Incurious curiosity

Over at the NY Times op-ed page, Verlyn Klinkenborg regularly produces rhapsodic musings about his little patch of ground somewhere in the eastern U.S.  I am seldom impressed by the perspicacity of his observations or the poetry of his writing, but his latest effort is worse than boring. It is insulting.  He has noticed that the swallows in his barn have departed for their fall migration, and he wonders various things about this. He wonders these things but does not show any evidence that he has tried to find out whether science has provided explanations.

He starts the piece as follows: “The swallows have gone, and I do not understand it. How do they arrange to depart? ”  Then he  wonders: “Do [migratory birds] leave during a flight they’re already making, or do they somehow gather themselves together beforehand?” The answer? They “gather themselves,” undergoing hormonal changes and laying on fat that will fuel their journey. Only when they are ready will they go.

VK then muses: “Something within them changes in response to something external, the light perhaps.” Yes, there are massive physiological changes, and yes it is in response to the light, day length in particular, although there is evidence of an annual rhythm of migratory tendency that exerts itself even in constant conditions.

These things have been studied for decades, as even a quick glance at Wikipedia would have shown.

VK then mopes: “It is that something within them — instinct, presumably, as opposed to what we would see as conscious thought — that I don’t understand. Humans have always had trouble understanding instinct. If we experience it, we do not recognize it as such. Even the wisest of swallow-watchers, Gilbert White, the 18th-century ecologist and clergyman, could not decide what to make of instinct.”

Well at least White, who mused rhapsodically about the goings on in his patch of England, tried pretty hard to get answers to his questions. Later, the field of Ethology, established in the 20th century by people such as Heinroth, Lorenz, Tinbergen, von Frisch, Hinde, Thorpe, Griffin, Baerends, Barlow, Marler, and many others, has made a bit of headway there.  The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Lorenz, Tinbergen, and von Frisch in 1973 for their contributions to the scientific study of instinct.

What exactly is the point of curiosity if one is content to remain blind? What is the point of poetry in the service of such willful ignorance?  Those are rhetorical questions.  Here is a non-rhetorical one:  Why is such juvenile, incurious nature writing as Klinkenborg’s published in a paper with such a stellar track record of science writing as the New York Times?

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Where curiosity leads: Michigan’s past

I have been thinking of getting a large scale map of the Great Lakes region, and then framing it and hanging it in my living room.  This is partly because I love maps and partly because I love the Great Lakes.  I’d be happy with either a modern map or a vintage one.  To get started, I went to Google and searched for the terms USGS + Map + Great Lakes.  Among other search results was this map of aquifers in the region:


I was amazed by the existence of a circular pattern in the aquifers centered on the Lower Peninsula of Michigan.  I thought that it looked like an impact crater, like the much bigger one on the coast of the Yucatan that has been implicated in the extinction of the dinosaurs.

So I did another Google search, for “are the Great Lakes an Impact Crater,” and was amazed to learn about a geological phenomenon known as the “Carolina Bays.”  These are elliptically shaped depressions in the landscape found all over North America east of the Rocky mountains and especially in the Carolinas.**

Some scientists think they were formed by impacts of objects from the sky, specifically from a shower of large objects ejected by an impact of a bigger thing somewhere else. The long axes of the ellipses point to the Great Lakes region, as if the objects were ejected from there and then flew off on arced trajectories that would have hit the earth at an angle, producing ellipsoid craters.  There are not a lot of meteorites in the soil around the Carolina Bays, so that rules out direct or indirect hits by comets or meteors. Some people think that what rained down on the Carolinas were gigantic chunks of ice that were ejected when a comet hit the ice sheet that covered the Great Lakes region between 95,000 and 20,000 years ago.

Obviously I spent an inordinate amount of time reading about this, and now writing about it!

**By the way, this link is to the “Scientific Psychic” web site. I liked the article, but was distressed by the name of the site.  I was relieved to see this explanation on the home page, so I’m going with it.

sci·en·tif·ic  Adjective. 1) of, relating to, or exhibiting the methods or principles of science.
psy·chic   Adjective. 1) of or relating to the psyche or the mind, 2) lying outside the sphere of physical science or knowledge. Noun. 1) a person apparently sensitive to nonphysical forces.

Scientific Psychic® abides by the methodology of science. Therefore, the word “psychic” refers to adjective definition number 1; any other meaning would constitute an oxymoron. Predictions are based on the scientific method.

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The Greatest Psychologist

Drum roll please…..and the winner is…..

