Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Secret Science Club Post Lecture Recap: Our Partisan Brains

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture featuring Dr Jay Van Bavel of NYU's Social Perception and Evaluation Lab. The topic of this month's lecture was "Our Partisan Brains".

Dr Van Bavel opened the lecture by showing the pictures contrasting Trump's inauguration crowd with Obama's inauguration crowd:

He then showed the text of Trump spokesman Sean Spicer saying that Trump had the largest inauguration crowd of all time, which led to Kellyanne Conway's infamous comment about Spicer relying on alternative facts. He compared these two 'blurbs' to a line from George Orwell's 1984: The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command. The 'alternative facts' kerfuffle landed 1984 on the bestseller lists last year.

A majority of poll respondents indicated that fake news has left them confused about basic facts. There are fact checking organizations such as Politifact. He also noted that scientists are in the fact-checking business. After seeing a report that 15% of Republican voters believed that Trump's inauguration crowd was bigger than Obama's even after being shown pictures, Dr Van Bavel wanted to answer a simple question: WTF? He noted that humans have highly partisan brains, and that our partisan brains shape our beliefs.

Democrats and Republicans are more divided than in the past, which is both a cause of and a consequence of the Trump phenomenon. Dr Van Bavel displayed a graphic from the Pew Research Center displaying this polarization:

There is evidence that liberals and conservatives have different brains. Identical twins are likely to share attitudes even if raised apart- there is a huge genetic component to an individual's attitudes. The actor Colin Firth was involved in the publication of a neuroscience paper concerning the brains of liberals and conservatives- the study indicated that liberals have more gray matter in the anterior cingulate cortex and conservatives had more gray matter in the amygdala. As an editorial note, and because Smut insists on accuracy, this is a controversial study.

Studies of political partisans show that there is a similarity between partisanship and sports fandom, with the parties being analogous to teams. Cheerleaders may say that they believe something to be true even if they don't actually believe it. Strip away the conflicts over resources, and there is a history of strictly Us vs Them conflicts, perfectly satirized in this cartoon by Paul Noth:

In one study, participants were assigned to a group, either Rattlers or Eagles, according to a coin toss. They were asked to state their political affiliation as well. When their brains were scanned, there was similar activity when they were shown 'team' affiliated images and political images. The arbitrary in-group affiliation led to activity much like their political affiliation... the subjects divided themselves into tribes at the flip of a coin.

Dr Van Bavel then displayed screenshots from the Wall Street Journal's Red Feed/Blue Feed site, which displays a side-by-side comparison of Conservative and Liberal Facebook feeds. To some extent, the information we receive is curated by social media algorithms. It's profitable for media corporations to show us what we want to see. On the Twitter platform, there is a sharp Red/Blue divide. The posts which are more likely to go viral include moral and emotional words, with 'shares' going up about twenty percent per moral-emotional word. Dr Van Bavel joked that the best way to get a social media post to go viral is to put the word 'disgusting' in it.

People create echo chambers with little crosstalk- there is a moral-emotional divide, a 'you are with me or against me' attitude prevails, with much communication taking the form of virtue signalling. This divide has been weaponized against Americans by Russian operatives. Classic Russian propaganda emphasized images of Russian strength, the new Russian social media propaganda often plays on Americans' cultural divide. Propaganda involves pushing people's buttons, and knowledge about American psychology allowed these trolls to push our tribal buttons. The firm Cambridge Analytica used social media profiles to push a political agenda. In a study published in Science Mag, a team of researchers at MIT confirmed something that has long been held to be true:

"Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends or financial information. We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information."

As the maxim goes, "A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on."

This article was the 9th most discussed article in the history of Science. The issue of the dissemination of falsehood goes beyond crowd size- global warming matters, vaccination matters- commonly believed falsehoods adversely effect crucial policy discussions. The lateral prefrontal cortex plays a role in memory, and memory can be messed up by politics- a falsehood can fit into one's memory if it fits into one's preferred narrative. The problem is that it is hard to have a serious discussion about carbon taxes or carbon credit swaps if the science behind anthropogenic climate change is distorted.

The value placed on the validity of knowledge depends on accuracy goals. In science, finance, and prosecutorial matters, accuracy is important. In politics, belonging goals are important in the formation of communities. Epistemic goals, existential goals, status goals, system goals, and moral goals also play roles in political matters. If other goals are more important than accuracy goals, trouble can result- people can believe falsehoods. People's goals effect their calculations about what to read and what to share.

