Archive for October, 2009

Oct 31 2009

Looking Closer (76) – In Metal We Trust

Published by under Looking Closer

mic penny60

Any idea what the above is?

Hints: The title, x60 magnification.

Answer below the fold.

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Oct 31 2009

The Nature – Nurture Relationship

Published by under psychology,science

For too long questions about the cause of human behaviors were phrased in the form of nature or nurture. Either innate characteristics (via genes) or learning experiences (environmental influences) were ultimately responsible.

But nature and nurture are not completely separate, conflicting entities, akin to fighting siblings. Thanks to such things as twin studies, an improved analogy would portray nature and nurture as close twins, both always on the spot, sometimes acting in opposition, sometimes enabling the other.

And speaking of twins, a number of twin studies has both helped to clarify the complicated relationship and also fueled controversial thinking about nature and nurture. Genetic studies, too, have had a say. A couple important points deserve highlighting.

1) Without nature there is nothing for nurture to guide and shape.

2) Nurture can actually change nature through epigenetic mechanisms.

A recent twin study into leadership behavior precipitated my thinking into this matter. The article, Do your children push the boundaries? It may be a sign of future leadership abilities study shows contained this summarizing statement:

The study adds more weight to the idea that leaders are raised more than they are born.

I wonder how helpful is the “nature/nurture more than nurture/nature” language. The two are so fully intertwined — in more ways than we currently comprehend, no doubt. Perhaps they ought to be viewed akin to conjoined twins that share one beating heart. How much sense does it make to separate them?

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Oct 30 2009

TGI Stream-of-Consciousness Friday


Look — a pair of balls.

Speaking of balls, how’s this for a crazy title for a science article:

French Male Bears In Immediate Need Of More Females

C’mon. The anthropomorphic sexual innuendo had to be intentional. Didn’t it?

Innuendo. That’s an odd word. Like the bears, is it also French?

Nope. This from The Online Etymology Dictionary:

1678, “oblique hint, indiscreet suggestion,” usually a depreciatory one, from L. innuendo “by meaning, pointing to,” lit. “giving a nod to,” abl. of ger. of innuere “to mean, signify,” lit. “to nod to,” from in- “at” + nuere “to nod.”

Well, that was fun for me. I hope it was fun for you.

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Oct 30 2009

Knowing the Knower’s Natural Ignorance

To a significant degree, scientific methodology developed as a consequence of the aspiring knower becoming better known. More specifically, as it became clear how imperfect the human mind is at apprehending the universe in an unassisted mode, ways to make human knowledge more accurate and dependable were devised.

Hmm. It seems prophecy is not better than chance at determining what will happen. Better to make predictions, test and measure.

Hmm. It seems that overt and covert expectations influence perception and even measurement. Better single blind that test. Better yet, double blind. And add a control group.

That people still maintain faith in unassisted cognition — “I just know it” — baffles me. Have they no knowledge of human psychology. Those who believe in the paranormal and the supernatural have not learned the just because intuitions and the whisperings of gods seem to be true and feel true — that doesn’t mean they are true.

If only our minds were infallible at apprehending truth. But that is not the case. In the following psychological studies we catch get a glimpse at three of the ways the human mind can be pushed of course without the knower knowing it.

1) Words influencing self-control

In Candy bar or healthy snack? Free choice not as free as we think, Juliano Laran from the University of Miami conducted a couple experiments, one on snack choice. He -

tested subjects to determine how certain words and concepts affected consumers’ decisions for self-control or indulgence. He found that consumer choices were affected by the actions most recently suggested to them by certain key words.

Two groups of subjects played a word game. For one group, the word-scramble game generated results suggesting indulgence or self-control. The results of the blinded study show:

Participants who unscrambled sentences associated with indulgence were more likely to choose an indulgent snack to be consumed right now but a healthy snack to be consumed in the future.”

2) Transient sensation influencing judgment

In an ingenious study, as told by the article, The Link Between Weight And Importance, Nils Jostmann and his colleagues at the University of Amsterdam tested whether the mere holding of an item, heavier or lighter, could influencing the cognition of subjects. The answer: yes.

