Thursday, March 29, 2012

Pattern matching.

Ham. Do you see yonder cloud that ’s almost in shape of a camel?
Pol. By the mass, and ’t is like a camel, indeed.
Ham. Methinks it is like a weasel.
Pol. It is backed like a weasel.
Ham. Or like a whale?
Pol. Very like a whale.
Hamlet. Act iii. Sc. 2.  William Shakespeare (1564–1616)
One of the things that I think is essential for rational thinking, is being aware of how we think. And as much as rational thinking is scorned and ignored (seriously, read the news sometimes) I do think it's an essential part being a citizen - figuring out what you want your society to be like, being able to step back look at what is involved, what information you have available, what actions can reasonably be expected to produce the desired result and make a decision.
So knowing how we think is important. And if you spend any great length of time studying the way we think, or any length of time at all really, one of the things that you will notice is that we all have bias, assumptions are made, arguments are used to attempt sway other people that are somewhat ... dubious. Information is beautiful have composed a quite comprehensive list of rhetorical and logical fallices that are commonly used. Stop, take a moment and go read it over. Please. Forward it to others. Make sure they read it. For two reasons - it would be nice if people stopped using these (a lot of people I suspect use them with out being aware of the flawed nature of the argument they're using) and people really really need to be able to identify when these are being used in an attempt to sway them - many of these are used daily by politicians, religious leaders and woo-meisters.The straw man is beloved of politicians everywhere. Journalists appear to be quite fond of Cum hoc ergo propter hoc and Post hoc ergo propter hoc. Conspiracy theorists are fond quite fond of circumstance ad hominem.

The list isn't perfect. There's a couple there that I would re-word - Appeal to ridicule is one. Sometimes ridicule is the only tool available. When numerous flaws in logic have pointed out and an opponent refuses to budge, ridicule becomes justified. Maybe not very nice, but justified. Like when someone brings up homoeopathy*. That aside, it is always a good thing to step back from any case being presented to you and looking at who is presenting it, and what their interests are. Then look at the case they have presented are and try and find the flaws. Finding the flaws (or lack of them) will tell you significantly more than listening to a case uncritically.
I'm not perfect, I probably still commit a few of these fallacies, but I am getting better at identifying when they are presented to me. Picking out patterns of speech, specifically looking for the fallacies. Modelling systems helps - when you are modelling complex systems, you are necessarily making assumptions and you have to continually look back at your assumptions every time you get a new piece of data and review everything, just to make sure your assumptions are still valid - it's time consuming and laborious but necessary if you want to know what is rather than what you think should be.

*which all evidence points towards being no better than placebo at relieving symptoms - not underlying conditions and involves all sorts of ethical problems, a post for another day.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Does it do that every time?

One of my favourite web-comics of all time is xkcd. And one of the best strips that Mr Munroe has ever done, in my humble opinion, is The Difference.  Every scientist that I know who has seen it gets it. It's not that the scientist doesn't learn or is about to get zapped again or anything silly like that. One of the tools scientists use these days is repetition. Repetition and the statistics that are generated by repetition can help us see what is actually happening rather than what we think is happening. Or If you have people playing games, you can get a decent idea of how most people would behave under different circumstances. So you don't get blinded to what actually happens (or what would happen) if you get someone who's a little unusual comes along and does exactly what you'd expect them to do.

Take the prisoners dilemma I mentioned yesterday for example. When you play it once, weigh out the costs and benefits, it's obvious that the best course of action is to dob your partner in crime in. If the game is played over and over again though a new optimum strategy becomes available. As the two players get to know each other (by their actions, not by getting together and having a wee chat), the players can learn to trust each other and cooperate and remain silent, improving the situation of both players. Then comes the betrayal where knowing that the other player is going to cooperate, allows a player to dob the other in. Seems fairly abstract doesn't it? Until in place of two prisoners you put multiple countries, instead of jail time, you get economic benefits and you replace dobbing each other in say, action on climate change.

