October 9, 2013

Academic Commentary via Digital Media (exploratory)

Here are four short features cross-posted from my micro-blog, Synthetic Daisies. They are all (in one form of another) commentary on various academic topics using either social media (blogs, bulletin boards) or simulations/games. These include Simulating Sub-second Social Movements (I), Angst-as-Commentary: the case of Evolutionary Psychology (II), Adaptability and Evolvability of Humans (III), and A Cognitively Dissonant Truth (IV).

I. Simulating Sub-second Social Movements

Here are two pieces of news about fluctuations in virtual financial markets. In the first [1], an ad-hoc experiment was done to verify whether or not BAWSAQ (an internal stock market in the video game GTA 5) is subject to collective behavior.

Normally, the stock markets in this game are dominated by random fluctuations, but occasionally fluctuations in stock values can be linked to insider trading events. 

But perhaps the BAWSAQ market is truly dynamic, responding a wider range of events (and player interactions) in the game world. To test this, players coordinated a stock dump using a subreddit for GTA Markets.

The results were negative, as there was no immediate response to a massive change in supply/demand. However, this does not preclude longer-term effects on the market. Is collective behavior present in other virtual markets? The recent takedown of the Silk Road online drug exchange provides the second example. 

As bitcoins are used for many illicit activities, their value is tied (in part) to these activities. Soon after Silk Road was shut down, values of Bitcoins on the Mt. Gox and Bitstamp exchanges experienced a severe but short-term crash [2].

In this case, short-term crash means that the currency's value plummeted and partially recovered after three hours. A bit less ultra-fast than a flash crash, but much more of an immediate effect than any potential fluctuations in the BAWSAQ.

II. Angst-as-Commentary: the case of EP

Here is a recent thread on angst-as-commentary surrounding the scientific merits of Evolutionary Psychology (EP). This particular thread was triggered by an online exchange between PZ Myers and Robert Kurzban [3]. PZ "despises" evolutionary psychology for reasons explicated in his discussion. Kurzban's response (as a representative of the field) is that PZ is expressing a visceral response to what has become representative of the EP field in most people's minds. 

While the field is indeed diverse (and apparently hard to find the boundaries of), this tendency for behavioral adaptationism and the defense of morally questionable behaviors as being innate is summarized in Annalee Newitz's provocatively-titled io9 column "Rise of the Evolutionary Psychology Douchebag" [4]. However, given the article's title and examples, it is unclear whether the douchebags in question are supposed to be all members of the EP community or just the people who have used EP to advance their own biased and misogynistic views of human nature. 

Are the alleged misdeeds and pseudo-scientific tendencies of EP really deserved? Jerry Coyne, while having his own problems with the field [5], feels that at least part of this angst comes from ideonational bias rooted in the nature vs. nurture wars of the 20th century. In PZ Myers' response, he argues that many of the research topics in EP are difficult to address using the methods generally employed by the researchers in question [6]. I'm sure this debate will continue for some time to come. 

In the end, it is hard to distinguish whether EP represents a strict adaptationist view of human behavior, or whether it is merely drawing on supposed analogues with the human past, or something more powerful. However, one issue here seems to be that the boundaries of EP are poorly defined. Biocultural anthropologists, primatologists, and social psychologists are lumped together without much regard to their relative contributions to the EP literature (or the noteriety of the EP reputation). Much like the lumpers and splitters of biological taxonomy, a reasoned critique (or defense) of EP should draw these lines more carefully.

III. Adaptability and Evolvability of Humans: new perspectives

Here are a number of posts related to the evolution and adaptability of humans, with particular relevance to cases where evolvability and adaptability runs up against its own limits. The first article [7] is an interview with David Attenborough, in which he argues that humans have stopped evolving. This has engendered some interesting responses from the blogosphere [8], and can be contrasted with molecular mechanisms that initially accelerated human evolution during the Pleistocene [9].

Are humans still evolving? And what are the implications of this question on generalized adaptive mechanisms (e.g. neuroplasticity). Perhaps there is an interplay between our adaptive capacity and technology (or ability to manipulate things [10]) that has driven human biological and cultural evolution. If so, is it reasonable to think that this trend will continue into the future [11]. Whether it resembles hereditary (e.g. Darwinian) evolution is another matter.

The next two articles look at two ways to view adaptability: as a generalized response to rapid fluctuations in the environment, and as a robust anatomical configuration. In the case of humans [12], it is argued that cultural innovations tied to rapid climate changes during the Pleistocene led to a high degree of adaptability in the our species.

But there are other ways for an organism to be highly adaptable, some on which can be useful lessons to technologists. In [13], the modular radial symmetry of the octopus and associated behaviors [14] are touted as a way to avoid the fragility inherent in centralized complex systems.

