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Weekly links

Instead of posting groups of links as I see fit, I’m going to experiment with compiling everything and making one post during the weekend.

https://nadiaeghbal.com/ideas — highly recommended. I love finding blogs written by thoughtful people working in private industry.

https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2019/05/dept-of-uh-oh-college-and-mobility-edition.html

https://theconcourse.deadspin.com/an-interview-with-a-man-who-eats-leftover-food-from-str-1834424806 —This is just silly.

https://medium.com/@russroberts/do-the-rich-capture-all-the-gains-from-economic-growth-c96d93101f9c?sk=0e4f1f8aba0dcb0674bdf34af8b3ec08 — not entirely convincing due to limited scope of data and lack of control for “regional inflation” (scare quotes because I am making up the term. It may or may not be a legitimate economic concept).

http://freakonomics.com/podcast/student-debt/ — The episode gets away from student debt towards the end when Dubner is just questioning Daniels on his political career, but it is still a good episode. Income share agreements look promising as a way to improve how people pay for college. Yet, they are not without detractors. No matter your stance on the degree to which private industry should get involved, it’s hard to argue against ISAs being a better form of financing college rather than debt.

Reader Response

A friend of mine penned a response to my post calling for a dramatic expansion of universities to put a dent in inequality. It’s reproduced below with his permission.

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While expanding access to large public institutions (such as UCLA) is certainly one method of improving social mobility in a society, the sheer size of such institutions unfortunately inhibits many of the extremely positive attributes that smaller, typically private institutions have. There are two primary reasons for this.

First, social capital – in the form of close bonds to alumni, professors, and peers – is much harder to achieve at large public institutions, partly because the number of alumni, professors, and students leads to a diminished sense of individual ownership and investment in the institution; large public universities don’t need your involvement to succeed since there are so many other successful alumni, whereas a small college can only succeed if every alumni is engaged and giving back, forcing greater effort on both the institution’s part and on the part of its constituents. This fosters a greater number of connections in general and, more importantly, a greater number of close connections, which have a strong tendency of leading to explicit financial benefits – internships, jobs, and investments – as well as benefits that simply improve quality of life, such as meaningful friendships and relationships. Individualized attention in the form of mentorship, guidance, and connection is incredibly difficult to achieve on a large institutional scale (i.e. auditorium-size classes) but much more doable on a small scale – this is also the reason why large conferences tend to be less impactful than intimate retreats.

Second, homogeneous cultures and rigid operating procedures typical of larger institutions limit innovation. Large public institutions have many more moving parts and immense oversight given the brand names they carry (and the huge amount of public funding they receive), meaning that they are unable to move quickly when student needs rapidly change.

Instead of expanding our large public institutions, states might find it more advantageous to fund small, highly-specialized public institutions with independent cultures and operating procedures. These small institutions could operate in a consortium model with other small public institutions nearby (i.e. the Claremont model or the Babson/Olin/Wellesley model), sharing resources while maintaining institutional independence and nimbleness. Public university systems could thus reap the benefits typically found at exclusive liberal arts institutions while maintaining a high level of scale and accessibility.

————

I have to admit, the consortium model did not cross my mind when I wrote my piece. The five C’s and Babson/Olin/Wellesley are all thriving institutions, so it’s worth examining whether their construction allows us to get the best of both educational access and quality.

Thoughts on Slowness

There’s plenty of material out there that tells us to take our foot off the gas and apply the breaks, or at least coast. In fact, so much has been written about “taking a breath” or “reflecting” that the terms are in danger of losing their potency. We all know how mentally and physically damaging it is to be busy all of the time, but my own anecdotal evidence doesn’t support anyone taking this advice to heart among the surfeit of articles/podcasts/talks telling us chill for a second.

This is a shame because while busyness may make us better at something in some narrow sense, I think it makes us less interesting on the whole. When I am my busiest, I understand I am not a person capable of having an a good conversation with anyone, not necessarily for lack of time, but mental resources. My mind is always elsewhere, and this makes me about as engaging conversationally as a distracted cat or someone desperately trying resist the effects of anesthesia.

Yet, this post is about slowness, not busyness. The two are related, for sure, but I’d like to talk about the two types of slowness I have observed.

First is a kind of phenomenal slowness. [1] This is the sort you may experience lounging by the pool on a vacation, or just after you’ve woken up to a damp foggy morning while camping. It is characterized by feeling as if the world has actually slowed down, or you are in such a state that your corner of it is moving at a suitable pace regardless of what’s happening elsewhere. You can also describe this as the feeling that accompanies relaxation, content boredom, or general downtime. Crucially, it is not the same as grogginess or exhaustion, two other states in which we may feel “slow.” Phenomenal slowness is always a welcome feeling. I imagine it’s the state monks and people that have flip phones live in.

The second type is historical slowness. Historical slowness is the fact that most important things happen very slowly relative to our own lives. These things can have global significance, such as shifting demographics, the formation of national policy, or wars. We’re still attempting to desegregate schools more than sixty years after Brown v Board of Education, and religious influences from as far back as the 19th century are able to influence current levels of literacy [2]. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and even on a personal level, neither are relationships, bodies of knowledge, or skills. Friendships are created with consistent interaction over sustained periods of time. Trust is built much the same way. Likewise, we don’t skim a Wikipedia page and have any deep knowledge on a particular subject. That takes lots of reading, practice, reflection, and time.

Phenomenal slowness is a mental state and historical slowness is a concept, but I think there’s a relationship between them. Being familiar with historical slowness can make you more likely to experience its phenomenal cousin. Recognizing everything important moves slowly, even things in your own life, releases pressure on your time. If the maximum rate important things can move during a given stretch of time is low, then there is no reason to use a lot of that time for the important thing. It is futile, even irrational to expend more time. Historical slowness dictates that things only move so fast, so you’re better off doing other activities, like those that lead to phenomenal slowness. Taking a walk or a break can be the direct the result of the knowledge that the opportunity cost of your time isn’t all that high.

