Category Archives: Complex Systems

Discussion #19 – “You’re Not My Type” – the Science and Ethics of Personality Testing

We’re joined this week by musician, writer and director Polash Larsen for a critical look at the world of “personality testing” and in particular the famous Myers-Briggs Type Indicator which categorizes people (“personalities”) as four-letter codes (e.g. ENTP).

If you like Myers-Briggs, I should warn you that we don’t (much). As gentlemen scientists, we’re not fond of any scheme that seeks to linearize a complex, non-linear system – especially when that scheme is then used as a guide for how to treat other people.

Calling someone (or yourself) an ENTP is fine as a game, but claiming it’s somehow scientific is wrong. It’s arbitrary and made up. And then using it to pre-judge people – well, that raises ethical questions.

chimpanzeeENTPs on the prowl

Personality testing and Myers Briggs in particular is very popular in certain circles (e.g. recruiting). The assumption that people have unified “personalities” and that these don’t change over time is common enough to have become a part of our language (she’s not my “type”). There’s something comforting about labelling other people and yourself.

Polash puts forward a plausible hypothesis about this – do we just label ourselves to be who we want to be?

[By the way, the soundtrack for today’s podcast is Paula Abdul’s Opposites Attract. Don’t ask us to explain – just go with us on this one.]

She was our type (in 1989)

Update Monday 2/11: BTW Paula Abdul sends her love! (no, really)

Horoscopes and fortune telling are fun, but we don’t hire and fire based on them (although, see footnote about Raymond Domenach below). By putting people in boxes, we deny them the opportunity (the right!) to surprise us. Labelling people has a painful history – let’s just be careful.

Special note: we should really issue a (mild) bad language warning for this week 🙂

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1Wikipedia entry for the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

2Uncovering the Secret History of Myers-Briggs – excellent piece by Merve Emre.

3Stephen Jay Gould gives a wonderful example of reification in a devastating critique of IQ testing and the concept of intelligence in A Mismeasure of Man

4Explaining the term “bogan” to a non-Australian is always difficult. Maybe the best way is to direct the interested reader to Things Bogans Like.

5The French soccer team was chosen using psychology (no Scorpios!) Raymond Domenach Looks to the Stars

6If you want to find out more about moral psychology (and chickens) check out this page.

Discussion #17 – Ancestors, Kinship and Genomics

Why do we find our ancestors so fascinating? In many cultures, the story of our ancestors is incorporated into daily life and celebrated through ritual. In the modern world we often pride ourselves on our independence from history, our ability to cut free from tradition and remake ourselves in every generation. And yet, as shown by the popularity of ancestry.com and TV shows such as “Who Do You Think You Are”, family history matters. Their stories are our stories.

GGFShourov’s great-grandparents – note the colourization of the photos done by hand

Scientists recognize kin selection as an evolutionary strategy – we care more about those genetically closer to us, all the better to persist our genes. This may operate across time too – our great-grandparents share our genes too, and thus trigger the same feelings of kinship. Brian makes the point that listening to your parents is good evolutionary strategy, but listening to the stories of your extended family in time (i.e. your ancestors) may be even more beneficial.

59898047_072077d3bb_oEveryone is you.

Can we hack kinship selection to make the world a better place? We all share a lot more ancestry than we think. Take any two random people from anywhere in Europe and they share hundreds of ancestors from only 1,000 years ago – similarly for everyone in the world. If we could bring this shared ancestry into our collective consciousness, could it create empathy and love between strangers? Could we make the Golden Rule – “love thy neighbour as yourself” – closer and closer to a tautology?

backtothefuture2Dating your mother … ewww (screenshot from Back to the Future)

We finish with a segue and a controversial thought – were our ancestors happier because they expected less from life? What are the costs of social mobility and equality of opportunity? If we could meet one of our ancestors from centuries ago, what would he or she think of us? The further you go back in time, the less options people had. We assume that caused them pain, but maybe they adjusted to their lot and found contentment – no one told them that “you can be anything you want to be”.

