it’s even there.

Every moment of our lives is spent in a world so beautiful, so incredibly filled with marvels, that we are blessed with abundance beyond measure. I can not help but feel that, should we become more mindful of it, the dull and ugly parts of the world will lift, just a bit. And perhaps, just perhaps, we will be that much less inclined to manufacture more of that dullness and ugliness.

We are here for only a brief time. Let us never forget how beautiful it is to be so privileged to exist in this place.

It’s the econom(ies), stupid!

On a casual browse of the Web this afternoon, I came across an interesting statistic: there are, as of last month, 9.6 million unemployed people in the United States.

More than nine and a half million people. That’s three and a half times more folks than the number of people who live in Chicago. It’s more than the entire population of New York City, by a margin that comfortably exceeds the combined populations of Denver and Boston. It is, in short, rather an astonishingly large number of people.

Imagine this, times 16,000

And that number is considered good news, as it’s smaller than it has been in a while. (Well, at least in theory. Folks who are unemployed for a long time eventually stop being counted amongst the unemployed, as they’re considered to be no longer participating in the workforce. There’s some weird numerical voodoo around the “workforce participation rate” that I don’t pretend to understand, but the takeaway is the number of folks who’d like to be doing something and aren’t is probably higher than nine and a half million people.)

Nine and a half million people. Nine and a half million people. That’s more people than the entire population of many countries. Like Sweden. And Switzerland. And Norway.

Nine and a half million people. People who want to work but can’t find jobs.

So that got me thinking.

If I had nine and a half million people at my disposal, I could probably make a big pile of money. After all, Norway has a bit more than half that many people (total, including folks who are too young or too old to work), and it has a pretty decently sized economy: its GDP is 512.6 billion US dollars a year, giving it an astonishing GDP per capita comfortably north of $100,000 per person per year. (By way of comparison, the US is far wealthier but also far less efficient and way less productive; its GDP is 16.8 trillion per year, but its per capita GDP is only $53,000 and change per person per year.

Nine and a half million people. If even half of them want to work and have something they can do to create value, it should be possible for that workforce to represent half a trillion dollars a year. Even if we assume productivity that’s more in line with US norms than Norwegian norms, that’s a third of a trillion dollars a year, just lying there, unused. And they can’t find work.

Nine and a half million people is a lot of people. It’s more than a city’s worth of people; it’s a country’s worth of people. It’s trillions of dollars, lying on the ground, that nobody’s picking up.

Nine and a half million people. That’s more than enough–way more than enough–for an entire economy. That’s enough people to represent both the production side and the demand side of…well, everything an economy produces. Somebody could start an entire economy, with its own goods, services, production, distribution–hell, with its own currency–with that number of people.

Which brings up, to my mind: Why hasn’t anyone? There’s arguably up to a half a trillion dollars just lying on the ground. Why hasn’t anyone picked it up?

It should, it seems to me, be possible to take that nine and a half million people and just…opt out of the economy. Create a shadow economy, running alongside the “official” US economy, using all the labor that the US economy can’t or won’t make use of.

Wouldn’t that be an interesting experiment to run.

People starting businesses, maybe using their own currency, maybe not. Employing the folks who are currently unemployed, who also become the consumers of the goods and services produced. All running independent of the US economy, much the way Norway’s economy runs independent of the US economy–its own thing, geographically inside the United States but otherwise distinct from it…an economy inside an economy, like those nested Russian dolls.

It clearly wouldn’t be able to scale from zero to half a trillion dollars overnight–but it wouldn’t have to. Being located inside the United States means there’s ample opportunity to utilize the goods and services of the “official” economy while it gathers flight velocity.

Nine and a half million people, working and living alongside the official economy, but creating their own. Sure, there would be points of overlap–presumably, they’d still pay US taxes, but that’s okay.

This economy would not grow the way most economies do. For one, those nine and a half million people are distributed over the entire country…but not thinly. There are geographical concentrations (Detroit springs to mind) where the population density in this ‘second economy’ would be quite high. Modern telecommunication (and most significantly, the Internet) makes things easier too; it’s relatively simple to connect sellers and buyers who are geographically disbursed online.

I recognize significant challenges involved with starting a parallel economy from scratch. I am also not a Libertarian; I do not believe an entirely unregulated economic system will ever produce anything but the most vicious abusing the most vulnerable. A system of regulation to prevent abuse has to be part of any viable economy, and in a parallel economy that becomes more difficult to achieve.

But still, it’s hard to reduce the lure of half a trillion dollars. Half a trillion dollars, sitting there waiting to be picked up. That’s a significant economy, able to support a significant number of people. That’s half a football field of $100 bills, stacked to the middle of the goalposts.

Holy simoleons, that’s a lot of dosh. Nine and a half million people, saying hey, forget waiting for a job to come along, let’s create a brand-new economy. Seems to me it absolutely could work. What would it look like? I don’t know. But wouldn’t it be fascinating to find out?

Some thoughts on listening to patients

A couple weeks ago, before we started the second leg of our book tour promoting More Than Two, I went to the dentist. I had a couple of old-style silver amalgam fillings that were disintegrating (who, I wonder, was the first person to say “Silver and mercury! I know, let’s put that in people’s mouths!”?), so I decided to pay someone to take a small high-speed drill and root around in my mouth for a while.

Now, whenever I go to a new dental practitioner for the first time, there’s a little speech I have to give. It’s my mother’s fault, really. She has some kind of genetic quirk, you see, that makes her for all intents and purposes immune to common local anesthetics in the Novocain/procaine/Lidocaine family. I appear to have inherited a genetic allele from her that gives me a high degree of resistance to these anesthetics, which is, as you might imagine, more than a little inconvenient when facing a trip to the dentist.

