Prevalence-induced concept change in human judgment

“Prevalence-induced concept change in human judgment”, Science, 29th June 2018. (Free abstract, free methods and data, article $ paywalled).

If something is commonly encountered, then we tend to narrow our criteria for judging its presence. If that same something then becomes rarer, but we ‘think’ it should still be encountered, then we will tend to widen our criteria for judging its presence. It then follows that, as the world makes extraordinary progress on many fronts, the criteria for judging what is ‘good news’ shrinks and the criteria for ‘bad news’ expands.

The paper has polished writing and stimulating ideas, but crumbles when one looks at the supplementary material on its sample-sizes and methods. As usual, a so-called ‘scientific’ study in Psychology is found to rest on ridiculously tiny sample-sizes drawn from adolescents wholly unrepresentative of the general population. In this case, “Participants were 22 students at Harvard University” in the first study, rising to just over 40 students in one of the later sub-studies. Such studies may say something about sleep-deprived, malnourished, hungover and hormone-addled adolescents, who are drawn from a particular economic and high-IQ niche and embedded in a particularly stimulating institution. They say little about the general population. I had heard that Psychology was supposed to be reforming its methodologies after its various existential crises, but no… here we see Science and Harvard waving through a ‘business as usual’ study as if nothing had changed.

That said, there could be some worthwhile extrapolation made from this study to journalists as-a-class, and thus it seems worth noting. Because journalists and their individual perceptions and jaundiced views, as well the deeper structures-of-feeling embedded in news-room workflows, are important to consider in understanding why we are constantly subjected to daily tidal-waves of ‘bad news’.

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Blockheads

A major new paper from MIT and others: “Does replacing coal with wood lower CO2 emissions? Dynamic lifecycle analysis of wood bioenergy”.

Ten days after official publication of this robust confirmation that killing whole healthy trees to make wood pellets for power stations is not ‘green’, the press reports are all over Google News.

No, I’m kidding. Of course they’re not. A simple Google News search shows that not a single news source has yet referenced this ‘inconvenient’ paper by title…

Clicking on the “All results for…” link only returns one to the main Google Search.

The underlying psychology of Generation Snowflake

An interesting observation in the latest issue of The Atlantic. Its “Study of Studies” sidebar column offers another few pieces of the puzzle on how a worldview of optimism/pessimism emerges in an individual. The first is that if one is pessimistic, one may appear to have a more urgent and serious communication style, and thus be more socially attractive. That seems valid. The other is that…

“Optimism can also beget disappointment [on a personal level]”

The example given here is of a student who hopefully expects a good mark for an essay, but gets a lesser mark. However it references only one short psychology paper. The paper’s 2010 date is ‘pre crisis’ in psychology, and the sample was 77 “students in a psychology class”, so one has to be a little cautious. One class of malnourished and hungover hormone-addled adolescents does not extrapolate well to the general population. The paper cited is: Sweeny and Shepperd, “The Costs of Optimism and the Benefits of Pessimism“, Emotion, Oct. 2010.

Simplistic, then, but the finding rings true. Such a habitual year-on-year pessimism (arising from unrealistic irrational optimism) could easily become ingrained at the personal level, given the right personality types and intelligence level. Certain types of adolescents could later use that habitual approach to shape their early understanding of the larger world.

The study notes that the biggest irrational optimists appear to be aware of the trade-off between ‘happy-go-lucky today / dashed down tomorrow’…

“people seem to be aware of the potential costs of optimism — participants who predicted higher scores before feedback also anticipated experiencing greater disappointment should they perform poorly”

But they’re willing to pay the price. This seems to relate to the idea that the ability to imagine longer time-horizons is a factor in optimism/pessimism. If you can’t really imagine a time more than a few weeks ahead, why worry about the essay that has to be delivered in eight weeks time, at the end of term? It would thus be interesting to see how such findings fit with each student’s time-horizon and intelligence level. Are the less intelligent and more impulsive students more inclined to be irrationally optimistic about their test scores, because they naturally lack a long time-horizon?

But what if this whole process were monstrously delayed, until after leaving the cocoon of education? Consider the changed nature of that cocoon in the late 1990s and 2000s: i) the cultivation of a vapid universal “self-esteem” in schools; ii) the “all must have prizes” culture (see Melanie Phillips et al), rampant grade inflation, the dumbing down of the curriculum so that low-grade teachers could handle it; iii) the severe curtailment of children’s ‘free range’ engagement with the natural world, their diminishing opportunities to learn how to handle individual autonomous freedom, and iv) also the constant lurid invocation of dire (but statistically highly improbable) dangers set against a pervasive drumbeat of political correctness.

In which case the habitual year-on-year pessimism which Sweeny and Shepperd pinpoint would have been delayed in multiple ways over many years, with the most susceptible personality types perhaps being the worst affected. Possibly then contributing to the monstrous temper-tantrums we’ve been suffering recently, as certain large parts (not all) of the Millennial generation finally encounter the real-world after 20-odd years of smothering and cocooning.