We have minimal action on climate change in the world today. we have precious few politicians willing to step up and build the trust amongst countries that is needed. Precious few who will even acknowledge the problem. Though I have to say, in at least one aspect Australia is quite lucky. At the same time that it's refreshing to hear a politician front up to the facts, it's depressing that it's notable when one of them does.
Anyway. Now we get into pure speculation - why are politicians loath to even attempt to build the trust required for action. I imagine that the cynical amongst us would say that politicians are driven by money from the business world. Which might be true in America, but here in NZ, I don't think that is as true. Certainly not to the same extent. the business world of course is primarily concerned with making more money and any cost from action is a cost that they would have to bear and so the costs are represented as significantly more than they actually are.
Another reason that politicians are loath to act I suspect, is that they wish to continue their career in politics. Which is an argument in favour of term limits. Instead of taking action, it is far easier to listen to the received wisdom of the political advisor's who are operating under a common sense set of assumptions that haven't been tested. Like "raising taxes is bad". Gaming and analysis of what transpires allows us to test different sets of conditions. I would suggest that "raising taxes is bad" is something that should be looked at. maybe try testing "under what circumstances is raising taxes bad". Just to see what happens.

Monday, March 26, 2012


Recently, I've been playing a lot more board games. And we aren't talking pictionary here, we're talking proper board games like Settlers of Catan, Game of Thrones or Merchants and Marauders. Some of these games (like Red November, drunken Russian gnomes fighting the clock and alcohol to stop their submarine from sinking - large amounts of fun btw) are cooperative, i.e you're all playing to beat the game. Some (like game of Thrones) are antagonistic - you're all out to beat each other.
As much as some people sneer at board games, I think they can be quite good reductions of social behaviour in the real world. So in the business world say, you're quite often out to do better than your competitor. If there's a limited supply of raw materials or customers, it becomes antagonistic, you're trying to out manoeuvre your competitors. In other situations when you're trying to draw together a community you have a cooperative game - a city council trying to run a city say. There are people around trying to make games that are actually useful for this sort of thing.
In a cooperative game, generally the only way to win is for players to sacrifice some of their resources so that someone else can perform necessary tasks that the player themselves cannot complete. In some cases the resources are items or money, sometimes it's time as various players share out a set of tasks, each player undertaking tasks that their particular skill set caters for.

Games have been studied for quite a while. Economists think they're big on game theory - though I have my doubts about most of the old school economists - Chicago school and Keynesian economists alike. Though I have hope for the behavioural economists taking their lead from Daniel Kahneman. They can be used to model the behaviour of individuals in idealized and complex situations - the prisoners dilema is common example of this, one I hope most people are familiar with. It deals with the interaction of costs and human interaction. In other words, how various levels of costs/rewards change our behaviour towards others. It might not be particularly useful when attempting to model an economy but since it deals with some of the basics of human interaction it can be used to show how we can use games to model human interactions.
Studying human interactions through games is a useful thing, primarily I think because so often, what is revealed is that the common sense solution is wrong. The Chicago school of free market economics is an elegant idea. it is also based on the idea that humans are rational, self interested actors - which we are patently not, we're a lot more complex than that. Which I why I believe/hope the idea of a completely free market will die. Nor however, do we continually put the state or the revolution first, which I suspect had something to do with why communism hasn't done spectacularly well over the years. We attribute different levels of importance to different levels/parts of society and when we consciously make cost/benefit decisions, we do so with those different levels in mind.
One thing the study of games can offer, is that when they are constructed with valid assumptions, they can give us a much better understanding of how people will probably react than any other means we have available - neither common sense nor ideology have worked so far. As the Innovation Games people found when they ran games based around running of the council, contrary to "common sense" people will cope quite well with increased taxes, provided they can see the trade off being made.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A short while ago, a means of contacting a wider audience about to be embarked upon, became ... unavailable. It was unfortunate, I still think it is. It does mean that I've been putting some thought into how I can go about contributing to changing the world. Which I would very much like to do. The political process looks entirely to moribund to be able to do anything with. The Greens are the only ones who appear to have the will to do anything and whilst I largely agree with most of their policies, where I disagree, I disagree majorly. Which leaves education. Education of the populace is quite tricky if the population can't hear you though. Ideally I'd like the readership of this blog to grow (it's small but not non-existent - I know, I can see you all) to the point where people ask questions and draw others in. Looking back on it as it currently stands, it focuses, I think a little to much on the exasperation I feel almost daily as a result political inanity from both sides of the isle and the complete lack of journalistic standards at the herald.

