Sunday, June 28, 2015

I wasn’t born a scientist. And you weren’t either.

There’s a photo which keeps cropping up in my facebook feed and it bothers me. It shows a white girl, maybe three years, kissing a black boy the same age. The caption says “No one is born racist.” It’s adorable. It’s inspirational. But the problem is, it’s not true.

Children aren’t saints. We’re born mistrusting people who look different from us, and we treat those who look like us better. Toddlers already have this “in-group bias” research says. Though I have to admit that, as a physicist, I am generally not impressed by what psychologists consider statistically significant, and I acknowledge it is generally hard to distinguish nature from nurture. But that a preference for people of similar appearance should be a result of evolution isn’t so surprising. We are more supportive to who we share genes with, family ahead of all, and looks are a giveaway.

As we grow up, we should become aware that our bias is both unnecessary and unfair, and take measures to prevent it from being institutionalized. But since we are born being extra suspicious about anybody not from our own clan, it takes conscious educational effort to act against the preference we give to people “like us.” Racist thoughts are not going away by themselves, though one can work to address them – or at least I hope so. But it starts with recognizing one is biased to begin with. And that’s why this photo bothers me. Denying a problem rarely helps solving it.

On the same romantic reasoning I often read that infants are all little scientists, and it’s only our terrible school education that kills curiosity and prevents adults from still thinking scientifically. That is wrong too. Yes, we are born being curious, and as children we learn a lot by trial and error. Ask my daughter who recently learned to make rainbows with the water sprinkler, mostly without soaking herself. But our brains didn’t develop to serve science, they developed to serve ourselves in the first place.

My daughters for example haven’t yet learned to question authority. What mommy speaks is true, period. When the girls were beginning to walk I told them to never, ever, touch the stove when I’m in the kitchen because it’s hot and it hurts and don’t, just don’t. They took this so seriously that for years they were afraid to come anywhere near the stove at any time. Yes, good for them. But if I had told them rainbows are made by garden fairies they’d have believed this too. And to be honest, the stove isn’t hot all that often in our household. Still today much of my daughters’ reasoning begins with “mommy says.” Sooner or later they will move beyond M-theory, or so I hope, but trust in authorities is a cognitive bias that remains with us through adulthood. I have it. You have it. It doesn’t go away by denying it.

Let me be clear that human cognitive biases aren’t generally a bad thing. Most of them developed because they are, or at least have been, of advantage to us. We are for example more likely to put forward opinions that we believe will be well-received by others. This “social desirability bias” is a side-effect of our need to fit into a group for survival. You don’t tell the tribal chief his tent stinks if you have a dozen fellows with spears in the back. How smart of you. While opportunism might benefit our survival, it rarely benefits knowledge discovery though.

It is because of our cognitive shortcomings that scientists have put into place many checks and methods designed to prevent us from lying to ourselves. Experimental groups for example go to lengths preventing bias in data analysis. If your experimental data are questionnaire replies then that’s that, but in physics data aren’t normally very self-revealing. They have to be processed suitably and be analyzed with numerical tools to arrive at useful results. Data has to be binned, cuts have to be made, background has to be subtracted.

There are usually many different ways to process the data, and the more ways you try the more likely you are to find one that delivers an interesting result, just by coincidence. It is pretty much impossible to account for trying different methods because one doesn’t know how much these methods are correlated. So to prevent themselves from inadvertently running multiple searches for a signal that isn’t there, many experimental collaborations agree on a method for data analysis before the data is in, then proceed according to plan.

(Of course if the data are made public this won’t prevent other people to reanalyze the same numbers over and over again. And every once in a while they’ll find some signal whose statistical significance they overestimate because they’re not accounting, can’t account, for all the failed trials. Thus all the CMB anomalies.)

In science as in everyday life the major problems though are the biases we do not account for. Confirmation bias is the probably most prevalent one. If you search the literature for support of your argument, there it is. If you try to avoid that person who asked a nasty question during your seminar, there it is. If you just know you’re right, there it is.

Even though it often isn’t explicitly taught to students, everyone who succeeded making a career in research has learned to work against their own confirmation bias. Failing to list contradicting evidence or shortcomings of one’s own ideas is the easiest way to tell a pseudoscientist. A scientist’s best friend is their inner voice saying: “You are wrong. You are wrong, wrong, W.R.O.N.G.” Try to prove yourself wrong. Then try it again. Try to find someone willing to tell you why you are wrong. Listen. Learn. Look for literature that explains why you are wrong. Then go back to your idea. That’s the way science operates. It’s not the way humans normally operate.

(And lest you want to go meta on me, the title of this post is of course also wrong. We are scientists in some regards but not in others. We like to construct new theories, but we don’t like being proved wrong.)

But there are other cognitive and social biases that affect science which are not as well-known and accounted for as confirmation bias. “Motivated cognition” (aka “wishful thinking”) is one of them. It makes you believe positive outcomes are more likely than they really are. Do you recall them saying the LHC would find evidence for physics beyond the standard model. Oh, they are still saying it will?

Then there is the “sunk cost fallacy”: The more time and effort you’ve spent on SUSY, the less likely you are to call it quits, even though the odds look worse and worse. I had a case of that when I refused to sign up for the Scandinavian Airline frequent flyer program after I realized that I'd be a gold member now had I done this 6 years ago.