In a series of experiments, volunteers held clipboards, some heavy and some light. While doing so, they were asked to fill out a number of questionnaires. In one study, they were asked to estimate the value of various foreign currencies and indeed, the researchers found that those with the heavy clipboard saw the money as more valuable and important.

The researchers also tested the effects of weight on the more abstract idea of justice. Volunteers (still holding their clipboards) were presented with a fictional scenario in which students were deliberately excluded from an important university decision, and were asked how important it was for them to have a voice at the table. Those with the heavier clipboards saw the exclusion of the students as a more important justice issue than did those with a lighter load.

3) Success or failure influencing perception

Jessica Witt, in a study published by the online journal, Perception, shared the results of her study into how the results of a task can influence an individual’s perception of it. She had non-athletes attempt to kick a short field goal.

Study participants who missed because they kicked the ball too wide judged the goal to be narrower, and those who missed because they kicked the ball too short judged the goal to be taller.

Conclusion: Thinking can be readily influenced by all sorts of things, many beyond conscious awareness. Left to his/her “natural,” unassisted thinking, the knower is imperfect. Science can help us move in the direction of perfection. Thanks to it, we can know the world with greater accuracy and reliability.

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Oct 29 2009

Looking Farther (58) – Far-Out Thoughts

Published by under Looking Farther

LaSuperba parkercarboni c800

When looking up at stars in the night sky, you are, in a sense, looking at the past. For the light that smacks into your retinas left the closest of those stars more than 4 years ago!

That’s far-out. But don’t think too hard about it. You might need to comfort yourself with a bag of Doritos. Or something.

[photo thanks to NASA]

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Oct 29 2009

Science and the Limits of Common Sense

Here’s a research finding on teen behavior that might elicit this response from people: “Well that’s just common sense!”

A new study using brain imaging to study teen behavior indicates that adolescents who engage in dangerous activities have frontal white matter tracts that are less adult in form than their more conservative peers. [bold added]

A pet peeve of mine is when people refer to common sense as some sort of magical conduit to correct answers. It’s common sense!

As for the above research finding, I pulled a fast one. For the actual finding, replace the bold “less” with “more.”

Huh!? Teen brains more adult in form have been associated with riskier behavior? Well that’s not common sense.

While common sense may equip us with a fast, unschooled hunches as to what is true and right and what is not, it has limits. Sometimes those limits are outright intellectually crippling. Fortunately, science is not thus confined. In extreme cases, such as relativity and quantum theories — science will provide us with a knowledge that violently violates unschooled hunches. In less extreme cases we should likewise put greater trust in science.

On my page, “The Two Arms and Four Elements of Science,” I included these thoughts about common sense:

If considered to be inborn knowledge or reasoning ability, there is probably no such thing as common sense. What we call common sense usually refers to basic ideas and knowledge acquired through exposure to a culture. Common sense is thus relative to a culture. (For example, most people in our country would consider it common sense for a woman to avoid walking city streets alone at night. For a woman living in Tokyo, a very safe city, this might not be considered common sense.) Frequently, when a case is based on an appeal to common sense, it reflects common assumptions.

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Oct 28 2009

Symmetry and Beauty

Published by under nature photos


A number of psychological studies have found that humans prefer symmetrical faces. These faces are overwhelmingly perceived as beautiful. In fact, a computer-generated “average” face tends to be rated as slam-dunk handsome/pretty. Near-perfect symmetry is likely the reason.

What is it about symmetry that appeals to the human mind? Among animals, symmetrical development has been found to accurately reflect healthy development. One ear larger than the other . . . what happened? Do you want mate with the individual that has experienced a compromised development? What might that mean for potential offspring?

Does a similar cognitive process play a role in what we perceive as ideal, whether it be a rose or a piece of fruit in the grocery store?

I wonder.

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Oct 28 2009

Status, Small Talk, and Praising God

Published by under An Almighty Alpha

As mentioned in previous “Almighty Alpha” posts, small talk plays a huge role in human social behavior. On the most fundamental level, our vocalizations transmit basic emotional messages: I like you; I am fearful; I am angry, etc. Beyond the non-verbal elements of our seeming non-purposeful chit-chat, there is the exchange of information.