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1ancestry.com.au is the popular Australian franchise of the global genealogy website.

2“Subliminal” by Leonard Mlodinow is a great read – Shourov refers to his phrase that our memories are more like “historical novelists and historians”.

3Brian refers to Ned Kelly, a famous bushranger (highway robber) in Victoria, Australia.

4“Mapping Human History” by Steve Olsen makes the point that we share far more genetic material with strangers than we acknowledge.

5My Big Fat Euopean Family makes the same point “Any two modern-day Europeans, even those living on opposite sides of the continent, may be more closely related than they might think”.

6Brian refers to this story – “The Egg” by Andy Weir.

7For those not from Australia – Richmond is a long suffering football club in the Australian Football League.

Discussion #12 – Atheists, Retail Therapy and Baptist Zombies

Susan Blackmore, a psychologist and researcher who is an authority in the field of “memetics”, posted a recent article on the Richard Dawkins Foundation site describing her dismay at having religious students walk out of one of her memetics lectures. Muslim and Christian students took exception to her description of religion as a “virus of the mind” (ala Dawkins), the Koran as a “horrible book” and other remarks critical of religious faith.

TED2008

Spreading the atheist gospel

The easy narrative here is that Professor Blackmore, an avowed atheist and rationalist, was trying to open the minds of her students and show them the irrationality of their beliefs – and that those students who were offended were displaying an inability to think for themselves and explore alternative viewpoints.

As gentlemen scientists, we don’t think things are quite so simple. We like Dawkins and Blackmore, but we think that they and their compatriots often lack humility. It’s easy to sneer to religious people, but which of our ‘secular’ behaviours and beliefs will be sneered at by the Dawkins of five hundred years from now?

(Brian points out that the modern act of shopping – buying material goods that we don’t need – would be deeply irrational and ridiculous to the members of a Papua New Guinean highland tribe.)

ay_107042114

IKEA

Deeply irrational “viruses of the mind”

We are all selective and biased in our processing of information. We distort reality at every step of the way, often in subconscious ways beyond our control. We are masters of self-deception. And the boundaries of our knowledge are completely opaque to us – we have no idea of what we don’t know.

All of which means that the only rational state of mind is one of humility, skepticism and open-mindedness. Not everything can be falsified now, but just because we can’t do it does not mean that it cannot be done. We know a lot, and vanishingly little at the same time. Not everything can be settled. Arguments rarely if ever change minds, but they can plant a seed. And everyone has an agenda, even the most ‘objective’ of scientists and even (perhaps especially) if they have convinced themselves that they do not.

Our ramblings then move into memetics itself and debate the core meme-gene analogy; religions as memeplexes and useful mutations thereof; proselytization and the power of faith; our responsibility to attempt empathy; how to build bridges; learning by doing, not talking; the good that religions do for individuals and communities.

We love the ideas behind complexity, adaptive systems and evolution and we would defend them anytime, but we don’t feel the need to proselytize. You’re free to listen to our ramblings and opinions, but we are not asking you to share them. As gentlemen scientists we never expect everyone to think exactly the same way that we do.

So we sympathize with Professor Blackmore. But if her objective is to introduce her ideas to new audiences, then insulting their way of life isn’t a great way to do it.

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1Susan Blackmore’s book is called The Meme Machine

2The book that Shourov is currently reading is Deceit and Self Deception by Robert Trivers

3Brian refers to ‘stuff sickness’ as identified by Papuan New Guinea highlanders, but no relevant links can be found. Standby for more on this topic in a future podcast.

4In fact, students walking out on her lecture were demonstrating memes in action – it seems the meme of “walk out on Professor Blackmore” was conceived and transmitted quite effectively within the room without the use of verbal language.

Discussion #8 – Memes, Psychology and Religion – Are we better than we used to be?

