A real philosopher of vegetarianism

June 10, 2011 at 9:40 pm (thinking) (, , , , , , , )

I was very excited to discover the work of Peter Singer, a philosopher and vegetarian who has been very active from the eighties till the present day.  Everyone with an interest in the subject should read his interesting article Utilitarianism and Vegetarianism, a good discussion piece that engages with the philosophical arguments both for, and against, eating meat (although Singer has very clear views).  It is a response to criticism of his earlier philosophical look at the Animal Liberation Movement. The most gratifying thing for me is that is argument is almost identical to my discussion on the subject, which were not based on any philosophical tradition but formed simply from an attempt to be rational, honest and consistent in my moral viewpoint.  The essence of both arguments is utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism is a moral philosophy that argues that we have a moral imperative to maximise the total “utility” in the world.  Each person gains utility from things they like or want, such as food, money, happiness, fulfillment, comfort, pleasurable company, etc, and how important each thing is obviously depends on what else you have.  Books and art are no good if you are starving, but are important once your tummy is full.  Utility is of course a fuzzily defined thing, and could alternatively be called “value”.  Importantly, utilitarianism acknowledges that not all people view all things as equally important – each will have preferences, and these should dictate how things should be shared out.  For example, if me and a friend have two apples and two chocolate bars, and I like apples and he chocolate bars, then we should not share them equally – I should get two apples and he two chocolates.  If only all moral problems were this simple.

For the utilitarian, how something happens doesn’t explicitly matter – only the end result counts.  An example may help distinguish utilitarianism from competing philosophies at this point – let us consider the hero/villain problem.  In scenario 1, imagine you are faced with a burning building and have two options: to save three children from one room, or to save an old man from another.  Almost everyone would agree that the correct “heroic” thing to do is to save the children.  Now in scenario 2 you are a prisoner, and your captors insist that you either shoot three children, or an old man.  If you do not, they will kill all four.  Many people will see this as a true moral dilemma, because you are a “villain” no matter what you do. You have moral responsibility for their death, even though you couldn’t prevent it.  Yet isn’t the outcome exactly the “same” in both scenarios?

Such an argument has no doubt been used to undermine the utilitarianism philosophy, but the analysis is not complete.  The outcome only the same if we count only deaths at the end; it does not take into account the whole of the utility function.  We often “value” (gain utility from) taking a positive action to help others, and additionally we lose utility when forced to hurt others. So the two scenarios are not the same because the total utility in both is different.  Although my example is unambiguous enough so that most people would still spare the children, some people would refuse to kill anyone, therefore removing the blame of the deaths from themselves.  More people would die, but the total utility might still be higher because the blame for the deaths falls squarely on the captor, rather than with yourself.

So this brings me in a roundabout way to the point of this post – that we need to view utility in a very inclusive manner.  Both Singer, and myself, argue in detail that all beings that are capable of having goals, motivations, happiness or discomfort should be part of the equation.  We do not claim that all opinions are equal – just that all are there for consideration.  As Singer puts it, “many nonhuman animals can experience pain and pleasure… in this respect they are like humans and unlike rocks”.  We don’t have to care about rocks, buildings or ice sheets.  But we do have to care about all animals and plants and people, and weight their preferences accordingly.  (Note that this results in having to care about rocks and buildings and ice sheets, but for different reasons).

Singer puts the point across very clearly, in conjunction with some contemporary objections. Central to the argument is that we move away from a “rights” based view of morality towards one that balances all preferences fairly.  I still need to delve further into the literature to expose this fully, but the logic seems sound: rights only place rough bounds on what people can and can’t do, whereas utilitarianism allows for a much more detailed resolution of conflict.  It also allows (he argues that it insists) for varying degrees of importance to be placed on different individuals, therefore allowing animals to be protected on the same basis as people, but to a lesser degree.  I think almost everyone will agree that some account should be placed on animal preferences; that some attempt should be made to prevent them suffering and to have some degree of comfort and freedom; the only issue is how much.

We both agree that utilitarianism implies that circumstances should determine what is OK; there are no absolutes.  Eating meat is fair enough if you are on the brink of starvation; the line moves and is more blurry in normal life.  He is usually vegan but will eat vegetarian food at others houses, for example.  Presumably for Singer the social discomfort of making others cook completely out of their comfort zone is too much when balanced against eating dairy produce.  I tend to agree; such issues can in some cases result in weaker friendships.

As far as I can see so far, the debate hasn’t moved on much.  Read his work, and the responses to his work, and try to place your own views in the argument.  I will try to do so and I’ll post back here with my conclusions.