Doubtless others have a better handle on the murky depths of these psychologies than I do, and have already said this better than I can in a hasty blog post. For instance, I hear that the new Vox Day book SJW’s Always Double Down has several chapters which make a forensic assessment of the psychology of the loud-but-small activist segment of Generation Snowflake. But it seems to me that some of Sweeny and Shepperd’s ‘thwarted psychology’ of optimism/pessimism may be at the root of their troubles.

Mapping the global potential for marine aquaculture

Today I encountered a recent robust scoping study “Mapping the global potential for marine aquaculture” published in summary in Nature. I had missed it during my usual summer news hiatus. So my apologies if it’s old news to some readers. The study took two years, and found four million square miles of the earth’s coasts to be very suitable for future sustainable aquaculture.

Here in red are the highest “potential productivity” coastlines, blue less so…

I should note that the authors…

“avoided areas of the ocean that are used for shipping and oil extraction, as well as marine protected areas. We also avoided depths greater than 200 meters, as a proxy for the limitations of cost and current farm technology.”

The authors also issued a different chart in press article summaries, such as the article “Global hotspots for finfish aquaculture”. This appears to shows the industry’s growth potential rather than simple farm productivity potential. Presumably the difference here is that this chart also factors in the local investment eagerness, technology readiness, population pressure, ease of doing business and access to markets? Which would explain why Argentina is blue in the Nature chart and red in this one. And why the seas off Northern Ireland turn from blue to orange. Both are relatively poor places, eager for new industries.

If one squints hard (this is the largest I could find the map), then looking at it from a UK perspective I can see a good potential for the coast of Wales around Aberystwyth (a useful boost to a primarily tourism-and-agricultural economy), and strong potential for Northern Ireland albeit at a distance perhaps some tens of miles out. Still, the UK has cracked working at that distance re: the North Sea experience, so it’s not impossible. As someone in the UK, looking forward to a prosperous globally-trading post-Brexit UK circa 2022, those orange splotches off our coast are good to see.

But it’s rather surprising that all of Scandinavia and Greenland and northern Canada have no potential, apart from one orange dot, given all the hoo-ha about greenhouse warming in the Arctic. Yet even with their coastlines off the menu, and even if backward and somewhat corrupt nations such as Argentina (the fat red bit, off South America) can’t get their act together, the report’s authors suggest there is so much potential that such losses may not matter…

“If aquaculture were developed in only the most productive areas, the oceans could theoretically produce the same amount of seafood that is currently caught by all of the world’s wild-caught fisheries [currently 92m tons per year, a figure interestingly “unchanged for the past two decades”], using less than 0.015% of the total ocean surface – a combined area the size of Lake Michigan.”

And that’s with existing technology. But we can probably factor in new ‘blue’ industry things such as: shoals of untethered AI-powered sensors; autonomous aquatic drones; and tele-presence ‘sea-shepherd’ robots. Possibly also breakthroughs in fish-stock feed types and pollution-eating nano-meshes. In that case there may soon come a time when we basically just close the oceans to trawler fishing for 30 years or more, allowing an incredible recovery.

New documentary: The New Fire

The New Fire is a cinema documentary on the promise of nuclear fission via new reactor types. The 84-minute documentary has just been given its premiere at the Heartland Film Festival 2017…

“The New Fire is as optimistic as its title suggests. There is a new fire ready to light the way forward in the United States, and that fire is engineered by bright millennials and fuelled by nuclear fission. The film does a fantastic job explaining complex topics to the audience without ever condescending. The complexities of engineering challenges faced by nuclear physicists is laid bare in simplistic explanations and beautifully rendered animated segments that illustrate how the various designs for different reactors work.”

Equally optimistically, the movie is set to screen on the campus of U.C. ‘no free speech here’ Berkeley on 16th November 2017. Expect howling mobs of eco-worriers outside the venue, although the film does hype up the climate alarmism to ridiculous levels so perhaps they’ll be pacified by that.

The film’s website — which needs a “high-res press stills / press pack” section added, for magazine editors.

For those who want to delve deeper into the topic, I see there’s a new primer book from Cambridge University Press, Seeing the Light: The Case for Nuclear Power in the 21st Century. Although with a poor choice of cover picture, showing an antiquated lightbulb which undercuts the book’s future-facing theme.

With all of this, my first question is not “can it work”, but “can it work in a world of terrorists” who will seek to turn such technologies to deadly ends? Small sites packed full of nuclear waste, strung all across the planet and at remote locations with low staffing levels, does not seem like a good scenario to me, re: acceptance by both the public and security services.

Still, I guess we now have to think about off-world uses as well. Such as bases on the Moon, colonies on Mars, spaceships inside hollowed-out asteroids. Possibly also large undersea / sunken offshore aquaculture bases. Presumably such reactors would be far safer there, re: the terrorist threat.