It’s possible you can have historical slowness without phenomenal slowness, or vice-versa, but I do think one begets the other. Overall, I think slowness in all its forms is an underrated concept, no matter how many NYTimes smarter living stories are written on how we need to chill the hell out.

[1] Phenomenal in the sense it is perceived through experience.

[2] There’s another paper I remember that studied the placement of churches in (I think) 17th century Brazil or another Latin American country and established a causal relationship between those institutions and contemporary earnings/literacy. I can’t find it at the moment, but I think it’s another good example.

More admissions foolery

UCLA conducted an internal report on quid-pro-quo athletic admissions way back in 2014.

It looks a lot like what happened last March. Underqualified athletes, large sums of money, a lack of transparency in the athletic admissions department. Hell, even Rick Singer was implicated. He was quoted in the report trying to claim money does not influence the application process.

The only difference this time is that the donations found their way into university accounts as opposed to sham charities or the pockets of coaches. This is why nobody received more than a slap on the wrist and no laws were broken.

Colonial Massachusetts education facts of the day

All of the following is from David Labaree’s Someone Has to Fail which I am working through now. All emphasis is added.

Only in new England was there a systematic effort by colonial governments to establish schools for all (white) members of a community. Boston established a public Latin school in 1635, only fifteen years after the Mayflower, and Harvard College was chartered in 1636. In 1647, the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a law requiring that towns of a certain size should establish a primary school and that larger towns should also establish a grammar school. Other colonies in New England gradually followed suit by requiring the public provision of schooling in local communities.

And:

These efforts to provide education in the American colonies had a significant impact on the literacy of the population, especially in New England. […] male literacy in New England reached 60 percent in 1660, 70 percent in 1710, 85 percent in 1760, and 90 percent in 1790. In contrast, male literacy among non-slaves in other colonies remained constant at around 67 percent throughout the 1700s. This was slightly higher than estimates for male literacy in England during the same period, which hovered around 60 percent, but markedly lower than New England, which may have been the first region in the world to achieve something approaching universal literacy in its white male population. [1]

Also:

[…] the major factor that promoted schooling in New England during this period was the intensity of the community’s commitment to the Protestant religion, especially the Puritan version that characterized the original English immigrants to the region.

[…]

At the core of the Protestant faith —especially the Calvinist version— was the belief that worshipers had a direct connection to God, which, in contrast with the Catholic belief, was not mediated by the church and its priesthood. As a result, the faithful could not afford to be left illiterate, which would make them dependent on a literate clergy to interpret and transmit the gospel. Instead they needed direct access to the word of God in order to maintain their faith, and this required learning how to read. Therefore, at the heart of the push for schooling in colonial America was a profoundly conservative vision of education’s mission: to preserve piety and maintain the faith.

For all of the criticism that religion endures in some circles, it was directly responsible for the emphasis on education that set the stage for America to become a wealthy industrialized nation.

Louis Vuitton Education

In light of the college admissions scandal, I’ve been thinking about the roles we expect our educational institutions to fulfill. We are repulsed by the those who sought to lie, bribe, and cheat their way into schools because we see education as a tool of social mobility. Typical American success stories often look like an immigrant/child of immigrants working their way through the educational system during their youth to land at an elite college with a ticket to the upper-middle class. Think Ben Carson or Shaan Patel.

Yet, why should we reasonably expect top-tier private universities to give economic opportunities to those that need them the most? It is true they have a moral/civic obligation to do so, but it does not fall exactly in line with their demonstrated goals. Big name schools want to retain prestige and power while doing what is necessary to avoid scrutiny.

This corresponds to what I will call the “Louis Vuitton” theory of higher education (stolen from Malcolm Gladwell in a conversation with Tyler Cowen).

Restricting supply is a surefire way to increase the price/value of a product if you’re a monopoly, or participate in what economists call “monopolistic competition,” which is what happens if you sell differentiated products of the same type. Louis Vuitton could sell many more bags than it already does, but then it would charge lower prices and be in the “commodity bad business” as Gladwell quips. Any monopolist knows she will make more money by reducing the accessibility of the product and waiting for the price to rise. This benefits consumers as well, if they can get their hands on a bag. Gladwell, and others, surely understands that part of the thrill of owning a luxury item is knowing few others have it. It’s the reason fashion companies charge exorbitant amounts for their products and destroy unsold merchandise.

I’m going to pick on Harvard. It’s safe to assume it wants to remain the best, most prestigious university in the world. Yet, prestige is inversely proportional to access. The reason why a Harvard undergraduate degree is so valuable is due in part because 96% of students who apply to get one do not. Any increase in the number of degrees awarded would decrease their value. Imagine if Harvard enrolled as many undergraduates as Ohio State or the University of Florida. 45,000 other students in your graduating class would surely put downward pressure on the perceived prestige of your degree.

Harvard, and other elite private universities, are “in the luxury handbag business, not the education business” according to Gladwell. This is the reason why enrollments are small and the price to get in —whether you’re paying indirectly by living in a good school district, paying private school tuition, hiring tutors, or bribing— is high. On the flipside, this confers huge benefits in the form of better future earnings prospects and increased social status to those that can finesse their way into a hyper-selective institution.

When you recognize some colleges behave like fashion houses, it seems downright irrational to expect elite private institutions to provide social mobility for Americans on the scale we desire. Even if they do commit to increasing the proportion of low-income undergraduates under threat of having their federal funding pulled, increasing percentages can only get you so far. There are still no incentives for these schools to dramatically increase their access.

It’s not like Harvard faces non-brand related barriers to expanding its educational reach, either. UCLA has an undergraduate enrollment of 32,000 on a campus of 419 acres. Harvard’s 6,500 undergraduates roam 567 acres, meaning space is definitely not an issue (UCLA is actually building even more dorms outside my window right now). Money is another restraint, to be sure, but I’d be skeptical of any financial excuses from a university that has a $40 billion endowment and just closed a $9.6 billion fundraising campaign. Yet, Harvard retains the status quo for the same reason LV doesn’t open a surplus store. You have to protect the brand.