Anyway, the little speech. It hasn’t varied much over the past few decades, and it goes something like this:

Before we get started, you should know that I am highly resistant to local anesthetics like Lidocaine. It’s really, really hard to get me numb. It is probably going to take you a lot of work and multiple tries before I’m numb, and it wears off very quickly.

Now, every time I give this little speech–every single time, with only one exception ever (when I went to an oral surgeon to have an impacted wisdom tooth chiseled out with a backhoe, farm equipment and oil-drilling machinery), the result is always the same: “Oh, pish-posh. I won’t have any trouble at all!”

And then the misery starts.

This last go-round, it took my dentist no fewer than six rounds of injections before I was finally ready to have the old filling carved out. Three rounds in, she jabs me with the needle and I’m all like “Ow!” and she’s all like “you can still feel that?” and I’m all like “remember how I said I am resistant to local anesthetics?” and she was all like “wow, you weren’t kidding!” and I was all like “I’ve had this conversation so. Many. Times. Before.”, though that last part was in my head and not out loud, and…


So anyway, about that. It is perhaps not surprising that some folks might greet claims of being resistant to anesthetics with skepticism–genetic resistance is documented, but uncommon1 (thanks, Mom!)–but to just dismiss them outright, and especially for everyone in the profession to dismiss them outright, seems to me to speak to a systemic problem. And that systemic problem is, we train doctors to be good at all the parts of treating patients except listening to patients, which might be argued to be rather an important bit.

Pseudoscience, quackery (“this random thing cures cancer! Big Pharma doesn’t want you to know, which is why you’re finding out about it in a Facebook group!”), and snake oil “medicine” are huge, and deadly, industries. According to an NIH document reported on NBC, alternative “medicines” (which might reasonably be described as anything that hasn’t been shown to work, since the name for things that have been shown to work is just “medicine”), is a $34 billion a year industry. That’s a lot of herbs, acupuncture, and magic water full of mystical energy vibrations but nothing else.

There are lots of reasons why. Anti-intellectualism is a big one, and the fact that anti-intellectualism tends to be joined at the hip to conspiracy nuttery doesn’t help. Rejection of science, distrust of “big corporations” (except the big corporations marketing herbal supplements, naturally), superstition, wishful thinking…all those things play a part.

But some of the problem is, I think, self-inflicted. Too many medical practitioners are at best dismissive of, and at worst hostile to, their patients’ own self-reported information. There are probably a bunch of reasons for that, from fear of drug-seeking behaviors (and the spectacular fuckedupedness of a medical establishment that doesn’t take pain management seriously is worthy of a blog post of its own!) to simple arrogance.

The new flavor of trendy pseudoscientific bullshit is the claim that cavities can be “cured” by minerals and “oil detoxification,” and unsurprisingly, this new brand of bullshit smells pretty much the same as all the old brands.

But dammit, I wish my dentist would listen when I say local anesthetics don’t work very well on me, instead of having to find out through painful (to me, that is, not to her) experience.

1 According to Wikipedia, the genetic allele associated with lidocaine resistance is linked to ADHD as well. Go figure.

Oh, Joss: “Morality doesn’t exist without the fear of death”

A couple of years ago, during a lackadaisical time in my life when I was only running two businesses and wasn’t on tour to support a book I’d just coauthored, I sat down with my sweetie Zaiah and we watched all the episodes of the Joss Whedon television show Dollhouse over the course of a week or so.

The premise of the show, which isn’t really important to what I want to write about, concerns a technology that allows personalities, identities, and skills to be constructed in a computer (much as one might write a computer program) and then implanted in a person’s brain, such that that person takes on that identity and personality and has those skills. The television show followed a company that rented out custom-designed people, constructed in a bespoke fashion for clients’ jobs and then erased once those jobs were over. Need a master assassin, a perfect lover, a simulation of your dead wife, a jewel thief? No problem! Rent that exact person by the hour!

Anyway, in Episode 10 of the short-lived series, one of the characters objects to the idea of using personality transplants as a kind of immortality, telling another character, “morality doesn’t exist without the fear of death.” I cringed when I heard it.

And that’s the bit I want to talk about.

The New York Times has an article about research which purports to show that when reminded of their own mortality, people tend to cling to their ethical and moral values tightly. The article hypothesizes,

Researchers see in these findings implications that go far beyond the psychology of moralistic judgments. They propose a sweeping theory that gives the fear of death a central and often unsuspected role in psychological life. The theory holds, for instance, that a culture’s very concept of reality, its model of “the good life,” and its moral codes are all intended to protect people from the terror of death.

This seems plausible to me. Religious value systems–indeed, religions in general–provide a powerful defense against the fear of death. I remember when I first came nose to nose with the idea of my own mortality back when I was 12 or 13, how the knowledge that one day I would die filled me with stark terror, and how comforting religion was in protecting me from it. Now that I no longer have religious belief, the knowledge of the Void is a regular part of my psychological landscape. There is literally not a day that goes by I am not aware of my own mortality.

But the idea that fear of death reminds people of their values, and causes them to cling more tightly to them, doesn’t show that there are no values without the fear of death.

As near as I can understand it, the statement “morality doesn’t exist without the fear of death” appears to be saying that without fear of punishment, we can’t be moral. (I’m inferring here that the fear of death is actually the fear of some kind of divine judgment post-death, which seems plausible given the full context of the statement: “That’s the beginning of the end. Life everlasting. It’s…it’s the ultimate quest. Christianity, most religion, morality….doesn’t exist, without the fear of death.”) This is a popular idea among some theists, but does it hold water?