This week we welcome John Hanly, our latest guest on the audio blog who has a special personal connection to The Gentlemen Scientists – he is Brian’s father! John has had a long, varied and fascinating career as a Catholic priest in training, a psychologist, businessman and consultant and writer – a true polymath. Tonight he joins us and applies his formidable intellect to questions of memetics, psychology, religion and ethics.

Like many of us, John has a keen and active interest in both science and religion. As the new century brings exciting cross-collaborative developments (such the scientific study of meditation), these also bring new opportunities for us to reconcile what has previously seemed incompatible. The Gentlemen Scientists believe that rambling conversations such as this week’s discussion are more and more the need of the hour.

Along the way we discuss why childhood traumas can so deeply affect adult life, how cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) works, issues of determinism and free will; Dawkin’s definition of the “meme”, the mechanisms of “cultural transmission” and why memetics hasn’t contributed serious results to science; how Buddhist adepts modify their brains to achieve detachment, social learning theory and speculations on why advertising works.

Lord_of_the_FliesImage courtesy catholicvote.org

And we are not afraid of asking the big questions – we finish up by considering the idea of “moral progress” – are we morally and ethically better off as a human society than we used to be – or are we, as in The Lord of the Flies, just savages in slacks?


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1John Conway’s Game of Life is the most famous example of a class of mathematical model systems called cellular automata. It exhibits highly complex and unpredictable emergent behaviours from a set of trivially simple rules.

2This page on Encyclopedia Britannica has a good summary of epigenetics, the modification of gene expression by environment. Epigenetic effects have become better understood in recent years and have modified our views on the mechanisms that drive genetic inheritance.

3The amygdala is an ancient structure within the limbic system which integrates sensory and visceral inputs in time.

4Research with Buddhist monks was done at the University Wiscosin-Madison and reported in the book ‘Happiness’ by Matthieu Ricard. A related talk can be found on TED Talks.

5Explanation of Jung’s theory of archetypes.

6Anti-drink-driving campaigns in Australia run bt the Transport Accident Commission (TAC) have been enormously succesful over the last two decades, significantly reducing Australia’s road toll.

7Donald Rumsfeld’s famous remarks about “unknown unknowns” – although this has long been a subject of ridicule, his argument is excellent and correct.

8“The Surprising Decline of Violence” – Steven Pinker

Discussion #7 – Quantum mechanics, black holes and branes

[Today’s discussion sponsored by The Copenhagen Interpretation remix of R Kelly’s Ignition– the Gentlemen Scientists suggest that you play it as a soundtrack]

The Gentlemen Scientists are joined tonight by guest Nick Raphael, a friend and ex-colleague who is also a graduate in Physics from the University of Manchester. It provides us with an excellent excuse to indulge our interest in Quantum Mechanics, a subject that we love speculating about but one that is often a mystery to us (but as Feynman said, no one really understands quantum physics anyway).

20140515_004654A Gentleman Scientist’s speculative (and possibly incorrect) rendering of space around a black hole leading to another isolated “universe”

We love Quantum Physics, but is it a house of cards? It has had spectacular successes, but it lacks elegance, requires “fine-tuning” of assumptions and the field is a soup of competing theories. And just why is it so counter-intuitive?

We cover a number of the open questions in physics, both quantum and relativity, and then consider some deeper questions about the nature of our scientific method and the essential “knowability” of the universe. Are our current theories simply beautifully tuned approximate models that bears no relation to ‘reality’?


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1The Copenhagen Interpretation is the most widely used interpretation of quantum mechanics.

2Richard Feynman’s quote about quantum physics – “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics”

3Young’s double slit experiment is explained quite nicely in Wikipedia.

4What Einstein meant when he said God does not play dice.

5The book i am reading is The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene – http://www.amazon.com/The-Fabric-Cosmos-Texture-Reality/dp/0375727205

6Stanford online has this explanation of Quantum Field Theory (QFT)

7We still don’t completely understand ‘virtual particles’. There is an attempted explanation online here.