Dr Van Bavel displayed an example of the 'old', obvious fake news- the classic Weekly World News cover story about Bat Boy. He noted that even the fake news could dabble in political satire. It's often hard to tell fake news from real news now- especially if links are coming from trusted friends. In the recent political scene, both Trump and Clinton have been in the public eye for so long that they have had quotes on both sides of many issues, such as the Iraq war and LGBTQ issues. Liberals tend to value equality and environmental conservation, while conservatives tend to value authority and security- each tended to give more credence to quotes which matched their confirmation bias, while being skeptical of quotes which didn't.

There was a study of fake news sites which utilized items from the satirical Empire News website. There were stories about Hillary Clinton wearing an earpiece during a debate, of Florida Democrats voting to impose Sharia law on women, of Donald Trump imposing a 'one child' policy on minorities. When presenting the fake news stories, there was a 'control' condition in order to determine if subjects would believe any bullshit, such as a story about Leonardo DiCaprio flying an eyebrow stylist 7,500 miles to groom him for the Oscars ceremony. Generally, Democrats believe bad fake news about Republicans and vice versa. Democrats have a better ability to sort out complete bullshit than Republicans- Democrats tend to default to skepticism while Republicans tend to default to credulousness, so there is an asymmetry in bullshit detection.

One in four Americans has shared fake news with others. Dr Van Bavel confessed to sharing three fake news stories, but was called out by scientist friends. Democrats are more reluctant to share fake news than Republicans, an important asymmetry. He illustrated the change in attitudes toward truth with two quotes. The first, attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, is: "Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts." The second, by Stephen Colbert, is: " It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that's not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It's certainty." This shift is really worrisome in its implications. Facebook is concerned with news sources, and is attempting to collate trust scores for different media outlets. The number one fake news story of the 2016 election season was the story of Pope Francis endorsing Trump, which originated with an openly fake news site, WTOE 5. The fake news outstripped the real news. The big problem with having the news crowdsourced through social media is that it is susceptible to hivemind.

The antidote to fake news is increasing accuracy goals. This involves self-reflection. The concept of naïve realism leads us to believe that people who disagree with ourselves are idiots or jerks. We must engage in self-criticism, we must value accuracy. We must also make people publicly accountable for spreading fake news. We should strive to open minds- if belief emerges from identity goals, then challenging the belief threatens identity. The best way to open a mind is to affirm a person's worth while correcting them. For example, pounding antivaxxers with evidence often ends up entrenching their beliefs.

Dr Van Bavel noted that scientists are working on the fake news problem and urged the audience to help them with fix it.

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session. The first question concerned gender differences in attitudes towards fake news, but the sample sizes were too small. Comparing Twitter feeds of men and women, it turned out than men tend to be more emotional regarding politics than women. Regarding the density of brain neurons, there are certain interesting changes that can take place in the brain- London cabbies were found to have high neuron density in the area of the hippocampus that processes spatial memory. Regarding political identity, the 'Dems Left/'Pubs Right' dichotomy is of relatively recent origin- there used to be liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, but now the party affiliation is aligned right vs left. Regarding the Nature/Nurture debate, Dr Van Bavel described it as a bad dichotomy. He compared the political system of the US, with its two major parties, with that of his native Canada, with five major parties, nothing that Canadians had a harder time sorting out an Us vs Them narrative. Some bastard in the audience asked about the role of spite in the political arena, noting that one party tends to elect politicians which want to fund retraining for unemployed Kentucky coal workers while the other party tends to elect politicians to make sure that New Jersey commuters are boned by not funding needed infrastructure. Dr Van Bavel characterized this as Negational Affect toward the outgroup, which is characterized by Schadenfreude toward members of that group, joy at their suffering. He described politics as having gotten as bitter as the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry, partisanship so bad that it is damaging. The bastard in the audience then implored him to study the asymmetry of spite. Because the bastard mentioned Trump's refusal to fund a trans-Hudson rail tunnel, a subsequent questioner referred to him as 'the Jersey guy', much to the bastard's consternation. A question about approaches to identity elicited a great line from Dr Van Bavel: Identity is formed on all levels from neurons to nations. Regarding the dichotomy between 'amygdala oriented cons' and 'cortical oriented libs', Dr Van Bavel noted that conservatives attend to threats, while liberals are attuned to curiosity. In threatening environments, sticking together is a good strategy, while curiosity is a good trait in a safe environment (is this why conservatives want more a more dangerous society?). These are different solutions to evolutionary problems- partisan me has to note that one side of the partisan divide tends not to believe in evolution.