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Food for thought

April 14, 2010 at 10:46 pm (science) (, , , )

Ingenious Monkey has linked to two excellent talks on morality that are definitely worth a read.  These are my thoughts leading from them.

The first is Jonathan Foer speaking on the morality of what we eat.  He is a vegetarian, and provides a very compelling discussion on it, but takes a very inclusive point of view that I admire.  His basic point is that most people care.  They might make different decisions about how to change the world, but that every person who makes a conscious decision to do something good is on the same side.  In this sense, people who eat free range meat are essentially the same as vegans: they are both making moral choices about how their actions will impact the world.  In this sense, people who care are all on the same side. against people who do not.

His argument is mostly about the impact of choosing what we eat: in America, the food industry is so unrestricted that it’s practices would be abhorrent to everybody if they knew what was going on.  In Europe the situation is somewhat different, with slightly stronger restrictions preventing the most cruel practices.  However the basic point stands: most would know just by visiting a high density farm that its approach was immoral.

I find his faith in humanity somewhat comforting, and it is very reassuring to hear his stories of his grandmother in the war describing why as a homeless starving Jew scavenging for food she would still not eat pork: “If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save”.  Most people would say that some thing do matter, caring for others and ourselves matters, and that is why there is a point to living.

However, it is also somewhat naive, and my main thoughts watching this were things don’t matter as much to people as they might claim.  How many people would really stand by their values in the face of death?  How many people will change the way they behave in order to be consistent with what they believe, rather than chaging what they believe to fit with how they live their lives?  These are tough questions, but I wonder, how many of the food company employees, that see the terrible conditions on these awful farms he discusses, how many of them care ?  I bet that its most of them.  However, when faced between choosing whether to care about the conditions that they subject animals to, they teach themselves not to care.  People are good at that.  So is it really enough to appeal to people’s sense of morality, when we all know deep down that we would sacrifice most of our morals if we felt we had to.

Or perhaps I’m being too cynical: watch it and see for yourself.  I guarantee that anyone who cares will find something to like in his arguments.

(As a side point, he claims that the worst thing to eat in terms of its impact on the lives of others is eggs.  Even free range eggs, in America at least, are produced under the most shocking conditions.  This upsets me because as a conscientious vegetarian I rely on eggs for lots of things… I need to look up what “free range” means in the UK.)

The second speaker is Sam Harris speaking at TED on why science can answer moral questions.  This is an extremely important topic: I can’t emphasise enough how important this is.  Essentially, he points out that on questions of moral values, we have learned to consider all societies as equal.  If a country believes that women in their own country should wear a burka, we say that is fine.  If they believe in corporal punishment, we say let them do it.  This is despite strong opposition to these things at home – we can believe that things are wrong for some people and right for others.

Harris argues that actually, if we take a broad definition of what morality is for (to maximise the well being of conscious creatures) then there are provably right answers for what are the best set of moral values.  These facts can be obtained through the application of science to the brain, and to society.  For example, does corporal punishment increase the physical and mental well being of all that grow up and then live in the society, or does it not?  This has a simple, “yes or no” answer that we can obtain through scientific study.

We should stop pretending that all opinions on morality are equal.  Some moralities are better than others, and people who have attempted to find out the right best answers via rational scientific approaches will be better placed to judge than those who haven’t.  In other words, we should stop the pandering to all cultures (including our own) and focus on making changes that are in everyone’s best interest.

Not everything is getting put up for question here.  There are some issues that are genuinely different in different societies: he shows a plot of the “morality landscape” that has several maximum points on.  If such differences exist they should be respected – his point is that there are some universal truths to morality and we should not pretend to be ignorent of them.

I really like his point, and it is a very important and well made one.  There are however some dangers.  What about when we disagree over the best thing to do?  Presumably the correct answer would be to change nothing until the answer could be decided by science – but this could take hundreds of years to resolve in some cases, particularly if there was a dispute that involved claiming that the “best” thing would make life worse in one particular cluture.  But without such an approach, we would be seen as imposing our own moral system onto others, which could cause more problems than it solves.  Diversity is celebrated mostly because its too much trouble to try to prevent people doing what they want.  Additionally, moral codes are used as identifiers: if you tell Muslims they shouldn’t force women to wear burkas, then many women may actually choose to wear them, simply to state to the world, “I am Muslim, and it is important to me”.  This will reinforce the wearing of burkas and make the society less likely to permit non-wearing as acceptable. (I should say that burkas are not legally compulsory in most Muslim states – but the social implications of not wearing them vary to the point that they could be considered as effectively compulsory in some cases.)