Suppose Harvard increases the percentage of undergraduates from the bottom 20% of the income distribution to 25%, from where it currently stands at 4.5%. This is a jump from 292 to 1625 students from the bottom quintile of income. These numbers may seem impressive until you consider UCLA already educates 2656 students in the same economic bracket without having to undergo any significant demographic change in their undergraduate population.

Given, UCLA and other public universities are about five times as large their private elite counterparts, but this is exactly my point. I’ve written in the past about the educational limitations of massive public universities —and I stand by those views— but it appears institutions like those making up the University of California or the SUNY/CUNY system are the ones we should be paying attention to if we want the average American to be able to exercise some type of economic mobility. They do not fall prey to Louis Vuitton incentives and seem to understand they are providing a public good which entails occasional dings to their prestige. It’s never sexy to build bridges or roads or educate a poor student body, but nobody will argue these activities don’t serve vital long-term economic functions.

Public institutions actually have a chance of touching enough students to make anything resembling a dent in income inequality, and they’re good at it. In data compiled by the NY Times, 8 out of the top 10 colleges nationally with the highest social mobility index are public (Vaugh college, what I linked to, is private, but scroll down to the social mobility index row and click “all colleges” on the right hand side to see the top 10). Students going to these universities aren’t discussing heady political theory in an Ivy League seminar room, but the economic expected value of the average low-income individual applying to the City College of New York is much higher than submitting to Brown or Dartmouth.  

Dylan Mathews, writing for Vox, seems to recognize what a school that’s serious about social mobility would look like when he throws out that Harvard should double, or nearly triple its undergraduate enrollment to move the needle on poverty. The implicit statement is that a high percentage of low-income students is not enough, but an independently large number of such students must be graduating every year. Yet, some well-placed italics in the preceding clause, “if [Harvard] really wanted to expand the school’s impact on poverty and mobility,” indicate that he understands the Louis Vuitton mentality in higher education more than most. Mathews’ statement is a throwaway bit in an article about making a bad system transparent, but not better, by auctioning off spots to Ivies and the like. Princeton could accept these legal or illegal admission payments in ExxonMobil stock or bitcoin for all I care. Large public universities are the real engine of social mobility in the America. They are the way to realize the visions of opportunity we irrationally vest in private institutions.

[]'s take on the education system

Great little interview with a psychologist on how he believes our education system is failing us.  

To be honest, you’ve probably heard it all before if you’re a current or recent student. Our collective obsession with standardized tests has crowded out the focus we should be providing on qualities like creativity, practical problem-solving, and ethical reasoning.

Even though I’ve heard people give the same diagnoses for our educational system, this article was interesting in part because the interviewee, Robert Sternberg, claimed that we should add wisdom to the list of skills —like creativity— that should be taught in school. It made my ears perk up to hear this coming from a bona fide scientist rather than a philosopher or cultural critic. An excerpt:

(bold is the questioner)

Our overemphasis on narrow academic skills—the kinds that get you high grades in school—can be a bad thing for several reasons. You end up with people who are good at taking tests and fiddling with phones and computers, and those are good skills, but they are not tantamount to the skills we need to make the world a better place.

[…]

Do we know how to cultivate wisdom?
Yes, we do. A whole bunch of my colleagues and I study wisdom. Wisdom is about using your abilities and knowledge not just for your own selfish ends and for people like you. It’s about using them to help achieve a common good by balancing your own interests with other people’s and with high-order interests through the infusion of positive ethical values.

The division between technical competencies and a type of “soft” reasoning ability reminds me of a distinction that philosophers have made for centuries. In a nutshell, there are two types of reasoning, or “rationalities:” Instrumental and intrinsic. Instrumental rationality concerns itself with selecting the best means to achieve a given end. For example, the road tripper who is figuring out the best arrangement to pack her gear in her trunk so everything will fit is exercising instrumental rationality. Intrinsic rationality deals with setting the goals/ends an actor may strive towards. If the same road tripper deliberates between driving to Yosemite or Las Vegas, she exercises intrinsic rationality in weighing how much she values sweeping vistas of mountains and forests versus casinos.

In this view, the critique against modern schooling seems to be that we’re getting really good at cultivating certain types of instrumental thinking in students, but are ignoring all things intrinsic. Students may be damn good on the ACT, but they can’t be counted on to think ethically or make value judgements unless those are already given. This, coupled with the fact that the institutions our students spend the majority their time in tend to emphasize performance and prestige above all else, leads to an environment that is successful at producing “people who are very good at advancing themselves, often at other people’s expense,” according to Sternberg.

Obviously, this needs to change, but the conversation gets weird to me when we look hard about how Sternberg conceives of the “ethical reasoning” that seems to be part of his conception of wisdom. Rather than describe something that resembles reasoning about ethics and morals, he seems to say we should take those as givens and think about how to implement them.  

Basically, ethical reasoning involves eight steps: [1] seeing that there’s a problem to deal with (say, you see your roommate cheat on an assignment); [2] identifying it as an ethical problem; [3] seeing it as a large enough problem to be worth your attention (it’s not like he’s just one mile over the speed limit); [4] seeing it as personally relevant; [5] thinking about what ethical rules apply; [6] thinking about how to apply them; [7] thinking, “What are the consequences of acting ethically?”—because people who act ethically usually don’t get rewarded; [8] and, finally, acting. What I’ve argued is that ethical reasoning is really hard. Most people don’t make it through all eight steps.