The notion that there is no morality without the fear of death seems to me to rest on two foundational premises:

1. Morality is extrinsic, not intrinsic. It is given to us by an outside authority; without that outside authority, no human-derived idea about morality, no human-conceived set of values is any better than any other.

2. We behave in accordance with moral strictures because we fear being punished if we do not.

Premise 1 is a very common one. “There is no morality without God” is a notion those of us who aren’t religious never cease to be tired of hearing. There are a number of significant problems with this idea (whose God? Which set of moral values? What if those moral values–“thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” say, or “if a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death,” or “whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you”–cause you to behave reprehensibly to other people? What is the purpose of morality, if not to tell us how to be more excellent to one another rather than less?), but its chief difficulty lies in what it says about the nature of humankind.

It says that we are not capable of moral action, or even of recognizing moral values, on our own; we must be given morals from an outside authority, which becomes the definition of morality. I have spoken to self-identified Christians who say that without religion, nothing would prevent them from committing rape and murder at will; it is only the strictures of their religion that prevent them from doing so. I have spoken to self-identified Christians who say if they believed the Bible commanded them to murder children or shoot people from a clock tower, they would do it. (There is, unsurprisingly, considerable overlap between these two sets of self-identified Christian.) If it takes the edict of an outside force to tell you why it’s wrong to steal or rape or kill, I am unlikely to trust you with my silverware, much less my life. Folks who say either of these things seldom get invited back to my house.

The notion that the fear of death is a necessary component of moral behavior because without punishment, we will not be moral is, if anything, even more problematic. If the only thing making you behave morally is fear of punishment, I submit you’re not actually a moral person at all, no matter which rules of moral behavior you follow.

Morality properly flows from empathy, from compassion, from the recognition that other people are just as real as you are and just as worthy of dignity and respect. Reducing morality to a list of edicts we’ll be punished if we disobey means there is no need for empathy, compassion, charity, or respect–we aren’t moral people by exercising these traits, we’re moral by following the list of rules. If the list of rules tells us to stone gays, then by God, that’s what we’ll do.

An argument I hear all the time (and in these kinds of conversations, I do mean all the time) is “well, if there’s no God and no fear of Hell, who’s to say the Nazis were wrong in what they did?” It boggles me every single time I hear it. I cannot rightly apprehend the thought process that would lead to such a statement, in no small part because it seems to betray a boggling inability to allow empathy and compassion be one’s moral signposts.

What it all comes down to, when you get to brass tacks, is internal moral values vs. external moral values. When we can empathize with other human beings, even those who are different from us, and allow ourselves to fully appreciate their essential humanness, treating them ethically becomes easy. When we do not–and often, religious prescriptions on behavior explicitly tell us not to–it becomes impossible. An intrinsic set of moral values is predicated on that foundation of reciprocal recognition of one another’s humanness, worth, and dignity.

Those who say without God or without fear of punishment there can be no morality seem blind to that reciprocal recognition of one another’s humanness, worth, and dignity. And those folks scare me.

Some thoughts on the Seven Virtues

A while ago, I started talking about the Seven Deadly Sins.

I am not terribly good at them; in fact, it took a while to remember what they were (greed, envy, sloth, lust, gluttony, pride, and wrath). Of the seven, the only one at which I have any skill is lust; in fact, I’ve put so many character points into lust I’m still forced to make default rolls for all six others.

I got to thinking about the Seven Deadly Sins, and wondering if there were Seven Virtues to go along with them. Apparently, there are; a few hundred years after the list of vices caught hold, someone decided there should be a similar list of virtues, and made such a list by negating the vices. The virtue Chastity was proposed as the opposite of Lust, for example, and the virtue Humility as the opposite of Pride. (Some of the others don’t really make a lot of sense; proposing Kindness as Envy’s opposite ignores the fact that people can simultaneously feel envious and behave kindly. But no matter.)

The negative version of the Seven Deadly Sins didn’t really seem to catch on, so Catholic doctrine has embraced a different set of virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope, and charity.

I look at that list, and find it a bit…underwhelming. We’ve given Christianity two thousand years to come up with a cardinal list of virtues in human thought and deed, and that’s the best it can do? It’s almost as disappointing as the list of Ten Commandments, which forbids working on Saturday and being disrespectful to your parents but not, say, slavery or rape, as I talked about here.

Now, don’t get me wrong, some of the things on the list of virtues I heartily endorse. Courage, that’s a good one. Justice is another good one, though as often as not people have an unfortunate tendency to perpetrate the most horrifying atrocities in its name. (Handy hint for the confused: “justice” and “vengeance” aren’t the same thing, and in fact aren’t on speaking terms with one another.) Temperance in opposing injustice is not a virtue, hope is that thing at the bottom of Pandora’s jar of evils, and faith…well, the Catholic catechism says that faith means “we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us,” and furthermore that we believe all “that Holy Church proposes for our belief.” In this sense, to quote Mark Twain, faith is believing what you know ain’t so. (On the subject of hope, though, it should be mentioned that Hesiod’s epic poem about Pandora says of women, “From her is the race of women and female kind: of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble, no helpmates in hateful poverty, but only in wealth.” So it is without an exuberance of cynicism that I might suggest there is perhaps a synchronicity between the ancient Greek and modern Catholic thinkings on the subject of the fairer sex.)

In any event, it seems that, once again, the traditional institutions charged with the prescription of human morality have proven insufficient to the task. In my musings on the Ten Commandments, I proposed a set of ten commandments that might, all things considered, prove a better moral guideline than the ten we already have, and it is with the same spirit I’d like to propose a revised set of Seven Cardinal Virtues.

