28 December 2016

Bald Eagle vs. Chicken, Who's winning on evolutionary terms?

[C]onsider how to answer the following question: which bird, species A or species B, has been more successful in the evolutionary process of natural selection? If you are like us, we suspect that your first thought would be to compare the relative numbers of the two birds. With a little more time, you might decide that you would also like to know about relative sizes since at equilibrium the environment could probably sustain fewer large birds than small birds. Controlling for habitat needs you would seem to have a simple, but fairly accurate, measurement process.

Now let us make the question a little more concrete: which bird, the bald eagle or the chicken, has been more successful in the evolutionary process of natural selection? Shall we do the math? There are approximately 70,000 bald eagles in North America, a number that is up considerably in recent years following the bald eagle's near extinction. It is a little harder to know just how many chickens there are in this country at any given moment, but our rough calculations put the number somewhere between 1.75 and 2 billion. That means that for every bald eagle there are twenty to thirty thousand chickens.

Even discounting the figure slightly to take into account the eagle's larger size and habitat requirements, the numbers are clear: the standard farm chicken is the bald eagle's evolutionary superior. But that finding seems absurd. We know the bald eagle as our national bird, a symbol of strength and power. Eagles are extremely well adapted for survival in nature, given their superb flying, hunting, and nest-building abilities. For centuries, bald eagles thrived, and according to one history, they may have once numbered half a million .

“They existed along the Atlantic from Labrador to the tip of south Florida, and along the Pacific from Baja California to Alaska. They inhabited every large river and concentration of lakes within North America. They nested in forty-five of the lower forty-eight states. One researcher estimated an eagle nest for every mile of shore along Chesapeake Bay. They congregated on the lower Hudson, and were extremely abundant along the coast of Maine.”

So then we have missed something. In determining that chickens are more fit than eagles to withstand nature's trials and challenges, we have ignored critical situational influences. Why are there so many more chickens than eagles? The more obvious and correct explanation is that humans value chickens in a way that they have not valued bald eagles.

Indeed, there are robust markets in both chickens and eggs. According to a recent industry-sponsored survey, Americans consume, on average, eighty-one pounds of chicken per year—a figure that appears to be going up and that represents “the highest per capita consumption of any of the major meats.” They also consume approximately 260 eggs per year. Unsurprisingly, market pressures ensure that there are many chickens alive at any given moment.

Well, if bald eagles are so fit, why did they nearly go extinct and why are there still so few of them? The following history of the bald eagle helps to shed light on a different sort of situational influence on the bald eagles' stature than is imagined in any idealized, unrealistic "natural selection" script.

“There is no single cause for the decline in the bald eagle population. When Europeans first arrived on this continent, bald eagles were fairly common. As the human population grew, the eagle population declined. The food supplies for eagles decreased, because the people hunted and fished over a broad area. Essentially, eagles and humans competed for the same food, and humans, with weapons at their disposal, had the advantage. As the human population expanded westward, the natural habitat of the eagles was destroyed, leaving them fewer places to nest and hunt, which caused the population of bald eagles to decline sharply by the late 1800s.

“By the 1930s, people became aware of the diminishing bald eagle population, and in 1940 the Bald Eagle Act was passed. This reduced the harassment by humans, and eagle populations began to recover. However, at the same time DDT and other pesticides began to be widely used. Pesticides sprayed on plants were eaten by small animals, which were later consumed by birds of prey. The DDT poison harmed both the adult birds and the eggs that they laid....

“More than 100,000 bald eagles were killed in Alaska from 1917 to 1953. Alaskan salmon fisherm[e]n feared they were a threat to the salmon population.”

According to that history, the threat to eagles was not that they were ill-equipped to survive in nature, but that their success as a species did not appear to serve the interests of humans. Indeed, the eagles competed with human interests, including commercial interests.

As a result, the grand, and once ubiquitous, bald eagle was pushed toward extinction. Meanwhile, chickens were raised in huge numbers to meet the increasing demand for their eggs and meat. The relative success of chickens over bald eagles, then, has little to do with the survival of the fittest and a lot to do with "the survival of the tastiest" or "the survival of the profittest."

In light of that competition among birds, look again at how … scholars tend to measure the success of various schools of thought. … [A]cademics generally assume that they are competing in some neutral tournament wherein ideas evolve and good ideas become more prominent while bad ideas disappear. According to this view, the tournament benefits the outside world by generating and announcing the winning ideas, which are then relied upon to help make effective and desirable policy. Thus, when some ideas are more commonly accepted, are attracting larger audiences and are having more influence … , the assumption is often that those ideas, like the bald eagle, soar above their ground-bound, clucking competitors.

