Saturday, February 28, 2009

Same old, same old

Ethan Zuckerman argues here that homophilly -- the tendency for people to like people who are like them -- can lead to ignorance. This irritates me. Not because I disagree with it, in fact I think he has a point, just that it was something I wrote about in 2001 on a now-defunct website. The idea is that people will associate with people who share similar views and interets as them (among other things) and will also tend to read articles written by people who share their opinions. I suppose this is obvious. What is troubling about this tendency is that it is hard to explain from a psychological point of view. Of course there are explanations based on concepts such as 'identity' and 'self-esteem' but personally I find these unsatisfactory. To say, for example, that people associate with like-minded people in order to bolster their identity or to boost their self-esteem only rasises another question as to why our minds are designed with such fragile self-esteem or identity that it needs to be massaged by the present of similar opinion.

This is one of the reasons why I like evolutionary explanations, and I think the puzzle of homophily can be better answered by asking the question 'why would the mind be designed to want to associate with people who are like you?' How might this help us to leave behind more copies the genes that lead people to be homophilous (either directly, by having kids who survive to reproductive age or by our helping genetic reletatives in this regard).

The answer, I think, is quite simple and has two parts which are opposite sides of the same coin. The first is that associating with people like you reduces the possibility for conflict. People who have similar values and so on, are likely to want the world to be the same as you thus you are less likely to end up with conflicts relating to how the world should be. For example, people of the same political persuasion usually want to inhabit a similar world are are likely to work together to achieve that. People with different political beliefs want different worlds and this very fact can lead to conflict. The second, related, reason is that the more similar people are the more motivation one has to work in the interests of the other.

Of course, conflict can arise in even the most homophilous groups. This is because ultimately we have been designed to look after our own interests. (Before you draw breath to shout at your monitor of course I know that there are many examples of people acting altruistically and even laying down their lives for others, that is a very interesting subject that I will have to leave for another blog -- if I ever work out an answer). In The Selfish Gene Richard Dawkins makes an interesting observation regarding parasitism. He asks why selfish genes (usually) cooperate with one another when they find themselves in the same organism. Dawkins’s answer is that they cooperate because they all share the ‘interest’ of reproduction: all the genes of most organisms leave the host through the same exit point (the germ cells – sperm or eggs). Thus it is in each gene’s ‘interest’ that it cooperates with the others in maximizing its chances of achieving its goal of propagation; they are, in effect, all ‘playing for the same team’. If genes could propagate themselves by leaving the body by other, individual, routes then we would expect more conflict to occur. One reason why parasites are frequently harmful to the organism is that they often do not share the same exit point as the organism’s own genes.

Our own mitochonria (the power houses of the cells as biology teachers since time immemorial have called them) very probably started of as parasites -- they have their own private DNA, separate from "our" DNA which resides in the cellular nucleus. The theory goes that they gradually changed such that both mitochondial and cellular DNA now leave the body via the egg. At this point both share the same interest and 'cooperate' with one another.

So homophily has an upside: it potentially enables cooperation among genetically unrelated individuals. Evidence for this? So far it is weak (although someone might point me to relvant research). Research by Jens Binder and Andrew Howes at the university of Manchester suggests that the more diverse the friends on a persons social network site the more conflict the site owner reports. Perhaps more compellingly, in Marek Kohn's recent book on trust he cites evidedence that the most trusting societies tend to be those that are the most homogeneous. I hope it goes without saying that I report this as a research finding, rather than as a recommendation that we should attempt to socially engineer our societies by some system of ethic cleansing in order to increase societal trust: sometimes the cure is worse than the disease.

Homophily also has a downside which is the topic of Zuckerman's talk: it locks individuals into a system whereby they hear the same opinions over and over again to the point where whatever the opinion or value system happens to be to the extent that extreme and undesireably opinions can be normalised. In the eight-year old blog I mentioned above, I wrote of how the internet allows people with minority values in touch with one another. This is great if you happen to have a child who suffers from, say, Williams syndrome (a rare disorder affecting 1 in 10,000 live births) or depression. Such individuals can develop support networks and exchange tips and experiences with people whom they would be unlikely to bump into in the street. It also has a darker side allowing people with views that we might consider undesireable to meet, paedophiles for example (whether or not they happen to be radioactive as this hilarious 'news' item from the Daily Mail reports). Repeated exposure to such views can lead to such opinions being normalised.

The Internet may also, as Zuckerman argues in his talk and as my younger self argued in 2001, lead to individuals having a more restricted information diet. When reading a newspaper one's eye can be caught by articles one would not considered choosing to read. I concluded my article by suggesting that the Internet by reducing such serendipitous encounters can potentially narrow or experiences. But the internet has had enough negative press recently (see my previous blog posts on Susan Greenfield and Aric Sigman) and I do not wish to try and create a further moral panic (fat chance of that). I'm not even sure I believe it any more.