Courage. I quite like this one. In fact, to quote Maya Angelou, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.” So this one stays; in fact, I think it moves to the head of the list.

Prudence is a bit of an odd duck. Most simply, it means something like “foresight,” or perhaps “right thinking.” The Catholic Education Site defines prudence as the intellectual virtue which rightly directs particular human acts, through rectitude of the appetite, toward a good end. But that seems a bit tail-recursive to me; a virtue is that which directs you to do good, and doing good means having these virtues…yes, yes, that’s fine and all, but what is good? You can’t define a thing in terms of a quality a person has and then define that quality in terms of that thing!

So perhaps it might be better to speak of Beneficence, which is the principle of making choices that, first, do no harm to others, and, second, seek to prevent harm to others. The principle of harm reduction seems a better foundation for an ethical framework than the principle of “right action” without any context for the “right” bit. (I’m aware that a great deal of theology attempts to provide context for the virtue of prudence, but I remain unconvinced; I would find, for example, it is more prudent to deny belonging to a religion than to be hanged for it, simply on the logic that it is difficult for dead Utopians to build Utopia…)

Justice is another virtue I like, though in implementation it can be a bit tricky. Justice, when it’s reduced to the notion of an eye for an eye, becomes mere retribution. If it is to be a virtue, it must be the sort of justice that seeks the elevation of all humankind, rather than a list of rules about which forms of retaliation are endorsed against whom; formal systems of justice, being invented and maintained by corruptible humans, all too easily become corrupt. A system which does not protect the weakest and most vulnerable people is not a just system.

Temperance needs to go. Moderation in the pursuit of virtue is no virtue, and passion in the pursuit of things which improve the lot of people everywhere is no vice. And this virtue too easily becomes a blanket prohibition; the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, who were anything but temperate in their zeal to eradicate alcohol, failed to acknowledge that drinking is not necessarily, of and by itself, intemperate; and their intemperance helped create organized crime in the US, a scourge we have still been unable to eradicate.

In its place, I would propose Compassion, and particularly, the variety of compassion that allows us to see the struggles of others, and to treat others with kindness wherever and whenever possible, to the greatest extent we are able. It is a virtue arising from the difficult realization that other people are actually real, and so deserve to be treated the way we would have them treat us.

Faith and Hope seem, to be frank, like poor virtues to me, at least as they are defined by Catholicism. (There is a broader definition of “faith,” used by mainline Protestant denominations, that has less to do with accepting the inerrancy of the Church in receiving divine revelation and more to do with an assurance that, even in the face of the unknown, it’s possible to believe that one will be okay; this kind of faith, I can get behind.) Indeed, an excess of faith of the dogmatic variety leads to all sorts of nasty problems, as folks who have faith their god wants them to bomb a busy subway might illustrate. And hope (in the Catholic sense of “desiring the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit”) can lead to inaction in the face of real-world obstacles–if we believe that once we get past the grave, nothing can go wrong, we might be disinclined to pursue happiness or oppose injustice in the here and now.

I would suggest that better virtues might be Integrity and Empathy. Integrity as a virtue means acting in accordance with one’s own stated moral precepts; but there’s more to it than that. As a virtue, integrity also means acknowledging when others are right; being intellectually rigorous, and mindful of the traps of confirmation bias and anti-intellectualism; and being clear about what we know and what we hope. (When, for example, we state something we want to be true but don’t know is true as a fact, we are not behaving with integrity.)

Empathy in this context means, first and foremost, not treating other people as things. It is related to compassion, in that it recognizes the essential humanity of others. As a moral principle, it means acknowledging the agency and rights of others, as we would have them acknowledge our agency and our rights.

Charity is, I think, a consequence arising from the applications of justice, compassion, and empathy, rather than a foundational virtue itself. In its place, I propose Sovereignty, the assumption that the autonomy and self-determinism of others is worthy of respect, and must not be infringed insofar as is possible without compromising one’s own self.

So bottom line, that gives us the following list of Seven Virtues: Courage, Beneficence, Justice, Compassion, Integrity, Empathy, and Sovereignty. I like this draft better than the one put forth by Catholicism. But coming up with a consistent, coherent framework of moral behavior is hard! What say you, O Interwebs?

Some Thoughts on Anti-Intellectualism as a Red Queen Problem

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”
“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run twice as fast as that!”
“I’d rather not try, please!” said Alice. “I’m quite content to stay here — only I am so hot and thirsty!”

— Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

“When we just saw that man, I think it was [biologist P.Z. Myers], talking about how great scientists were, I was thinking to myself the last time any of my relatives saw scientists telling them what to do they were telling them to go to the showers to get gassed … that was horrifying beyond words, and that’s where science – in my opinion, this is just an opinion – that’s where science leads you.”
— Ben Stein, Trinity Broadcasting System interview, 2008

What do spam emails, AIDS denial, conspiracy theories, fear of GM foods, rejection of global warming, antivaccination crusades, and the public school district of Tucson, Arizona banning Shakespeare’s The Tempest have in common?

A typical spam message in my inbox

The answer is anti-intellectualism. Anti-intellectualism–the rejection of scientific study and reason as tools for understanding the physical world, and the derision of people who are perceived as educated or “intellectual”–has deep roots in the soil of American civil discourse. John Cotton, theological leader of the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay, wrote in 1642, “the more learned and witty you bee, the more fit to act for Satan will you bee”–a sentiment many Evangelical Protestants identify with today. (Tammy Faye Bakker, wife of the disgraced former televangelist Jim Bakker, once remarked “it’s possible to educate yourself right out of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”)

It seems weird that such a virulent streak of anti-intellectualism should be present in the world’s only remaining superpower, a position the US achieved largely on the merits of its technological and scientific innovation. Our economic, military, and political position in the world were secured almost entirely by our ability to discover, invent, and innovate…and yet there is a broad swath of American society that despises the intellectualism that makes that innovation possible in the first place.