But here is the problem: the competition among ideas may have much in common with the imagined competition between chickens and eagles. That is, in both contexts there appear to be very significant demand-side factors that help determine which ideas will be most prevalent and seemingly most successful. For reasons that we have already highlighted, the "winners" will be those ideas that are valuable to the more influential participants on the demand-side of the marketplace—specifically, pro-commercial interests.

from The Situation: 
An introduction to the situational character, critical realism, power economics, and deep capture.
By Jon Hanson and David Yosifon
University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Vol. 152, p. 129, 2003-2004

18 October 2016

Why not Drumph?

Drumph’s central message seems to be that there are lots of evil people doing bad things to America and he can save us from them.

My concern is that he is actually setting up self-fulfilling prophesies that ensures he will have a constant stream of bad people creating crises from which he will have to try to save us.

I am not willing to play that game.

I will elaborate on this in four parts.

Part 1 of 4, Evil outcomes not evil people.

I don't know about you, but I do not live in a world of evil people. I live in a world of flesh and blood human beings who are frail and flawed. Their frailties and flaws make them susceptible to being pushed towards good or towards evil. In my religious upbringing I was taught that sin is a perpetual problem that we have to deal with. As I matured in my spiritual and psychological understandings I realized that sinful acts are an outcome of how frail and flawed human beings make choices under the influence of situations. Evil is not a state of being, it is an outcome of situations that have shaped the choices people make.

I suggest that this election is about the world we live in. If you truly believe that we live in a world that is populated with evil people who are hell bent on doing bad things to America, then I honor your choice to vote for Drumph. I, however, do not live in that world. And since I do not live there, and do not ever want to live there, I will not vote for any political party that assumes that world is the one we live in.

If, on the other hand, you share my confidence that the world is actually populated with flesh and blood human beings who have the potential to be either good or bad, then I invite you to find a candidate that recognizes the frailty and flaws of our brothers and sisters throughout the world. Please press your favorite candidate to talk about the world they live in. What is the story behind how they realized the importance of expressing our caring through systems, instead of saviors.

A wall? Deporting people? Excluding believers because we don’t agree with their theology? Every one of these proposals assumes that a trivial difference between people (nationality or theology) makes some of them bad and, logically, the others good. First, I believe God is the only authority that gets to make the judgement call on who is good or bad. Second, when a man makes that call under the influence of enormous power and privilege (POTUS) then he will cause more problems than he solves. The United States was designed by the founders to have checks and balances to systematically help both citizens and leaders to be better than we are. We need the system to point us in the direction of goodness. Building walls, deporting productive workers who are contributing to our national prosperity, and arbitrarily denying sanctuary to afflicted people because they happen to have a different belief are all reliable invitations down the path of evil instead of good. Taking actions to implement these plans will invite some of our most powerful and privileged people to, in their all-too-human moments of weakness, arbitrarily hurt innocent people. And invites us all to participate in allowing unnecessary pain and suffering to continue due to our system’s indifference to human beings who are just as frail and flawed as we are.

While it is a practical necessity for us to create a system in which judgments about pubic safety must be made, it requires a SYSTEM because individuals are so notoriously unable to be fair and impartial. No human is perfect, no system is perfect, but approaching perfection can only occur within a system. Individuals can’t do it unless they have the systematic support of other humans like us.

Electing a president should be about choosing a servant who will express the values we hold dear, which includes responding to the world we live in while aspiring to a world that is better. The world I live in does not include evil people, just normal people who have been driven to act badly, to enact evil. Everyone who behaves badly needs to be held accountable for the consequences of their behavior, but that accountability needs to recognize their potential to behave well when their situation gives them the right opportunities.

Please help your candidate articulate the values behind their policies. In fact, encourage them to talk a lot less about policies and more about the human values that motivate them to get wonky. More stories about how our systems help us express our caring and compassion.

Why not Drumph? Part 2 of 4, On people doing bad things:

The rules and laws of our society push people in a variety of directions. When we treat people as if they are evil, there will often be a small minority who oblige us by behaving according to our expectations. Even though a majority of us will still behave well, our system creates pressure to fulfill the expectations of those who designed the system. I don't know about you, but sometimes I get tired or have a stressful day. If, in that moment of stress or exhaustion, I happen to be insulted or just treated with a little disrespect I might react with anger. I just might give up on myself for a moment and let my guard drop for an instant. That is when the pressure of the system has an opportunity to sway my emotions in the direction of evil. I just might lash out.