But generally, I’m very much for this.  We really do need to stop pretending that all opinions on morality are equal, because they quite simply are not.  And that is not just my opinion: some moral frameworks really do result in higher well being for all than others.

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Logic and morality

April 5, 2010 at 10:58 pm (Articles) (, , , , )

I’ve written a detailed article, and an argument map, explaining why I think vegetarianism is a logical conclusion for people trying to be moral.  So far, I’ve succeeded in convincing exactly zero people.

Why is it that people are not convinced?

The first explanation is that I’m wrong.  It is certainly possible that there are aspects of my argument that can be mitigated.  Obviously, I’ve started with the concept of vegetarianism and argued from there – perhaps if I had to refute an argument for eating meat written by a meat-eater, I would have a harder time making it seem so incontrovertible.  However, it’s never a logical response that people reject my arguments with.  Somehow, logic is irrelevant in convincing people.

A second explanation is that people don’t really want to be moral.  I’m partially convinced that this is true, to a point: we are certainly willing to compromise our morality.  I often get “But meat tastes so good!”, which is an argument made either in jest, or with the implicit assumption that its OK to be amoral if it pleases us. But most people I know are genuinely good people.  They go out of their way to help others at no personal gain and they believe in animal rights.  I don’t think we can simply disregard morality.

A third explanation is that people haven’t got time or energy to fully take it in.  This makes them sound pretty lazy – after all, who could say that they support killing because they couldn’t be bothered to think about whether it was bad?  But actually, it is a complex problem.  My argument map shows how complicated the arguments get.  I’m asking people to understand this whole map, and figure out exactly how they disagree with it.  Or alternatively, to create an equivalent argument for their own position that I can think about.  This is a huge intellectual undertaking.

But actually, there is a fourth explanation (which to some extent encompasses the second and third): Human logic is an insufficient tool for morality.

What is logic for?

In practical life, logic tells you how to solve a problem.  If you want to cross a river, it can tell you how to do it based on your knowledge of how the materials at hand behave: for example, that wood floats.  If you want to be “be moral” it tells you what actions you can take to bring about things that you think are good.  What logic can’t do is tell you what to want to do; which problems to solve. It can’t tell you that you want to cross the river, or that you want to be moral, unless these are part of some greater “want” that itself cannot be explained by logic.

So far it would appear that logic can tell you how to be moral.  But the problem is that we aren’t inherently logical creatures.  We don’t sit and figure out every nuance of a problem logically before embarking on it – we just figure out what to do next, and do it.  We might make a simple raft to cross a river, and if that is good enough then we cross and don’t think any more about it.  If it’s not good enough, then we think about how to make a better raft, or perhaps a bridge.  So our logic gets repeatedly tested until it works.  As a scientist, I know from long experience that this is exactly how people proceed with complicated problems, even if they know everything they need to get the right answer in advance.  It’s simply too difficult to get the logic right first time. Human logic is an empirical process of testing ideas, rather than a deductive process.

Now think about how we solve the problem of “what is moral behaviour?”.  We think of some things that we want to do achieve with morality: a better world for all, fairness, treating others as we wish to be treated.  Then we think of how to do it, perhaps by charity, vegetarianism, or kindness.  But what test can there be for each individual action?  Everything we might choose to do makes us feel better, because we feel like we are being moral.  Unless we can perceive a clear wrong brought about by our actions, they are affirmed as being moral.  There is no way for us to tell if the world really is a better place, or if we are being truly fair.  There is no way for us to test our morality.

Some evidence for the lack of logic in moral codes

There is plenty of evidence that many systems of morality will lead to happy satisfaction that we are being moral.  Victorian society believed that all implications of sex were amoral: it was apparently amoral to use the word leg when talking to a lady.  In Muslim Dubai kissing in public is amoral, and even being raped can be a crime against morality. Such strict taboos on public behaviour are rare today, but of course all societies have an element of arbitrary morality.  We shouldn’t think that this is restricted to other, unfair societies: an example that western culture embraces the taboo on is public nudity.  Is public nakedness really amoral?  If so, why?  A more difficult issue is criminal punishment.  Is punishment primarily for the benefit of the victim, taking the form of restitution or retribution, for society in the form of incapacitation or deterrence of criminals, or is for the rehabilitation of the criminal?  All of these purposes rub against each other and we must make value judgements, e.g. about when to release criminals, or what a prison should be like.  Essentially, people purposefully obeying a moral code think they are good people for doing so, even though others may consider the same behaviour as immoral.

People believe they are moral if they are personally satisfied that their actions are moral.  Logic doesn’t come into it much, until people have a reason to question an aspect of the moral code.  If an illogical moral restriction impinges on a person they quickly realise that it is wrong, but its hard to think deeply about issues that nobody is actively making noise about.  Why question the public nudity taboo if everybody is happy anyway?  Why question eating meat when animals don’t complain?