8Brian refers to this Youtube video about special relativity and electro-magnetism.

9Everett’s Many World Theory is explained here. Nick refers to the ‘multiverse’ as a different idea that posits multiple universes existing in space and time (Wikipedia).

10Two articles in Scientific American about open questions in physics:
http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/2013/10/25/physics-biggest-unanswered-questions/
http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/the-curious-wavefunction/2013/11/04/five-other-mysteries-that-should-keep-physicists-awake-at-night/

11Quantum Chemistry? It does exist and there is an International Conference of Quantum Chemistry coming up.

12The double-slit experiment is a watershed in quantum mechanics

13A crazy, detailed speculation on ‘Quantum Consciousness’ from Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff

14A primer on Brane Theory can be found at this page.

15The book ‘The Elegant Universe’ by Brian Greene talks about the Planck Length being the smallest indivisible size of space.

16Brian Cox is a famous English physicist (Wikipedia)

17The Pioneer Anomaly

Discussion #4 – Levels of Consciousness, Meta-Cognition and Supercharged Evolution

[Today’s discussion inspired by Richard Brodie‘s website http://www.memecentral.com/]

Richard Brodie is an interesting cat – author, computer programmer and the inventor of Microsoft Word (!). He likes talking about memes. He writes some wonderful anecdotes. He loves to play poker. And he talks about living at a Level 3 of consciousness.

As Gentlemen Scientists we found Brodie’s ideas to be very thought-provoking, and his website design to be very nostalgic. It seems that “thinking about thinking” leads us to heightened levels of self-control and improves out ability to direct our lives. This kind of “meta-“cognition and self-awareness also leads, somewhat paradoxically, to the ability to consciously take action in the world, rather than simply reacting to stimuli.

Are we on the journey up the ladder of consciousness, and do the rungs of the ladder correspond to extra-levels of “meta-“feedback in our cognition? As we become more receptive to patterns across time and space, are we supercharging cultural and biological evolution by running memetic evolution within our own minds in our own lifetimes?

Untitled-3Cover image from Enchanted Looms, Rodney Cotterill

We have reached the age where we can start discerning patterns in our past behaviour and learning lessons. And now we can ‘direct’ the evolution of the memetic machine in our own heads. Is this what the Eastern religions advocate as ‘self-discovery’? Not only seeing patterns, but then acting on that knowledge. The essentiality of action is something the Gentlemen Scientists agree on. The ‘brain in a vat’ is not viable – one must experience the world through action.

We finish up with a couple of suggestions for machines that might test our ideas – a ‘jazz-aficionado’ computer and an ‘anger-inducing’ machine. The key thing is that each of these AIs would have a ‘body’ to provide a channel for action and a source of randomness and noise. Maybe it’s time we took our own advice and sprung into action ourselves and built one of these machines.

1Richard Brodie’s ideas about ‘Level 3’ consciousness are found on his website at http://www.memecentral.com/level3.htm

2Hysteresis – your current state depends on your history, not just on your current environment http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hysteresis

4Ordering off the Menu – essay by Richard Brodie at http://www.memecentral.com/L3Ordering.htm

4My take on levels of consciousness:

Level 0 – deterministic machine, no learning. Reactive only, respond to stimuli. Machines and maybe the simplest one-celled organisms

Level 1 – live entirely in the moment. Learn but don’t really remember. No concept of self. No self-awareness. Babies and dogs.

Level 2 – live as a Self. Integrate past and imagined future with the present moment. Make decisions based on modelling and recollection (also modelling). Have a solid model of the world and other people that you use as a reference. Interested in absolute positions and times, static patterns in space and time. Self-awareness but little or no meta-level introspection. Most humans live like this.