I happen to be a man of numerous privileges, so the odds of my being in a position in which my lapse of judgement could cost me my job or my life is probably remote, but I know that other people do not share in my advantages. Their moment of weakness might get them arrested, killed, or raped. Drumph lives in a world in which every individual regardless of their circumstances should be held to the behavioral expectations of the most privileged, like him.

Our systems of governance (both public and private) should reflect the fact that we are frail and flawed human being who need systems to help us navigate towards goodness in the complex society we have created. My litmus test is how we treat children. If the children are well, then we are on track, if not, we need to do better.

Why not Drumph? Part  3 of 4, On being saved:

I do not share the view that a president or any other individual can save us. No matter who gets elected they will be subjected to the limitations of the system. I figure the best we can hope for is that the next president can push those limitations towards expressing the values of compassion and caring more than the values of exclusion and hatred. Presidents of this country are not all powerful, just very powerful. They are heavily constrained by how the system works. I have contended ever since I became aware of Obama that his best years will be after he is no longer president. The records of good works by former Democratic presidents and vice presidents is truly impressive and I look forward to what Obama can do when he is free of the burden of being POTUS. He still will not save us, but he'll be a lot more capable of exercising his best judgment in bring about a world that reflects his values. And I suspect that they are good values. I can hardly wait to find out.

This view of the system also means that I don't believe that any president, no matter which party they belong to can deliver on most of the promises they make. The best they can do is communicate the set of values they want to bring to doing the job and we have to trust them to nudge the system towards expressing those values as best they can. Drumph is great candidate in this regard. He clearly expresses the values that he will bring to the job. He does not introduce any meaningful policy details that might confuse us about what he will be trying to do. I find his values to be severely misguided and his lack of policy details that could supposedly express those values is utterly mystifying, but at least we know the moral direction he intends to go.

Why not Drumph? Part 4 of 4, On Drumph:

You will notice that I used a euphemism for Donald Trump. That is because I don't know him. I have no idea what kind of person he is. I have heard exactly opposite accounts from people in positions that would have given them access to him. Given his long history as an entertainer I assume that everything that is done in public is probably calculated to generate an advantageous image (notice I did not say a positive image). Everything I have said applies to the public image I have seen about presidential candidate Donald Trump, not to the man.

Why not Drumph?

Here's my summation of the Drumph phenomena: he is playing a game of self-fulfilling prophesies about evil people doing bad things to America so that he can save us from them.

That game forces us to identify some people as evil and that guarantees some of those people will fulfill our expectation that they are evil. I don't play that.

28 August 2016

Misinterpreting Privileges and Marshmallows

The other day I ran into a Facebook video that claimed to “[D]estroy the myth of 'White Privilege' with basic stats.” The video was a couple of brief excerpts from a talk given by a fellow named Ben Shapiro who is proudly on the “Right” side of American politics. The video just focused on the portion of his remarks about how the Brookings Institute, which Shapiro calls a “very left institute,” asserted that permanent poverty in the United States can be prevented by finishing high school, getting a job, and not getting pregnant before getting married. He notes that single motherhood in the black community is extremely high by historical standards going from 20% in 1960 to “upwards of 70% today.” [This claim is confirmed by an article in the Washington Post- links below.] He then states emphatically that taking personal responsibility is the key to changing outcomes in the black community. He says white privilege, therefore, has nothing to do with it in the same way that his not playing in the NBA is not due to a conspiracy against 5'9” jews playing professional basketball. (In the unedited version I linked to below the NBA comments preceded the others.) So, he clearly claims that the sole or at least a primary cause of single motherhood and drop-outs in the black community is a failure to exercise personal responsibility.

This brought to my mind a famous experiment by the psychologist Walter Mischel that amazingly showed how personal self-control at the age of about four strongly predicts outcomes in the adult lives of those children. It is known as the Marshmallow Experiment. The kids with less self-control had worse outcomes as adults, the kids with more self-control had better outcomes. So this would seem to be a piece of evidence in favor of Mr. Shapiro's hypothesis. And the popular press and some schools have had a field day with this experiment to the point that the schools teach elementary school children about the experiment and put posters on the walls that remind them: “Don't eat the marshmallow!” In other words the children are being taught to take personal responsibility for their ability to resist temptations that could distract them from obeying the dictates of their school.