I already mentioned the social desirability bias that discourages us from speaking unwelcome truths, but there are other social biases that you can see in action in science.

The “false consensus effect” is one of them. We tend to overestimate how much and how many other people agree with us. Certainly nobody can disagree that string theory is the correct theory of quantum gravity. Right. Or, as Joseph Lykken and Maria Spiropulu put it:
“It is not an exaggeration to say that most of the world’s particle physicists believe that supersymmetry must be true.” (Their emphasis.)
The “halo effect” is the reason we pay more attention to literally every piece of crap a Nobelprize winner utters. The above mentioned “in-group bias” is what makes us think researchers in our own field are more intelligent than others. It’s the way people end up studying psychology because they were too stupid for physics. The “shared information bias” is the one in which we discuss the same “known problems” over and over and over again and fail to pay attention to new information held only by a few people.

One of the most problematic distortions in science is that we consider a fact more likely the more often we have heard of it, called the “attentional bias” or the “mere exposure effect”. Oh, and then there is the mother of all biases, the “bias blind spot,” the insistence that we certainly are not biased.

Cognitive biases we’ve always had of course. Science has progressed regardless, so why should we start paying attention now? (Btw, it’s called the “status-quo-bias”.) We should pay attention now because shortcomings in argumentation become more relevant the more we rely on logical reasoning detached from experimental guidance. This is a problem which affects some areas of theoretical physics more than any other field of science.

The more prevalent problem though is the social biases whose effects become more pronounced the larger the groups are, the tighter they are connected, and the more information is shared. This is why these biases are so much more relevant today than a century, even two decades ago.

You can see these problems in pretty much all areas of science. Everybody seems to be thinking and talking about the same things. We’re not able to leave behind research directions that turn out fruitless, we’re bad at integrating new information, we don’t criticize our colleagues’ ideas because we are afraid of becoming “socially undesirable” when we mention the tent’s stink. We disregard ideas off the mainstream because these come from people “not like us.” And we insist our behavior is good scientific conduct, purely based on our unbiased judgement, because we cannot possibly be influenced by social and psychological effects, no matter how well established.

These are behaviors we have developed not because they are stupid, but because they are beneficial in some situations. But in some situations they can become a hurdle to progress. We weren’t born to be objective and rational. Being a good scientist requires constant self-monitoring and learning about the ways we fool ourselves. Denying the problem doesn’t solve it.

What I really wanted to say is that I’ve finally signed up for the SAS frequent flyer program.

50 comments:

Uncle Al said...

"human cognitive biases aren’t generally a bad thing" Intent must respect empirical reality, or intent is a test-of-faith recursive disaster. Oliver Heaviside re adding inductance in telephone lines, in everything. Asperger's Syndrome people are unpleasant, monomaniacal, and achieving. They are the future.

http://polymatharchives.blogspot.in/2015/01/the-inappropriately-excluded.html
Bad thing.

"“It is not an exaggeration to say that most of the world’s particle physicists believe that supersymmetry must be true." Vacuum exact achiral isotropy contradicts an exclusively matter spacetime geometry. No SUSY. 90 day geometric Eötvös experiment (DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.15107). One day geometric microwave rotation temperature experiment (DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.15439). Four other variants. Perform an experiment that cannot succeed, unless it does. Look, then model.

Luca said...

That's the best definition of M-theory I ever read.

Chapeau!

P.s.: I hope your daughters don't move beyond M-theory too early, nor completely.

Vincelovesfreefood said...

Why does your baby have a science fiction book?

Arun said...

"Sooner or later they will move beyond M-theory, or so I hope, but trust in authorities is a cognitive bias that remains with us through adulthood."

What a zinger!

Arun said...

Dear Bee,

No disagreement with you, but the idea that babies start out unbiased, etc., and are later inculturated into biases, rather than having some innate tendencies towards a bias, is a far less harmful idea than the other extreme of genetic determinism. Genetic determinism is used to promote the idea that helping people, especially by government programs, is pointless, their deplorable state is an immutable result of their genes.

Fortunately, it is becoming clearer to people that possession of the XY or XX chromosomes does not deterministically set sexual orientation, and these chromosomes and the phenotype does not determine gender, with Caitlyn Jenner as a recent example. Since Jenner was a gold medalist in the 1976 Olympics decathlon, no one can say that this is some sickly abnormality.

One would think gender and sexual orientation would be much more strongly selected in for than IQ in the course of human evolution; and therefore unless strong evidence is presented to the contrary -- unlike gender, no IQ genes have been found, only a few that correlate roughly with small IQ differences. One favorite of mine is mentioned on 23andme, in which it is found that mother's breast milk makes a small difference in IQ, but only if one possesses a particular variant of a gene -- IQ determinism, e.g., as promoted by Murray and Hernnstein in their infamous "The Bell Curve" can be safely rejected.

Eric said...

Bee, I think you may have conflated two separate things that are partitioned in time and happen sequentially. I do not agree that babies and children are born with biases that discriminate against people that do not look like us. I distinctly remember as a young child NOT feeling that way towards other children of different races and ethnicity.

The main reasons for that was that at that point in my development I did not have a very firm grasp of "self" and what I was supposed to identify with. Later feelings of separation, such as they are, from people unlike myself came more from training from mentors - parents and teachers. So I think you are wrong that we are born at birth to discriminate against others with different cultural norms and appearances. Most of that feeling comes later and is not inborn. It comes from conditioning.