(numbers added)

This is beginning to look a lot like the instrumental rationality that we’re trying to escape from, especially the “what’s in it for me?” mentality that sneaks through in step 7. Sternberg seems to think our students are receiving the correct ethical principles already, and following an 8-point plan is all that is necessary. This description of what needs to happen doesn’t quite explain the presence of the social ills he wants to combat, unless you believe that people do have socially constructive values, but something goes wrong in the Sternberg 8-point™ plan so they never end up acting on them. This is possible, but it is much easier to explain the same phenomena as originating from deficient values/lack thereof as opposed to thinking everyone is a saint on the inside but can’t make the connection between [4] and [5], for example.

In any common-sense conception of wisdom, critical thinking plays a large part. Questioning the “ends” is part of what makes intrinsic rationality such an interesting concept, and potentially useful (instrumental — hah!) in achieving what Sternberg wants to. Rather than banking on our educational institutions to provide us with the correct values off the bat, we can task our students to engage in a little bit of intrinsic rationality and interrogate the ideas they come across. Hopefully, after reflection and a bit of adolescent angst, they arrive on the side of altruism, curiosity, civic engagement, and a deep concern for the well-being of the world, rather than the tribalism Sternberg describes.

Perhaps Sternberg is using “wisdom” and in a sense different than mine, but I’ll claim his idea of it doesn’t look like the wisdom we want. Part of wisdom is indeed using your “abilities not just for your own selfish ends,” yet, the decision to be altruistic must be a result of autonomous reasoning as opposed to the internalization of dogma that only happens to be constructive

Bullshit and Ideology + a little about swedish politics

A study I came across today courtesy of MR.

Swedish researchers mapped the relationship between political ideology and receptivity to bullshit. I’ll let the abstract speak for itself.

Among Swedish adults (N = 985), bullshit receptivity was (a) robustly positively associated with socially conservative (vs. liberal) self-placement, resistance to change, and particularly binding moral intuitions (loyalty, authority, purity); (b) associated with centrism on preference for equality and even leftism (when controlling for other aspects of ideology) on economic ideology self-placement; and (c) lowest among right-of-center social liberal voters and highest among left-wing green voters

(emphasis added)

Note the study happened in Sweden, not the United States. This is actually part of why they were able look into bullshit receptivity as it relates to social versus economic liberal/conservative beliefs. Apparently, Sweden has a varied political field with parties that range the social and economic political spectrum (probably like the rest of Europe, but it’s funny thinking about this as an American).

From the study. What variation!

From the study. What variation!

This allowed them to compare results between social conservatives that may have different economic perspectives, and really try to isolate if a tendency is closely associated with a specific political viewpoint.

The article is also good for a brief review of the literature surrounding a lot of this type of reserach. There’s a lot of recent psychological work that is focuses on an individual’s epistemic style (need for certainty, order, tends to reason intuitively, etc) and moral judgements that is covered.

Some interesting things I came across:

insofar as a certainty- and security-oriented epistemic style is associated with a lack of analytic, deliberative forms of thinking (Jost & Krochik, 2014), this account predicts that bullshit receptivity is associated with right-wing ideology in the social domain but with left-wing ideology in the economic domain, particularly among persons low in political engagement.

The reasoning is that those in need of epistemic certainty will tend to process issues of economic policy through a personal lens, and prefer laws that can give financial security to a greater portion of the population.

Pfattheicher and Schindler (2016) found that bullshit receptivity predicted general conservative self- placement and favorable ratings of Republican presidential candidates (especially Ted Cruz) in the United States

The study also confirms, through claiming bullshit receptivity was highest among green voters, anecdotal beliefs about the level of self-reflection members of far-left parties may engage in on a daily basis.

Green party (which is on the left) stood out in terms of their belief in alternative medicine (including acu- puncture, energy healing, and homeopathy), astrology, anthroposophy (Waldorf education and biodynamic growth), electric allergy, paranormal phenomena, and the moon land- ing conspiracy theory, although they had strong faith in the scientific method, the theory of evolution, and the reality of global warming

This description seems to recall images of young, LA/West Coast liberals that love to proselytize progressive views but will also try to convince you of the predictive powers of astrology. We may make fun of conservatives believing in “Q” or the deep state, but having faith in healing crystals is equally epistemologically irresponsible to me.

The Efference Copy Paper

Here is the paper I wrote while doing a little bit of research on efference copies. Each sentence was restricted to fewer than 17 words. While trying to stay under the limit makes for slow going, it’s a rewarding exercise. The sentences end up sounding a bit simple, but the primary purpose of any paper is to be understood. After that, you can worry about trying to dazzle a reader with your insights (or confuse them into believing you have any).

Efference and Objectification

Perception begins with bugs. Spiders, praying mantises, and bees have all demonstrated the ability to perceive the world around them.[1] This is impressive. It prods us to reconsider which species have perceptual capabilities similar to our own. Yet, there remains a high standard of proof for attributing perception. The existence of efference copies in simple organisms appears to be evidence of perceptual ability. If this is correct, types of worms and slugs will be granted perception. Close examination suggests this conclusion is misguided. The existence of efference copies alone is not a sufficient mark of perception.

We check if organisms have perception by seeing if they exhibit perceptual constancies. A perceptual constancy is an ability. Imagine I have a red water bottle. The top half is in sunlight, while the other half is in shade. Therefore, the top appears a light red, while the bottom looks darker. The human visual system attributes the same shade of red to the entire bottle. This happens despite it looking like it is two different shades of red. The ability to do this is a perceptual constancy. The visual system can attribute the same redness despite different kinds of light hitting the eye. This light is called the “proximal stimulus” and is registered the moment it strikes retinal sensors. For example, the two halves of the bottle cause different registrations of proximal stimulus. In realizing a perceptual constancy, the visual system also engages in “objectification.”[2] It picks out elements in the proximal stimulus relevant to the object. It also ignores elements specific to its perspective of the object. In terms of the example, the visual system did two things in exercising objectification. First, it identified which parts of the registered stimulus were due to the bottle’s redness. Second, it discarded parts caused by circumstantial factors like shade and perspective.