“Language has an additional benefit invaluable in these circumstances. It allows us to exchange information about other people, so short-circuiting the laborious process of finding out how they behave. For monkeys and apes, all this has to be done by direct observation.” (70)

A sizable portion of human small talk consist of overt or implied statements like, “So-and-so is really nice,” or, “So-and-so is a complete jerk.” The unspoken response might be, “Well thanks for the heads-up.”

Of course, we now live in outrageously large social circles, so any information exchanged, on, say, the behavior of Michael Jackson’s family post-MJ’s death will strike many as small talk to the tritest degree. Yet our current social world — of knowing about people who we will never encounter in real life — is a relatively new one. How odd. To exchange information about the behavior of individuals you don’t really need to know about. But you don’t need to be in-the-know simply because you will never encounter them. You will never need clues about how they might behave and relate to you. For individuals in your immediate social environment — that can be pretty handy information. And the cost of acquiring that information is very small, relative to the potential payoff. And so we habitually exchange it.

If, for example, I hear that Bob double-crossed someone, the next time I encounter Bob I will be on the lookout for deceit.

But here we are highlighting only one aspect of small-talk, or what I would call verbal grooming. As Christopher Boem, author of Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior, has noted:

“Gossiping . . . . amounts to a covert exercise in information processing–as well as a satisfying and recurrent social activity.”(71)

It is my assertion that the attractively satisfying element of small talk is hugely important. Think of the good feelings generated by spending time with friends. Is the enjoyable chit-chat the result of strong pair-bonding, or do they give pair-bonding its strength? It seems to me that small talk serves the following three functions (at least):

1. It helps people form and maintain harmonious relations. Rather than physically grooming other individuals, we say pleasant things about them and/or respond agreeably to statements about third parties. It brings good feelings.

2. It allows for the potentially important exchange of information about others. Whether the subjects are inside your present social circle or outside it, you learn about the experiences and character of others. These are important as they may relate to what you can expect from that person, would you encounter them and/or consider entering into a relationship with them.

3. Small talk plays a role in determining the status of group members. When an individual gets complimented and “talked up” within a group, their status rises. When they are criticized and “talked down” within a group, their status falls.

It is this third element that is particularly essential to many religious behaviors and rituals. Via their talk about their god, about their most high alpha — lessers attempt to establish and maintain the position of their greatest.

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Oct 28 2009

Reboot Needed for the Mind Infected with Religion

Published by under humor,religion

This new episode of Mr. Deity is my favorite to date. Well done.

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Oct 28 2009

Why Boys Don’t Cry

Published by under psychology

An Interesting new research finding (with speculations) on crying hit my desk a couple months ago. The article begins fairly ho-hum, before getting interesting:

Medically, crying is known to be a symptom of physical pain or stress. But now a Tel Aviv University evolutionary biologist looks to empirical evidence showing that tears have emotional benefits and can make interpersonal relationships stronger.

Okay — that seems almost status-quo for current knowledge, at least of the pop-psychology variety. And, unfortunately, also in line with pop-psychology, the article didn’t share much about how the enlightening data was generated and analyzed, besides mentioning in passing that “multiple studies across cultures show…” All we learn is that the study author, Oren Hasson, “investigated the use of tears in various emotional and social circumstances. ” Um, just how was the investigation conducted? Minus 50 points for leaving that essential bit of information out.

Where the article gets interesting is when it transitions into evolutionary biology/psychology. Perhaps that is precisely when it gets speculative. But we can’t make that determination if the data source is left out of the picture. Anyway -

“Crying is a highly evolved behavior,” explains Dr. Hasson. “Tears give clues and reliable information about submission, needs and social attachments between one another. My research is trying to answer what the evolutionary reasons are for having emotional tears.

“My analysis suggests that by blurring vision, tears lower defences and reliably function as signals of submission, a cry for help, and even in a mutual display of attachment and as a group display of cohesion,” he reports.

Hmm. Tears as a submissive signal. As a white flag of surrender when under stress. As a display of an individual’s harmless intent, yet continued interest in a relationship. Of their need for assistance, even.

Hmm. When fathers tell their young male offspring, “boys don’t cry,” are they really saying that males with aspirations of dominance don’t cry?

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