Moreover, the more one accepts that one's biases mostly come from events in our lives and general conditioning the more one can come to terms with the fluidity of the world around us and not take as gospel things we supposedly know.

Gabriel Cozzella said...

Nice post.

It made me remember a very interesting book called "Thinking fast and slow", that basically covers everything cited.

Henning said...

From personal observation I doubt that any inborn racial bias is very pronounced. I live in the culturally and ethnically most diverse area of the world, the kids in the neighborhood roam the park in very mixed company, and my oldest daughter best friend is of Chinese heritage.

Obviously this is not a scientific observation, but if a baby grows up in a 'tribe' that displays a wider variety of physical characteristics, I doubt that these characteristics will be used to distinguish between 'in-' and 'out-' group.

I find that the diversity affects me in unexpected ways as well. When I go back to ethnically more homogenous places like Germany, the relative monotony of faces now feels very odd to me.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Dear Arun,
Oh, I'm not a genetic determinist. I'm just saying that denying genes play any role at all is almost certainly wrong. The real problem isn't that genes affect our habits, but concluding on base on this that one can't do anything, which just isn't so. The more "nature" you have that you don't like, the more attention you have to pay to "nurture" that what you do like. Best,
Sabine

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Henning,
Well, as they say, anecdotes don't replace data. And as I mentioned in the passing, I'm not myself very convinced of the data, though there have been various studies demonstrating the same-race advantage, or I guess I should say same-appearance advantage. (The one mentioned in the post that I linked to wasn't the one I originally read, but I couldn't find the other reference.) I don't think this is in contradiction with what you say. It doesn't have to be a very pronounced effect, as long as it's systematic. As we've seen historically, sadly, small systematic effects can become self-reinforcing stereotypes leading to segregation. Best,
B.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Gabriel,
Yes, I read Kahneman's book.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Eric,
No, I haven't conflated these things, I meant exactly what I wrote. I don't think that "I remember feeling this or that" is a good basis for an argument, so I don't want to get into this. In any case, these studies are not made on infants of course, but on toddlers, so it is hard to distinguish nature from nurture. As I already said above, I totally agree that nurture does play a role. In fact that was the whole point of my post, saying you have to pay attention to nurture that what you find desirable. Discrimination is such a universal and global problem that I find it hard to see how it can not have a genetic basis. I really don't think that denying this is of any good. Best,
B.

Mike P said...

Sure, sure, a fetus/newborn doesn't know real-world facts. The point should be completely clear that some of the first things a baby will learn, and is motivated to figure out, are "Who am I?", "What's my place?", "Whom do I love/like?", "Who's on my side?", "What can I expect from people not-on-my-side?", "What things are danger?", etc. It's not the answers to such questions that are innate, it's the tendency to think in those terms that is. It's simply a biological imperative that we do so, in order to grow into a human being (it seems to me). Our species has traded off physical maturity of our newborns just so they'll have the excess brain structures that let us think in "human" terms. And sure, different babies grow up in different surroundings. So our biases may differ. But thinking about what we believe isn't a reliable way of figuring out what our subconscious biases really are. That 6th sense we call self-reflection just scratches the surface: it isn't as comprehensive a map of our mind as we "feel" it is. Have you heard of the Peter Principle? Studies show that incompetent people's ignorance is what keeps them from recognizing their own shortcomings. They overestimate themselves and tend to be overconfident.

Hermannus Contractus said...

I think we are all born innocent and that children are little saints. Children do not know yet the word 'mistrust': they neither classify nor segregate. They can feel fear, anguish, but these are truly existential and unadulterated fear and anguish: they feel the limits of their little beings in the vast otherness. Therefore they cry: they cannot better express the desperate need for help.

When children are sad, this is because they feel they cannot do magical things. They do not have ego but they want to live in a wonderful world where everything is magical and misterious. The life of the human being, if one looks reality, is a life of dissapointment of this built-in misterious reality. One has to learn to love oneself and the others in the obnoxious world and this can be truly challenging.

To accept and to develop an attentive mind for other's ideas, regardless of who they are, is to love. This is why I think that the only thing that one has to truly learn is detachment. Detachment of one's own opinions, of one's own work, of one's own taste. Detachment from everything. Human love in the Greek sense of 'agapan' is only possible if one is truly detached (this kind of love is a different nature as e.g 'stergein' i.e. parental love, 'philein' love to your friends or 'eran', i.e. erotic love). It is only when one strives to be objective that love can advance to absolute love. If love comes from attachment, it always distinguishes its object of love from the rest of lovely things.

Children are detached. Even when they say "this is mine" and they sometimes do not want to share, they are detached. Attachment is learnt only later.

And I think, people can be born scientists, people can be born mathematicians. Let us admit it and not be hypocritical. We are not, but others are. Here is one of them:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2035804/A-life-doesnt-add-The-Cambridge-maths-genius-recluse-living-tinned-mackerel.html













nicolas poupart said...

Sabine,

Your speech much looks like that of Descartes "Discourse on Method: rightly conducting the reason and seeking truth in science."

Already in 1637 Descartes despised the unproven blind transmission from generation to generation of bad conceptions, the confinement of schools of thought, the contempt for the confrontation of theories with experience and the intellectual authority that crushed novices.