IV. A Cognitively Dissonant Truth

Here is a series of articles on the relationship (ranging from ambivalent to downright hostile) libertarians have with climate change. Is it simply driven by ideological bias, or is it simply another instance of (perhaps fashionable) denialism [15]? In [16], Jason Collins from Evolving Economics blog offers some first-impression thoughts on the phenomenon.

Massimo Pigliucci [17] explores this theme further, focusing on the philosophical underpinnings of the objections. He argues that climate change skepticism is largely based on a lack of evidence-based evaluation resulting from a violation of libertarian moral values.

Michael E. Mann [18] and George Monbiot [19] provide complementary explanations: the former is based on the rigidity of the economist's mindset, the latter is based on assumptions about property rights. The Mann explanation [19] arose from interviews with Nate Silver for his book "The Signal and the Noise".
Mann chief critique arises from Silver's naive cost-benefits analysis of the climate change, which does not take into account the true cost of carbon emissions nor the naturalistic and long-term perspectives of a climate scientist. In a manner similar to Pigliucci, Monbiot points to the rigidity of the libertarian (and conservative) views on property rights, and how effective climate change policy would violate the logic of this worldview.

[1] Roose, K.   GTA5 Players' Crazy Stock Scheme. Daily Intelligencer, October 2 (2013).

[2] McMillan, R.   Bitcoin values plummet $500M, then recover, after silk road bust. Wired, October 2 (2013).

[3] Myers, P.Z.   SkepChick EvoCon panel. Skepchick blog (2013).

Kurzban, R.   What Does PZ Myers Despise? Evolutionary Psychology blog, August 2 (2013).

[4] Newitz, A.   The Rise of the Evolutionary Psychology Douchebag. io9 Magazine, June 2 (2013).

[5] Coyne, J.   Another lame attack on evolutionary psychology. Why Evolution is True blog, September 1 (2013).

Myers, P.Z.  Jerry Coyne gets everything wrong, again. Pharyngula blog, September 1 (2013).

For background, read: Coyne, J.   Is Evolutionary Psychology Worthless? Why Evolution in True blog, December 10 (2012).

MetaFilter   An evolutionary psychology debate. February 4 (2009).

[6] On the other hand, part of this whole debate could be a fundamental miscommunication between academic fields (and challenges to their academic territory). Two painful examples of this: 

* Cognitive scientist critiquing Evolution: Blogginheads TV   Jerry Fodor vs. Elliott Sober. March 20 (2010).

* Evolutionary biologist critiques of Economics: Auld, C.   Anti-economist watch: David Sloan Wilson edition. Chris Auld blog, September 26 (2011). 

[7] Furness, H.   Sir David Attenborough: humans have stopped evolving. The Telegraph, September 10 (2013).

Read this interview in tandem with the following paper: Crabtree, G.   Our fragile intellect, Part II. Trends in Genetics, 29(1), 3-5 (2012). Then compare and contrast with [2] and [3].

* the map in the first figure is courtesy National Geographic Interactive.

[8] For one such example, see: Dunsworth, H.   We are not the boss of natural selection. It is unpwnable. Mermaid's Tale blog, September 13 (2013).

[9] Hawks, J.   Why Human Evolution Accelerated. John Hawks Weblog, December 12 (2007).

[10] Hashimoto, T., Ueno, K., Ogawa, A., Asamizuya, T., Suzuki, C., Cheng, K., Tanaka, M., Taoka, M., Iwamura, Y., Suwa, G., and Iriki, A.   Hand before foot? Cortical somatotopy suggests manual dexterity is primitive and evolved independently of bipedalism. Philosophiocal Transactions of the Royal Society B, 368, 20120417 (2013).

[11] For more on technologically-driven adaptability, check out proceedings of the h2.0 conference, sponsored by MIT in 2007.

[12] Massey, N.   Humans May Be Most Adaptive Species. Scientific American ClimateWire, September 25 (2013).

[13] Sagarin, R.   When Catastrophe Strikes, Emulate the Octopus. Wired, March 21 (2012).

[14] Mike Mike   Do octopuses play? Cephalove blog, July 27 (2010).

[15] Frank, A.   Welcome to the age of denial. NY Times Op-ed, August 21 (2013).

[16] Collins, J.   Climate Change and Libertarianism. Evolving Economics blog, September 9 (2013).

[17] Pigliucci, M.   Why do libertarians deny climate change? Rationally Speaking blog, May 27 (2010).

[18] Mann, M.E.   FiveThirtyEight: The Number of Things Nate Silver Gets Wrong About Climate Change. HuffPo Green, September 24 (2012).

[19] Monbiot, G.   Why libertarians must deny climate change, in one short take. George Monbiot's blog, January 26 (2012).

1 comment:

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