The feedback loop as a symbol for life in the 21st Century

self-organisation is a high-level property that emerges from the underlying network, not a feature of any of the individual components.

This has interesting consequences. Where any part of the mechanism is sensitive to the environment, the whole self-organising loop can be too.

Here’s an example from the Resilience Alliancethe adaptive cycle – that maps nicely onto the four cultures of cultural theory:

the adaptive cycle

See also: redundancy and resilience

How cultural commitments damage your ability to reason

start counting. Source: unlistedsightings/flickr

When people don’t accept the scientific evidence, it may be useless to present them with yet more evidence. They are not stupid. They are simply protecting their cultural identity.

Here’s the journalism:

Science confirms: politics wrecks your ability to do math

And here’s the original study, Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government

Kahan, Dan M., Peters, Ellen, Dawson, Erica Cantrell and Slovic, Paul, Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government (September 3, 2013). Available at SSRN:

Why does public conflict over societal risks persist in the face of compelling and widely accessible scientific evidence? We conducted an experiment to probe two alternative answers: the “Science Comprehension Thesis” (SCT), which identifies defects in the public’s knowledge and reasoning capacities as the source of such controversies; and the “Identity-protective Cognition Thesis” (ICT) which treats cultural conflict as disabling the faculties that members of the public use to make sense of decision-relevant science. In our experiment, we presented subjects with a difficult problem that turned on their ability to draw valid causal inferences from empirical data. As expected, subjects highest in Numeracy—a measure of the ability and disposition to make use of quantitative information—did substantially better than less numerate ones when the data were presented as results from a study of a new skin-rash treatment. Also as expected, subjects’ responses became politically polarized—and even less accurate—when the same data were presented as results from the study of a gun-control ban. But contrary to the prediction of SCT, such polarization did not abate among subjects highest in Numeracy; instead, it increased. This outcome supported ICT, which predicted that more Numerate subjects would use their quantitative-reasoning capacity selectively to conform their interpretation of the data to the result most consistent with their political outlooks. We discuss the theoretical and practical significance of these findings.

Apparently, “Science Confirms The Obvious: Strict Parents Raise Conservative Kids”

“Science Confirms The Obvious: Strict Parents Raise Conservative Kids” – If so, would it be possible to conduct similar experiments to test whether parents with a particularly strong cultural bias raise their children to have a similar bias? So, for example, do Fatalist parents raise Fatalist kids? My guess here is that the social setting is what’s at stake. It might be more appropriate to speak of, an Egalitarian family (ie. a social organisation) than of an Egalitarian parent. But maybe not if you happen to be a psychological researcher. In other words, the methodological individualism in psychological research necessitates the discovery of political or cultural biases in the individual’s head – because (apparently) there is no where else for those biases to reside. But a complimentary approach might be to investigate the ways these biases are constructed and maintained between people – in the their institutions (including the family), in their rules etc.

magic and technology


 Prof Alan Jacobs wants to know whether magic and technology can learn to get along with each other. He laments the dominant tone of fantasy literature that sees natural magic opposed to cultural machinery.

 Jacobs hopes for:

“A fictional world where magic rules but is not the only game in town”.

This sounds very much like Tolkien‘s home town of Oxford. When he lived there his charmed life as a university don was under a certain amount of pressure from the city’s belated industrialisation. The Morris Motor works had been built in Cowley, on the edge of town, lending a new, Fordist edge to the politics of town and gown. It’s hard to look at the map of Middle Earth without seeing a psychological map of Oxford just behind it. So writers who want magic and the machine to coexist could do worse than to fictionalise the way they see this working already in a specific place. China Mieville has done this with New Crobuzon – and more explicitly with UnLunDun and Kraken.

The either/or/both/neither terms in which this discussion is framed will be familiar to the readers of Fourcultures.

Now read:

Magic needs rules

The four cultures – no way

A two-bit theory of social reality

English: Publicity photo from the game show Tw...
Image via Wikipedia

It is not obvious whether the world is analogue or binary, continuous or discrete. It’s a live question and the subject of a recent essay contest set up by the Foundational Questions Institute.

That said it seems clear that much or our social lives revolves around the assumption that the world is indeed binary. Male or female, black or white, left or right – simple binary oppositions structure our social relationships through and through. Moreover, we live in an era when developments in technology make it abundantly clear that the bifurcation of the universe into one and zero brings great leaps forward. Why do we do this to ourselves? What possible benefit can it confer?

One answer might be that it makes things simpler, thus allowing us to make faster decisions.

The reason Twenty Questions pretty much works as a parlour game is that twenty yes/no answers are all it takes to distinguish between 1,048,576 (220) discrete subjects. This seems to be roughly the high end of a practical taxonomy for personal use. By way of comparison, note that if one was to play the game using English Wikipedia articles it would need to be renamed Twenty-Two Questions to cover the 3,673,861 articles in existence in mid-2011 (222 = 4,194,304).

The promise of information theory, on some accounts, is that we can sort everything in binary terms. In John Wheeler’s well-known formulation, ‘it from bit’:

“It is not unreasonable to imagine that information sits at the core of physics, just as it sits at the core of a computer.