It seems that after almost four hundred years of application of the method there is always a permanent background of human nature.

Arun,

Regarding the determinism of DNA, we should not forget that it is what which differentiates man of the worm and tomato... it's a lot of determinism here. Human nature is obviously innate. Refusing to conceive that they exists a variability in innate talents in music, mathematics or sport is probably one of the worst science thinking of the time; Obviously, humanism necessities force us to contradict the facts.

Eric said...

Bee,
"No, I haven't conflated these things, I meant exactly what I wrote [that one is born with preferences towards people who look like us]. I don't think that "I remember feeling this or that" is a good basis for an argument, so I don't want to get into this...Discrimination is such a universal and global problem that I find it hard to see how it can not have a genetic basis. I really don't think that denying this is of any good."

I know you believe what you are saying. But contrary to what you would like to portray this post is saying, beneath the surface it is really saying the opposite. It seems to me to be saying that it is natural and OK to be prejudiced as long as you admit it. Moreover, it also seems to be saying that you are not responsible for most of that prejudice because it's out of your (and our) control due to genetics. That's just willed ignorance.

And I have to say it is not surprising from someone raised in Germany. All the current population has little to do with any of the problems back in the 20th century. But that history still leaves a long trail that is difficult to come to grips with. I still think it's better to judge as immoral and prejudiced many people in the previous generations than to relinquish one's own responsibility due to "genetics". What this post seems to me to be saying is you are taking on the errors of previous generations rather that accepting oneself as a clean slate that can operate fairly NOW. And I'm saying that as someone of German extraction, though thoroughly North American, born and bred.

Uncle Al said...

Prodigies are born to their abilities - science, math, engineering, humanities, music, etc. We have expensively, vigorously wasted a solid half-century wondering why the lame, halt, dim-witted, addicted, perverse, diverse, deserving, delusional, and proven unable are as they are - to no effect whatsoever (aside from their unbounded multiplication). We have punctiliously avoided understanding, abetting, and learning how to create the Severely and Profoundly Gifted. Abundant those who so fear their prodigious superiors are discovering that social activisms' free rides emerge from precisely those wallets.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_child_prodigies
http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10150736693757578
Rather than foster brilliance we allocate for its suppression.

coraifeartaigh said...

Hi Bee, all true to some extent. For me, the curious part is how the practice of science, by and large, manages to overcome such biases.
I spent a year working with a group that did nothing but write lengthy papers on such problems, but never tackled the more difficult question of why bridges rarely collapse and planes (usuually) don't fall out of the sky.
Kind regards, Cormac

Henning said...

Sabine, I think your suspicion with regards to the data, and its analysis is well founded. Unfortunately don't have the time to try to locate the original Yale paper, but from what is reported in the online article this is based on behavioral observations in a kindergarten, and there is no indication that there is a control group.

At any rate, the reported results would not contradict an early childhood "learned tribalism". I.e. extraction of features that mark the 'in' versus 'out' group. Some research indicated that when it comes to language this learning starts in the womb. I.e. babies already have a perception of how the language of their immediate care givers is supposed to sound like. If this is indeed an early learning process, then babies born into a mixed cultural and ethnic environment would for instance not latch onto something like skin color as a differentiating characteristics.

The ivy leagues have a mixed record when it comes to apply sound statistic reasoning, my favorite was when Princeton predicted Facebook demise, and the latter retaliated with a paper firmly tongue in cheek.


Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Eric:

"It seems to me to be saying that it is natural and OK to be prejudiced as long as you admit it."

No, this is not what I am saying and if that's what you read you didn't read very attentively. I said the first step to overcoming a prejudice is to recognize it exists.

JimV said...

My speculation (uniformed, but it is fun to speculate - until proven wrong) is that the genetic part is something like pack instinct - the instinct to bond with fellow pack-members and mistrust other packs. The nurture part would then be what defines one's "pack".

Wes Hansen said...

I didn't think you believed in free-will? In a super-deterministic Universe you obviously WERE born a scientist or you'd be something else! Not only that, you were born a quantum gravity phenomenologist!

To me it has a great deal to do with re-incarnation, which is based on karma. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is not chosen by some random democratic process; when he was just a wee lad a group of senior lamas, acting on auspicious events, presented him with a collection of objects, some of which had belonged to him in his previous life and some of which hadn't, and the wee boy separated out all of those objects which had previously belonged to him. And all of these lamas, they're called tulkus (those whose mindstream is developed to the point that they can determine their own rebirth), demonstrate remarkable abilities for abstract reasoning and sutra memorization at very young ages (5 - 7 years). To me, these child prodigies are just picking up where they left off. Take, for instance, Kit Armstrong:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kit_Armstrong

the kid started studying mathematics and musical composition at the University level when he was nine years old! He's a topologist. He never knew his father and his mother is not musically inclined, although she was a Wall Street stockbroker so may have been mathematically inclined.

Perhaps "human cognitive bias" is a psychological term for "strange attractor?" Dammit people, can't we all just speak the same language . . ?





Chris Mannering said...

Wow, Eric, you totally ambushed bee there. She said nothing of the sort, that you "interpreted". Take us through it line by line and demonstrate how you managed to upchuck that nasty, damaging, attack.

Henning said...

Eric, your diatribe doesn't make sense on any level.

You apparently don't realize that the racism in the form of genocidal anti-semitism, as it was executed in Nazi Germany, had nothing to do with identifiable racial features.

