Thursday, May 10, 2012

Romney Was An Adult When He Attacked The Gay Student

Mitt Romeny was 18 when he led a gang attack on a gay student at his prep school with a pair of scissors and,  according to others in the gang of attackers, gloried both before and after in their attack.   He was an adult, certainly by law, today,  probably he would have been considered eligible to be tried as an adult under the law then.

And it's time people stopped talking about it as "bullying", this was a criminal assault by a cowardly gang on an individual with a weapon

If he was an 18-year-old of color,  there is no doubt that this would have been played as a major campaign issue.   If he was a Democrat, it would probably end his campaign.    I'll bet that the Republicans are looking for something in Barack Obama's past to inoculate Romney with.   The difference is that Obama endorsed gay marriage yesterday.   Romney attacked gay marriage yesterday, when he was 65.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Irrationality of Selfish Altruism

And, especially, of calling it "science"

 Laying down one's life for one's friends is obviously altruistic, but so also is taking a slight risk for them. Many small birds, when they see a flying predator such as a hawk, give a characteristic "alarm call", upon which the whole flock takes appropriate evasive action. There is indirect evidnece that the bird who gives the alarm call puts itself in special danger, because it attracts the predator's attention particularly to itself. This is only a slight additional risk, but it nevertheless seems, at least at first sight, to qualify as an altruistic act by our definition.

 Richard Dawkins:   p.6, The Selfish Gene,  Thirtieth Anniversary Edition, 2006

1. "Many small birds".   What does "many small birds" mean?   I'd imagine it means birds of different species which would, one assumes, have distinct practices associated with their specific species.   Without specifying even the species the story is useless.  The phase, though, does demonstrate one useful thing.   Richard Dawkins hasn't presented evidence from observations of actual flocks of birds, he has told a tale about "birds" and, both in his scenario and his conclusions, he has filled in the lack of supporting evidence with plausible sounding assertions.   His "flying predator such as a hawk" is only slightly less imprecise but it isn't much more helpful.   Why a "flying predator"?   Would the "first bird to call out"   in reaction to a land based predator have a distinctly different motive?

A major disadvantage of creating an imaginary scenario instead of trying to record evidence of a real flock of birds is that everyone who reads it will create their own "flock" and "predator" in their mind and it is almost certain that no two will be the same.   There is nothing to be learned about nature from an infinity of imaginary flocks of birds.   And that is another disadvantage if discovering anything about nature is the goal,  though coming up with a plausible sounding story is greatly advantaged by not having to consult the natural world.   Which is why folk lore isn't generally considered to be as reliable as science.

2.  "the whole flock".    A flock of birds doesn't specify a specific flock of a specific number of birds.   The story assumes that a flock is a flock.   Apparently the size of the flock, that can number less than ten or in the hundreds or thousands of individuals, is assumed to be unimportant to this conclusion.   It's especially problematic if degree of relatedness is important to the assertion, and that is the basis of Dawkins' story.

3a.  And where is the flock at the time the "bird who gives the alarm call"  calls out?   On the ground?  In the trees?  In bushes?  Some in trees and some in bushes?   Already aloft?   The story presents a generic flock in a generic location with a generic "bird who gives the alarm call" without specifying anything about its actual identity and situation when the alarm is given to what kind of predator in who knows what orientation in regard to the flock and, especially, the first bird to call out.   That would often be the case in real-world 3-D topology instead of an imaginary 2-D one.
3b.Where is that bird in regard to the predator, other members of the flock,  nd in what orientation?  Maybe it was the only bird which happened to be looking in the right direction at the split second before it called out.    Could it see the predator first and so was the first to call out in alarm?  Could it hear it first?   Maybe it had the best hearing in the entire flock and heard the predator first.   And I haven't mentioned the differences in the likelihood of different species of predators and potential prey being seen approaching or picked out of a flock due to their markings,  habits, the conditions in the sky, the foliage or on the ground.