Dr Van Bavel gave an entertaining, lively lecture, even if I personally would have preferred him going 'the full driftglass'. At any rate, here is a video of him discussing the partisan brain:

Relax, pour yourself a beverage, and soak in that SCIENCE! Kudos to Dr Van Bavel, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House for yet another fantastic Secret Science Club lecture.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Drinking on St Joseph's Day

I've been joking for years that the Feast of St Joseph, March 19th, should also be a drinking day, that mid-March should be a multi-day bender, like Carnival in New Orleans. It's traditional to eat zeppole, or sfingi, which are like French crullers filled with custard or cannoli cream, but drinking isn't a big part of the festivities... until now. I went out to get a zeppola this afternoon, but the real event takes place later- I'll be heading down to Brooklyn for this month's Secret Science Club lecture. I'm going to exercise discretion when it comes to imbibing, though, I have to be at work at 5AM tomorrow. I can make it up tomorrow during bar trivia.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Hangovers, Leftovers

Last night was, in the Irish vernacular, good craic. Good friends, good food, and plenty of beer to wash it all down. Then came the whiskey shots- generous shots of Jameson's to be exact. I'm more of a Tullamore Dew man myself, but I'm no a fool who'd say no to Jameson's or Powers or Black Bush or you get the picture. At no point in the night did I feel more than a warm glow, but I sustained that glow for hours.

This morning, I woke up early in order to chug a quart of water, then slowly crawled back up the evolutionary scale. Late morning, I met with friends for breakfast- homemade corned beef hash made from last night's leftovers, capped with slightly runny poached eggs and washed down with plenty of Irish breakfast tea. By 1PM, I was actually in the mood for a bottle of lager.

Tonight, I'll be going out with a bunch of friends to celebrate the birthday of an old high school chum. Every year, he chooses to go to a Brazilian rodizio restaurant, which is weird, because he is one of those people who likes his meat extremely well-done, and the rodizio is an orgy of dripping red meat, rare to medium rare. He always asks the waiters to take a portion of each skewer load back to the kitchen and cook it well-done, and after everybody's eaten, he is starting on his plate of leathery chunks. I don't know why he even bothers going to a place that is a temple to rare meat, but he does to himself this every year. The rest of us enjoy it way more than he does- he spends most of his time minutely inspecting the offerings, then issuing instructions to the befuddled waitstaff. He'd be better off eating at an Applebee's or stealing the immolated offerings off of an altar to Moloch.

At any rate, there will be drinking tonight as well- gotta have at least one capirinha and maybe an Argentine Malbec to balance the carnivory. Tomorrow, the hangover may be back, but there will be no desire to eat any meat of any sort.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Solemn Feast of St Patrick

Oddly enough, I didn't post a big runup to St Patrick's Day. I chalk it up to the fact that this year has been an insane cavalcade of crises and scandals. Well, 'tis the day itself, and I'm going to run out for a beer before heading over to some good friends' house for a fine Irish-American corned beef and cabbage dinner. Time to post a couple of videos, like I typically do to celebrate.

The visit of the openly gay taoiseach Leo Varadkar to the US has been entertaining, with wags on both sides of the Atlantic taking the Mickey concerning Mike Pence's private breakfast with Mr Varadkar. I'd hazard to guess that Pence had bangers on his mind, if not the menu, IYKWIMAITTYD. At any rate, same-sex marriage has been legal for almost two years, so bigotry really isn't an appealing message to the Irish people, least of all the openly-gay, half-Indian Leo Varadkar.

As a show of scorn for the current administration, I figure I'll post two tunes by the late, great Phil Chevron. The first is Under Clery's Clock, a song about a closeted gay man worrying about whether or not his lover will meet him under the clock at the now-defunct Dublin department store Clerys:

The second song is Phil's incredible emigration song Thousands Are Sailing:

The United States took in refugees from Ireland throughout Irish history- people fleeing famine, war, poverty, and oppression made their way to these shores and, to put it in the current idiom, Made America Great... just like all immigrant groups did. Sláinte to everybody reading this, bad luck to the orange ogre, and celebrate your heritage. The Irish are a diaspora people, and have intermarried and intermingled with people from all over the world. We have an especial affinity for Mexicans, another strike against the assholes running this country.

Friday, March 16, 2018

New York State Lost a Champion

This week has been a bad one, as far as the obituaries are concerned. NY 25th district representative Louise Slaughter died at the age of 88 after a fall at her home last week. Representative Slaughter, who represented Rochester, was a breath of fresh air from the northwestern reaches of New York state, a region which all too often causes embarrassment to us liberal downstaters. Louise Slaughter was different, a champion of women's rights, of workers' rights, of access to healthcare. She was a microbiologist as well as a congressional representative, and she advocated for science funding. Most importantly, she advocated for her constituents in the economically disadvantaged district.