To sort things out the Nazis had to mandate genealogy papers to be drawn up for the entire population. You had to prove "Aryan" ancestry three generations back to not be marked as "racially inferior".

Hermannus Contractus said...

Eric, I think what you write constitutes a grave insult that is totally misguided and not at all reflects what is said in Sabine text. You should have given a second thought to your opinion before embarking in what you have written because you only reveal that you have missed the mark and that you are prone to miss the mark.

I find Sabine's text shaped by genuine human understanding and by a fine awareness of our human weaknesses. I think, she has just pointed out these in order to reflect on them, to be more sensitive to them and to be disposed to take appropriate measures when we detect them (some of us, with the help of God). If all people showed such a sensitivity for what is human, society would, no doubt, improve in every aspect.

Quite on the contrary, those who miss the mark because they are prone to miss the mark, finding there some kind of pride, constitute a major danger for society, and I would like you to reflect on this, so that you reach clarity in yourself asking yourself if this is truly what you want.




Phillip Helbig said...

"And I have to say it is not surprising from someone raised in Germany."

Actually, this remark is the only racist remark in this thread.

Eric said...

I guess I need to clarify my remarks though it will probably inspire additional vitriolic remarks from others. Yes, the main subject that Bee wrote about I completely agree with. What I do not agree with vehemently is that children are born to discriminate against people that do not look like themselves. That is just incorrect. This is similar to the idea of original sin and it is an utter contradiction to the main idea of her article. That is why I said what I said.

Everything else that I said, and what I said in reaction to her reply, flowed from that. It is so incorrect to say that about extremely young children and that it can be genetically defined that you are born to be prejudiced, well, it is what would be called in card playing as a "Tell". If you believe that people are born prejudiced then what does that come from? I won't go into the gory details because I think you have figured out what I actually think where that idea comes from. And you're right about that. If Bee is open to retracting that idea as one she fully believes in then I'm open to not going in that direction.

So if you think that is a hateful idea

Henning said...

Eric, as is evident from my earlier comment I also do not agree with the idea "that children are born to discriminate against people that do not look like themselves."

But I also accept that this is a question that very well may be scientifically settled, and that means that I also allow for the possibility to be wrong in my opinion (although I doubt it - after all learned tribalism can very well account for the observed results).

Obviously, for you this whole discussion is essentially ideological.

At any rate, the only "Tell" I see is that to come to such a character assassinating conclusion as you do requires plenty of prejudice, but not on Bee's part.

Phillip Helbig said...

"What I do not agree with vehemently is that children are born to discriminate against people that do not look like themselves. That is just incorrect."

I think you need to back up your claim with some evidence.

It is abundantly clear that we evolved to survive in a climate very different from modern society. Some things from those times are no longer appropriate today, and part of civilization is learning to control such atavistic behaviour. (On the other hand, it is wrong to use this as an excuse to suppress things which do not need to be suppressed.) It is certainly not absurd to claim that children---if they have nothing else to go on---are alarmed by unfamiliar things, which could be a person who looks different, an animal they've never seen, or something else.

Sure, if children are brought up in the right environment, this nurture can completely override nature.

Of course, the nature/nurture debate has been running for a long time, and is not completely solved, though recent research suggests that nature plays a larger role than many people believe. Check out The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, for example.

The problem with your remark is that you claim that Sabine is more likely to believe in a genetic basis for behaviour since she was raised in Germany. Again, is her belief supposed to be due to nature or to nurture? If the former, then you are claiming that Germans are genetically worse than other races, which is something you appear to disagree with in general. So, you probably mean nurture, and claim that people of Sabine's age raised in Germany are less critical of Nazi ideology than they should be. Well, this is simply wrong. Have you ever been to Germany? Have you ever lived in Germany? Do you speak German? Do you know anything about the environment in which Sabine was raised? About her school? About her parents?

If anything, the cultural reaction to the Nazi times has been too strict. Of course, in such a case it is probably better to err on the side of caution. (There is no real problem in being too strict, but there is for example a tendency to paint Hitler as worse than, say, Stalin, even though the latter killed ten times as many people.) In almost all other European countries, right-wing political movements have a larger influence in society than they do in Germany. Of course, most ignorant news programs will send a correspondent to cover a drunk Neonazi in Germany causing some trouble, but will not even mention right-wing parties winning a substantial fraction of the vote in other countries.

So, I conclude that your claim that Sabine's beliefs in this matter are somehow due to her having been raised in Germany is completely wrong. You should present some hard evidence to the contrary or apologize. In either case, quickly.

nicolas poupart said...

I would like to pay homage to Konrad Lorenz, renowned scientist who all his life defended the idea of the existence of innate behavioral tendencies in humans.

As opportunistic Nazi activist, he managed to get a renowned university chair through its contacts with the regime. By cons, by satire and irony, he published articles in the purest style of the Aryan defense advocating the idea that the genetic degradation was not caused by the mixture of races but by self-domestication of the man and only the primitive wild strains (African, Asian and American tribes) were spared the degradation. His writings earned him to lose his privileges and ending up on the western front, he spend the rest of the war in a Russian prisoner camp.

After the war, he maintained his position on the innate tendencies of man despite the enormous pressure of the whole nascent community of ethologists. The allusions to her past and some of his writings were numerous; he never rejected his ideas. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1976, despite its detractors.