Using the new vocabulary, an explanation of perceptual constancies takes shape. A perceptual constancy is the ability to represent accurately despite variation in registrations of proximal stimulus. The thing represented can be a particular or an attribute.[3] Objectification also happens if and only if there are perceptual constancies. Therefore, it is a reliable indicator of perceptual constancies, and thus perception.[4]

Some maintain organisms like the nematode worm exhibit objectification, as evidenced through efference copies. Efference copies arise to handle conflicting behavior associated with sensory input. When tactile sensors in the head of the worm are stimulated, it moves backward. If similar sensors are activated in its tail, it moves forward. The result is a cruel dilemma. Moving forward stimulates its head sensors, inducing backward movement. Backward movement stimulates its tail sensors, triggering forward movement. Under these circumstances, the poor worm would be unable to move meaningfully in either direction. Fortunately, its sensory system, and those like it, has overcome the problem. Imagine the worm receives stimulus from its tail and activates the move forward reflex. To avoid the feedback loop described, the activation sends an efference copy to the sensory system. This copy functions as a report to the rest of the organism. It indicates that the worm is moving forward.[5] Therefore, any stimulation of head sensors is due to movement, not obstacles or predators. The activation of the second, move-backward reflex is then inhibited, allowing the worm to travel peacefully.

Supporters claim the worm’s sensory system discriminates between different types of proximal stimulus. Due to the efference copy, the worm “knows” further stimulus is caused by its own movement. This amounts to a type of separation between stimulus caused by distal objects versus circumstantial factors.[6] The result is to inform appropriate worm behavior. Efference copies, it seems, are evidence of objectification.

We can call what happens in the worm “objectification.” Yet, it bears little relation to the stronger kind displayed in perceptual constancies. There is a high standard for marking processes as perceptual objectification. It is set in the science of visual psychology.

Scientists explain the natural world. Good explanations implicate only what is necessary to explain the phenomena in question, and no more. Imagine frogs croaking in a pond. We can explain their croaks as plangent pleas to a wizard to retransform them into humans. This is unlikely. Nothing about the croaks suggests the presence of magic or that the frogs were once human. An explanation that doesn’t posit the existence of wizards and animal-human transmutation would suffice. Viewing the croaks as mating calls is simpler, and does the same explanatory work. It fits with our existing biological knowledge. Scientists would have to be presented with compelling circumstances to resort to the anthro-amphibian explanation. Perhaps the croaks sound like “help” and wizards were spotted in the area. Otherwise, the mating call description remains the most likely to be accurate.

Visual psychologists must settle on explanations of animal behavior. Behaviors can often be explained in terms of the proximal stimulus and an animals’ neurology. This is in contrast to explanations that implicate objectification or perception. Consider olfactory navigation by salmon. We can sufficiently explain how they traverse oceans back to their home stream. Olfactory proximal stimulus causes the neurons to fire in a certain pattern, driving accurate navigation. No reference is made to external objects or perception. This neuro-causal explanation is the simplest, and most descriptive science has to offer.[7] If science only postulates a neuro-causal explanation, objectification or perception are probably not taking place. By contrast, the science does implicate external objects in some causal explanations of behavior. In these circumstances, we can be confident objectification and perception are present.

No reference to objectification is present in the scientific explanation of nematode worm behavior. It is a neuro-causal explanation that does not implicate objects in the distal environment. The worm does not separate aspects of the proximal stimulus. Its sensory system does not distinguish which elements are perspectival. It merely reacts to the stimulus. This is true despite the presence of efference copies. They only inhibit reflexes, and have no bearing on how stimulus is processed.[8] We can, however, still maintain the worm’s actions are relevant to environmental objects. Its sensory system functions to keep it from bumping into things. This is a functional explanation of its behavior, and implicates external objects. Indeed, any behavior, perceptual or non-perceptual, can be explained functionally. Yet, we’re interested in what causes worm behavior. The science only appeals to the stimulus received in its causal explanation. There is no compelling evidence to reference external objects. This suggests efference copies alone aren’t indicators of objectification, and thus perception.

Efference copies without perception are observed in other species. Consider crayfish. While more complex than worms, they utilize efference copies in a similar way. The lower abdomens of crayfish are covered in sensitive hairs that trigger a tail-flipping escape response.[9] This leaves them susceptible to a similar type of feedback loop described above. Efference copies prevent this scenario. As self-initiated movement commences, a crayfish’s sensory system blocks signals from the hairs. The registration of stimulus does not progress far enough in the system to trigger a response.[10] Clearly, objectification is not present in this situation either. There is no evidence crayfish distinguish proximal stimulus caused by objects versus circumstantial factors. The causal explanation of crayfish behavior does not implicate objects in the world. Functionally, the crayfish is escaping predators. Yet, the behavior can be sufficiently explained with respect only to the initial proximal stimulus. Hypothetical predators need not enter the conversation. Objectification and perception are equally absent from the causal explanations of crayfish and worm behavior.

Efference copies are a fascinating biological feature. They allow species to better interact with the environment. Yet, their presence is not an indicator of perception. That capacity still begins with bugs, and seemingly not earlier.

 

Works Cited

Burge, Tyler. Origins of Objectivity. Oxford University Press, 2010.

—. "Perception: Where the Mind Begins." The Royal Institute of Philosophy. 2014.

—. "Perceptual Constancy - A Central Natural Psychological Kind ." n.d.

Crapse, Trinity B and Marc A Sommer. "Corollary discharge across the animal kingdom." National Neuroscience Review (2008): 587-600.