Shapiro is applying the concept of direct causation to the situation of permanent poverty in the United States and the popular interpretation of the Marshmallow Experiment does the same. According to cognitive linguist George Lakoff direct causation is enshrined in the grammatical structure of every known language but systemic causation is not encoded in the structures, grammatical or otherwise, in any known language. Human languages operate on the wiring of our brains in a manner that makes direct causation the obvious answer to every question of causation. However, that doesn't make direct causation the correct answer to every one of those questions. In response to this challenge to the truth we have developed elaborate social systems like science to help us answer those questions correctly by constructing elaborate stories to explain the truth of causation when it is systemic. Given that we are predisposed to think in terms of direct causation rather than systemic causation, the popular sentiments that make personal responsibility central to interpreting both the Marshmallow Experiment and Permanent Poverty in the United States are understandable. But are these really cases of direct causation? How much of a role could personal responsibility have played?

Let's start with the Marshmallow Experiment. The basic situation is that the experimenters presented the small children with a marshmallow, pretzels, or even a poker chip and proposed that if the child could resist the temptation to eat the item (or whatever would be tempting to do with a poker chip) for 15 minutes the experimenter would give them another one. Then the kids were left alone to wait in the presence of their temptation. Actually, they were being secretly observed to find out what they would do. So the logic was simple, eat the one now or eat two later. The challenge for the kids in the minds of economists was whether that particular length of time to wait was worth it to double your take. The experimenters found that the kids who failed tended to have poorer outcomes in their later lives statistically. Notice that this is a statistical effect, not an unwavering inevitability. It is also not a causal claim, no one believes that the failure on the marshmallow test caused the poor outcomes. The argument is that the test result is indicative of something about the kids that would follow them throughout the rest of their lives. The something else is most often posited to be a cognitive process called executive function. Those with less developed executive function would fail the test and those with more developed executive function would pass it and those differences in executive function would remain throughout life thus causing differential life outcomes.

Walter Mischel, the experimenter, was specifically concerned with the methods that children came up with to mange the task they were given. He wanted to find out how they would cope with a temptation that he knew would be hard to resist. He deliberately created a challenge for them so that he would be able to observe a range of outcomes. So now I ask you to reconsider who was responsible for the outcomes of the experiment. In particular I want you to reconsider who is responsible for the failures. Were the children responsible for failing to wait long enough to get the second marshmallow?

Would you be surprised if I said that if I were the experimenter I could guarantee 100% success in resisting temptation? The method is simple: don't present the children with a temptation and they will all succeed in not succumbing to it. The truly responsible party for the failures was the creator of the situation, not those who happened to lack the skills for resisting the temptations to which they were exposed. Walter Mischel deliberately created a situation in which he expected to observe failures. If he did not create a situation that exhibited a mixture of success and failure he would have had to change the situation until he did, because that mix of failure and success was exactly what he wanted to learn about!

Now, let's consider why this experiment was so predictive of later outcomes in life. Where did the kids spend the majority of their time growing up? In school. Given that the school system does not even consider issues of executive function in their conception of what school should provide, then it is even less likely that the children will have any training that is relevant to the development of the executive function system at school. We know, thanks to Gallup, that today at least 50% of school children are disengaged. A majority of them can be expected to fake their way through the content-based tasks that schools at least pretend they are concerned with developing. How much transformation of an undeveloped executive function system should we expect from disengaged students in a system that does not even pretend to provide any stimulation for that system? Based on this view of the school system, then there is no reason to believe that there would be any substantive change in the relative development of executive function across the K-12 years.

In case you objected to my solution for getting 100% success at resisting temptation, this is where I acknowledge that my solution does nothing to ensure success in later life. What is needed to improve the outcomes in later life is to provide the kids with exactly the right amount of temptation to be successful much of the time, but not all of the time. They need to be put into situations that stretch their executive functioning. They need a balance between the level of challenge their environment provides and the level of skill they have to address the challenges they face. They need to participate in an environment that engages them in making meaningful decisions on a regular basis. This will guarantee that their executive functions develop rather than stagnate. This is the basis of most of the work I do on improving education, so I refer you to my web site rather than attempting to detail it here: schools-of-conscience.org