His ideas greatly influenced psychology, anthropology and psychiatry. Today, believing that man has no innate behavioral tendencies such as discrimination goes absolutely against the facts.

We must educate the man to not be racist or discriminatory because without education is innate behavioral tendencies will prevail.

Lorenz is one of those rare scientists such as Copernicus and Galileo who are defended scientific truth against the blindness of belief (religious or pseudo-humanist).

Don Foster said...


We could argue the details, but what we innately have is our neural networks and their capacity to compare one complex thing with another and discern similitude or distinction over a vast range of attributes.

Surely this is where science begins.

nicolas poupart said...

To remain consistent, Aristotle's physics is right, everything else are details.

Chris Mannering said...

Eric said If you believe that people are born prejudiced then what does that come from?

Are you bringing ideology to scientific context here? You seem to be attempting to project a threat in what you say here (given the subsequent statements and winding-up)

But it's a good question none-the-less back to you. Would you mind clarifying the basis of your own position; where is it coming from? Could you frame your opinion ina scientific context...you believe humans learn the world in a process that does not facilitate bias?

That's an extradordinary claim, given that 'bias' is a generic. Touching a hot stove engenders a bias against doing it again. Falling off a chair and feeling pain biases a warier outlook on chairs in the future.

No you're not saying that. What you're saying evidence of bias facilitation processes among infants is fine, so long as the biases don't cross any red-lines. Height is probably ok. Nose-size would go unnoticed; wearing a scary pirtates hat, or being the terrifying bear on wheels with the rolling eyes on tellytubbys. All fine. But being a different colour with defferent characteristics.....not fine....babies know better, they don't go there!

tongue in cheek. But seriously, your ideaological preferences are not interesting in the scientific context, and not welcome.

Greg Metcalfe said...

I find this compelling, at first glance. And it's fun to throw science fiction back into the mix.

No, children are not natural born scientists
http://io9.com/5961737/no-children-are-not-natural-born-scientists

Disclaimer: I know nothing about the author, Mathew Francis. He has a blog (linked from that brief io9 article. Looking at it is on my TODO, but not on my MUSTDO. Which probably makes it a WONTDO.

B. Fiend said...

"...I am generally not impressed by what psychologists consider statistically significant..."

...without considering the effect size or (if you're so inclined) the statistical significance of the finding you reference. As if you have decided that, since the p-values accepted in psychology are sometimes too low, all findings from the field can be written off as inferior to your field. Except the ones you find convenient, of course, as you go on to enrich your substantive arguments with a nice collection of findings directly from the psychology literature that does not "impress" you.

The wonderful thing is that prejudice, stereotypes, and lazy thinking are a main focus of this piece.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

B. Fiend,

As should have become obvious when I wrote "The above mentioned “in-group bias” is what makes us think researchers in our own field are more intelligent than others. It’s the way people end up studying psychology because they were too stupid for physics."

Eric said...

I did not come back to this thread for a long time because I knew there would be a backlash against me. I say as I said before, one is not prejudiced at birth against people that don't look like you at birth. It is a fact. That Bee could spout such nonsense and most of you do not question it tell me a lot. Until you have a mirror and are old enough to associate what you look like with other individuals, or even animals, what others have for skin color or other features matter very little.

You are conditioned at a very early age to like the ones that care for you. That is why Bee seems to think people are born to dislike people who do not look like them. Most people are born into families with parents that look like them. It is simply a fact that people will imprint on whoever takes care of them and their needs. An adopted child of a different race than their parents does not instinctually draw back because the parent is of a different color. Even a baby duck that is taken from its mother a very early age will imprint on a human that is feeding, nursing, and taking care of their needs. That also includes love.

The fact that Bee thinks prejudice comes prepackaged and not from nurture tells me a lot. It is also deeply disturbing that the common sense facts I've just raised were not brought up by any of you. I will say again: it tells me that the teutonic idea of prejudice is deeply ingrained in the German psyche. It also tells me that because they know it is bad it has now morphed into being "genetic" and not one's responsibility.

I guess the answer is that most of you, at least those raised in Germany, need to still find an excuse to be prejudiced. Better that than condemn most of a whole previous generation of yours that caused the Holocaust. I still see it acting out in the moralistic tone taken by Schauble and Merkel on the Greeks. The German people always seem to have an excuse for thinking they're better than other people.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Eric,

Your comment merely demonstrate that you didn't even understand what I said. That we instinctively are supportive of those who we think of as genetically related doesn't mean we know instinctively who is and who isn't genetically related. You're confusing two different things. Though anecdotally it is often reported that children who have grown up accidentally with parents who are not their biological parents often seem to have a sense of "not belonging," so even that is questionable. Besides this, I never said, as you claim I did, that "prejudice does not come from nurture". Please stop putting things into my mouth I didn't say. I merely said it most likely has a component due to nature, which then has a risk of becoming part of our societies' structure. It is arguably the case that prejudice has a significant societal basis. Best,

B.

Phillip Helbig said...

"it tells me that the teutonic idea of prejudice is deeply ingrained in the German psyche. It also tells me that because they know it is bad it has now morphed into being "genetic" and not one's responsibility."

Ironically, it is you who is showing how prejudiced you are in the above comment.

You never answered my questions: Do you speak German? Have you ever been to Germany? Do you know personally anyone from Germany?

