The recreational habits of (life) scientists

[This post has been lurking about since, oops, May, so I thought I better put it out there!]

I’m sure everyone has favourite inductive hypotheses about the world that they mull over as potential research questions–if only they weren’t so utterly trivial. Besides, I usually only notice the confirmatory evidence for mine.

The co-incidence of a single case supporting both my pet hypotheses about the recreational habits of scientists came to my notice today: a life scientist who was both a musician and a rock-climber*.

Climbing blue musicians

Previous conversations with colleagues have usually revealed that most biologists (broadly construed) think there seem to be more-than-average numbers of musicians in science. The science/music overlap is one of my pet hobbies, and many popular accounts touch on this relationship as possibly having something to do with a certain kind of brain processing. Okay, whatever, personally I think the causation factor is an objectively defined measure of “cool” or “awesome”. But there’s no statistical evidence–least not that I can find–that musicians are overrepresented in the subset of humans who call themselves scientists, compared to, say, landscape gardeners or art historians. Controlling for age and socioeconomics and all that demographic stuff.

My other inductive hypothesis is that life scientists, especially those working in cultural evolution, seem to be rock-climbers more often than chance might predict. This might be a case of cultural transmission though, because rock-climbing is something that you generally have to be introduced to in a social context, seeing as how it is useful to have someone on the other end of the rope.

Data enabling proper testing of these hypotheses would require more effort than random conversations at the pub, so for the moment, the assertions go unverified.

* And who wasn’t me. Although I haven’t been climbing for so long I doubt I still qualify.

[Photo from mr_o‘s flickrstream]

on science and science fiction

There’s an engaging conversation in Nature this week with four science-fiction writers who concentrate on the life-sciences in their writing:

The biologists strike back.

I have this tremendous block about sci-fi. I have dabbled on the fringes and read Neal Stephenson and Iain Banks like everyone else, but virtually no classic sci-fi. Genre fiction intimidates me, I think, because it has its own rules and hierarchies. The other part of my block is self-preservation in the face of gateway drugs: because I’m fascinated by the communication of scientific ideas, I feel like indulging in a sci-fi reading habit would just be the end of it all and I’d never read anything else.

But perhaps that’s a cop-out? I’ve got a whole list of recommendations from various sources. I just need to start, I guess.

the need for science

The piece by Harry Kroto is actually entitled “The wrecking of British Science“, but it contains positive messages as well as cautions.

In the Guardian:

Many think of the sciences as merely a fund of knowledge. Journalists never ask scientists anything other than what the applications are of scientific breakthroughs. Interestingly, I doubt they ever ask a musician, writer or actor the same question. I wonder why.

The scientific method is based on what I prefer to call the inquiring mindset. It includes all areas of human thoughtful activity that categorically eschew “belief”, the enemy of rationality. This mindset is a nebulous mixture of doubt, questioning, observation, experiment and, above all, curiosity, which small children possess in spades. I would argue that it is the most important, intrinsically human quality we possess, and it is responsible for the creation of the modern, enlightened portion of the world that some of us are fortunate to inhabit.

Coming after the appalling set-piece of science “journalism” concerning an entirely groundless “electrosmog scare” on Panorama this week, such sentiments are timely.

the two cultures revisited (ad nauseum)

A short while ago I attended one of a series of talks set up to create some dialogue between evolutionary and interpretive approaches in archaeology. I was only able to attend the last of the series, but others who attended earlier talks reported that the presentations themselves (one from each of the two “styles”) were interesting and informative, but that the discussions that took place afterwards, where, ostensibly, the dialogue was to get into full swing, were quite fraught, full of misunderstandings and tense “science versus post-modernism” exchanges.

Which is, as always, a shame. I think to most scientifically-minded archaeologists and anthropologists–indeed anyone in the social sciences who appreciates the scientific method–the lack of useful dialogue, collaboration, and proper communication with our colleagues who have other approaches is felt as a keen deficit. From afar, we can observe the wealth of rich material (dare I say “data”?) collected by social anthropologists (for instance). More importantly, we can observe their ability to contextualise, interpret and suggest new or alternative hypotheses for what we, with the necessity of abstract or simple models, are sometimes missing in our approaches.

However, after attending the last talk, I don’t think that they (“they” being in this case those in the social sciences who probably prefer the term humanities) really feel any keen need for such dialogue in the other direction. I could be (and would be delighted to be) very wrong about this. I got the sense of a lamentable misunderstanding how science as applied to human affairs. Misunderstanding the scientific method is of course a more general malady, from the sub-editors at the Evening Standard right on through to nutritionists with dodgy qualifications.