[1]Burge, Perception: Where the Mind Begins

[2]Burge 397, Origins of Objectivity

[3]Burge 1, Perceptual Constancy - A Central Natural Psychological Kind

[4]Burge 2, Perceptual Constancy - A Central Natural Psychological Kind

[5]Crapse and Sommer

[6] Burge 11, Perceptual Constancy - A Central Natural Psychological Kind

[7] Burge 425, Origins of Objectivity

[8] Burge 12, Perceptual Constancy - A Central Natural Psychological Kind

[9] Crapse and Sommer

[10] Crapse and Sommer

Efference Copies Everywhere

I’m writing a paper right now about efference copies in nematode worms and what they can tell us about perception. The more I learn, the more impressed I am with the little guys, and all of the strange minor procedures organisms undergo so they can function.

I’ll start with the issue that faces the worms. First, they are super simple creatures. They only have 302 neurons (compare to 250,000 in a fruit fly) and thus have a limited repertoire of behavior. For example, if tactile sensors in the head are stimulated, the worm moves backwards. If sensors in the tail are stimulated, it moves forwards. These reflexes are useful for obvious reasons. The worms need a way to avoid predators and obstacles, and this simple behavioral schema seems to do the trick.

But, a dilemma lurks below the surface. Suppose a worm’s head sensors are activated and it starts moving backwards, only to have its tail sensors activate by virtue of moving through the soil. Now, it reverses direction and moves forwards, to have its head sensors activate and trigger the move backward reflex. In moving backwards… its tail sensors activate… and now it tries to move forwards…

Like someone trying to squeeze into a parking space, the worm would stop and start, making little movements forward and backwards in vain as it struggles in a vicious cycle. These seemingly reasonable stimuli responses would render the worm static for eternity, unable to feed or find a mate.

Yet, the nematodes have not gone extinct. They continue to thrive in rotting fruit and be bred for all sorts of scientific experiments. What, then, keeps them mobile?

The answer lies in efference copies. When a worm’s tail sensors are activated, for example, it triggers the move forward reflex, and signals the nervous system to inhibit the move backward response. This signal is an efference copy. (Note: from my understanding, the worm’s head sensors still register stimulus, but it is only the corresponding behavior that is blocked by the copy.)

We can crudely think of efference copies as the neurological equivalent of the nervous system CCing the rest of the body so everybody is on the same page.

More interesting applications of efference copies are present in complex organisms. For example, crickets make noise by rubbing their wings together in a process called stridulation (which is a cool word). The ruckus they create is loud for us, but much more so for them. To ensure they don’t lose their sense of hearing, the signal to make a song that is sent to the cricket’s motor neurons is simultaneously routed to the auditory system. The auditory system then prevents signals from the tympanum (eardrum) from being processed, effectively cutting off hearing. This example differs from the case of the worm, as the cricket only inhibits the processing of stimulus. The worm processes stimulus, but prevents corresponding reflex-based actions.

Efference copies are present in humans, too. They play a role in vision and movement, but my favorite example is tickling.

Feeling tickled is the result of tactile stimulation on sensitive parts of your body. It’s apparently a simple process. If your feet/stomach/armpits, receive the correct stimulus, you feel giggly. Why, then, can you not tickle yourself? You can provide the same type of stimulus as anyone else, so we can’t we bring ourselves to fits of laughter?

Efference copies. Whenever we act, our sensory systems create a “prediction” of how that action will create additional sensory input. We’re just like the worm in this regard. We need a way of distinguishing stimulus created by external objects, versus us. If you run a little brush across your own palm, it’s not very tickly. Your sensory system has already predicted the stimulus associated with the action and is primed to ignore it.

It is possible to tickle yourself, though. You just need to be indirect about it.

Scientists studying this phenomena created a tickling robot. In the robot’s arm is a little brush. Underneath its arm is your open, right palm. In your left hand, you have a small stylus you can use to draw a pattern. The robot will then take the same pattern drawn with your left hand and trace it on your right palm with the brush, hopefully tickling you.

What the researchers found was that if the robot traces the pattern as you’re drawing it, it’s not very tickly. However,as the delay between you drawing the pattern and the robot tracing it increased, the more tickly the result was. A delay of 300ms between you telling the robot how to tickle and it tickling increased subjective feelings of ticklishness by ~50% (full disclosure: I’m eyeballing the graph from the study for this number. The authors don’t provide it. From what I can see, it jumps from 2.1ish to around 3.4 on the tickle rating rank).

I hope you can see why I find efference copies so interesting now. Beyond fulfilling functions just described, they also play a big role in generally distinguishing self from the environment. There is a study describing efference copies’ role in internal speech, as well as a section in the tickling-robot section detailing how auditory illusions with schizophrenia can be attributed to issues with efference copies.

If you want a survey of efference copies across the animal kingdom, you can check out this article.

Slow and Steady

David Brooks thinks single-payer is worth considering, but has no clue how we would make the transition.

He cites bunch of reasons.

Jobs will be lost in the health system; jobs will be lost in the insurance industry; patients will have to switch from private insurance they generally like to coverage provided by the government; doctors’ salaries will go down; the Federal government will have to spend ~$3.26 trillion more a year; taxes will go up; time between needing an appointment and seeing a doctor will increase.

These are hurdles worth considering. One of the scariest statistics he cites is that support for Medicare-for-all drops 23% if people hear we would need to pay more taxes.

It’s clear political support for Medicare-for-all will be difficult once the fervor clears and the extent of the changes/costs become apparent. As the diagram suggests, nobody wants to cut out private health insurance, endanger medicare, pay more taxes, and on top of that have additional delays in treatment.

Here is my question to David Brooks: how slow can we go? If we were hell-bent on getting universal healthcare with as little growing pain as possible, what’s the best way to go about it? Doing it as slow as possible (perhaps over a century) would do a lot alleviate the economic impacts, the strain on budgets, and the sticker shock of having to pay more taxes. By the time everyone got universal healthcare, all of its critics/anyone who remembers an alternative would be dead.

In fact, the same study claims support for marginal changes in the system is high.