So what does this mean for morality?

I’m forming the opinion that true morality, in the sense of encompassing all logical consequences of what we want from morality, is impossible in a real society.  Unless the code was enforced from the top down, even “good” people will not conform to such rules because they will not be able to accept the necessity for all of them.  This is because if a person mentally skips the deeper layers of thinking about the implications of their choices, there will be no consequences for them.  Such a person feels exactly as happy as a person fulfilling all the logical implications, both believing they are truly moral. And any system that is enforced from above is not morality, but just a system of society. (Though some society systems will clearly be better than others).

I make it sound like we need to be lazy and thoughtless to fail to be fully moral, but this is not really true.  We sometimes simply don’t know what is the most moral choice.  For example, I don’t give charity to beggars, because I’m told that its better to give to charities for the homeless instead.  However, I’m pretty sure that the jury is still out on which is truly better.  For example, if nobody gave to beggars then anyone who didn’t fulfil the requirements of the shelters would simply starve or freeze if they don’t turn to crime.  Alternatively, if everyone gave to the shelters directly, then they may have enough money to take everyone in.  So who should we give our money to?  The reality is that such uncertainties exist in all aspects of morality.

Rounding up: vegetarianism

I’m fairly depressed about morality after concluding that logic can’t help change people.  It seems as though we need to enshrine morality in our rules (either social or legal) for them to be fully accepted by all.  Although there is capacity for rapid society change (for example, smoking has gone from being common with a positive image to rare and disapproved of in only one generation), such changes require a concerted effort from all aspects of society.  Additionally there needs to be some motivation to the average person for change.  I hope for a fairer, more moral future, in which people genuinely consider their actions morally.  But the argument above has convinced me that it won’t happen simply by explaining the logic to people.

There is a parallel to the anti-slavery movement here – and I do believe that it is possible that future generations may view eating meat with the same level of repugnance that we view slavery.  Ending slavery required several things: it required a viable alternative (advances in machinery made slave labour less necessary), and a concerted effort by anti-slavery advocates to make slavers realise that it was immoral.  The viable alternatives to meat exist now: there is no need to eat meat any more.  But there is no body of people that find vegetarianism to be a very important subject, worth ruining lives over.  This is partially because it is a less important topic, but partially because there are no humans that it strongly affects.

This leads to a quandary to someone like me, who hopes to encourage vegetarianism.  On the one hand, I think the world would be a better place if more people embraced vegetarianism.  However, to bring that about I can’t just use logic and argument.  This has been done for thousands of years and achieved little.  Instead I have to advocate vegetarianism, to make a real detrimental impact on peoples lives if they don’t accept it, because that is how people will come to realise that the change is necessary.  This can mean anything from an aggressive political movement to strongly stating my point when people eat meat around me.  Such aggression goes against another rule of morality that I think is important: we should live and let live.  We should respect each others opinions, even when we believe them to be wrong.  For example, although I believe vegetarianism is an extremely important part of a truly moral society, others think other things, many of which I don’t want forced on me.

So should I become a more vocal vegetarian?  My argument above leads me to believe that no societal change can come about unless vegetarians are more vocal.  Yet to become vocal will strain friendships, cause tensions and generally make for a less happy life for many.  And unless I convince many other vegetarians to do the same, it would be for nothing anyway. Does morality require that I try to change others, or  is it enough to satisfy my own moral code?  Which is the greater good?

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Vegetarianism Argument Map

April 3, 2010 at 1:22 pm (Articles) (, , , , , )

I recently discovered a standard way of formulating logical discussion as an argument map on the blog philosophical disquisitions.  Basically this involves taking a starting point, making arguments that follow from the starting point, then drawing a conclusion.  The clever part is that you show counterarguments (e.g. does this really follow?  Can we conclude that from the preceding points?) back and forth until one side of the debate wins.

I’ve drawn up my essay on vegetarianism in argument map form.  The stages building up the argument are below; you might prefer to look at the high resolution pdf of the full thing, and a pdf slideshow introducing the arguments in the stages below, or a cleaner pdf without a background.

Arguments leading to vegetarianism.

Perhaps “Animals are included in the system” needs justification; but in this system, we can argue why it shouldn’t be true instead.  The same set of arguments come out in the end.

Counter arguments, stage 1.

Here we attack the argument in two places; should we include animals in the system morality, and can we eat them anyway if we do?  Of course, it is possible to attack the assumption of morality being something to aspire to.  The alternative assumptions appear later, and I discuss the issue at length in my essay.  Most of us do aspire to being moral at some level.