A couple of things lately have got me thinking, the sub-heading/quote from Stats chat for one: "Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write." – H.G. Wells. Which doesn't mean that I'm going to try and turn this into a stats blog. There's been a couple of posts on Sciblogs recently about communicating science - with a talk by Peter Gluckman as a basis and one one how to blog about science when you're primary topic isn't that amenable to the general population. I'm a systems biologist, which I have to say, I find a tad tricky to incorporate into daily blogging. So what I'm going to try and do, is try and start talking about the scientific tools that I use and how they could possibly relate to the world around me and society in general. Though if I get bored I might talk about food for a bit. or other random bits of cool.

So I know there's not many of you reading this, but I would find it helpful, if you could question my posts or even, shock, horror, when I manage a good post, forward it to anyone else who might appreciate or like to question the central thesis.


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Ignoring those not in the room.

Again with the labour moving to the right thing. It's only whispers, but what you see in almost all of the political commentary is things like this :
"For the left, the big questions seem to be 1) Can Shearer successfully go head-to-head with John Key and win over swinging voters? 2) Is the move smart MMP politics that will ensure centre-left governments?"
This one was from Bryce Edwards in a daily round up, so one doesn't really expect an in depth analysis of Labours movements. It's worth noting though, that no one is asking what Labour is doing to re-engage the voters who have stopped voting. We had something like 32% of voters who declined to do so at the last election, up from 20% at the election prior. Surely it's easier to find out why there was a whole bunch of people who stopped voting and get them back than it is to move right and potentially piss off even more of your base.
This is not the same attempting to draw votes back from the Greens. that would require a shift to the left. Staying where they are (i.e. the centre) and acting all grown up like they deserve to and are capable of being in government (like the didn't under Goff), would surely be a better strategy?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Feint left - feint right.

there appears to be a bit of commentary floating round following Mr Shearer's speech regarding the future of the Labour party last week. There's a number of people who aren't at all disappointed that he seems to be moving gently to the right, calling it a shift to the centre. There, the common wisdom appears to say, is where the votes are. I think I'd tend to agree with Danyl, in that I don't think labour need to move to the centre. There was a breakdown of voting patterns I saw a while ago (can for the life of me find it now sadly) that indicated that National had not gained a significant amount of votes over the last couple of electoral cycles, but that there was a significant number of people who had stopped voting for Labour. In essence, the number of National voters stayed roughly the same, but increased as a proportion of number of people who voted. It's not that Labour need to reoccupy the centre, as Danyl says, they are the centre. It's that they need to start talking to all the people who grew disillusioned with them and stopped voting.

Seriously, I wonder sometimes if the politicians/advisors ever actually look at the stats properly, as opposed to glancing at them and seeing what they want to believe.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

It's a stupid, stupid argument.

If my goal was to be annoyed on a near daily basis, the New Zealand herald would be my friend. Then again, it's not only the herald that are putting forth annoying non-arguments like this. It was even put forward in the tea room at work yesterday with someone labelling the protestors who occupied a oil exploration ship as hypocrites because they drove there (thus using oil) rather than cycling or walking. And I've heard similar arguments levelled at occupy protesters who use modern tents and electronic devices (like ipads and cell phones).

It's a bad argument. At best, all it does is show how ingrained the thing being protested against is embedded in our lives. In the case of oil and plastics, yes, there's a lot of them in our lives. It does not follow that if we want to reduce their use on a global scale that we have to cut them out of our lives. Indeed, if we did, we wouldn't be able to protest their use. On a personal level, yes it's good to cut the things you don't want out of your life. And I bet a fair number of of the greenies who get slandered becuase they drive a car do actually try and reduce their usage to a bare minimum. If you're trying to reach a population though, you have to use whatever tools are available. If you throw those tools (be they ipads or cars) then instead of changing the population level status quo, you reinforce it because you are no longer able to effect action.

When Al Gore went round the world talking about the Inconvenient Truth, he was pilloried for flying from country to country in a plane that used jet fuel. I would hazard a guess though that by flying from country to country he has done more than enough to raise the spectre of global warming and induce action in the population to offset the carbon expended in the effort. Seriously, if you want to reduce the amount of damage that farming does to our environment, it does not follow that you must then become a self sufficient hippy living on the Coromandel. Doing so would not have any significant effect on the damage farming does.