EDIT: (6/3/09) this paper (.PDF) suggests that if people are able to view the results of others in a problem solving exercise (analogous, I suppose, to using sites such as Delicious and Digg) then they tend to accept extant solutions rather than generate their own. Thus, they conclude, social bookmarking (etc.) sites can impeded creativity.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

There is a Greenfield far away (but not far enough for me)

I fully agree with Andrew Howes's blog about Susan Greenfield's claims that social network sites 'infantalise the mind'. As head of the Royal Institute she has a remit to promote the public understanding of science, this has, I think two strands. First there is the promotion of the findings of science, keeping the public up-to-date on recent research in physics, biology, medicine, etc. in an easily understandable way. Second, there is the promotion of the actual process by which science operates. This would include hypothesis testing, the nature of control conditions, the process of peer review and so on and so forth. Dull stuff, but important I think. It is in this second goal that I think Baroness Greenfield has committed the most egregious piece of malpractice (which is what I consider it to be). 

Her pronouncements about social networking were filled so many with 'mays' and 'mights' and 'possiblies' that you could equally well -- from what she said -- draw the opposite conclusion to the one she drew. But in my limited media experience I know that the media are deaf to such words. When a scientist say "X may cause Y", the newspapers hear X unequivocably and definitely causes Y because I AM A SCIENTIST AND I HOLD THE TRUTH IN MY HANDS. 

I also love her description of social network sites, she says:

"My fear is that these technologies are infantilising the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment"

I suppose 'bright lights' could possibly describe some Myspace pages, but "buzzing noises"? Has ANYONE EVER heard a buzzing noise on a social network site?

Anyhow, Baroness Greenfield should, as a result of the above, be sacked from her role as head of the Royal Institution for singularly failing to abide by scientific strictures. On the  basis of no eviedence whatsoever she has attempted to promote herself by that most base of tactics, creating a moral panic. Two recent such scientifically derived moral panics were created by Andrew Wakefield who claimed a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, and Arpad Pusztai who claimed that genetically modified potatoes could damage the digestive system of rats. Both were sanctioned but *at least* in both cases the claims were based on data (very weak in the case of Wakefield, in the case of Pusztai it seems that his sacking from the  Rowett Rearsearch institute in Aberdeen was due to his employers being leant on by the Biotech company Monsanto). 

A friend of mine who knew the great evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith recounted a story about JMS's experience with the media (this was in the 70s and pertained, IIRC, to Horizon). He told my friend that once, when asked a question about sexual selection, he did what scientists usually do, listed the twelve most relevant theories and then discussed each one with respect to the available data. When the relevant part of the programme was broadcast some time later JMS was seen to launch into his tortuous theoretical analysis only for his voice to fade out and the narrator's voice to speak over it saying (as JMS recounted the story) "The professor then went on to say that men like women with big tits, and women like men with lots of money."

Scientists must communicate with the media, we have a responsibility to do so, after all it is public money that funds us, and who else is better placed to do the job? We must make things understandable, yet we must recognise that they want a good story (particularly the tabloids). We must therefore be aware of the interpretations that they are likely to place on our words and guard against it. We must not be misled into saying something to them just because we believe it will make them happy. Most importantly we must place our long-term reputations above short term gain, and the reputation of all science above all. 

Greenfield is a very media savvy cookie (charging between 5 & 10K for a public speaking engagement according to her agent's website) and as such she will know the impact that her words would've had.  As it turns out, most comment on blogs and in the broadsheets seems to take the line that she is a bit of a jerk, a great way of publicising science then Susan. 

Ta for that.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Friday, February 20, 2009

Transgressing the boundaries

I must extend my congratulations to Aric Sigman for exposing the weakness of the peer reviewing process in the manner of Alan Sokal. To recap: Alan Sokal, a physicist, was irked by postmodernists hijacking of quantum theory and misapplying in a half-arsed way to cultural studies. So he wrote a paper called "Transgressing the boundaries: Towards a transformative hermaneutics of quantum gravity" and submitted it to a cultural studies journal called the Social Text. The paper was, as the title suggests, bullshit, but it nonetheless got published (and yes it was peer-reviewed). Thus Sokal neatly showed that the postmodernist Emperor was indeed not only naked but contemptuously waving it in our faces.

Now Aric Sigman has done the same thing. This time the target is The Biologist a peer-reviewed journal aimed to communicate research findings to the professional biologist and the interested lay-person. He submitted the article Well connected?: the biological implications of social  networking to the journal. A paper that tenuously connected the decline in social capital to an increase in various forms of physical and psychological illness (including heart disease, cancer and dementia). This is well-understood and not new. Sigman's genius was to state that the decline in face-to-face communication cause by people's increasing use of social media (such as SNS) was therefore tantamount to a one-way ticked to an early grave.  No evidence was cited for this conjecture becausei, of course, there isn't any but it sounds like it might be true. But would this get by the eagle-eyed reviewers? Mirabile dictu, it did the reviewers swallowed it whole.

Thanks Aric, you've done science a great service in showing just how flawed the process of publication is. And I know that any resemblance to Kevin Warwick is entirely coincidental.