"Deeply ingrained in the German psyche"? Do you mean genetically? If so, you are guilty of what you accuse others of. Or do you mean culturally? In either case, you are ignorant. Prejudice of the kind you speak of is generally less in Germany than in other countries, perhaps in part because people in Germany have learned from history. And the idea that German society in general tries to excuse the atrocities of the Nazis by claiming that prejudice is inborn is frankly absurd. You apparently know very little of modern German society.

Dragging the economic problems in Greece into this is absurd.

By the way, why don't you post comments under your full name? What have you got to hide?

There is a wonderful Fawlty Towers sketch where there are German guests at the hotel and Basil tells his staff "don't mention the war" but what transpires is that he does at every opportunity. Check it out. John Cleese, who played Basil Fawlty, later sponsored an essay competition called "Don't mention the war" where young people would write about what Germany today is really like. Readers of the English tabloid press have some really bizarre ideas. Part of the program was an exchange programme where young English kids would spend a couple of weeks with a gay barber in Berlin or whatever.

Hermannus Contractus said...

Eric,

I think you are wrong in your comments on the Germans and they just only reflect violence. It is true that in Germany there have been Hitler and many other people that we cannot like. I think, it is also true, as Jean Améry said, that it would have been better that after the Second World War, Germany would have better remained a field of potatoes. They experienced however a 'boom', what they call the 'Wirtschaftswunder' (economic miracle) which, in my view, has not helped to ameliorate the impression that other countries have of Germans after the second World War. After all, the triumphs of economy are almost invariably the ones of cynism and not the ones of humanity.

Such impression can only be superficial, however, and one has to resist to judge too quickly: one is surely worse than that what one judges! Most Germans have also a higher consciousness of suffering and pain, and a higher respect to individuals than I have seen in other countries. Germany has also had Thomas Mann, Heinrich Böll, Mascha Kaleko, Hilde Domin, Walter Benjamin, Anna Seghers, Klabund, Karl Marx, Friedrich Hölderlin, Novalis, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Paul Celan, Ingeborg Bachmann, Jean Améry, Hildegard von Bingen, Hermannus Contractus... Even some Germans that we dislike, because of being heirs to the austerity of violence and barbarism, may show one day another face: There is always hope that a ray of light enter in them as long as there remains some humanity in them.

In hate and violence there is no hope. I think you are the prejudiced one, when you judge Germans in this generality. In a single German person there is already much more depth than in any silly concept that you can bring to say Germans are like that or like that because of that.

Genetics points to weaknesses in our biological nature. These are a fact that cannot be disputed, and I think genetics brings a revolutionary scientific understanding of this fact. We are born frail because of these weaknesses, which are many, compared to our strengths. With love and attentiveness, we can overcome these weaknesses, but love is also work to do, because we are prone to do evil because of the interaction of our weaknesses with the fallen world. And with evil, we cannot overcome anything. I think that this could summarize Sabine's text (if my interpretation is correct).

JimV said...

Communication by language is hard. Usually I stare at what I have written about ten times before submitting a comment, and still when I see it posted the next day I often realize that it didn't express exactly what I meant, or could be misunderstood. "We’re born mistrusting people who look different from us, and we treat those who look like us better." - might be a minor case. Perhaps "We are born with the instinct to mistrust the people whom we will (later) see as looking significantly different than the people whom we are used to seeing..." would have expressed the thought in a way less likely to provoke controversy. Or perhaps not. Certainly the second way sounds more clumsy. Anyway, it seems possible to me that in trying to compress a complex thought into a sentence or two, sometimes the compression is lossy.

The best way to treat this possibility, I think, is to start by trying to determine whether it has occurred, e.g., by asking, "Did you mean that literally? That at the moment of birth we can recognize genetic characteristics of other individuals compared to ourselves?"

Hermannus Contractus said...

By the way, since the current situation in Greece has been mentioned in connection with Germany, I must regrettably -and totally- agree with Jürgen Habermas (whom I also happen to have in great esteem):

http://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/jul/16/merkel-gambling-away-germanys-reputation-over-greece-says-habermas

Merkel has considerably damaged the reputation of Germany with her behavior. This does not mean that Germans are like that or like any other thing. But I would like Germans to reflect on what they are supporting.

Phillip Helbig said...

"Merkel has considerably damaged the reputation of Germany with her behavior. This does not mean that Germans are like that or like any other thing. But I would like Germans to reflect on what they are supporting."

This is getting off topic, so this will be the last comment on this subject. :-)

First, saying that Merkl, or Schäuble, or Germany, is mainly responsible is just wrong. There were only three countries which wanted less strict demands during the last round; all the others were of the opinion of Germany. Yes, Germany has some weight because it is pays the largest section of the EU budget, partly because it has by far the largest population.

Note that some people criticize Merkl, or all those supporting the same decision, for being to hard on Greece, and others do so for being too lax. Whatever you think, it is difficult to reconcile this with some sort of extreme position.

What about the criticism of Merkl in Greece? Quite frankly, anyone who resorts to displaying Merkl with Nazi symbols does not deserve any respect. Constructive criticism is fine, but resorting to this---which has no basis in reality---is just stupid. And it is not just the random protester on the street; Greek politicians have spoken of the other EU countries and terrorists and called the demands social genocide and so on. Among other things, this is a slap in the face of the victims of real terrorism and real genocide.