4a.  Where is the "indirect evidence" that the bird to give the alarm was "in special danger"  as opposed to birds that didn't?    I would suspect that to know that you would have to have a sufficient number of filmed examples of this kind of scenario, of sufficient resolution, in which it could be positively seen that the alarm calling bird was the one caught to allow a valid conclusion that such birds were in such danger.   I don't know how many such filmed examples it would take to be able to draw a significant conclusion such as Dawkins makes but I suspect getting sufficient evidence is hard enough and expensive enough  that it will never really be done.
4b.  And any such documentation and analysis would also have to account for the location of the predator when the call went out and if the predator would have been able to hear and fix in on the alarm calling bird before it would be lost in the "appropriate evasive action" .  Is such action always "appropriate"?  Is there a difference in "alarm bird" to non-alarm bird (about time to consider them, isn't it?) predation if it's "inappropriate"?     As an aside, all of this analysis of filmed documentation would have to account for the differences in species, scenario, topography, etc. that have already been mentioned before this first, essential conclusion could be legitimately inserted into science.   The math would take a while.

5.  Dawkins assertion that the first bird to call out story rests on that assumption of it is at a "slight additional risk", without that, his identification of its behavior as "altruistic" is erroneous.   He also assumes that the bird's action attracts the predator's attention to it when it's quite possible that by creating pandemonium it is increasing its chance of escape.   Dawkins' tale assumes the alarm bird sees where the predator is, other birds taking off in a panic might be more likely to fly into danger because they don't see it.    I don't know how you could propose to decide which could be the motive, especially when so many other motives of being the first to perceive danger in the flock is the actual explanation of why it called out are possible.  Remember, Dawkins asserts that the heroic bird is only at " a slight additional risk", perhaps so slight an assumed risk that it would disappear in an actual analysis of the data when other factors are addressed.  And the problems are hardly all addressed by what has been looked at so far.

6.  And, getting back to the problems of a generic scenario as discussed in point 1., Dawkins seems to assume a single motivation in such alarm calling birds.   Even if he could develop the filmed evidence of a sufficient number of instances of alarm birds being the one caught,  even if he could account for all of the other possible topographical vectors to explain why it was the first to call out and differences in perception due to chance and native differences is sight and hearing,  he still hasn't proven that all of the individual birds would have shared the same motive.   The habit of considering animals as interchangeable objects meets its greatest challenge when behavior is the question.  Animals learn according to their individual experience and, perhaps in the case of birds, their own thinking.    Behaviors that are similar can have different motivating intentions behind them and animals can't testify as to their perception of their motives.  They can't even articulate those.

Question Begging,  Bigtime:

7.  Richard Dawkins' motive in asserting this avian "altruism" is for a very specific purpose, to propose that such altruism today is the product of natural selection acting on some "altruism" gene complex that would be provided with, he assumes,  an enhanced chance of being inherited and perpetuated in the species through the sacrifice of the "altruistic" birds.   His assumption that such genes would have an increased chance of being inherited in his story, though, is not without problems, either.

Assuming that the birds in the flock all shared this theoretical gene complex is wildly speculative, assuming such  genes were the motivation of the "altruism" is at least as wildly speculative.   In order for his scenario to do what he wants it to, there would have to be birds in the flock or the species that didn't have it.   There would be nothing for natural selection to select from if they all had the selfish "altruism genes".

Dawkins' assumption that  a gene complex resulting in that, specific, type of action resulting in death would stand a better chance of being inherited and perpetuated among the surviving members of the flock has one huge problem.    "Altruistic" birds being preyed on instead of "non-altruistic" birds would give the gene complex a decreased chance of of being inherited by cutting out a potentially breeding animal that carries it.  Its death increases the percentage of "altruism gene free" birds in the flock or the species whenever that happened.  That would be the case even if only one or a few birds in the flock didn't have the "altruism" genes.  If the "altruism gene complex" is held by a majority of the flock, why would it persist if "altruism" carrying birds were more likely to be preyed on than selfish birds that don't carry the "altruism" gene?   You would expect that birds not carrying the gene and at less of a chance of being preyed on would tend to predominate in the species, thus removing the reason to make all of Dawkins' assumptions.   Again, if all of the birds in the flock carried the genes, Dawkins' motive for the "alarm bird" to call out would disappear and, as mentioned, natural selection would be irrelevant to it.   If only the "altruistic alarm" bird in the flock carried those genes or if a minority of them did then their "altruism" would tend to lead to the genes' extinction.   That would make such altruism truly altruistic, if it was intentional and for that reason, which can't possibly be demonstrated,  but it would remove it entirely from the analysis of natural selection and "gene selfishness".