Charles Darwin!

This is a fascinating argument, which I have seen made implicitly but never as directly and as comprehensively as this. After all, many of the pioneers of psychology and psychiatry (William James, Edward Thorndike, Conwy Lloyd Morgan, Sigmund Freud) embraced a Darwinian interpretation of human mind.

The HuffPo article is a bit misleading, however, because it gives the impression that Charles Darwin was a guiding light throughout the rise of psychology as a science.  He was not.  Even in Darwin’s time, Wilhelm Wundt, widely considered one of the founders of experimental psychology, rejected Darwin’s account of the evolution of emotion. The early history of psychology in the late 19th century was dominated by a debate between Wundt’s anti-Darwinian “structuralism” and James’s Darwin-inspired “functionalism.”

In the 20th century, psychology came to be dominated by the “behaviorism” of J.B. Watson, a movement that systematically and comprehensively expunged Darwinian thinking from psychology. Watson, with the help of thinkers such as Jacques Loeb and Franz Boas, also pushed Darwin from the social sciences generally, although this situation has been partially reversed in the past 20 years.

Ironically, the behaviorists were famous for relying upon studies of animals–especially the white rat–to develop general “laws of learning” that were assumed to apply to humans as well as animals.  This is a gambit widely used in biology, as seen in the use of pea plants or fruit flies or maize to study principles of inheritance, squid axons to study how nerve cells transmit signals along their length, or bacteria to infer principles of genetic recombination. All of these have led to insights that have proved broadly true for other organisms, including human beings. This “model organism” gambit works. The reason it does is because of one of Darwin’s key insights: that evolution works through a process of “descent with modification”–a genealogical process whereby traits, once evolved, get passed down, albeit with modification, as species diversify through time. Thus, the behaviorists may have rejected Darwinism, but it is because of a process discovered by Darwin that their methods produced general and lasting insights into how learning works.

Posted in Animals, Cognitive Science, Ethology, Nature of science | 1 Comment

Defining normal

Two interesting articles in the 6 February 2013 of the New York Times raise the question of how we categorize people according to their position on the spectrum of human variation.

First, in The Stone series, philosopher Gary Gutting talks about Michel Foucault’s critique of modern psychiatric practice, A History of Madness.  I haven’t read Foucault, but I find a lot to agree with in the claim, attributed to him by Gutting, that categories of mental illness defined by psychiatrists are based not only on empirical observations about people’s behavior, but also on moral judgements about how people compare to socially accepted norms.  Homosexuality was at one time defined, presumably with great certitude, as a mental illness. So was the refusal of some women to accept traditional feminine roles in society.

Gutting uses Foucault as a point of departure to criticize the modification of how depression is defined in the next edition of the DSM.  The new definition eliminates the so called “bereavement exception,” which excluded states of grief triggered by, for example, the loss of a loved one.  This distinction is captured pithily by Andrew Solomon in his book, The Noonday Demon:  “Grief is depression in proportion to circumstance; depression is grief out of proportion to circumstance.” Gutting says:

“People grieving after the deaths of loved ones may exhibit the same sorts of symptoms (sadness, sleeplessness and loss of interest in daily activities among them) that characterize major depression.  For many years, the DSM specified that, since grieving is a normal response to bereavement, such symptoms are not an adequate basis for diagnosing major depression.  The new edition removes this exemption.”

An important issue at stake, according to Gutting, is how “normal” is defined.  Retaining the bereavement exception assumes that there are normal and abnormal kinds of sadness–ways of defining when a person “ought” and “ought not” to feel sad. Eliminating the exception implies that the only thing that matters is the symptoms, which are very similar for grief and depression.  Gutting argues that this may miss essential information about how people experience sadness, and even about how to treat it. He still sides with Foucault, however, in arguing that such normative judgements are potentially dangerous because they grant psychiatrists (and drug-pushing Pharma companies) a privileged role in deciding what are appropriate and inappropriate paths to happiness.

I would take Gutting’s critique one giant step further.  It is not enough to question the division of  human behavioral variation into categories that are then labeled normal or abnormal using whatever moral judgements.  We also must question how that behavioral variation comes about, and in particular whether it is sculpted by societal pressures larger than anything the psychiatric profession can exert.   Much has been written, for example, about the increasing rate of diagnosis (and pharmaceutical treatment) of ADHD over time.  It is entirely unclear whether this increase reflects a rise in the proportion of children with some objectively defined condition, a broadening of the definition, or a broadening awareness of the condition (driven, for example, by the marketing of new ADHD drugs).