Liberals in the US tend to deride conservatives as ignorant, anti-intellectual hillbillies. It’s arguably easy to see why; the conservative political party in the US is actively, openly hostile to science and intellectualism. The Republican Party of Texas has written into the party platform a passage opposing the teaching of critical thinking in public school. Liberals scoff at conservatives who deny the science of climate change, teach that the world and everything in it is six thousand years old, and seek to ban the teaching of evolutionary science…all while claiming that GMO foods are dangerous and vaccines cause autism. Anti-intellectualism is an equal-opportunity phenomenon that cuts across the entire American political landscape. The differences in liberal and conservative rejection of science are merely matters of detail.

So why is it such a pervasive part of American cultural dialog? There are a lot of reasons. Anti-intellectualism is built into the foundation of US culture; the Puritans, whose influence casts a very long shadow over the whole of US society, were famously suspicious of any sort of intellectual pursuit. They came to the New World seeking religious freedom, by which they meant the freedom to execute anyone they didn’t like, a practice their European contemporaries were insufficiently appreciative of; and the list of people they didn’t like included any unfortunate person suspected of learning or knowledge. That suspicion lingers; we’ve never succeeded in purging ourselves of it entirely.

Those of a cynical nature like to suggest that anti-intellectualism is politically convenient It’s easier, so the narrative goes, to control a poorly educated populace, especially when that populace lacks even basic reasoning skills. If you’ve ever watched an evening of Fox News, it’s a difficult argument to rebut. One does not need to be all that cynical to suggest a party plank rejecting critical thinking skills is a very convenient thing to a political party that enshrines young-earth Creationism, for instance.

But the historical narrative and the argument from political convenience seem insufficient to explain the breathtaking aggressiveness of anti-intellectualism in the US today, particularly among political progressives and liberals, who are often smugly self-congratulatory about how successfully they have escaped the clutches of tradition and dogma.

I think there’s another factor, and that’s the Red Queen problem.

In evolutionary, biology, the Red Queen hypothesis suggests that organisms in competition with each other must continue to evolve and adapt merely to maintain the status quo. When cheetahs prey on gazelles, the fastest cheetahs will be most successful at catching prey; the fastest gazelles will be most successful at escaping cheetahs. So natural selection favors faster and faster gazelles and cheetahs as each adapts to the other. Parasites evolve and become more efficient at parasitizing their hosts, which develop more efficient defenses against the parasites. I would like to propose that the same hypothesis can help explain anti-intellectualism, at least in part.

As we head into the twenty-first century, the sum total of human knowledge is increasing exponentially. When I was in college in the late 1980s and early 1990s, my neurobiology professors taught me things–adult human brains don’t grow new neurons, we’re all born with all the brain cells we’ll ever have–that we now know not to be true. And that means anyone who wants to be educated needs to keep learning new things all the time, just to stay in one place.

Those who reject science like to say that science is flawed because it changes all the time. How can we trust science, they say, when it keeps changing? In fact, what’s flawed is such critics’ estimation of how complicated the natural world is, and how much there is to know about it. Science keeps changing because we keep shining lights into previously dark areas of understanding.

But it’s really hard to keep up. A person who wants to stay abreast of the state of the art of human understanding has to run faster and faster and faster merely to stay in one place. It’s fatiguing, not just because it means constantly learning new things, but because it means constantly examining things you believed you already knew, re-assessing how new discoveries fit into your mental framework of how the world works.

For those without the time, inclination, tools, and habits to keep up with the state of human understanding, scientists look like priests. We must merely accept what they say, because we don’t have the tools to fact-check them. Their pronouncements seem arbitrary, and worse, inconsistent; why did they say we never grow new brain cells yesterday, only to say the exact opposite today? If two different scientists say two different things, who do you trust?

If you don’t race to keep up with the Red Queen, that’s what it is–trust. You must simply trust what someone else says, because trying to wrap your head around what’s going on is so goddamn fatiguing. And it’s easier to trust people who say the same thing every time than to trust people who say something different today than what they said yesterday. (Or who, worse, yet, tell you “I don’t know” when you ask a question. “I don’t know” is a deeply unsatisfying answer. If a Bronze Age tribesman asks two people “What is the sun?” and one of them gives a fanciful story about a fire-god and a dragon, and the other says “I don’t know,” the answer about the fire-god and the dragon is far more satisfying, even in complete absence of any evidence that fire-gods or dragons actually exist at all.)

Science is comfortable with the notion that models and frameworks change, and science is comfortable with “I don’t know” as an answer. Human beings, rather less so. We don’t want to run and run to keep up with the Red Queen. We also don’t want to hear “I don’t know” as an answer.

So science, then, becomes a kind of trust game, not that much different from the priesthood. We accept the pronouncements of priests and scientists alike when they tell us things they want to hear, and reject them when they don’t. Political conservatives don’t want to hear that our industrial activity is changing the global climate; liberals don’t want to hear that there’s nothing wrong with GMO food. Both sides of the political aisle find common ground in one place: running after the Red Queen is just plain too much work.

Monsanto: The Gigantic Evil Megacorp (that’s actually kinda a pipsqueak)

Among the left-leaning progressives that make up a substantial part of Portland’s general population, there is a profound fear of GMO food that’s becoming an identity belief–a belief that’s held not because it’s supported by evidence, but because it helps define membership in a group.

