Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Category: Science (page 1 of 19)

Belief superiority impedes learning, but at least it boosts confirmation bias

A decade ago, I discovered Phil Tetlock’s terrific book Expert Political Judgment, which was a study of efforts to predict the future of political events. For someone who works as a futurist, the book was (and remains) pretty earth-shaking: Tetlock did a fantastic job of explaining the biases that keep most of us from correctly forecasting, improving the quality of our forecasts, or even recognizing the sources of our error. Most of us are actually a lot better at explaining how we were almost right, and rationalizing our apparently errors (our prediction came true later than we said, or it would have happened but for the 2008 meltdown, or it was just around the corner).

This is not to say that it’s impossible to do good forecasting, or that you can’t improve; indeed, Tetlock has spent the last few years exploring exactly how people can do that.

So I was interested to see that Futurity has an article about new research that examines how “belief superiority”— that is, our confdience that our own knowledge and beliefs are superior to others, because we’re better-educated, better-read, etc.– leads us astray:

Across six studies and several political topics, people who were high in belief superiority thought that they knew a great deal about these topics. However, when comparing this perceived knowledge to how much people actually knew, they found that belief-superior people were consistently overestimating their own knowledge.

“Whereas more humble participants sometimes even underestimated their knowledge, the belief superior tended to think they knew a lot more than they actually did,” says Michael Hall, a psychology graduate student at the University of Michigan and the study’s lead author.

Not only that, but belief superiority didn’t lead to more rigorous self-examination, or more thorough research and revision of one’s beliefs. Researchers “presented participants with news articles about a political topic and asked them to select which ones they would like to read. Half of the articles supported the participants’ own point of view, whereas the other half challenged their position.”

What happened?

Belief-superior people were significantly more likely than their modest peers to choose information that supported their beliefs. Furthermore, they were aware that they were seeking out biased information: when the researchers asked them what type of articles they had chosen, they readily admitted their bias for articles that supported their own beliefs.

So what’s going on?

all of us feel good when the beliefs we think are important are confirmed.

In other words, when a belief is strongly held, is tied to one’s identity or values, or is held with a sense of moral conviction, people are more likely to distance themselves from information and people that challenge their belief.

This suggests that one of the things you should look for in a futurist with lots of self-awareness, and an ability to handle uncomfortable situations and truths– particularly about their own abilities.

On the uncertainty of genetic testing

That’s a map from one of the commercial DNA testing companies showing my ancestry– half East Asian, almost half British, with a little Finnish and Central Asian. The test pretty much confirms what I already knew about my parents’ backgrounds, though the Finnish is a bit of a mystery (and probably something more like a statistical error or algorithmic equivalent of a best guess).

For those of us who’ve had these tests done will appreciate Kristen Brown’s latest article in Gizmodo, “How DNA Testing Botched My Family’s Heritage, and Probably Yours, Too:”

A big problem is that many of us have a basic misunderstanding of what exactly we’re reading when Ancestry or 23andMe or National Geographic sends us colorful infographics about how British or Irish or Scandinavian we are. It’s not that the science is bad. It’s that it’s inherently imperfect, an estimation based on how much our DNA matches up with people in other places around the world….

Heritage DNA tests are more accurate for some groups of people than others, depending how many people with similar DNA to yours have already taken their test…. That the data sets are primarily made up of paying customers also skews demographics. If there’s only a small number of Middle Eastern DNA samples that your DNA has been matched against, it’s less likely you’ll get a strong Middle Eastern match.

I assume that these tests haven’t been as popular with people of East Asian descent, because my dad’s family is pretty clearly been in northern Korea and Manchuria for a few centuries (with some Mongolian ancestors mixed in), and I can’t imagine that the two billion people between Srednekolymsk and Singapore are that genetically similar. So presumably as more people in and from Asia take the test, that giant green blob will get smaller.

And indeed, it turns out, as the databases grow, the places they tell you you’re from change:

Another anecdote that stuck with me came from my friend Alexis Madrigal. Initially, he said, his Mexican family came up as Arab North African, which was surprising. As 23andMe refined its test and its data set grew, it also refined the results: Now, he was descended from Jewish people from Southern Europe. The number of Madrigals in central Spain had long led the family to suspect that their migratory path to Mexico had at some point passed through this region. As more people took the test, the picture of where his family was “from” changed. The Canadian bioethicist Timothy Caulfield shared a similar story. At first a DNA test revealed he was entirely Irish, but as the data set changed, he gradually became less Irish.

It’s an interesting piece, and it raises some good questions about why we even bother with this kind of thing in, as she puts it, “in a world where people have been mixing and matching and getting it on since the beginning of human history.”

Vision and the movement of fish from water to land

Specimens at the California Academy of Sciences
Not a land-dwelling fish, by the way. Just a cool picture.

Ed Yong in The Atlantic writes about new research on the relationship between the evolution of vision and the movement of fish from water to land. Scientists have long known that some species of fish started hanging out near the shore, then venturing on land, and eventually living on land full-time, starting about 385 million years ago. During this process, Yong writes, “their flattened fins gradually transformed into sturdy legs, ending in feet and digits. Rather than paddling through water, they started striding over solid ground.”

Naturally the evolution of legs has gotten lots of attention among paleontologists, but in a new article, a team led by Northwestern University professor Malcolm MacIver argues that changes in vision played a very significant role in the transition, too. Continue reading

Something else to look forward to when the 1% get even more: Human sacrifice

Anthropologists and historians have put forward the ‘social control hypothesis’ of human sacrifice. According to this theory, sacrificial rites served as a function for social elites. Human sacrifice is proposed to have been used by social elites to display their divinely sanctioned power, justify their status, and terrorise underclasses into obedience and subordination. Ultimately, human sacrifice could be used as a tool to help build and maintain systems of social inequality…. However, up until now, this idea had not been rigorously tested.

With my colleagues at the University of Auckland and elsewhere, we recently tested the social control hypothesis using a sample of 93 Austronesian-speaking cultures, and published our findings in Nature. The Austronesian family of cultures originated in Taiwan, developed outrigger canoes, and were some of the greatest ocean voyagers in human history. Thousands of years before the Viking sagas, the Austronesians had begun their great expansion, sailing west to Madagascar, east to Easter Island and south to Aotearoa – a total area covering more than half the world’s longitude….

We found strong support for the social control hypothesis: human sacrifice helped to build strictly inherited class systems, and prevented cultures from becoming more egalitarian. The overlap in religious and political authority allowed ritualised human sacrifice to be used by social elites to build and maintain social inequality. In Austronesian cultures, specialist religious knowledge, such as how to perform elaborate prayers or magic rituals, could be handed down through elite family lineages. In many c

Source: How human sacrifice helped to enforce social inequality | Aeon Ideas

The rubber-hand illusion can be produced by smartphones

It seems to be the stuff of pure fantasy: a hand made of rubber feels as if it belongs to the owner’s body. Although it is hardly conceivable, it is an illusion which is in fact well-known in the field of psychology – and one that can be produced in skillful experimental setups. Psychologists have now shown for the first time how test persons can also integrate their own smartphones into their bodily selves. This means that whether an object is felt to belong to the owner’s own body does not only depend on

Source: My Smartphone and I: Scientists show that rubber-hand illusion can be produced by smartphones: Experience in using it is important — ScienceDaily

Chocolate and “likes” activate the same parts of the teenage brain

The same brain circuits that are activated by eating chocolate and winning money are activated when teenagers see large numbers of “likes” on their own photos or the photos of peers in a social network, according to a first-of-its-kind UCLA study that scanned teens’ brains while using social media.

The 32 teenagers, ages 13-18, were told they were participating in a small social network similar to the popular photo-sharing app, Instagram. In an experiment at UCLA’s Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center, the researchers showed them 148 photographs on a computer screen for 12 minutes, including 40 photos that each teenager submitted, and analyzed their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. Each photo also displayed the number of likes it had supposedly received from other teenage participants — in reality, the number of likes was assigned by the researchers. (At the end of the procedure, the participants were told that the researchers decided on the number of likes a photo received.)

“When the teens saw their own photos with a large number of likes, we saw activity across a wide variety of regions in the brain,” said lead author Lauren Sherman, a researcher in the brain mapping center and the UCLA branch of the Children’s Digital Media Center, Los Angeles.

Source: Teenage brain on social media: Study sheds light on influence of peers and much more — ScienceDaily

Bare feet, better grades!

Peninsula library this morning

This is really fascinating:

Schoolchildren who attend their lessons wearing no shoes are likely to obtain better grades and behave better than those who wear them, a decade-long academic research has revealed.

‘Shoeless’ children are more likely to arrive to school earlier, leave later and read more, according to new research by Bournemouth University.

Researchers have observed tens of thousands of children who leave their shoes outside the classroom and found that pupils are more engaged in their lessons, which in turn leads to better academic attainment.

Source: Schoolchildren with no shoes on ‘do better and behave better in the classroom’, research shows

The Astonishing Age of a Neanderthal Cave Construction Site – The Atlantic

Ed Yong describes recent work on an ancient cave, containing evidence of a built structure (maybe for ceremonial purposes) that turns out to be far older than scientists ever imagined.

A rock structure, built deep underground, is one of the earliest hominin constructions ever found.

Source: The Astonishing Age of a Neanderthal Cave Construction Site – The Atlantic

Persian Gulf cities are built with foreign labor on imported sand

Sand is used in everything from silicon chips, to toothpaste, to glass, to buildings. It’s our most-used natural resource after water and air. Huge amounts of sand are used in construction— 200 tons to build a house, 3000 tons for a hospital, 30,000 tons for a kilometer of highway— but it turns out that it has to be the right kind of sand. This has led, incredibly, to a situation in which 3,500 Australian companies now export sand to the Middle East.

That’s right. Cities that are located on the edge of deserts are importing their sand from the Indian Ocean and Pacific, just like they’re importing their labor. Pretty mind-boggling.

Savina Venkova, a former intern at the Earth Policy Institute and future sustainable development scholar, writes about this strange situation, and its serious environmental consequences.

“We’re losing the stars”: on the disappearance of dark nights

“Think about it this way: For 4.5 billion years, Earth has been a planet with a day and a night. Since the electric light bulb was invented, we’ve progressively lit up the night, and have gotten rid of it. Now 99 percent of the population lives under skies filled with light pollution.” –Astronomer Tyler Nordgren, quoted in "Falling in Love With the Dark"

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