But at this talk there were some SHOCKERS. Continue reading →

everybody needs a fishbowl

One of the most stimulating talks at the European Human Behaviour and Evolution meeting last week was by Randy Nesse from the University of Michigan, who should be well-known to anyone whose had any interest in evolutionary psychology over the last ten years. Nesse has been at the forefront of investigating how an evolutionary perspective can lead to new and useful insights into psychiatry. I think that in the earliest stages this endeavour suffered a little from over-application of the A word (adaptationism); though I have absolutely no problem with the concept of maladaptive behaviour, I think that detractors were right to be skeptical about the assertion that many psychological problems were in fact “mismatched” “over-active” or “malfunctioning” adaptive psychological mechanisms built in the Pleistocene. Nesse’s talk showed how that kind of thinking has changed into considering that it is not the problem per se, such as depression, that is adaptive, but that the broader class of cognition and/or behaviour into which depression fits, in this case mood, that has adaptive features.

The main point of his talk was that in (evolutionarily?) important life areas such as love, health, work, intelligence, family etc we have (a) wants, (b) expectations, and (c) realities. From these, we can identify where certain things are poorly balanced, and where our “hopes” are unrealistic in the medium-term. Unreasonable “hopes”, Nesse argued, seem to be at the core of much depression that he sees clinically, and restructuring the pursuit of goals can be very helpful.

Relatedly, Presentation Zen links to Barry Schwarz’s TED talk on the illusory link between a plethora of “choices” in life and happiness. Schwarz argues that in an ecology of too many choices, we become detrimentally paralysed, and only ever just-satisfied. Constraints on options (the fishbowl of the title) might lead to less frustration and unhappiness with our choices. I strongly believe this is true, and not just with the trivial example of consumer anxiety. Parental investment and mate choice seem to be two important evolutionary areas where members of industrial/urban societies are overloaded with choices. Whether the choices are real or illusory also seems important too – for instance, the great anxiety of balancing career/family/personal goals seems to me to be clouded by the illusion that one can maximise all those choices.

The video is well-worth watching, as are some of the other TED talks on YouTube. I like the focus of TED, but at US$4400 for an invitation to a meeting, I do feel this is quite the privileged club.

Related paper by Nesse here [pdf]

working, you say?

Some days I would like to re-animate George Peter Murdock and have a beer with him. G.P., I’d say, after shaking his hand vigorously (although not too hard, because, you know, zombie corpse) G.P., you would have really liked the concept of the computer database, and maybe if you’d had one, you mighta got out for a Sunday drive or a game of darts once in a while, because how you did all this proto-spreadsheet stuff without an actual spreadsheet is admirable.

I bet he was the kind of nerd who remembered everything about the ethnographic materials he categorised, too, and would always know the Haha exception to the rule (Ah, but in Haha society they have matrilateral cross-cousin marriage AND make their tents from goatskin).

Anyhow. Endless recoding of variables according to the hypothesis under question is tedious enough. The really hard part is trying not to become swamped by overwhelming self-censure regarding categorisation and classification of complex human group behaviours. I can deal with 90% of social anthropologists disagreeing with the cross-cultural comparison approach, because the hypothesis that cultures are not to be understood except on their own internal terms is to me, simply that: an hypothesis, and one that most anthropologists have put aside testing.

Part of having an evolutionary approach to human behaviour is taking on board the notion that there are some broad patterns in human behaviour, including social life, and that one can discover those with the tools and models from evolutionary biology. Note to new readers: this does NOT mean some sort of old-fashioned sociobiology assuming a genetic/biological/essentialist/stupid nature-nurture dichotomy approach to behaviour. Traits do not have to be genetic to evolve. Boyd & Richerson have written extensively on cultural evolution for an introductory audience if you need to wrap your head around that.

Where was I? Part of the requirement involves operationalising the variables under study, so complex forms of behaviour become things such as “avunculocal postmarital residence“, which obscures a multitude of individual behaviours: those that choose other forms of residence, and those individuals that change within their lifetime. It also obscures the dynamic changes, through time, of the population as a whole.

So part of my work routine involves telling myself that folks like G.P. weren’t simply doing the ethnographic equivalent of stamp-collecting when compiling databases of cross-cultural information like the Ethnographic Atlas and the Outline of World Cultures. Those labels mean something more than they don’t mean something. And they are the best information currently (and probably that we’ll ever have) available for large-scale cross-cultural analysis.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

(Pretentious latin post title for the win!)