Most people in Greece would like the money without any conditions. Sorry, that just doesn't work. A country which demonstrably lied in order to join the common currency in the first place, and which has a notoriously inefficient tax system, is not in a position to make demands. They should be thankful for the help they get. If they don't want it, they are free not to take it, but of course have to suffer the consequences.

Hermannus Contractus said...

@Philip

You seem not to have read the article by Habermas and just parrot what seems to be the official German version of the situation. Furthermore, you seem to have no understanding of the situation of Greece and of Greece's reasonable demands.

It is simply not true that "Most people in Greece would like the money without any conditions". This is not the view of the Greek government elected by the majority. They were ready to make concessions and what they sought with the referendum was that the distress of Greek people may be heard in Europe by the accomodated financial sharks, so that, instead of giving further loans in terms of stupid bailouts a much needed restructuring of the debt takes place. A restructuring of the debt does not necessarily mean just to waive the debt (although this would certainly be the most reasonable outcome) but to make it sustainable and payable in a way that does not imply a burden for the people. It is a criminal instance to oblige a country to spend by means of loans in things that are not needed so that the country is never truly able in practice to address the problem that constitutes the major burden. To say, as Schäuble said, that this would go against the Treaty that is written is to admit that the peoples of Europe have no right to amend the law even when the law proves to be inhuman in practice. As if such capitalistic law (not the law of God) did determine the human people and not the contrary.

Please, read the article by Habermas (a German philosopher) also to understand why the meeting of Sunday-Monday was an outright humiliation of Greek people, which are, furthermore, considered either as an 'economic burden' for the EU or as a country with 'geopolitic interest' (USA) but never as what Greece truly is: A people trying to survive and the cradle of western civilization and democracy. As a non-German European I feel outraged that such humiliation is taking place.

I will not go on writing on this off-topic. Sorry.





JimV said...

Totally off-topic, so I have no complaint if this comment is deleted in moderation, but I feel (perhaps wrongly) that I can add something to the last two comments about the situation in Greece.

All the (~dozen) economists I have read on this issue agree there is fault on both sides, but forcing Greece to cut pensions and other government spending further, after severe cuts have already increased Greek unemployment to a level higher than that which occurred in the Great Depression of the 1930's will only make the situation worse. I understand the most recent IMF study agrees with this. The solution for a sovereign country which prints it own currency would be to devalue the currency, making their debts smaller and their exports cheaper, and effectively cutting wages and pensions without the need for massive unemployment - but this can not be done while Greece uses the Euro. The situation, the experts say, is that the type of austerity measures forced on Greece in exchange for loans to pay off its debts have made their debts harder to pay off, by shrinking their revenues (unemployed people do not pay as much tax) faster than the debts.

Mathematically, it seems to me (as a layman) that the economic data support this analysis. Meanwhile, tempers and trust have been lost and personal issues, as well as broader issues of European organization and governance have become involved, and there seems to be no easy way to resolve the issues. I agree that Germans are not solely to blame, but they seem, from afar, to be providing the leadership for the hard-line austerity measures. When only one side of an issue has the capacity to be magnanimous, and the other side has been and is under severe punishment, one's sympathies tend toward the underdog.

Chris Mannering said...

It's unprecedented in peacetime the dish served on the Greeks larger than Greece larger than the table, the Greeks comfortably numb compelling to eat the hills around it as if that were possible and it was able. The Greek Armistice would be a just Christening of this. In what good conscious does the nation with no seat at the table and no invitation comes to be the only one now with a seat to that table?

The currency union the French language brainchild of Bundesbank planning drafted in Bavaria on a German planning table somewhere in Bavaria made of black forest timber and Germany would be with the fullness of time the only winner in the currency union dogs dinner. Germany had secured a capture market the size of a continent, for German manufacture no European partner could begin to compete with. Greek debt in the period was pushed through bv Germans who approved of the Greece fetish for Porsches and other products of superior German manufacture.

Phillip Helbig said...

Yes, I have read the article.

As Sabine said, saying that something is obvious doesn't make it obvious, and by the same token quoting some pundit's opinion doesn't mean that it is true.

While the situation in Greece---at least for the most part their own fault---and possible solutions are a complicated problem, reducing it to the level of "Germany is trying to take over Europe" is just wrong. Had Germany done nothing, the same people would be complaining that Germany wasn't taking over its responsibilities.

Germany, or, more properly, most of the rest of Europe (mentioning only Germany in this context borders on racism), can't force Greece to do anything. However, if Greece wants something from the rest of Europe, Greece can't expect to dictate the terms solely on its own.

Hermannus Contractus said...

Very nicely said JimV. I agree.

Chris Mannering said...

Bee just listen for a few second. Suggest interact with eric no more, Suggest not read either. Your faithful crew likewise. He may be indicating, signal might be strong be

Phillip Helbig said...

"Germany had secured a capture market the size of a continent, for German manufacture no European partner could begin to compete with."

The irony is that most Germans would probably prefer the Mark to the Euro if they had the choice. Alas, they don't, as there are no plebiscites at the federal level, and anti-Euro parties are not an option for most people for a variety of reasons. That Germany join the common currency was a requirement for the reunification, Thatcher probably thinking that it would weaken Germany (which it might have, to some extent). So, to cast the common currency as some dastardly master plan from Germany is to ignore history.