It’s frustrating to talk to the anti-GMO crowd, in part because these conversations always involve goalposts whipping around so fast I’m afraid someone will poke my eye out. It generally starts with “I don’t like GMOs because food safety,” but when you start talking about how evidence to support that position is as thin on the ground as snowmen in the Philippines, the goalposts quickly move to “I don’t like GMOs because Monsanto.” Monsanto, if you listen to Portland hippies, is a gigantic, evil mega-corporation that controls the government, buys off all the world’s scientists, intimidates farmers, and rules supreme over the media.

So I got to thinking, How big is Monsanto? Because it takes quite a lot of money to do the things Monsanto is accused of doing–when they can be done at all, that is.

And I started Googling. The neat thing about publicly-traded corporations is they have to post all their financials. A quick Google search will reveal just how big any public company really is.

I expected to learn that Monsanto was big. I was surprised.

As big companies go, Monsanto is a runt. In terms of gross revenue, it is almost exactly the same size as Whole Foods and Starbucks. It’s smaller than The Gap, way smaller than 7-11 and UPS, a tiny fraction of the size of Home Depot, and miniscule compared to Verizon and ExxonMobil. That’s it, way down on the left on this graph I made:

You can’t shake a stick in the anti-GMO crowd without hearing a dozen conspiracy theories, almost all of them centered around Monsanto. Lefties like to sneer at conservative conspiracy theories about global warming, but when it comes to GMOs, they haven’t met a conspiracy theory they don’t love to embrace.

Most of these conspiracy theories talk about how Monsanto, that enormous, hulking brute of a magacorporation, has somehow bought off all the world’s scientists, creating a conspiracy to tell us GMOs are safe when they’re not.

Now, hippie lefties usually aren’t scientists. In fact, anyone who’s ever been part of academia can tell you a conspiracy of scientists saying something that isn’t true is only a little bit more likely than a conspiracy of cats saying tuna is evil. As an essay on Slate put it,

Think of your meanest high school mean girl at her most gleefully, underminingly vicious. Now give her a doctorate in your discipline, and a modicum of power over your future. That’s peer review.

Speaking of conspiracies of scientists, let’s get back to conservatives and their “climate change” scientific conspiracy. Look at the left-hand side of the chart up there, then look at the right-hand side. Look at the left side again. Now look at the right side again.

ExxonMobil makes more than 26 times more money than Monsanto, and has a higher net profit margin, too. Combined, the country’s top 5 oil companies have a gross revenue exceeding $1.3 trillion, more than 87 times Monsanto’s revenue, and yet…

…they still can’t get the world’s scientists to say global warming isn’t a thing.

If the oil companies can’t buy a conspiracy of scientists, how can a pipsqueak like Monsanto manage it?

I’m planning a more in-depth blog post about GMOs and anti-GMO activism later. But the “Monsanto buys off scientists” conspiracy nuttiness needed addressing on its own, because it’s so ridiculous.

It’s easy to root for the underdog. One of the cheapest, most manipulative ways to make an argument is to refer to something you don’t like as “Big” (Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big SCAM as I like to think of the Supplemental, Complementary, and Alternative Medicine community). We are culturally wired to love the underdog; a great deal of left identity is wrapped up in being the ones who root for the common man against Big Whatever.

So the ideology of Monsanto as the Big Enemy has emotional resonance. We like to think of the small guy standing up against Big Monsanto, when the reality is Whole Foods, so beloved of hippies everywhere, is basically the same size big corporation as the oft-hated Monsanto, and both of them are tiny in the shadow of far larger companies like 7-11 and Target.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to head down to Starbucks for a pumpkin spice latte and listen to the hippies rant about how much they hate big corporations like Monsanto.

Some thoughts on machine learning: context-based approaches

A nontrivial problem with machine learning is organization of new information and recollection of appropriate information in a given circumstance. Simple storing of information (cats are furry, balls bounce, water is wet) is relatively straightforward, and one common approach to doing this is simply to define the individual pieces of knowledge as objects which contain things (water, cats, balls) and descriptors (water is wet, water flows, water is necessary for life; cats are furry, cats meow, cats are egocentric little psychopaths).

This presents a problem with information storage and retrieval. Some information systems that have a specific function, such as expert systems that diagnose illness or identify animals, solve this problem by representing the information hierarchically as a tree, with the individual units of information at the tree’s branches and a series of questions representing paths through the tree. For instance, if an expert system identifies an animal, it might start with the question “is this animal a mammal?” A “yes” starts down one side of the tree, and a “no” starts down the other. At each node in the tree, another question identifies which branch to take—”Is the animal four-legged?” “Does the animal eat meat?” “Does the animal have hooves?” Each path through the tree is a series of questions that leads ultimately to a single leaf.

This is one of the earliest approaches to expert systems, and it’s quite successful for representing hierarchical knowledge and for performing certain tasks like identifying animals. Some of these expert systems are superior to humans at the same tasks. But the domain of cognitive tasks that can be represented by this variety of expert system is limited. Organic brains do not really seem to organize knowledge this way.

Instead, we can think of the organization of information in an organic brain as a series of individual facts that are context dependent. In this view, a “context” represents a particular domain of knowledge—how to build a model, say, or change a diaper. There may be thousands, tens of thousands, or millions of contexts a person can move within, and a particular piece of information might belong to many contexts.

What is a context?

A context might be thought of as a set of pieces of information organized into a domain in which those pieces of information are relevant to each other. Contexts may be procedural (the set of pieces of information organized into necessary steps for baking a loaf of bread), taxonomic (a set of related pieces of information arranged into a hierarchy, such as knowledge of the various birds of North America), hierarchical (the set of information necessary for diagnosing an illness), or simply related to one another experientially (the set of information we associate with “visiting grandmother at the beach).