Main set of counter-arguments for vegetarianism.

Now I’ve introduced evidence and argument as separate things.  However, in the map they appear quite similarly.  In the “Animals have no souls” I’ve allowed the implicit assumption that there is a real thing called the soul, because anyone citing the religious argument might make this assumption (even though I personally do not).  This is because I don’t think the soul argument permits animals to be mistreated (i.e. excluded from morality) even if it were true.  The evidence for culture and language in animals of course don’t mean they are as complex as in humans; simply that they do exist.  So we can still claim to be superior to animals but only by a matter of scale, which doesn’t exclude animals from the system of morality (though places less emphasis on their needs relative to ours).

Final Counter arguments

Here, the two consistent assumptions that I can see against vegetarianism appear: either we make a religious assumption and take the holy texts as our literal source of moral commandments, or we accept that we don’t think morality is a real thing to aspire to.

Argument map for vegetarianism

Finally, the full argument map is completed.  The “Benefit of the doubt” argument is clearly the most important one here; there are only two ways around it as far as I see.  Firstly, we can do more science and remove the doubt; this is still a very long way away from what science can achieve though as it requires a full understanding of animal and human consciousness.  Secondly, the “duty to give the benefit of the doubt” argument could be attacked, although I don’t personally see how.

I see the argument for vegetarianism as being very well supported here, because we only need doubt to be able to defeat any other counter-argument.  Now its been expressed clearly, can anyone add any red boxes to attack the remaining yellow?

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Social feedback and IQ

February 13, 2010 at 11:42 pm (science) (, , , , , , , , )

I recently discussed whether races exist and claimed that we should ignore apparent differences between people in the name of morality.  A comment about IQ differences made me realise that the main reason that we should ignore these differences is because there is a feedback between how we see the world, and how it is. This probably applies to lots of social phenomena, but I’m thinking about observed differences in IQ.

I was fairly ignorant about IQ research; it is not very evenly discussed in the media.  So it came as a shock to me to discover that social scientists have observed large differences in IQ between different groups of people.  After accounting for all the variables the scientists could think of, it still turns out that black people lag white (and white lag asians) by an appreciable amount.  The widespread conclusion is that this must have a genetic explanation.

On matters on measuring IQ, and what it means, I bow to the expertise of the experts.  However, a brief examination of their statistical methods I became concerned about the definition of “accounting for variables”.  Accounting for, say income, means looking at whether income correlates with IQ, and subtracting some multiple of income from IQ so that there is no longer any correlation.  (There are also more sophisticated methods trying to achieve a similar aim.)

The correction above works when the effects are “linear”. But IQ is not at all linear. The IQ of a parent affects the IQ of a child, via poor nutrition in the womb, lower access to education, larger family sizes, different childhood priorities, amongst other things. This makes it much harder to understand in IQ (although the more sophisticated methods mentioned above are designed to correct for these, to some extent).

But much worse than this is social feedback.  We know that perceived IQ can affect peoples actual IQ; if the world considers them stupid (say, relative to the average IQ), then this can make a person consider themselves stupid.  If someone considers themselves stupid then they are unlikely to persue an intellectual lifestyle.  This leads to a low measured IQ, which is passed onto children in a “viscious circle”.  On top of that, genuine discrimination can act and make the problem dramatically worse.

Can the model above “correct” for this sort of bias too?  It depends how the bias works in reality; but for a broad range of possibilities the answer is “No”.  It could even be mathematically impossible.

Lets assume from now on there is no genetic difference in IQ between two groups – which could be “black” and “white”.  We will also assume that investment in IQ is the same for both groups, and there is no unfair discrimination.  But IQ changes slowly; the IQ of a person’s parents affects their own IQ.

Without any investment IQ is at some minimum level Imin.  The initial IQ of the two groups is above this.  The investment level is called r, which controls the rate that IQ grows towards Imax, where it stops.  This is described by the following equation for “Change in IQ” (per generation) for group i :

This says that the change in IQ increases at rate r towards Imax (if r is positive) or towards Imin (if r is negative).  A genetic difference in IQ would mean that Imax was different between the two groups.  The standard methods would correctly calculate Imax in this case, and so determine if there were an innate difference in IQ.