Slaughter was an ethical representative and a principled one. Because of her stance on healthcare reform, her office was vandalized and her family was threatened. You can tell the character of an individual by the type of enemies they have, which gives an indication of what a great representative Louise Slaughter was. New York has lost a champion, at a time when we need one the most.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Beware the Ides of March, Orange Julius

Wow, it's funny that March 15th would be the day on which it was revealed that Robert Mueller subpoenaed the Trump Organization concerning its dealings with Russia. This isn't some fake attack on Trump, this is the moment when, in American vernacular English, shit gets real, really real. I imagine the shredders will be working overtime at Trump tower.

The real question is who will inspire the 'Et tu, Brute?' reaction when they spill their guts to the Feds. For a guy who demands loyalty from underlings, Trump certainly doesn't demonstrate this virtue- just ask his wives, the contractors who had the misfortune of working on his projects, his creditors, his investors, his administration's employees. The very idea of some minion volunteering to take the fall for Trump out of some sense of loyalty, or even of omertà, is laughable. I could even see Jared Kushner pulling a Brutus on his father-in-law, just like I could see Trump throwing Jared to the wolves.

At any rate, this administration is playing out as a tragedy which is simultaneously a farce, starring a main character who is both emperor and clown.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A Brilliant Star Extinguished

It was with a considerable sense of melancholy that I heard about the death of Dr Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist and beloved populizer of science. Diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 1963, Dr Hawking wasn't expected to live to gain his PhD, but he beat the odds and coped with his disability through the use of a motorized wheelchair and his signature voice synthesizer which he joked provided him with an American accent.

Dr Hawking's particular genius lay in formulating theories reconciling physics at the quantum level with physics at the galactic level- the itsy bitsy and the biggie wiggie. With Roger Penrose, Hawking authored a series of theorems regarding singularities, one of which he later revised, which held that the Big Bang began as a singularity.

Dr Hawking lent his name to Hawking radiation. It was thought that black holes had an inescapable gravitation field, not even light could defy the force of gravity. Hawking theorized that black body radiation could be emitted from a black hole due to quantum effects. While Hawking radiation hasn't been observed, analogues have been analyzed in labs.

Hawking's big debut in the popular imagination was the 1988 publication of A Brief History of Time, a worldwide bestseller. He quickly became a celebrity, even showcasing his self-deprecating humor in sitcom cameos. In 2005, Hawking released a shorter edition of A Brief History of Time in collaboration with Dr Leonard Mlodinow, who delivered two Secret Science Club lectures. Sadly, I have never seen Dr Hawking in person.

Dr Hawking didn't shy away from politics, or current events- he set the record straight when anti-Obamacare hacks claimed that he would have been allowed to die if he had been British. He also spoke elegantly about the dangers of global warming, specifically calling out Donald Trump. Right wingers seemed to have had bugs up their asses about him, as Stephen Colbert hilariously pointed out.

Stephen Hawking was beloved, and the tributes to him from other scientists have been touching, as was our beloved nerdy former president's tribute. Dr Sean Carroll's tribute to him for the BBC was particularly beautiful- Dr Carroll also delivered a Secret Science Club lecture. Dr Neil Degrasse Tyson, another of the great populizers of science, interviewed Dr Hawking on a recent episode of Star Talk:

My favorite Stephen Hawking moment was his flight in microgravity, when he was freed from the tyranny of the weight of his frail body:

It's a beautiful moment- he looks positively beatific, and his attendants are treating him with genuine tenderness. It takes a lot to get this cynical Yonkers boy to get misty-eyed, but this does it. I was hit by the news of his death, but I will remember him for his brilliance, his passion, his humanity, and his ability to instill his sense of wonder in others, including myself.

As a postscript to this blog entry, I am posting links to three Secret Science Club lectures which mention Hawking radiation- Dr Charles Liu's Astrophysics Endterms Lecture, Drs Gubser's and Pretorius' Tag Team Black Holes Lecture, and Dr Robbert Dijkgraaf's Black Holes, Quantum Mechanics, and String Theory Lecture. I can't help but think that Dr Stephen Hawking would rather have seen us nerding out than crying... not that I'm not doing both. It's been noted that Hawking, who was born on the 300th anniversary of Galileo's death, died on Pi Day and Einstein's birthday, which is perhaps the best nerd joke of all time.