Contexts overlap and have fuzzy boundaries. In organic brains, even hierarchical or procedural contexts will have extensive overlap with experiential contexts—the context of “how to bake bread” will overlap with the smell of baking bread, our memories of the time we learned to bake bread, and so on. It’s probably very, very rare in an organic brain that any particular piece of information belongs to only one context.

In a machine, we might represent this by creating a structure of contexts CX (1,2,3,4,5,…n) where each piece of information is tagged with the contexts it belongs to. For instance, “water” might appear in many contexts: a context called “boating,” a context called “drinking,” a context called “wet,” a context called “transparent,” a context called “things that can kill me,” a context called “going to the beach,” and a context called “diving.” In each of these contexts, “water” may be assigned different attributes, whose relevance is assigned different weights based on the context. “Water might cause me to drown” has a low relevance in the context of “drinking” or “making bread,” and a high relevance in the context of “swimming.”

In a contextually based information storage system, new knowledge is gained by taking new information and assigning it correctly to relevant contexts, or creating new contexts. Contexts themselves may be arranged as expert systems or not, depending on the nature of the context. A human doctor diagnosing illness might have, for instance, a diagnostic context that behaves similarly in some ways to the way a diagnostic expert system; a doctor might ask a patient questions about his symptoms, and arrive at her conclusion by following the answers to a single possible diagnosis. This process might be informed by past contexts, though; if she has just seen a dozen patients with norovirus, her knowledge of those past diagnoses, her understanding of how contagious norovirus is, and her observation of the similarity of this new patient’s symptoms to those previous patients’ symptoms might allow her to bypass a large part of the decision tree. Indeed, it is possible that a great deal of what we call “intuition” is actually the ability to make observations and use heuristics that allow us to bypass parts of an expert system tree and arrive at a leaf very quickly.

But not all types of cognitive tasks can be represented as traditional expert systems. Tasks that require things like creativity, for example, might not be well represented by highly static decision trees.

When we navigate the world around us, we’re called on to perform large numbers of cognitive tasks seamlessly and to be able to switch between them effortlessly. A large part of this process might be thought of as context switching. A context represents a domain of knowledge and information—how to drive a car or prepare a meal—and organic brains show a remarkable flexibility in changing contexts. Even in the course of a conversation over a dinner table, we might change contexts dozens of times.

A flexible machine learning system needs to be able to switch contexts easily as well, and deal with context changes resiliently. Consider a dinner conversation that moves from art history to the destruction of Pompeii to a vacation that involved climbing mountains in Hawaii to a grandparent who lived on the beach. Each of these represents a different context, but the changes between contexts aren’t arbitrary. If we follow the normal course of conversations, there are usually trains of thought that lead from one subject to the next; and these trains of thought might be represented as information stored in multiple contexts. Art history and Pompeii are two contexts that share specific pieces of information (famous paintings) in common. Pompeii and Hawaii are contexts that share volcanoes in common. Understanding the organization of individual pieces of information into different contexts is vital to understanding the shifts in an ordinary human conversation; where we lack information—for example, if we don’t know that Pompeii was destroyed by a volcano—the conversation appears arbitrary and unconnected.

There is a danger in a system being too prone to context shifts; it meanders endlessly, unable to stay on a particular cognitive task. A system that changes contexts only with difficulty, on the other hand, appears rigid, even stubborn. We might represent focus, then, in terms of how strongly (or not) we cling to whatever context we’re in. Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man possesses a cognitive system that clung very tightly to the context he was in!

Other properties of organic brains and human knowledge might also be represented in terms of information organized into contexts. Creativity is the ability to find connections between pieces of information that normally exist in different contexts, and to find commonalities of contextual overlap between them. Perception is the ability to assign new information to relevant contexts easily.

Representing contexts in a machine learning system is a nontrivial challenge. It is difficult, to begin with, to determine how many contexts might exist. As a machine entity gains new information and learns to perform new cognitive tasks, the number of contexts in which it can operate might increase indefinitely, and the system must be able to assign old information to new contexts as it encounters them. If we think of each new task we might want the machine learning system to be able to perform as a context, we need to devise mechanisms by which old information can be assigned to these new contexts.

Organic brains, of course, don’t represent information the way computers do. Organic brains represent information as neural traces—specific activation pathways among collections of neurons.

These pathways become biased toward activation when we are in situations similar to those where they were first formed, or similar to situations in which they have been previously activated. For example, when we talk about Pompeii, if we’re aware that it was destroyed by a volcano, other pathways pertaining to our experiences with or understanding of volcanoes become biased toward activation—and so, for example, our vacation climbing the volcanoes in Hawaii come to mind. When others share these same pieces of information, their pathways similarly become biased toward activation, and so they can follow the transition from talking about Pompeii to talking about Hawaii.

This method of encoding and recalling information makes organic brains very good at tasks like pattern recognition and associating new information with old information. In the process of recalling memories or performing tasks, we also rewrite those memories, so the process of assigning old information to new contexts is transparent and seamless. (A downside of this approach is information reliability; the more often we access a particular memory, the more often we rewrite it, so paradoxically, the memories we recall most often tend to be the least reliable.)

Machine learning systems need a system for tagging individual units of information with contexts. This becomes complex from an implementation perspective when we recall that simply storing a bit of information with descriptors (such as water is wet, water is necessary for life, and so on) is not sufficient; each of those descriptors has a value that changes depending on context. Representing contexts as a simple array CX (1,2,3,4,…n) and assigning individual facts to contexts (water belongs to contexts 2, 17, 43, 156, 287, and 344) is not sufficient. The properties associated with water will have different weights—different relevancies—depending on the context.