Now we introduce social bias, which acts to change the rate r that IQ changes.  The bias b is proportional to how far IQ is from the average over all groups.  The bias parameter b controls how much a 1 point difference from the average IQ (over both groups) slows growth by.  Now the equation looks like this:

This is the same equation when b=0, but the growth rate is lower for IQ less than the average IQ (I with a line over it) when b>0.  Even with bias, things might not be too bad.  Here is what happens when we start the two populations close to each other:

IQ model with r=0.01, Imin=50, Imax=100, with similar starting IQs. Black line: Lower initial IQ group (initial IQ=75); Red line: Higher initial IQ group (IQ=80). Left: No bias b=0. Right: Small bias b=0.001. Time is in generations (about 20 years).

Without social bias, both IQs increase towards the same Imax.  With the social bias, the group with the lower initial intelligence increases less rapidly, but still goes to the same Imax.  The above methods would struggle, but eventually get the correct answer  for Imax in this case.

Now consider what happens when the initial difference is a bit larger.

IQ model with r=0.01, Imin=50, Imax=100, with different initial IQs. Black line: Lower initial IQ group (initial IQ=75); Red line: Higher initial IQ group (IQ=90). Left: No bias b=0. Right: Small bias b=0.001. Time is in generations (about 20 years).

In  this case with social bias, the IQ of the population that starts lower goes down!  The social bias leads to a growing difference in IQ between the two groups, and so the lower group “gives up” – perhaps surviving by focussing on avenues that don’t require a high IQ, or a high perceived IQ.

The above “correction” method fails entirely in this scenario.  Its extremely difficult to detect whether an observed difference in IQs is due to this sort of social feedback with the same Imax, or due to a real difference in Imax between the two populations.

Of course, this model is wrong.  Its far too simple and only captures some rough features of the truth about IQ.  But a huge class of models exhibit this sort of behaviour – called bistability – that can lead to two “genetically” identical populations ending up with different observed IQs, and we certainly don’t know enough to rule them out at the moment.  I found very little work trying to look into models for how IQ might change.  Until this possibility is ruled out, observed IQ differences should (scientifically!) be attributed to social feedback acting on historical differences.  If scientists don’t address the problem of social feedback, we can’t expect the world to!  Instead, if we assume that the observed difference is probably a genetic difference, this will increase the overall bias b and we may never know the truth.

Notes: I did a very brief literature search, detailed in comment number 2 of this post.  For completeness, this is repeated below.

The mathematical model is entirely arbitrary and comes from the simplest model that is bistable (which fortunately is a plausible first model in this case).  I don’t have any good references for models although Turchins 2002 book “Historical Dynamics” contains a nice summary of what level of complexity is required to produce which features.  “Accounting for variables” above means performing a linear regression (sometimes twice), which is a standard statistical procedure detailed in any statistics book.  Clearly for this criticism to be watertight, I need to establish that nobody has tried to fit dynamical models such as the one above to IQ data.  I don’t know whether anything like that exists in the literature (I bet it does somewhere) but it is not a standard feature of IQ studies.  I’ve seen it in other contexts, such as IQ of individuals over time, but not for social groups.  To be convincing, the above model would have to be replaced by one in which different individuals have different IQs, and real decision processes are used to establish how the bias behaves.  This sounds like a difficult, but not impossible task.

My IQ literature search: Nature recently featured a two-sided discussion on whether science should even study IQ in the context of race at all (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v457/n7231/full/457786a.html). As you point out, twin studies show remarkable correlation between genetics and IQ. This is no surprise – we all believe that intelligence is inherited to some degree within families. Additionally, there is a consistent IQ difference of 4-5 points between the sexes (Lynn, Personality and Individual Differences
February 1998, 24:289-290; Blinkhorn, Nature 438:31-32 2005). There are huge continental differences of tens of points (nicely illustrated by http://alfin2100.blogspot.com/2009/04/iq-by-nation-iq-by-race-us-iq-inherited.html), and large (10 point) geographical differences between areas of the single country of Italy (Lynn 2010, Intelligence 38:93-100). A summary of such results is given by (Rushton and Jensen 2005, Psychology, Public Policy, and Law 11:235–294).

These researchers look for differences and find them. The problem is the circular nature of intelligence: low IQ in parents leads to poor nutrition, low childhood support, poor education, and hence low IQ in children (this is called the “self-fulfilment hypothesis”). Again, the evidence that such a cycle exists is uncontroversial – whether it explains the whole distribution of Iq’s is strongly disputed. Much apparently “genetic” variation in IQ is explained by conditions in the womb (Devlin et al. . 1997, Nature 31;388(6641):468-71). Perceptions of IQ change behaviour and hence lifelong learning potential (The Confounding of Perception of I.Q. on a Measure of Adaptive
Behavior, Bobner, Ronald F et al – sorry this is a conference proceeding; also Sutherland and Goldschmid 1974, Child Development, 45:852-856). Early parenting factors are important for long term academic achievement (Englund et al. Journal of Educational Psychology, 2004), which means that family size and social class are going to be important too.