Larger majorities of the public favor more incremental changes to the health care system such as a Medicare buy-in plan for adults between the ages of 50 and 64 (77 percent), a Medicaid buy-in plan for individuals who don’t receive health coverage through their employer (75 percent), and an optional program similar to Medicare for those who want it (74 percent).

I’m not an expert, but I’d really like to know what a molasses-like plan for healthcare reform would look like. How would we phase out private insurance? Is it reasonable to expand things like Medicare and Medicaid in search of incremental change and then cut/transform them later? Would a slow, drawn-out process be messier and more bureaucratic than a clean cut?

How to Make it as a Millennial

The New 30-Somethings (came to my attention courtesy of a good friend).

This article is great. It ties together a lot of things I’m personally interested in. Stagnating wages, the residue of the great recession, intergenerational wealth, insane real estate prices, student loans, the cost of lower-education, and parental dependence.

The informal synopsis is that millennials are fucked because they are encountering all of these things at once. The paradigmatic millennial took out student loans to attend college, graduated in the midst of the great recession, has seen no real growth in wages, lives parsimoniously in NY, LA, SF, etc… can’t afford rent, is raising a kid, can’t afford preschool either, but scrapes by on the assistance of their boomer parents. ‘Rental financial assistance allows them to purchase real estate and maintain a high-ish standard of living when traditional financial life milestones like paying off student loans or putting a down payment on a house would otherwise be unachievable.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes:

As one economic analysis concluded recently: “For Americans under the age of 40, the 21st century has resembled one long recession.”

[…]

On average, each millennial parent receives $11,011 per year in combined financial support and unpaid labor, the 2017 TD Ameritrade Millennial Parents Survey found, for an annual total of $253 billion in America.

[back of the napkin math reveals this to be ~2.2% of GDP]

“Education is incredibly expensive and keeps going up, but grandparents feel very strongly about their grandchildren having a good education,” said Dana Haddad, who runs New York Admissions, an education consultancy that works with children starting at 10 months.

10 months!! The rat race is starting earlier and earlier. The article doesn’t push this point, but I believe it’s the case we can attribute much of the competition and insanity surrounding American higher education to the financial insecurity faced by recent college grads. The plight of the millennials makes this extra salient.

While it’s true that families with means have always helped their children (discreetly or not), what’s different today is that as the economy has more extreme gyrations and wages flatten, family wealth plays an outsize role in helping people get ahead, said Chuck Collins, a scion of the Oscar Mayer food corporation and the author of “Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good.”

Sudden, unexpected gain in respect for a sausage heir.

So last year Ms. Alvarez’s parents surprised her with a $50,000 cash gift to help with a down payment on a $435,000 condo three blocks from the beach in San Diego. “I grew up middle-class, and my parents immigrated from Cuba,” she said. “They saw that I’ve worked hard but also that I had the bad luck to graduate into the 2008 recession

Millennials aren’t lazy. They’re just unlucky to come-of-age during a recession and but are fortunate to have parents that earned when there wasn’t one.

[these transfers of wealth] create a distorted idea of what it takes to attain success and what financial milestones are actually achievable if you are starting from zero or less.

———————————————————-

If this article isn’t terrifying, you either have a boomer parent or are majoring in CS/engineering. We’re becoming more financially dependent on our parents than we’ve ever been. Beyond the economic woes the article directly addresses, I see this as threatening the supposed autonomy in young adulthood that is necessary to establish a complete person.

Being bankrolled by your parents is nice, but it comes at a cost to your agency. How can you really develop your own thoughts/opinions if you need to make nice with your parents so they’ll pay your way through school? How can you truly explore your interests if there is financial pressure to pick a high-paying degree? In a more extreme case mentioned in the article, how can you ensure the best education for your child if your parents are footing the bill for their tuition?

A perpetual antagonistic relationship with your parents is bad, but if you’ve never really pissed them off I maintain you’re doing something wrong. Economic freedom is necessary for our development as autonomous, responsible agents. Young people taking risks in their 20s also fuels economic growth, raising the general standard of living and creating enormous wealth — problems of distribution aside.

This article’s prognosis is grim. It’s easy, and even rational, to read this as a student and decide to double down on academic competition and credentialsim to ensure your financial security. Yet, it doesn’t have to be like this. I am idealistic, but also optimistic. A solution should be reachable, but currently it is a mystery to me.

Online Schools

The Rise of the Mega-University

The gist is that a few players (some traditional universities branching out online, some purely virtual) are achieving massive enrollment numbers.

Graph contained in the article.

Graph contained in the article.

They are doing this mainly by serving working adults with some or no college that want to expand their career prospects.

“the higher-education value proposition is all around the most inexpensive education and certification that will get me a job,” says Susan Grajek, vice president for communities and research at Educause

and

“For our adult learners online, it’s ‘Get me a credential that will get me unstuck, that will get me a better job,’ ”

This credential aspect is also what seems to have given the traditional universities that offer online programs an advantage over the Courseras/Udacities/Udemys of the world.

At one point, free online education was supposed to pose an existential threat to brick-and-mortar institutions — remember massive open online courses? But the MOOC revolution collapsed in part because the courses typically didn’t connect to credentials that employers, or students, valued.

My biggest question for these online programs is whether employers recognize the credentials. How do I value a full bachelor of science in economics offered online? Do these degrees actually get working adults “unstuck” from their current position? The tuition ain’t cheap either. Fees for an online academic year at Arizona State are $12,702. University of Oregon’s yearly in-state tuition is $11,898. Given, you don’t have to pay for room and board while pursuing an online degree, but I assume you’re going to be living and eating somewhere while doing schoolwork. At least for full bachelor’s, it seems like your local state university is still a relatively good economic deal.

I also think it’s interesting how we’re seeing online education specialize. It seems like some of the fears surrounding the death of the university via the internet are overblown, as digital degrees are most useful as tools of economic advancement to those already in the workforce rather than substitutes for what a high schooler should do after graduation. Traditional universities shouldn’t get comfortable though. Just because a competitor is successful in a demographic other than your own doesn’t mean they can’t enter it one day. I personally believe the 4-year live-on-campus-talk-with-real-people-go-to-class model will always have superior potential, but some institutions act like they want it to go unrealized.

