Saturday, February 27, 2010

On Being Certain: A book review

The book: "On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not" by Robert A. Burton, M.D.

This book shook the foundation of my epistemological world. The crux is that the sense of knowing something is a feeling like anger or pride. Thus, the fact that you "know" something does not mean it's true.

He gives an example. Right after the Challenger exploded on take-off (back in 1986), a psychology researcher collected statements from a number of people about what they were doing when they heard the news. A few years later, he asked them again. They all remembered vividly. Except, their memories didn't necessarily match what they'd written. When shown their statements, some continued to insist that the statement was wrong, but their memory was right. It's a vivid demonstration of how utterly convincing the feeling of certainty is. But, it's just a feeling.

He goes further. We don't even have any way of knowing what unconscious mental processes went into a belief or conclusion. So introspection is of little use for determining which beliefs are true and which are false.

He gives examples involving medical doctors. One proclaims, "I believe in the necessity of research, but I know that personal experience is the 'proof of the pudding.' " Like many doctors, this one leans heavily on his own personal judgement based on experience. But how do we know that the judgement is tied tightly to reality?

Science is the best bet.
... we should know when we are basing our decisions on science and when they are based upon unsubstantiated experience, hunches, and gut feelings. But, as we've seen, we aren't reliable assessors of such arbitrary distinctions.

His suggestion is that we modulate the conviction of our beliefs by attempting to consider the probability that each is correct, and reflect that uncertainty when we express our beliefs to others.

Toward the end of the book, Dr. Burton seems to suggest that our brains are equipped with a sensory system for perceiving a representation of brain state. This is nothing short of a theory of consciousness, and nothing short of fascinating. Just like we have a sensory cortex for processing tactile and visual information, we might also have a sensory cortex for processing mental information. He doesn't say it point-blank, but launches the notion for the reader. It blew my mind. I'm not sure I agree with it, but then again, this book makes it abundantly clear that we should not let the feeling of believing fool us.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Poor kitty, but nice neurons

My graduate student and I are working on a neural network model of the visual system. We've been learning a lot about neuroscience, and I'm loving it. I'm also sitting in on PSYCH 261 (Physiological Psychology), and this week we covered the visual system. The prof. showed us this short YouTube video:

It shows Hubel and Wiesel in the 1960s measuring how certain neurons react to different light stimuli. They clamped a cat's head down and stuck an electrode into its brain (OK, the sad part is over). They found that certain neurons reacted to particular patterns of light, not just brightness. It's those patterns that we're trying to get our computerized visual system to spontaneously generate, thereby positing a theory for how the visual system achieves this organization. We're getting there.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Hitler was a moral vegetarian

Wow, the animals really caught a break from Hitler. Well, the non-human animals, anyway.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Heaviest maple leaf ever

Either this is the heaviest leaf on the planet, or it's been absorbing the sun's rays and melting the snow beneath it.

Battle of the lists

The Dissent From Darwinism list is an attempt by the Discovery Institute to convince people that there is a real scientific controversy about whether or not evolution occurred. It's a list of scientists that "are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life." As of today, it has about 850 signatories.

Contrast that to Project Steve, the NCSE's answer to the Dissent from Darwinism list. It is a list of scientists who fully support the theory of evolution. But you can only sign it if your name is "Steve", "Stephen", "Stephanie", or some derivative thereof. As of Feb. 11, 2010, they have 1134 signatories.

Science should not be decided by popular vote. But this case goes to show how insignificant the controversy really is.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Flimflam inoculation 7: Can 1 billion people be wrong?

Yes, they can. They vast majority were wrong about the earth being flat, and at the centre of the universe.

The tactic of using majority opinion to support a claim is called argumentum ad populum.

Here are some examples.

  • "There are N-billion Christians (Muslims, Jews ) in the world. So Christianity (Islam, Judaism) is the one true religion."
  • The Discovery Institute maintains a list of people who doubt the theory of evolution.
  • "millions of people value chiropractic enough to be more than willing to pay for their care with their own hard-earned money" (snipped from here)

Many people find such evidence compelling. Strictly speaking, it's not evidence at all. Evidence should be objective. Opinion and belief is subjective.

But why would fallacious ideas be present in a society? Let's start out by acknowledging that there are LOTS of things we just don't know. Our ancestors can be excused for believing the earth was flat because they hadn't traveled far enough to observe that it was round.

Lack of knowledge is only a starting point. The question still remains, "Why do whole groups of people agree on things that aren't necessarily true?"

Ideas are like viruses, spreading from mind to mind, being passed along selectively; good ideas get passed on, while bad ideas don't... they go extinct. So what makes an idea "good"? More to the point, what makes an idea get passed on?

The spreading and mixing of ideas is called memetics, a cultural analog to the biochemical genetics. A meme gets passed on and mutated from mind to mind, similar to how a gene gets passed on and mutated from generation to generation.