The consensus in the literature is that self-fulfilment does occur but nobody has modelled it in such a way that it accounts for all observed IQ differences (Jussim and Harber 2005, Personality and Social Psychology Review, 9:131-155; also http://psychology.uwo.ca/faculty/rushtonpdfs/PPPL1.pdf).

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Hobbes’ morality and vegetarianism

February 7, 2010 at 4:49 pm (thinking) (, , , )

My post about the morality of vegetarianism was my own personal reasoning for not eating meat.  However, it seems now that it bears a lot in common with the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, a 16th century British philosopher.  His book, Leviathan, was about how society should be organised, but it can be given a moralistic interpretation as discussed by David Gauthier.  I haven’t read this book; I learned about the relationship from the blog “Philosophical Disquisitions“, which contains an excellent summary of the philosophy read by the blogger.  This leads to some very accessible philosophy and is highly recommended.  The series on Hobb’s moral theory goes into detail about what Hobb’s theory looks like (although he hasn’t posted about the whole book yet).

As far as I can tell, the gist of Hobb’s theory is:

  1. The Rights of Nature: we have a “right” to use our power to preserve our liberty and nature (which includes our goals and desires).
  2. The Laws of Nature: we can persue and act upon anything that follows logically from our rights.
  3. Obligation: we are obligated to do something that in accordance with our laws.
  4. Justice: acting in accordance with our obligations.

All this is a bit confusing, but I think the point is that every person will act according to their rights of nature, and that no society can function if it requires people to give them up (because they are obligated to persue them).  Therefore we should form a moral society where nobody is forced to live without the rights of nature.

If my interpretation is correct, then my morality of vegetarianism is simply applying this to all beings.  All beings have some essential rights of nature (and these don’t all have to be the same); they can and must persue them; and we all have a moral obligation to permit them to, provided that it doesn’t interfere with our own moral rights.

Perhaps there are some real differences; firstly, people have an ability to enforce their rights via warfare, terrorism, etc that animals are incapable of, so the imperative to turn from what they want into what we should do is not equivalent.  Secondly, I spent quite a lot of effort discussing whether animals had a “nature” in the same sense that people do (i.e. do they really care the same way if they die or live controlled lives?).  Since I think I succeeded in concluding that we couldn’t rule this second point out, and I don’t think the first is relevant to morality (only to power), I think the comparison is fair.

An alternative interpretation might be that eating meat is a right; since it is in our power, we can therefore do it.  It basically comes down to whether non-humans get their rights considered or not.

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When knowing something makes it true

February 7, 2010 at 2:03 pm (science) (, , , , , )

I recently posted a discussion on whether races exist.  I argued that races might exist, but that it wasn’t useful to use the word.

A comment by JL made me rethink my argument.  I haven’t changed my conclusions (notice how rarely this happens?  Its almost like we we use logic to justify our conclusions rather than to deduce our conclusions… but that is a different post entirely). But I have realised that I missed an extremely important point, one which changes the whole concept of scientific hypothesis.

Whether we believe a-priori that IQ differences between races exist can affect whether it is true.

Consider this.  Imagine that scientists say “differences in IQ between races might exist”.  We all see differences in IQ in the real world.  People say, “yes, this could be true”, and act accordingly.  Perhaps, all other things being equal, schools invest in children from the perceived higher IQ race (lets call them race 1).  Perhaps people give jobs to those people from race 1 preferentially – all other things being equal.  Of course, when someone from race 2 is better for the job, they get it.

This generation of children grow up; they are educated in the same way as their parents; they get jobs the same way as their parents.  They have children, and so it goes on.

Now imagine that IQ is determined by both race and upbringing.  People from race 2 have, on average, worse jobs.  They can’t afford high quality education.  So they do, in fact have lower IQ.  The scientists can measure this; the hypothesis is confirmed.  Breaking news!

Does this all sound familiar?  That’s because it already happened.  It is of course trivial; both scientists and non-scientists alike have seen this in action.  But the ramifications for social science are immense.  Normally science works by starting with a “null hypothesis” (how we believe the world might work) and comparing it to a “hypothesis” (something we want to test).  But in measuring IQ differences, our choice of “null hypothesis” can affect the truth of the hypothesis!  If we say, as above, that differences might exist in our null hypothesis, then they do.  If we instead choose the null hypothesis that all races are equal – and insist on this to the world at large – then, and only then, might we be able to measure that IQ differences do not exist.

