Desiderata #4: links and commentary
Alien physics, serotonin and medieval humorism, Substack as art
1. This last month The Intrinsic Perspective published:
Why does culture get less happy year after year? Our emotional decline into everything being "dark and gritty"
Eating meat is good, says the philosopher: New diet just dropped!
How prestige outlets like The Guardian get away with copypasta: The anatomy of malpractice
2. Would aliens share our physics? Or would they have a wildly different interpretation of how the universe works, even if our predictions matched? It’s impossible to know this, but we can sort of ask a shadow of that question by examining whether “AI physicists” arrive at a similar set of variables to describe, say, the swinging of a pendulum. Based on recent research the short answer is that wildly different interpretations are possible. The best description of the story came from an anonymous post on Phys.Org:
The program was designed to observe physical phenomena through a video camera, then try to search for the minimal set of fundamental variables that fully describe the observed dynamics. The study was published on July 25 in Nature Computational Science.
The researchers began by feeding the system raw video footage of phenomena for which they already knew the answer. For example, they fed a video of a swinging double pendulum known to have exactly four "state variables" -- the angle and angular velocity of each of the two arms. After a few hours of analysis, the AI produced the answer: 4.7. The researchers then proceeded to visualize the actual variables that the program identified. Extracting the variables themselves was not easy, since the program cannot describe them in any intuitive way that would be understandable to humans. After some probing, it appeared that two of the variables the program chose loosely corresponded to the angles of the arms, but the other two remain a mystery. "We tried correlating the other variables with anything and everything we could think of: angular and linear velocities, kinetic and potential energy, and various combinations of known quantities," explained Boyuan Chen Ph.D., now an assistant professor at Duke University, who led the work. "But nothing seemed to match perfectly." The team was confident that the AI had found a valid set of four variables, since it was making good predictions, "but we don't yet understand the mathematical language it is speaking," he explained.
3. A commenter here pointed out to me that The Guardian articles seem suspiciously well-sourced these last few days after my last piece calling them out (and other prestigious media outlets) for bad practices. E.g., this article on sea turtles has a bunch of outside sources, as well as clearer usage of where quotes come from.
That link takes you to CNN, the ones who actually got the quote. I hadn’t seen them do that before. Personally, I think it’s just a coincidence. Just to check, I found a couple recent articles that had no outside links at all, and more unclear sourcing for quotes, so, you know, old habits die hard. Despite how I’d wish it to, I think it would take a heck of a lot more than me complaining for them to change.
4. Flowers growing in rings around where artillery shells hit in Ukraine.
5. Did you know that sunlight improves your serotonin levels? Or that dopamine is released at the smell of baking cookies? And if you don’t have enough dopamine, you could develop schizophrenia? What is love if not just oxytocin? It is, after all, the “trust hormone.” And man, tweeting sure gives dopamine hits, right? You know what, if you’re concerned about your own dopamine, or serotonin, or whatever, you can protect yourself from all of this by just buying my nootropic supplement—I’ll make sure your chemicals are perfectly balanced with a bunch of waste dust, and you’ll get all the neurotransmitters you need. You’ll be smarter, healthier too!
Why is “chemical balance” being the basis of function so attractive to humans? In medieval times, the dominant view of medicine was humoral theory, which led to the infamous practice of bloodletting to cure the imbalances of things like blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Is it really a coincidence that we find a similar story of imbalances so attractive to explain now not medical disorders, but mental ones? Perhaps this should make us pause and ask, just to make sure, if it’s at all possible that our understanding of the brain is comparatively equivalent to a medieval understanding of the body?
Recently a blockbuster study (at least in terms of media attention) was published in Molecular Psychiatry questioning whether there was any evidence that low serotonin causes with depression. Given that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (or SSRIs) are the most common prescription for severe depression, it’s a pretty reasonable question to ask. The short answer? No.
I was going to address this but I got so frustrated reading the media coverage of this article that I ended up writing “How prestigious outlets like The Guardian get away with copypasta” instead.