Machine learning systems also need a mechanism for recognizing contexts (it would not do for a general purpose machine learning system to respond to a fire alarm by beginning to bake bread) and for following changes in context without becoming confused. Additionally, contexts themselves are hierarchical; if a person is driving a car, that cognitive task will tend to override other cognitive tasks, like preparing notes for a lecture. Attempting to switch contexts in the middle of driving can be problematic. Some contexts, therefore, are more “sticky” than others, more resistant to switching out of.

A context-based machine learning system, then, must be able to recognize context and prioritize contexts. Context recognition is itself a nontrivial problem, based on recognition of input the system is provided with, assignment of that input to contexts, and seeking the most relevant context (which may in most situations be the context with greatest overlap with all the relevant input). Assigning some cognitive tasks, such as diagnosing an illness, to a context is easy; assigning other tasks, such as natural language recognition, processing, and generation in a conversation, to a context is more difficult to do. (We can view engaging in natural conversation as one context, with the topics of the conversation belonging to sub-contexts. This is a different approach than that taken by many machine conversational approaches, such as Markov chains, which can be viewed as memoryless state machines. Each state, which may correspond for example to a word being generated in a sentence, can be represented by S(n), and the transition from S(n) to S(n+1) is completely independent of S(n-1); previous parts of the conversation are not relevant to future parts. This creates limitations, as human conversations do not progress this way; previous parts of a conversation may influence future parts.)

Context seems to be an important part of flexibility in cognitive tasks, and thinking of information in terms not just of object/descriptor or decision trees but also in terms of context may be an important part of the next generation of machine learning systems.

Sex tech: Update on the dildo you can feel

A few months back, I wrote a blog post about a brain hack that might create a dildo the wearer can actually feel. The idea came to me in the shower. I’d been thinking about the brain’s plasticity, and about how it might be possible to trick the brain into internalizing a somatosensory perception that a strap-on dildo is a real part of the body, by using sensors along the dildo connected to tiny electrical stimulation pads worn inside the vagina.

It’s an interesting idea, I think. So I blogged about it. I didn’t expect the response I got.

I’ve received a bunch of emails about it, and had a bunch of people tell me “OMG this is the most amazing thing ever! Make it happen!”

So I have, between work on getting the book More Than Two out the door and preparing for the book tour, been chugging away at this idea. Here’s an update:

1. I’ve filed for a patent on the idea. I’ve received confirmation that the application has been accepted and the process is started.

2. I’ve talked to an electronics prototyping firm about developing a prototype. Based on feedback from the prototyping firm, I’ve modified the initial design extensively. The first version I’d thought about was based on the same principle as the Feeldoe; the redesign uses a separate dildo and harness, with an external computer to receive signals from the sensors in the dildo and transmit them to the vaginal insert. The new design looks, and works, something like this. (Apologies for the horrible animated GIF; art isn’t really my specialty.)

3. The prototyping firm has outlined a multi-step process to develop a workable, manufacturable device. The process would go something like:

Phase 1: Research and proof of concept. This would include researching designs for the sensors on the dildo and the electrodes on the vaginal insert. It would also include a crude proof-of-concept device that would essentially be nothing more than the vaginal insert connected to a computer programmed to simulate the rest of the device.

The intent at this stage is to see if the idea is even workable. What kind of electrodes could be used? Would the produce the right kind of stimulation? How densely arranged could they be? How small could they be? Would the brain actually be able to interpret sensations produced by the electrodes in a way that would trick the wearer into thinking the dildo was a part of the body? If so, how long would that somatosensory rewiring take?

Phase 2: Assuming the initial research showed the idea to be viable, the next step would be to figure out a sensor design, fabricate a microcontroller to connect the sensors to the electrodes, and experiment with sensor design and fabrication. Would a single sensor provide adequate range of tactile feedback, or would it be necessary to multiplex several sensors (some designed to respond to light touch, others to a heavier touch) together in order to provide a good dynamic range? What mechanical properties would the sensors need to have? How would they be built? (We talked about several potential designs, including piezoelectric, resistive polymer, and fluid-filled devices.) How would the sensors be placed along the dildo?

Phase 3: Once a working prototype is developed, the next step is detail design and engineering. This is essentially the process of taking a working prototype and producing a manufacturable product from it. This includes everything from engineering drawings for fabrication to choosing materials to developing the final version of the software.

So. That’s where the project is right now.

The up side? I think this thing could actually work. The down side? It’s going to be expensive.

I have already started investigating ways to make it happen. If we incorporate in Canada, we may be eligible for Canadian financial incentives designed to spur tech research and development.

The fabricating company seems to think the first phase would most likely cost somewhere around $5,000-10,000. Depending on what’s learned during that phase, the development of a fully functional prototype might run anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000, a lot of which hinges on design of the sensors, which will likely be the most challenging bit of engineering. They didn’t even want to speculate about the cost of going from working prototype to manufacturable product; too many unknowns.

I’m discussing the possibility of doing crowdfunding to get from phase 2 to 3, and possibly from phase 1 to 2. It’s not likely that crowdfunding is appropriate for the first phase, because I won’t have anything tangible to offer backers. Indeed, it’s possible that I might spend the initial money and discover the idea isn’t workable.

Ideally, I’d like to find people who think this idea is worth investigating who can afford to invest in the first phase. If you know anybody who might be interested in this project, let me know!

Also, one of the people at the prototyping company suggested the name “Hapdick.” I’m still not sure how I feel about that, but I do have to admit it’s clever.

Want to keep up with developments? Here’s a handy list of blog posts about it:
First post
Update 1
Update 2
Update 3
Update 4
Update 5
Update 6
Update 7
Update 8
Update 9