In other words, the whole world is an experiment: by banning racism we have started a test of whether racial differences really exist.  Only time will tell if this is true or false, whether IQ differences exist are equalising.  But this is only possible since we chose to treat the world as if racial differences do not exist.

This conclusion could be reached on any social science problem where our measures are imperfect.  The problem lies in measures of IQ being biased to an unknown degree by upbringing; but finding a perfect measure is a hopeless task.  It means that science has to work intimately with policy; to measure people we have a scientific and moral obligation to treat all people as equal, because without doing so we can never know if they are.

Whether people really are equal is in some sense irrelevant.  They can only be equal if we assume that they are.

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Nothing in Biology Makes Sense…

February 21, 2009 at 3:40 pm (Articles, religion) (, , , , , , , , )

Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.

These are the words of Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the founding fathers of the quantitative study of evolution. He wrote an essay about why evolution is so important, and also discussed how he reconciled his Christian faith and the scientific theory of evolution.

The evidence for evolution is overwhelming, if you accept scientific reasoning. There is mathematically no way that evolution could not occur if just three things are true: more creatures are born than get to reproduce; they can vary in new ways; and that these variations are inherited. The first is trivially true as any look in the garden will show, as is the third: for example people take after their parents. The second is more difficult because although all individuals do vary, they mostly do so in an uncreative way by mixing up the traits of their parents. But it does occur: mutations are the source of these creative changes and it has been demonstrated many times that novel abilities (at the microscopic level) can arise.

There is a resurgence recently, particularly in America, to doubt evolution for religious reasons. However, this doesn’t have anything to do with the religion per se, but is a cultural phenomenon. Dobzhansky quite powerfully argues that to deny evolution on religious grounds is verging on blasphemous: it implies that the creator deliberately set out to deceive us. We have the ability to reason about the origins of fossils, or of finches in the Galapogos, and explain why they are there. There is no hole in the theory that has yet been found. To believe that this is some elaborate charade is absurd.

Dobzhansky believed in creation: that god created the world such that we would be here today.  It is a matter of philosophy whether this happened by divine will or by chance.  It is beyond science to answer the question of whether we were “created” in this way, or arose by chance, because there is only one universe from which to draw evidence. But in this Universe, we have surely evolved, and this is not evidencef or or against God in the slightest.

Check out his essay for details of the above discussion.

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The mad meta-poet

February 17, 2009 at 9:29 pm (Humour) (, , )

One day,
A mad meta-poet
With nothing to say
Wrote a mad meta-poem
That started: “One day,
A mad meta-poet
With nothing to say
Wrote a mad meta-poem
That started: “One day,
[…]
sort of close”,
Were the words that the poet
Finally chose
To bring his mad poem
To some sort of close”,
Were the words that the poet
Finally chose
To bring his mad poem
To some sort of close”.

Reference: feldgendler, with a google search indicating that this goes back to before 2007, origins unknown (to me).

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Joseph and the amazing moral lesson

January 18, 2009 at 10:56 pm (religion, thinking) (, , , , , )

We just saw Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat this evening, and it was pretty good.  The songs are fun and and fit together cleverly.  Its too short with many repeated songs at the end but that didn’t stop me enjoying it.

However, I wonder if there is a worse lesson commonly told from the Bible.  Its very old testament, of course, but still.

The plot: Joseph is the favourite son of Israel, better than all his other brothers.  He tells them all about how his dreams of the future make him better than them and he lords it over them.  He gets his technicolour coat, which he runs in their faces – and they get jealous.  So they sell him to slavers who take him to Egypt.

Joseph has a sucky time for a bit but his knowledge of dreams leads him to power with the pharoah by predicting and preventing a terrible famine.  The brothers come begging for food, so Joseph lords it over them.  He demands his technicolour coat, which he rubs in their faces – and they have to put up with it this time!

So what was learned in this story?

  • Don’t disbelieve people who claim to have God helping them predict the future, because they might be right
  • Its OK to be arrogant if you are in fact favoured by God
  • Things, such as a coat, are very important and should be put first over your family
  • You should forgive others if you can make them eat a really huge slice of humble pie

This is simply bizarre.  Why, for example, did Joseph not realise how meaningless the coat was, and why he shouldn’t consider himself better than his brothers simply for getting Gods help with a few dreams?  How come the brothers learned an important lesson about humility, but Joseph could not?  Why was he rewarded for being an ass and staying an ass?

I really see why Christians are a bit skeptical of the Old Testament.  Are there no better lessons to popularise than this?

May I return to the beginning
The light is dimming, and the dream is too
The world and I, we are still waiting
Still hesitating
Any dream will do.

It is mighty meaningful – although I don’t know what it means.

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