The tension in academia–especially science–between communication and discretion fascinates me. On the one hand, you want to be able to discuss your ideas with as many people as possible; on the other, those ideas are your intellectual currency and you don't want them stolen or misappropriated.

The publishing process also intrigues me. It appears to be undergoing a sort of quiet revolution at present, with open access journals becoming more common, and with the review process itself being opened up by journals like Biology Direct. Nature has a commentary on that journal's review/editorial process and how it is faring here.

I'm all for this. I know the arguments about what the anonymous process allows/preserves, but I think that on balance science would be greater served by open peer review. Perhaps it's a naivete to assume that the majority of reviewers play the game correctly–review a paper irrespective of their personal feelings on the authors and their particular theoretical biases. Sure, there are always going to be vindictive wankers. But it's actually very easy to tell a vindictive wanker from someone making justified criticisms. Open peer review means that the wider science community can review the reviewers.

It's also a means to what I see as a desirable end: chopping up undeserved status hierarchies and allowing smaller voices to be heard without fear of career-hurting reprimand. People already mostly find out–through the grapevine or guesswork–who reviewed their paper. And so any wankery that goes on does so anyway, but with the protection of psuedo-anonymity for those playing pay-back games, and without recourse for anyone who has had a grant rejected or employment opportunity stifled. OPR leaves a public trail of cause and effect.

Of course, this means that one has to overcome one's need for approval, be it social or professional, in order to write that justifiably-critical review of someone with more status/funding/publications/associates than you. But science needs brave Gryffindors.

perceptual thresholds in culture

Today at Culture Club [1] we discussed a recent paper by Eerkens & Lipo [link], where they present a null model of copying errors in cultural transmission. One of the notions they discuss is something I learnt a million years ago in Stage 1 Experimental Psychology: Weber's Fraction, or the Just Noticeable Difference. Interestingly, they reference the exact textbook from which I learnt psychophysics (wow, textbooks are expensive, I had forgotten!).

This made me think about what sort of "perceptual limits" there might be for complex social phenomena like kinship organisation, and where the JND might lie in scales of difference in (for example) inheritance. What would be the so-called "tipping point" for a formerly matrilineal system to start adopting as a norm a system of bilateral inheritance? What might the units to examine be? It struck me that this is possibly a way to get at some thorny "units of culture" questions, although it is beyond the scope of what I'm doing at present. But it would be so very nice to have some sort of null model that might group perceptually-bounded culture concepts together.

[1] Our weekly journal club/discussion meeting for the Centre for the Evolution of Cultural Diversity

protecting your ideas

In science, being “scooped” really sucks.

It crossed my mind when I set up Culture Evolves! that “idea security” might become an issue. There are two aspects to this:

1. Idea Security as directly relates to the work I’m doing on my PhD, which I have yet to describe in any detail because I’m not yet comfortable with how much is enough/how much is too much. As well as my own desire to publish from this work, there are other people’s intellectual contributions involved, so this is quite a big deal. I hope to get to some sort comfort zone on that issue soon; for now, it’s just the (vaguely out-of-date) description on my UCL page.

2. Idea Security as relates to work I wish to do in the future, or at the very least, be involved in somehow. The last month I’ve had two quite strong ideas for future projects; things I’ve not got time to do in my one-year-left-and-counting PhD, but that would make good 1-2 year projects. They’re both in domains of culture unrelated to what I’m looking at, so to jump in a new field is too daunting as a side diversion. But I would like to articulate and discuss them to see if they’re viable with people who might know more about those fields. It’s fair to say that this is what one’s colleagues are for, but sometimes one’s colleagues are busy, uninterested, or without background knowledge. And the same issues below will apply.

HOWEVER. Having an idea is all for naught unless it is out there, and in print desirably. Priority is such an important concept in scholarship (rightly so) and I fret about this all the time. There’s the idea itself, and then there’s the execution. I firmly believe that the doing is more important than the saying, but the idea does count for something. Where I’m heading with this is as follows: the expectation in academic work is that you cite your intellectual forebears, and give acknowledgement where due. That is, you make a bloody good effort to know your field and what other people have said and done. But how does the internet figure into that now, when just about any obscure topic gets thousands of search engine hits? If I throw out a reasoned hypothesis or describe a potentially productive line of work here, on a blog, should (a) I expect it to be attributed or (b) no longer consider it my “intellectual property”? Does this change if I slap on some sort of copyright notice?

Enquiring minds.

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