It from bit. Otherwise put, every ‘it’—every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself—derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely—even if in some contexts indirectly—from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions, binary choices, bits. ‘It from bit’ symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom—a very deep bottom, in most instances—an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes–no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe.” (John Archibald Wheeler 1990: 5)

In physics perhaps (more generally, in the ‘ontological basement’, as Paul Davies puts it). But as any one who has ever heard of racism or sexism will recognise, splitting the social world into opposed pairs often makes us get things very, very wrong. Our fondness for quick and dirty social heuristics has a habit of misleading us. Simpler does not by any means equate to more correct. Reality is more complex than a game of Twenty Questions and it takes more than yes/no answers to parse the social.

So it is not surprising that when faced with various kinds of binary sorting mechanism we experience a sense of disappointment. What may have seemed like a good idea – to simplify by means of bifurcation – turns out to produce less than useful information. The left/right dichotomy in politics turns out to be forced and to obscure almost as much as it reveals. Similarly it turns out that gender is a poor indicator of ability to own property or many of the other issues it has historically been used to indicate. And as for skin colour, this seems to produce far more noise than signal…. It is as though the usefulness of binary sorting has got the better of us and instead of recognising its limits we have tried to sort everything in binary terms. The reward is conservation of energy. The cost is accuracy.

What if the cost is too high? A recent example is a paper claiming to provide insights into differences between national cultures on the basis of a distinction between ‘tight’ and ‘loose’ cultures. This is a fairly well-rehearsed but contentious pair of categories that derives from anthropology.

The problem is that the ranking of nations on this basis doesn’t appear to shed much light on the national characteristics in question. Again, what is claimed to be signal looks suspiciously like noise.

I remain to be convinced but in the meantime I want to propose an interim alternative.

Instead of simplifying by means of one bit of information (tight/loose, black/white, male/female, left/right) we should do so by means of at least two bits of information.

It seems to me that a binary choice, between yes and no or between 1 and 0 always implies a set of Boolean operands just waiting to be used. Yes or no always begs the question: Yes and no?

One way of depicting this expanded set of choices is to frame each binary single bit choice as a two bit choice:

YES                 Yes and not No                      Yes and No

NOT YES       Not Yes and not No              No and not Yes

                          NOT NO                                           NO

This is not to suggest that reality actually is made up of two bits, or any other number of bits for that matter, information theorists notwithstanding. Rather, my claim is that if, in seeking to understand the social world, there is indeed a sweet spot somewhere between energy conservation and accuracy, then a two bit heuristic process is closer to that sweet spot than our current dominant but misleading fondness for single bit, yes/no thinking.

It from two bits.


Differences Between Tight and Loose Cultures: A 33-Nation Study

Michele J. Gelfand, Jana L. Raver, Lisa Nishii, Lisa M. Leslie, Janetta Lun, Beng Chong Lim, Lili Duan, Assaf Almaliach, Soon Ang, Jakobina Arnadottir, Zeynep Aycan, Klaus Boehnke, Pawel Boski, Rosa Cabecinhas, Darius Chan, Jagdeep Chhokar, Alessia D’Amato, Montse Ferrer, Iris C. Fischlmayr, Ronald Fischer, Marta Fülöp, James Georgas, Emiko S. Kashima, Yoshishima Kashima, Kibum Kim, Alain Lempereur, Patricia Marquez, Rozhan Othman, Bert Overlaet, Penny Panagiotopoulou, Karl Peltzer, Lorena R. Perez-Florizno, Larisa Ponomarenko, Anu Realo, Vidar Schei, Manfred Schmitt, Peter B. Smith, Nazar Soomro, Erna Szabo, Nalinee Taveesin, Midori Toyama, Evert Van de Vliert, Naharika Vohra, Colleen Ward, and Susumu Yamaguchi

Science 27 May 2011: 332 (6033), 1100-1104. [DOI:10.1126/science.1197754]

Evidence-based riots

cc SeanMacEntee/Flickr

It’s been hard to move recently for people leaping to conclusions. Everyone with an Internet connection  has already posted an opinion about the supposedly obvious causes of the London riots.

Medhi Hassan’s heartfelt plea for pundits to to stop generalising certainly makes sense. The introduction reads:

The debate about the riots is being hijacked by those who want to push partisan agendas and narratives. But shouldn’t we wait for evidence?

Yes we should, in the same way we should shut the door after  the horse has bolted. Unfortunately the evidence will not help us in quite the ways we might expect.  The Cultural Cognition project people claim to have shown that in at least one public debate (over climate change) the greater scientific knowledge there is, the more (not less) the preconceived opinions are reinforced. The facts tend to fuel, not calm the fire.

Read more:

The ground zero of meaning

Never let a crisis go to waste

image credit: Sean MacEntee/Flickr [CC]

Biosemiotics and slime mould

many headed slime - physarum polycephalum
Image by randomtruth via Flickr

New Scientist has an interesting article on the ways in which it may make sense to talk about non-conscious entities creating meaning. Biosemiotics.

Hat tip to Meika.

I had been thinking abut this when I came across a report on the slime mould’s ‘irrational’ decision-making process.It seems that like humans, Physarum polycephalum makes quick foraging decisions based on comparisons of what’s available. These decisions aren’t strictly rational.

Canadian researcher Dr Tanya Latty of Sydney University said:

“If you are in a risky environment… it’s better to be able to make a quick decision that’s right most of the time rather than a perfect decision that takes too long and means you get eaten by something,”

There’s a radio interview on CBS.

…and another paper.