And those posters reminding the kids to resist the temptation? Those schools are attempting to abdicate responsibility for creating situations that are not geared to match up the levels of challenge and skill for each child. To be fair the children share responsibility to the degree that they have made choices that reinforce their commitment to participating in that environment. But, if they are forced to be there then they are not the responsible party, the school is. So, the true victims are the ones unwillingly subjected to the school program. The personally responsible ones are those who have made valid choices to participate in the school program. And the personally responsible students can become victims if outside forces invalidate their choices. The death of a family member or any other significant change in their home life might invalidate their choices. When circumstances deal a blow to a child, then the school needs to take action to enable that child to make a new valid choice for themselves in order to get back on track. But that will usually take an unpredictable amount of time, so for schools that operate in inflexible academic schedules it will be unlikely that they can meet the challenge. The responsibility for the situation of school is, in any case, largely the responsibility of the school, not the children. So blaming children for their outcomes in that situation is only valid if you can show that they were on board with participating in that situation and made valid on-going choices to participate. That is rarely the case in mainstream schooling.

Now let's consider Mr. Shapiro's argument. Is personal responsibility all it takes to overcome the problems of poverty, drop-outs, and single mothers? If my critique is to apply then we have to consider whether the situation has been created for the poor, the drop-outs and the single mothers by someone else. It is utterly absurd to believe that children are responsible for the society and the schools they are subjected to so I believe Mr. Shapiro's argument about the cause of single motherhood and drop-outs is fundamentally also absurd. He is just blaming the victims of the situations that are created by schools which are subject to the conditions in the society in which they are situated. I will readily concede that there is some degree of personal responsibility involved, but it is trivial compared to the responsibility that the schools bear for creating situations in which the primary psychological needs of children and teens are routinely thwarted. By the time a teen is dropping out and getting pregnant they have lived in a situation for many years in which they are effectively starved for opportunities to exercise autonomy and relatedness. Over those years within the school situation that takes up most of their waking hours they have no practice making meaningful decisions. Under the influence of the hormones of puberty that notoriously short circuit executive function they discover that sexuality is way to actively meet both of those needs. And lo and behold they tend to mess up that particular decision making process. What a surprise! Ben Shapiro believes that their failures to use the executive functions that their early experiences in impoverished homes and psychologically inappropriate schooling prevented them from developing is their fault. They are to blame for not having been provided with the appropriate opportunities to develop the executive functions in their brains.

Whatever it was that enabled some four year olds to develop more executive function provided them with an undeserved advantage. And that advantage clearly made a difference over the course of those children's lives. They experienced the benefit of privilege. He may have some valid points in questioning the role of race as a mechanism of privilege, but he is flat wrong to deny that privilege, in itself, exists.

I do agree with Mr. Shapiro and other critics that “privilege” is sometimes used more as an epithet and a mechanism for shutting down conversation rather than as a productive critique. So, I sympathize with those who feel embattled by the persistence of the privilege police. But that does not change the fact that it exists, at least for people who do not elevate “personal responsibility” into an ideological principle that takes precedence over psychology. The politically conservative “right” seems to sometimes verate personal responsibility as the sole form of responsibility. Such veneration seems to dismiss social responsibility and the various forms of systemic causation as mechanisms of productive change. Social responsibility is far more important than personal responsibility due to the fact that social responsibility has more far reaching consequences.

For me the concept of privilege is just a recent variation on the theme of how policies interact with brains to create limitations on what can happen in the situations subject to those policies. In other words, privilege is just another part of the hidden curriculum. Once again, just because a curriculum or a privilege is “hidden” does not mean that “exposing” it will provide access to a solution. The fact is that the nature of privilege is such that it will always be hidden. The challenge is to ensure that certain privileges become pervasive. The fundamental privileges that all humans should have unconscious access to are the privileges of having each of our primary human needs supported. Right now there is clear evidence that primary needs are not supported for most people with disproportionate lack for people of color.

I do not know if whiteness is the cause of the privilege or merely occurs as a coincident to the true cause. I am confident that we will not make true progress on the problem of privilege until we measure the right things to indicate where it is lacking. The right things to measure are the satisfaction of primary needs or the things that satisfying them leads to such as intrinsic motivation for and engagement with the typical activities you do in your school or work place.


The unedited video of Ben Shapiro's talk with text summarizing his talking points:

Brookings Institute's 3 rules to end permanent poverty:

Washington Post confirmation of the single motherhood stats: 

Atlantic Magazine Interview with Walter Mischel: