Category Archives: cognition

Thoughts on the ontology of Prohibition and origin stories

I was thinking about the notion of Prohibition lately, and realized there was a valuable insight to be garnered from the telling of the Original Prohibition story, or at least the way I see it.

What I refer to as the Original Prohibition, of course, was Adam & Eve’s experiment* with the mind-altering “fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good & evil”. And here is the crux of the story. It is a story about free will, and about how divine and human will interact, and the consequences of your choices.

I have the suspicion that many people (on both the right and the left) receive this narrative and think that the lesson from the story was that God’s Prohibition was not strong enough. It was not strong enough because it did not work to prevent our prototypical human ancestors from making a choice that brought misery and the profane to human existence. If Adam & Eve could have been prevented from eating that fruit, perhaps, the human race would not be in this ambiguous, pitiable state of earthly existence. The divine would be the sole content of human experience, and who wouldn’t want that?

But having the freedom to choose involves the awkward notion of living with the consequences of your actions. Not the false, legal, human-created consequences (at least in consensual actions where there is no victim), but the consequences of living with the knowledge, and the impact of your free will.

I have the sense that people who support prohibitions on consensual, non-tortuous activity really have the mindset that if we can just engineer society to this end or that end that we can prevent all bad outcomes, all miserable outcomes. But this is the worst kind of foolishness. Society is best served by criminalizing tortuous behavior, not non-tortuous behavior. To criminalize non-tortuous behavior is to subsume the notion of free will and human choice beneath the spectre of a glorious and impossible future.

The end result of criminalizing consensual, non-tortuous behavior, is that you create markets and industries that are dependent on the existence of the law and the need for its enforcement and not the real demand for goods and services by individuals. Ultimately, you can criminalize the entire canon of human activity through some extension of the law. The phrase “slippery slope” is appropriate here.

This is the ugly machine of fascism. It is the request to abrogate your rights and your choices for the ever-greater pursuit of security. But it is an ontological abyss. From a vantage point above, one can see the Gulag below, the (in)evitable promise of the Soviet Dream.

*One might replace the Judeo-Christian origin story with any of the many other different origin stories of similar structure and plot for the purposes of this argument.

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On inequity and awareness

From Science:

The findings, Ross says, suggest that low-status gorillas use the game as a sort of ego boost. They can hit a high-status individual without repercussions, she says, and that gives them a feeling of superiority, even if it’s only temporary. And that means that gorillas are aware of inequities in their society, Ross says, marking the first time that such cognition has been observed in gorillas in a nonexperimental setting. The researchers will report their findings online tomorrow in Biology Letters.

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Li on judicial decisionmaking

Jimmy Li over at the worthwhile Traiberman-Li blog has this discussion on decisionmaking, from which I excerpt this section:

In one of their studies, K&E looked at the bail decisions of five San Diego judges (each of whom did not know they participating in a study when they made their decisions). As K&E mention, most states have explicit guidelines that judges are supposed to follow in making their bail decisions (a “bail decision” is a decision on whether to grant bail, and at what price). At the time of the study, for example, California’s guidelines emphasized factors like “dangerousness,” “risk of non-appearance,” and “community ties of the defendant.” To what extent did factors like these actually influence judges’ decisions?

To answer this question, K&E developed and tested many decision models, each of which took into account different factors, and to varying degrees. A simple model, for example, might make a decision based purely on the defendant’s criminal history (e.g. “If any criminal history, no bail”), while a more complex model might include four or more differentially-weighted factors.

When K&E compared their models’ predictions to the judges’ actual decisions, they found that judges’ behavior was “characterized by a remarkable (almost offensive?) simplicity.” In setting bail, for example, judges’ decisions could be fully predicted by just two factors: the recommendation of the prosecuting attorney and the recommendation of the defense attorney (with much more weight granted to the former). The two attorneys, in turn, based their recommendations off of just one factor: the severity of the crime.

This means that when it comes to setting bail, many of the factors that the California guidelines enumerated and all of the factors that the judges (when interviewed) claimed to consider didn’t make into judges’ actual decision functions. Instead, they took into account just one factor, and they did so indirectly, through their reliance on the prosecution and defense.
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The Chicago Open Chess tournament 2010

I’m sponsoring a friend (who I’ll identify through his American name, Justin, since I’m not sure how to spell his name right) in the Chicago Open chess tournament that started today in Chicago. Here is the tournament webpage for those interested in updates, and he’ll be emailing me with commentary later on this weekend.


Godel, Escher, Bach summer reading club

This summer I want to try something novel and worthwhile. I’m going to start a Godel, Escher, Bach reading club/group blog with the general intention of doing some serious and worthwhile analysis of the concepts in the book, most centrally of course being Godel’s third incompleteness theorem.

The inspiration for this effort is simple: I’ve been reading, and re-reading GEB for several years, and there is still much in the book that I have only the barest understanding of. What better way to gain understanding than to make reading and analyzing this book a collaborative effort?

Invitations are open to anyone who’s interested. You have to have your own copy (or access to a copy) and you have to be willing to commit to keeping up with the readings and contribute some commentary. Let me know formally by leaving your information in the comments or by emailing me at Basically I’d want to know your name, email, what your interest in GEB is, and what strengths you bring. It would be useful to know what educational institutions or other organization you might be affiliated with, too, but that’s up to you.


This is not a spiral

No, really. It’s a set of concentric circles, but your eye interprets it as a spiral.

H/T: The Mighty Illusions

If you haven’t seen a college policy debate round before, watch this, but read first

One of the most intellectually rewarding and challenging parts of my life has been my participation, in high school and college policy debate, first as a competitor and then a coach. Unfortunately this is an activity that is poorly understood by non-debaters because it is a hyperspecialized, academically rigorous activity. The popular impression is that people argue in some sophisticated, rhetorically eloquent format. While this is true, it is an inadequate characterization of policy debate, especially college policy debate on the NDT/CEDA circuit.

It is true that the best debaters argue in sophisticated, elegant ways. But policy debate has also evolved in some ways that make even sophisticated, eloquent argumentation inaccessible to the general population. College policy debate specifically is an activity that promotes hyper-specialization in the technical aspects of debate. Most noticeably, the existence of a stable judging pool has allowed debaters over the last 3 decades to increase their rate of delivery so as to maximize the argumentative potential of the round. Coterminously, college debate has also developed incredible intellectual diversity and any varsity level debater of merit has the ability to fluently argue a staggering amount of topics with very little in-round preparation.

What this functionally means to you is that college policy debate is an activity where competitors speak at speeds of up to 250-300 words a minute. Very few non-debaters can comprehend, let alone understand, speech at that speed. But this is only a matter of familiarity; I am told that the human brain can theoretically comprehend speech input that is twice as fast.  Here is an example. This is the second speech given by a negative team (in this case, from the University of Iowa) during a debate round against an affirmative team from Harvard.

If you watched that speech without being able to distinguish more than a couple scattered words, play the video again and focus. Don’t worry about understanding initially; let your ear get attuned to the rhythm and cadence of the speaker and you’ll start being able to form a coherent impression of what he says. His speech is a finely structured, efficiently presented set of arguments that are impressively developed with both cited evidence and intricately developed analytical arguments. This is the part of debate that is most like pure science, with its hyper-specialized nomenclature and development.

Yet in a grander sense debaters who are able to perform at this level are also very multidisciplinary thinkers. To be a good policy debater one must be able to incorporate an understanding of the technical aspects of argumentative structure with an understanding of a very broad set of positions and the ability to adapt to accelerated communicative norms. And let us not forget the intensive research load; by the time a debater has spent 2 or 3 years competing seriously in college policy debate, they have done work equivalent to a masters in international relations or domestic policy.

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On Puzzles

Puzzles are instructive, Mr. Gardner found, for they teach us to appreciate hidden structures of the world that are not owned by any particular discipline and are potentially useful to all. He saw the world as resembling not a magazine, where the subject of each section bears little relation to that of the next, but a well-written novel, where ideas introduced in one chapter are apt to reappear—transformed, modulated and extended—in others. He taught his readers to see the world in the same way, inculcating in them an openness and alertness to the often surprising possibilities of the world, and the desire to seek them out.

That’s from the WSJ. The story is about the reclusive mathematician who wrote Scientific American’s puzzle column between 1956 and 1981 and the cultish math-geek gatherings that now happen in his honor every two years. The entire story is worth reading and includes notes on cognition, neuroscience, and even references the indomitable Stephen Wolfram.

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Absence of racial, but not gender, stereotyping in Williams syndrome children

That is the title of this study by Santos, Meyer-Lindenberg, and Deruelle in the latest issue of Current Biology:

Stereotypes — often implicit attributions to an individual based on group membership categories such as race, religion, age, gender, or nationality — are ubiquitous in human interactions. Even three-year old children clearly prefer their own ethnic group and discriminate against individuals of different ethnicities [1]. While stereotypes may enable rapid behavioural decisions with incomplete information, such biases can lead to conflicts and discrimination, especially because stereotypes can be implicit and automatic [2], making an understanding of the origin of stereotypes an important scientific and socio-political topic. An important process invoked by out-groups is social fear [3]. A unique opportunity to study the contribution of this mechanism to stereotypes is afforded by individuals with the microdeletion disorder Williams syndrome (WS), in which social fear is absent, leading to an unusually friendly, high approachability behaviour, including towards strangers [4]. Here we show that children with WS lack racial stereotyping, though they retain gender stereotyping, compared to matched typically developing children. Our data indicate that mechanisms for the emergence of gender versus racial bias are neurogenetically dissociable. Specifically, because WS is associated with reduced social fear, our data support a role of social fear processing in the emergence of racial, but not gender, stereotyping.

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