Of course, in the wake of the paper’s publication, many have defended psychiatry and neuroscience, claiming that we shouldn’t throw out the chemical imbalance theory just because there’s no evidence linking serotonin deficit to depression.
Some experts have also claimed that no one really believed the chemical imbalance theory anyways. That is, however, not my experience. In graduate school for neuroscience I would say chemical imbalance was one of the most common theories of mental disorder, indeed, often of brain function in general. It really was how people—professors!—talked about the brain, especially if they were, e.g., having a conversation over lunch. Behind a podium everyone is circumspect, so what’s expressed eating lunch is often closer to the real truth of how scientists think than on-stage at a scientific conference, and the truth is that a lot of neuroscientists I met went along with the idea that chemical balances are an extremely explanatory aspect of brain function, or, even more reductionist, that neurotransmitter levels simply are the underlying physical basis of certain atomic feelings or experiences (like pleasure or pain), meaning that, e.g., a lack of them meant a concomitant lack of the experience. I lampooned some of these beliefs in my novel The Revelations, including when a character pontificates:
"Now it’s medieval humorism all over again, but this time its levels of dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin. An imbalance of the humors made me do it!”
6. There was a nice write-up in Slate about the problems of identifying medical misinformation, and The Intrinsic Perspective got a shout-out.
7. Another case of a popular scientific theory having trouble after new scrutiny from questionable statistical practices: a hypothesis in evolutionary psychology that “fluctuating asymmetry” reflects an organism’s fitness (or “genetic quality”). The idea is that, since animals like us are supposed to be symmetric, deviations from this (like literally small physical asymmetries in your hands) indicate problems in development, which in turn reflects a lack of fitness.
What’s funny is that my first attempt to do my own scientific study, all the way back in undergraduate, was testing the fluctuating asymmetry hypothesis. I must have been nineteen at the time, and in those years it was all the rage to correlate human fluctuating asymmetry to all sorts of properties, like dancing ability (that was a Nature paper at the time). Seeing an easy opportunity, I came up with the idea of correlating people’s fluctuating asymmetry to a new property no one had looked at yet: singing ability. I’d scan people’s hands, measure their finger asymmetry using software, and then correlate that to perceived attractiveness by volunteers of their singing voice. But as I plodded toward the sample size I had originally hoped for the p-value wouldn’t budge. I couldn’t find a positive result. And I wanted it to work so bad—it felt like a chance at my first paper, perhaps a high profile one. It felt like a door I wanted desperately to widen opening just a crack and then shutting.
As the data collection continued and the p-value didn’t budge I remember starting to think: is there anything I can change, any sort of different comparison? What if I collected the data this other way, or used this particular software? This is how researchers get led down a “Garden of Forking paths” wherein positive outcomes are guaranteed, and is one of the leading factors behind the replication crisis that now spans huge swaths of science. Luckily, I had good scientific mentors early on and had already learned about some of the risks, so avoided putting out some statistically dubious paper. I reported my negative results to my professors, took the loss, and moved on to other things, having learned the importance of humility, a slight distaste for experimental work, and a brewing skepticism of evolutionary psychology.
8. The Substack The Observer has a nice breakdown of the Overfitted Brain Hypothesis I mentioned in The Guardian copypasta piece:
. . . is there any evolutionary purpose served by dreams, or (as many scientists claim) is dreaming just an artefact of our minds that doesn’t have any other survival benefit? Hoel’s proposal is that dreams do serve an evolutionary purpose. But to understand this one has to take a small detour to Machine Learning and the concept of ‘overfitting’. . . In Deep Learning, overfitting happens when a model gets trained too well to the learning data sets it has been provided. Such a model works extremely well in most standard scenarios, but fails when there are curveballs thrown at it - the model doesn’t know how to handle ‘strangeness’ in its worldview. . . Hoel believes that dreams serve the purpose that these ‘noise’ variables do in machine learning. Because one day follows another in similar patterns, our brains get ‘overfitted’ to these daily rhythms; we perform our regular tasks very well, but might be caught completely unawares when something very unexpected happens.