Tag Archives: Science

Coming Soon…

I know it has been more than a while, but I have something sweet coming soon from the SWS lab – soon to be available around the web (or, at least, at Etsy and Ebay, as well as direct from your humble narrator). Part science/part art – all glorious, glorious…Stay tuned, PGH watch out!


A Moderately Intelligent Post, or: Your Brain Has No Idea What’s Going On

When you tell people you study (or studied) psychology, almost without fail you can expect something along the lines of, “Hey, watch out! Don’t be analyzing me!,” or some derivative thereof. Since most people are okay enough (give or take), and I try to be decent and sensitive even to people with ridiculous beliefs (like, say, in an interventionist god), I don’t say anything like, “What in chance’s blue earth would make you think I spend any of my time thinking about your issues, or dedicating my life to learning about certain individual idiosyncrasies that are essentially meaningless to the vast majority of people who really just need some food and education options…Here, your dad was an asshole and didn’t hug you enough – his dad didn’t hug him either – forgive him, forgive yourself, done.” This is obviously sarcastic and more than a bit acerbic, but you get the point. There are many incredibly valuable therapists and counselors and psychiatrists out there who help people lead fulfilling lives…It’s just that I’ve met very, very, very few.

What interests me about psychology (in its scientific form), is its ability to bridge all possible gaps between people, whether we’re talking about different “races” (a ludicrous concept with no biological basis), different nationalities, different religious or spiritual beliefs, whatever…My first inkling of this in any form of literature was in some of the simplest examples of visual illusions: necker cubes, milgram line-tests, etc. Gradually, it became clear that the easiest way to introduce people to certain concepts in psychology was through illustrations of the common mistakes made by all people (I know, I’m glossing over huge differences, cultural and otherwise, but those just amount to different looking mistakes for the same reasons). Today, the fields of Behavioral Economics, Social Cognition, Social Cognitive Neuroscience, and a few more are basically paradigms composed of examples of systematic human biases, prejudices, and illusions.

It seems to be extremely difficult for most people to grasp and believe evidence that might “lower” them to the level of animals (or, lately, that raises animals to the level of humans). The problem, then, is that we are animals, composed of basically the same parts and nerves and neurotransmitters and, not least, the same brain, and therefore cognitive processes, as apes and monkeys and dogs and cats. That’s fine, most people don’t need to believe any of this. In fact, this is probably a good thing, as some of the truth of the matter is incredibly depressing if you don’t pull the thread the whole way through, which is hard and takes a long time. However, for the sake of argument, and because of a terrific article I bumped into today (what, I worked all kinds of hours the last couple days, have a cold, cooked my bro and his lady buffalo burgers…you couldn’t tell I blog on idle? Shhhiiiiiiiiittt, like Clay Davis).

The above mentioned (and linked, go read it!) article is from Scientific American and is on visual illusions and cognitive neuroscience, which points out the fact that nothing we process (hint, hint) through our sensory apparatus is actually what is really out there, i.e., your brain has no idea what the world is really like. Once again, like our friends above who think we’re created in “god’s” image, the fact that we don’t know what is really going on is fine. After all, we need to survive, not comprehend the universe in its actuality (just ask a string theorist, huzzah!). I’m going to stop rambling, because I’m tired and on cold medicine, and don’t really even remember writing the last couple paragraphs. But I’ll leave you with a couple of those illusions. For the explanations, consult the article, I’m lazy. [To those of you who skipped this instead and just looked at the pretty pictures, good for you. If you read this, I apologize, but you should know by now there is nothing of value coming out of my mouth, er, my fingers.]

This one was created by Edward Adelson. The color of the squares on which A and B are printed are the same shade of gray, perceptions to the contrary.

Illusion 1

The second example was discovered by Richard Gregory. The tiles in the picture are all perfectly level and straight, though you can’t make yourself see it that way without extreme difficulty.

Illusion 2

Finally, my favorite, created by Akiyoshi Kitaoka. Guess what, nothing is moving. If you stare at one of the black dots in the center of the circles you can stop the illusory movement. Just bad-ass.

Illusion 3

The Future of Everything

I just started a book, The Future of Everything [erething?]: The Science of Prediction, by the mathematician qua polymath David Orrell. Orrell was one of the guys who kind of limited the chaos affect in weather (butterfly farts, Hillary wins the election) to almost nothingness, instead attributing large discrepancies (to say the least) in weather prediction to model error, basically the gap between the pretty math model and the real world phenomenon.

The book, thus far at least, has been really interesting, well-written, and erudite-though the beginnings hover on some historical facts that aren’t completely novel, but nonetheless. Dr. Orrell’s main interests in this book revolve around prediction in wealth, weather, and health, tracing the history of prediction from around 1500 BC up through the methods developed by Newton and Kepler that remain in practice to this day (in complicated, derivative forms, I imagine). While it’s not as exciting as the opening of a new Bape store (heh), a couple chunks have popped out thus far, and I should like to quote them and offer some commentary:

“Systems where predictions are of interest-in biology, economics, or climate change-are either alive, influenced by life, or have a similar level of complexity to living beings (1). They are difficult to predict not because of simple technical reasons, which can be overcome with faster computers or better data, but because they have evolved to be that way (2). We pinpoint the causes of prediction error (3).” (italics mfjoe)


1. This is particularly interesting now, when we finally have the ability to recognize the complexity such systems, as well as have a pretty big new one with the Interweb to play with. As an aside, it is also telling of our lack of predictive ability that we can rarely predict how complex systems are going to end up being, per se, let alone how they will be modeled in toto and in situ.

2. I haven’t read far into the book. But the way I look at it is that we evolved to predict certain things very well, and most other things horribly at best. It’s not the system under the scope then, but the one peering through it that cause the error. E.g., I still argue with intelligent (seemingly) people about the ability to beat the house at a casino. As a great thinker, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, pointed out, a casino is the least random, chance destination on the planet. Everything is completely measured and the house always wins (even if your uncle charlie won $10K that one time). However, the games played mimic those we evolved with, and we expect them to be path-dependent (I think I got that right). Hence: ass handed to you. You aren’t more likely to win after losing in a casino a string of times. I am more likely to fall asleep as the hours I haven’t slept continue passing…that’s the gist.

3. Comes from the Popper. Since we have no real ability above chance to know or predict things, why not look for systematic causes for error, so we can start to turn those unknown unknowns into know unknowns (Thanks Rummy, best thing that came out your mouth in your life).

“One type of prediction relates to overall function and can be used to make general warnings. The other type involves specific forecasts about the future. Mathematical models are better at the first than they are the second. (1)

1. Example of first type that I’m fairly sure is largely accurate: Any given Human, a biological system of great complexity, will expire, sometime (for the various reasons consult Aubrey de Grey, also a great offerer of the second type of prediction, of which most will turn out to be very, very far from reality-one could call these Methuselah Mouse Model Errors).

The future of everything book

(Cop it from Amazon)

Darwin has a Blog

Alright, well maybe old Chuck Darwin isn’t really blogging, but the Cambridge University Library is making available previously cloistered material from the father of evolutionary theory. Darwin’s notes for On The Origin of Species, as well as 20K more pieces of archive material are available at Darwin-Online.

As far as science goes, The Theory of Evolution through Natural Selection is as close as I’ve seen to Law (in scientific nomenclature). No other theory has produced such robust fields of knowledge, while easily accommodating seemingly unexplainable phenomena. I’m not here to argue science’s validity and value here, and won’t, only to say that if it wasn’t for the development of modern scientific methodology we would still be drinking the cholera water, living a shitty life in a one-room hovel, eating out of a trough with 10-35 of your cousins and layabouts, killing and getting killed fairly randomly, etc. etc. etc. They definitely didn’t have live-strong bracelets and designer jeans, coffee and chocolate, speed-dating and twitter.

The danger with with science is, of course, when it is misunderstood as an ideology with content. Science doesn’t have content, or a “body”, of presumptions and non-critical beliefs. It’s a hollow methodology used to find out what we don’t know, in the hopes that we might learn something sometime. And a hollow methodology is exactly what is required when dealing with homo sapiens, primates with extended pre-frontal cortexes, who basically make all decisions and movements based on unconscious machinations (not like Freud, like Bargh), socioeco-structural shaping, and marketing pressures (peer or otherwise).

What does all that mean for us moving forward? Fucked if I know. But, speaking personally, it lets me move through the world and really grasp just how beautifully imperfect everyone is, how impressive it is we can live alongside large groups of strange animals without killing and harming them that often, and every once in a while connect with someone else in a way other primates and animals can’t do. Evolution and science taught me that we’re all so close genetically, that biologically-speaking, the ability to empathize with almost anyone is almost a certainty if you can empathize with yourself. Evolution took away my fear of mortality, as well, because I’m sure I’m an animal, part of this whole (little) cycle we have going on on Earth, and it doesn’t require any level of faith or miracles. I fit here, if only for a brief spell. If religion gets you through the night, connects you with family and friends, than it has definitely achieved its goal, and I’m always glad to see someone comfortable in their own beliefs, no matter how far they are from mine.

For a great contemporary look at Evolutionary Theory, check Dan Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Dennett rules, I’ve read almost everything he’s written, and DDI made clear for me some issues of probability, determinism, and just how the hell all this might have emerged.

Origin of Species