If you can't recognize that your tools aren't perfect then you'll never be able to make better ones.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

I'm being picky today

Jane Clifton in this weeks Listener, remarks: "most creatures survive by evolving to adapt to a habit.". It's an off the cuff remark in a political story so I'll l
et it pass without to much snark. They don't though. Creatures don't evolve, populations do.

Ports of Auckland vs communication.

Just heard the head of the Ports of Auckland on the radio attempting to justify their actions. One of the statistics he used was that the POA have lost 10% market share over the past decade. OMG! wait a minute ... market share. How much has the market grown in that time? He's basically complaining that POA hasn't grown as fast as everyone else. Which is completely not the same thing as not having grown. Trying to mislead much...?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

I did it myyyyyy way! bollocks you did. is often worth the read. Usually more for their humour than anything else.Every so often one of them gets off a bit of a rant though. This one's a goody. It makes a couple of nice points, which sadly will probably be written off and ignored on the basis that it has some traceable connection to comics. The point is made that a lot of today's hero's are millionaires. Why don't we hate them, given they're horribly rich - they generally aren't complete arses - as in the behave as responsible members of the community, like people. With power comes responsibility. And money is little more than another form of power, It should be regarded as such. When you work hard and become rich, you shouldn't suddenly gain privilege. While you may have worked hard to succeed, that success is nonetheless built on the work of others. Becoming rich means you are able to do more, to contribute more, providing more of a base for those following you to build upon. It's a fairly basic change in the way we should be looking at wealth. Not something that could be legislated, but more of an attitude that needs to be changed.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Fairies, what fairies?

Some of my friends get that I think like this. Or rather, not quite like this, but in full agreement with one of the sentiments expressed here. Namely that reality is not boring. Admittedly they normally come to understand this, I think, when I'm in the midst of one of my rants about how cool stuff that we (as a race) have figured out or can do.
The other way I usually express this, when I'm talking to people who insist that ghosts and gods are walking amongst us:
"Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?" - Douglas Adams.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Visions coming to pass.

Many years ago before I switched to biology, when I was in the AI group in computer science at uni, we were working on a thing called robot rescue. The idea was to be able to have a coordinated, automated first response - tools that figured out where to fight fires, how to route traffic through damaged cities, where to send aid for maximum effect and how to go about searching dangerous terrain like partially damaged buildings without endangering more lives than necessary. It was a fun project, though what were trying to do was a little ahead of the robotic tools that were availiable at the time. Now though, with things like this, I don't think it's impossible. Maybe not even difficult. It would be quite cool to see a project that I once worked on come to pass, thanks to people like Kumar and his students. Very cool in fact.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Paul Henry, Paul Holmes, free speech etc etc etc.....

Having a go at the shoddy tactics of intelligent design proponents is not particularly uncommon at The Panda's Thumb. This post continues that fine tradition, though with some verbiage that gets across a point I continually make and am usually forced to re-state every time we get unpleasant rants from the like of Henry and Holmes. This is a particularly nice rendition of the point though :
“The right to free speech does not mean that the government, the schools, or any particular private institution or publisher are required to promote my views. Nor does criticism or rejection of my views amount to a violation of free speech.”
If the government imprisons you or bans your book, that’s a violation of free speech. The government, schools, museums, publishers, etc. making decisions about what is good science and what is not, and deciding that your view is not and is unworthy of promotion with their dime and their time, is *not* a violation of free speech. It’s a simple *requirement* of these institutions successfully functioning in the modern age
Criticism and rejection of views put forward is not censorship. The rest of the article is worth reading as well but it pertains more to the conduct of those claiming to be engaged in the scientific process, rather than specifically free speech.

Jesus and cancer.

There's a nice take, at Nuerologica, with which I largely concur, on the whole Jesus cures cancer debacle in Napier that flared up a couple of days ago. It's a tricky line to police. In this case, given that the church wasn't telling people to discontinue conventional treatment and that they're not selling anything, fair enough, there's no real reason to force them to take the sign down. Though if either of those two conditions were violated, I'd be whole heartedly behind authorities taking a closer look at the issue.

The other, relevant point that is made is that while there is no real reason to force them to take it down, there's also no reason whatsoever not to mock it as the arrant nonsense that it is.