Level 3 – consciously self-modifying Self. Interested in gradients, rates of change, patterns in phase space or dynamic/changing patterns in space and time. Thinking about thinking. Constantly trying to find patterns in your own behaviour. Able to control Level 2 thinking consciously. Encouraged by some semi-mystical traditions such as meditation and yoga which seek “self-enlightenment” – at their best they encourage meta-level thinking.

Level 4 – who knows, but maybe capable of meta-meta-cognition. Look for patterns in patterns of change.

5Richard Brodie’s anecdote about self-programming at http://www.memecentral.com/L3Programming.htm

6Neuro Linguistic Programming was started in the mid-1970s and informed many ideas in memetics and all kinds of developments in cognitive science and AI

7Enchanted Looms, Rodney Cotterill

8The Way We Think, Fauconnier and Turner – an evocative and detailed overview of the theory of “conceptual blending” which argues for thinking as a series of metaphors that are ultimately informed by embodied experience

9Self-programming – does it really work? And if it does – how the hell can we possibly program ourselves? What is it about our minds that makes it possible to self-modify effectively? Are we supercharging what cultural and biological evolution does? Can one lifetime of Level 3/4 cognition take a human mind to a new level of operation that no one else has attained?

10Thinking about thinking is good. If I think about my thoughts, I can identify errors. Then I can modify my *strategies* to minimize those errors in future.

Thinking about feelings is good. If I think about my feelings, I can identify damaging correlations between my feelings and outcomes. And I can modify my life to avoid those feelings. Or try to detach my actions from those feelings to avoid the damaging actions. A feeling that does not modify my actions cannot hurt me (can it)?

Feeling about feelings is good. If I listen to a song that makes me sad, then I get nostalgic and romantic about the fact that I am sad. Which is kind of bittersweet.

11Not 10,000 generations as mentioned, but maybe 500 generations between us and the authors of the Vedas. Is that long enough for evolution, under a high level of change and stress in the human environment, to have made us into ‘different people’?

12Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahnemann

Discussion #3 – Gods, Pixels and Flocking Birds – Are We Living in a Simulation?

As teenage Gentlemen Scientists, we were gods. We created little worlds and peopled them with creatures, and then watched those creatures – whether bugs, people, trees, or birds – live and die according to our rules. But the reason that we found that fascinating was not because we wielded absolute power, but because our simulations were exciting and unpredictable.

Even though we were the authors of the rules by which our little universes ran, there was never any way for us to predict the behaviour of the system a priori. From simple sets of rules as input, we observed the emergence of complex and sophisticated outputs. It was a profound mystery, and more than anything else it was running these simulations that inspired us to enter a lifetime of Gentlemanly Scientific pursuits.

Flocking Birds

Click image to play the flocking birds simulation – and shoot them down!

But what happens if the agents in a simulation run amok? Could we be living in a simulated world, one in which God has let us run free? And how could we possibly probe our universe in such a way as to investigate the question? Quantum physicists, philosophers and mathematicians have been debating these issues for decades, ever since the Computer Age began. As Gentlemen Scientists, we have added our ramblings to the conversation.

1Edge of chaos – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edge_of_chaos

2Brain in a vat – http://www.iep.utm.edu/brainvat

3COG at MIT –
http://www.ai.mit.edu/projects/humanoid-robotics-group/cog/video.html
http://www.cs.yale.edu/homes/scaz/papers/springer-final-cog.pdf

4Is the Universe a hologram? – http://www.nature.com/news/simulations-back-up-theory-that-universe-is-a-hologram-1.14328

5Anthropic principle – http://www.anthropic-principle.com/?q=anthropic_principle/primer

6Discussion of a message in the digits of PI – http://www.sciencechatforum.com/viewtopic.php?f=39&t=16736

7Turing machine implemented in the Game of Life – check out the amazing screenshot! – http://rendell-attic.org/gol/tm.htm

8P vs NP problem and NP completeness – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complexity_classes_P_and_NP

9Gauge theories in quantum physics – http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Gauge_theories