You could also wonder about other genes the proposed altruistic bird no doubt carries,  genes governing things that are known to be present instead of this theoretical avian altruism.  Genes that would not be shared by many other birds in the flock which might not be advantaged by the act of actually selfish "altruism".   It's quite possible that those genes would be "disadvantaged" by the self sacrifice.   Are those genes weaker than these most ambiguously advantaged "altruism" genes?    I'd think that genes for sensory acuity would tend to wipe out any influence "altruism" genes in Dawkins scenario.  Especially since they are far more relevant to the predation scenario.   Dawkins story depends on the alarm bird seeing the predator, I mentioned  hearing as a factor.  Since those senses, presumably, were developed through natural selection  to warn of danger and  insure survival,  among other things,  Dawkins scenario would seem to present the paradox of  an obvious selective advantage being mitigated into a selective disadvantage through his entirely theoretical genes.   And in the case of eyesight and hearing,  differences in those abilities are indisputably real and relevant to the proposed scenario.   Dawkins' "altruism" is entirely speculative and highly counter-intuitive, if not irrational.   The idea of selfish "altruism" was invented to try to force a situation that is clearly not explainable by natural selection into an undocumentable,  irrationally assered universal concept of natural selection able to explain virtually everything about behavior.   It includes so many patches, paradoxes,  assumptions  and add-ons that it is far less probable than the idea that the whole enterprise is basically flawed.   It is certainly not parsimonious in any sense of the word, for you fans of Occam's Razor.

It was many years ago that I first read Dawkins' "first bird to call out" scenario but recall that my first problem with it was the large flocks of black birds in North America in which several species flock together. You would think that if the first bird to call out was at greater danger it was enhancing the chances of birds of  other species to survive and reproduce instead of it trying to survive while another bird of another species was caught.   And one of those species of black birds seen in such flocks is the notorious cowbird which lays eggs in other birds nests to be reared by parents of another species,  putting their own young at a disadvantage of surviving.   And birds in the environment are often in proximity to birds of other species, flocking or not.  But those reservations were based in looking at actual birds and not imaginary birds.  I could have also mentioned the often observed game of statues among, not only many species of birds, but, also, at least two species of squirrels I've observed when a hawk flies over in nature.

These are only some of the problems with Dawkins'  nature lore as I've noticed them.   I suspect a specialist could come up with more.

With the charm and seeming plausibility of Richard Dawkins lore it could go lost that Richard Dawkins has gone from assuming the existence of unverified "altruism genes" to producing a simulation of evidence assuming them to to create an artificial scenario to support their existence, all without the inconvenience of actually having to get evidence from nature, where natural selection would work, or addressing problems with his scenario.   His premise is asserted to prove itself.   Which is what is so often done in the "behavioral sciences" but which real science isn't supposed to find acceptable.   Or, at least, that's what I'm told by people such as Richard Dawkins as well as what I was taught as a young student in science classes.   That kind of thing is the reason that entire schools of behavioral science rise and fall, creating about the largest section in the Cemetery of  Discontinued "Science".  Not that it is widely mentioned as a problem.

Good luck setting up the cameras to tell you which bird called out first.   Having looked at lots of real flocks of birds in the wild,  I'd guess that's a virtually insurmountable problem of getting the evidence you'd need to do this.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

De Larry Summers Selon Jonathan Haidt

The estimable Echidne of the Snakes who, clearly, understands statistical method and research better than Jonathan Haidt, not to mention yours truly,  addressed his annoying assertions that, damn it, Larry Summers was right about girls and math.