The physical, tangible aspect is what will always separate ASU Online from University of Arizona, Tuscon for example. Brick-and-mortar institutions should invest real money into getting undergraduates talking among themselves and with their professors. Being able to have free and spontaneous exchanges with your teachers and peers has immeasurable value in the idealistic intellectual sense, and the professional.

Riley WilsonEducationComment
What I'm Reading

The Economist

I received a print subscription for Christmas and have been enjoying it. Beyond a little bit of the NYTimes , this represents my primary news source. I particularly appreciate the global focus as I am slowly working to cure my ignorance of everything that happens outside of North America. Somewhat counterintuitively, it also gives me more impetus to stay up-to-date with domestic political affairs. I am beginning to reach an understanding of America’s outsize role in the world and the ramifications of our actions on global welfare. If you care about the well-being of all people, you should care about the decisions of the American government.

Essays on Patriotism

I’m still working through these. Kateb’s piece is especially interesting as it tries to investigate the source of patriotism and duty. If the government exists to serve the people, why would we be obliged to die for it?

The Management Myth by Mathew Stewart

When I heard an ex-philosopher became a management consultant and then wrote a book about the experience, I had to buy it. The book is particularly valuable for its historical exploration of the origins of management theory. Apparently, the two most foundational figures in management thought, Frederick Winslow Taylor and Elton Mayo, were total frauds. Both fabricated stories and explanations to support their points and on the basis of this ended up immortalized in business schools across the nation. Business as an academic discipline, it seems, lays on shaky foundations.

I have yet to finish it, but the book has been enjoyable thus far.

Riley WilsonAssortedComment
Girls vs. Boys

Lisa Damour in the NYTimes

Girls consistently outperform boys academically. And yet, men nonetheless hold a staggering 95 percent of the top positions in the largest public companies.

Damour sees this fact and makes the argument that the same traits that propel females to academic success hold them back in the workforce. She emphasizes they tend to be more industrious, prudent, and better performers academically than their male counterparts, but lack the confidence that can propel them to leadership positions. Females are perfectionists. By contrast, males tend to put in minimal effort for the same academic marks. According to Damour, this means they can “see how much they can accomplish simply by counting on their wits,” and build confidence in their abilities. Accordingly, the solution to this problem is to get females to focus on “economy of effort” in school rather than fall prey to the law of diminishing returns.

I have seen what Damour describes in my own academic experience. I know many perfectionists that don’t take anything less than 8 hours of studying a day for an answer but still seem terribly insecure about their own abilities. I agree with Damour on everything except the corrective action.

Females, ceteris paribus, are more diligent and insightful than their average male counterparts. Damour links to some studies illustrating this. I will not speculate on the origins of these difference, but my anecdotal evidence, along with the empirical supplements, highly suggests this is the case. In every step of my life, there has been a girl that has outworked me, is more articulate than me, and is generally better than I am. I expect this to be the case forever and I would be concerned if it wasn’t.

What I’m trying to say is that girls are smart and their work ethic is probably what gets them there. Currently, females have the right to increase their confidence generally because they are already winning in an academic sense. It doesn’t appear they need to change their attitudes or habits, and slack off like the boys, in order to build confidence. Rather, they should take stock of what they have and realize they should trust themselves. If anything, this is a problem with us. Why are we promoting all the indolent men running around with unearned confidence rather than the people that have consistently outperformed them? There’s something ideologically fishy about telling females they need to be like “the guys” in order to succeed.

Diminishing returns are real, and I don’t doubt Damour’s experience with young women who exert inefficient effort to curb their anxiety about school. That will always be unproductive. Yet, I don’t think females have a poor strategy, but rather that we have been rewarding the wrong one. This, I feel, is a small component of a larger question surrounding women’s equality. Does the problem lie with the world being a certain way, or women? Is the problem with women not being confident/assertive/skilled enough (all improvable traits), or us having a narrow view of excellence?

If you know me, you know I am not an expert on anything, let alone gender issues. If you think I have something wrong, please tell me. I stand by my views, but I can be convinced otherwise.

Riley WilsonAssortedComment
Visibility = Value

Theory: what’s valued is what’s visible.

I understand this is almost exactly what Girard’s mimetic theory of desire is, but I arrived at it recently thinking about what types of behaviors are valued at different institutions.

Eloquence and general knowledge aren’t as valued here as traits as they were at my high school. I understand there are innumerable factors that could be influencing what I observe (not the least of which my bias and ignorance), but I think salience of behavior has explanatory power.

Consider a high school classroom. It has (hopefully) fewer than 30 kids, and, unless you whisper, not much can be said without others hearing it. Pedagogically, it’s also an interactive environment. Exchanges between students, and between teachers and students, are common and often about the class subject-matter. This means academic engagement is much more salient. When someone has an insight or a perspicuous point, they raise their hand, share, and everyone knows about it. Because clear thinking is (again, hopefully) rewarded in the classroom, students see there’s social value to being intellectually present during class.

Contrast this with a large college lecture. The most salient behavior your peers exhibit in this setting is note taking and silence. If they have a point to make or are wrestling with a valuable question, you will most likely never know about it. Even though students might engage in academic behavior after class and during office hours, this is almost never visible to the majority of students. They are most likely already out the door or believe the opportunity cost of going to office hours too high. The behavior isn’t visible, so it isn’t valued.

There is much more to thinking than the social value you (may) get from exhibiting it, but I feel like this principle explains some aspects large university culture. I am definitely not the first to think of this, but I believe the slogan has a grain of truth. Our own wants and desire (ontological status pending) are often so foreign to us. It’s much easier to look to the world for cues as to what we should value.

Riley WilsonAssortedComment