In addition to these possibilities, we must not ignore the additional possibility that what has changed is the environment into which children have to try to fit themselves–in particular the shift in schools and in society away from opportunities to be outdoors and engage in physical activity, and toward contexts where people must sit quietly and work for long periods of time. Rather than asking how we should treat the children in this environment, which little resembles the context in which humans evolved, should we not consider how we might align the environment with our nature?

The same question can be raised about depression.  People who struggle with the pressures and expectations of modern life, and succumb to deep depression in the face of this struggle, are treated as if they are abnormal; few of us ask whether it is the environment that is abnormal–a misalignment of society’s structures with our needs as human beings.

In this way I might question Andrew Solomon’s tidy distinction between grief and depression.  We can say that “depression is grief out of proportion to circumstance,” but this implies that the abnormality is in the depressive rather than in the environment that overwhelms him.

To Gutting, psychiatrists are like Procrustes, stretching or sawing at the legs of travelers to make them fit his iron bed.  What’s missing is an explanation of who built the bed. (Actually, there were two beds, making the problem all the more devilish.)

The second story in the New York Times was about the prevalence of smoking among the mentally ill, and the changing attitudes of mental hospitals toward smoking by inmates.  What struck me was the following paragraph.

“New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that the nearly 46 million adults with mental illness have a smoking rate 70 percent higher than those without mental illness, and consume about a third of the cigarettes in the country, though they make up one-fifth of the adult population.”

…especially the last sentence.  Are you kidding me?  One fifth of the adult population is mentally ill? Can this statistic possibly be real?  Is it possible that it is society that is sick?

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Dealing with disappointment….

Ok, this isn’t a scientific topic, it’s just an observation about human nature, particularly how political beliefs and social attitudes tend to cluster together.

In the aftermath of the recent election, disappointed Republicans began filing petitions to have their home states peacefully secede from the Union.  This has now happened in all fifty states.

Apart from raising the interesting question of what would happen if these petitions were actually to succeed in all fifty states (might they join a new Confederacy of fifty states and fight a war to assert their right to be independent from the other fifty states?  wait….),  I find it odd that you never hear this from Democrats.  Instead, in dark moments where the outcome of the election was in doubt, the cliched response among Democrats was to threaten to move to Canada, or Finland, or wherever.

I like to tell my students that there is only one scientific question:  what’s up with that?

A quick Google search shows that I’m not the first person to have made this observation.

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My friend and colleague Rob Pennock likes to illustrate the concept of representation, which is essential for understanding both cognition and the scientific method, using maps. One thing (for example a mental image of one’s grandmother or a scientific model of a natural phenomenon) insofar as a correspondence exists between the representation and the thing represented.  Maps represent actual geographic patterns, but the particular nature of the representation depends heavily upon the function by which reality is encoded into the map. The function used to make the map depends in turn upon what the goals of the map, and map-maker, are.

A beautiful example can be seen in a series of maps of the results of the recent US presidential election.  Check out this series from Mark Newman at the University of Michigan:

A few highlights:

The geographically “accurate” map* with states colored according to the outcome of Electoral College votes:

This map shows that the nation is mostly RED based on landmass–there is more landmass present in Republican-leaning states.

But let’s not forget that there are Democrats in “red” states, so let’s look at the results by county instead of by state:

This map shows islands of blue (cities) amid large regions of red.  If anything this makes the country look even redder.

But votes are cast not by blades of grass but by people, so let’s re-size everything by population.  In the next map, equal-sized areas on the map have equal-sized populations:

This is starting to resemble the political reality–a nation more blue than red–if not the geographical reality*.

*A caveat regarding “normal” map. Any projection of a portion of a globe onto a two-dimensional map is going to involve distortions.  See this.

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Return of the Golden Fleece

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin used to hand out what he called the “Golden Fleece Awards” to ridicule perceived misuses of federal funds.  In the case of research funded by federal agencies, the projects held up for ridicule were identified because they had titles or summaries that made the scientific, and especially the societal, value hard to discern.  A future project is to see what became of the lines of research that Sen. Proxmire mocked.  Meanwhile, we have a modern update of this enterprise.  Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma has set up “WasteBook” to list modern-day examples.  The first one that has come to my attention happens to be a project at San Diego State University  in the field of animal behavior:

Posted in Ethology, Responsible Conduct of Research, Science and public discourse | Leave a comment