Genetic evolution has no concept of a goal or progress, but rather plays out with mechanical indifference. Whatever gene works best at promoting itself becomes the new popular standard. Ideas are the same. There is no innate necessity that an idea be TRUE in order to be popular. As it turns out, the truthfulness of an idea is only one of the criteria. Other factors play a prominent role (ease of tranfer, humour, topic interest, consistency with other ideas).

In the realm of health fads, a mathematical model of how a medical treatment spreads shows that "the most efficacious treatments are not necessarily those most likely to spread".

That's not to say that majority opinion is useless. Most people value truth. But popularity should never be the strongest piece of evidence forwarded to support a scientific claim.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Recent photos

My buds and I play pick-up hockey at a local rink. Here is what the rink caretaker was just finishing as we arrived.

We skated all over it, but it still looked great.

The gauges in our van act stupid when the weather gets cold. In this scene, the temperature gauge is cozying up to the fuel gauge. Either that, or we're about to blow a gasket.

(Note that my speed was 0km/h when the photo was taken.)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Robotic Scientist

Last night, I went to a public lecture entitled The Robotic Scientist: Mining Experimental Data for Scientific Laws, from Cognitive Robots to Computational Biology, by Hod Lipson (Cornell). It was all I had hoped for, and more.

I first heard about this work from a podcast episode. I thought it was cool enough to look up the original paper in the journal Science. Prof. Lipson's lab is using evolution (ie. genetic algorithms) to derive fundamental physical laws from raw data. For example, the figure below shows a double pendulum (a pendulum handing on the end of another pendulum). The graph shows motion-tracking data collected as the double pendulum did its thing. The formula on the right shows an invariant, a fundamental physical quantity that doesn't change, even if the data is doing loopty-loops. In this case, I think the invariant is energy. Invariants are important because they help to point out the general laws that govern how a system works.

In the talk, Lipson told the story of how this project came to be. It all started with using genetic algorithms to evolve simple virtual organisms crawling around in a simulated cyberworld. When they built real versions of these robots, they didn't work if they were to complex. That's because, the more complex the machine, the less realistic their simulations were. So they allowed their system to co-evolve the simulation and the behaviour. That is, they built a 4-legged robot that had 8 actuators and a motion sensor, but no idea what shape it was, or how the moving parts were put together. By performing its own "experiments", the robot soon learned how each of its actuators made it move, and ultimately taught itself to walk (video).

Lipson and his team decided to skip the robot part, and focus these evolutionary computing techniques on the simulation aspect alone. He gave a number of example systems that the program "discovered", like the double pendulum example above. They also solicited data from biology and physics and derived formulas for them. In a number of cases, they showed the formulas to the people who gave them the data, and it turned out to be stuff that was previously invented by famous scientists (for whom the formula was named). It took humans decades to discover what the computer derived in about a day of computing.

Of course, the really interesting question is what to make of the formulas that haven't been named yet? Perhaps their program is showing us something that we've not yet discovered. Hmmm... kinda makes you think.

The talk was part of the outreach program of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics... you know, your standard small-town theoretical physics think-tank.


Tuesday, February 2, 2010

59 Seconds: A book review

I just finished listening to an adiobook version of the book 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot by Richard Wiseman. Here is the review I submitted to

THE book for self-help seekers

My rating: 5 out of 5

I first heard of Richard Wiseman through the skeptical podcasts and blogs I frequent. And true to the skeptical point of view, this book is based on EVIDENCE. Indeed, evidence is front-and-centre right from the start. Every behavioural suggestion and piece of advice is backed by an experiment (a refreshing change from The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle). That's what separates this book from all the other self-help woo that's out there. Lots of books make claims that sound intuitive, but reality can often be very counter-intuitive. And this book has lots of examples. Here's one: praising children for their achievements can actually inhibit their progress by making them anxious about failure, while praising children for their effort encourages them to work hard and challenge themselves. Hmmm!

This audiobook is SO good, I went and bought the hardcover too.


Monday, February 1, 2010

What is ethical treatment of animals?

Today, in the PSYCH 261 lecture, the prof discussed research ethics. It was interesting to hear about some of the cases that prompted the whole concept of research ethics. For example, the Nazis performed horrific experiments on prisoners, and some labs have been charged with mistreating animal subjects. For example, the image below was part of a photo-essay in Life magazine in 1966.

©1966 Stan Wayman/Life

It prompted the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act of 1966, which regulates the sale of animals for research use, as well as enforces a minimum standard of care for laboratory animals.

When it comes to seeing an animal suffer, I'm just as squeamish and sympathetic as the next guy. But the whole discussion got me thinking. What does it really mean to suffer? What, exactly, is it that we're trying to accomplish with these regulations?

I'm totally on-board with preventing people from stealing family pets to sell them to labs. No issue there. What I'm confused about is the requirement that laboratory dogs should be allowed to exercise, and non-human primates be afforded "environmental enrichment". Is there a rationale for this? Or has science been hijacked by our human tendency to sympathize? After all, many species kill, dismember, paralyze and consume each other without any legislation at all. Is bacteria less alive than a monkey? We kill bacteria every day.