Science and Technology links (December 30th 2023)

  1. Parenting does not appear to be able to determine the personality traits of a child.
  2. When the last ice age ended, 12,000 years ago, the Sahara was green and full of life. It turned into a desert about 5,500 years ago.
  3. Fadnes et al. claim that the UK population could live 10 years older if it changed its eating habits.
  4. By studying 175 different populations, You et al. find that meat intake predicts longevity: people who eat more meat live longer.
  5. According to an editorial in the journal Nature, scientists who work in industry are more satisfied and better paid than are colleagues in academia. Industry scientists report less bullying and discrimination.
  6. The Asch experiment examined the extent to which individuals would conform to the majority view, even when that view was clearly incorrect. The experiment involved a group of participants, one of whom was the actual subject of the experiment, and the rest were people who knew the true purpose of the experiment and acted according to a script. The group was shown a series of images with lines of different lengths and asked to identify which two lines were the same length. The results showed that a significant number of participants conformed to the majority view, even when it was clearly wrong. The Asch experiment is important because it highlights the influence of social factors on individual beliefs. Most people just adopt the prevaling beliefs, even when they are clearly incorrect. In other words, very few people can think for themselves. They just reproduce what they are shown or what they see others doing, like mere monkeys. Unfortunately, the original experiment is robust with respect to replication. We also find that even financial incentive fail to make people more critical.
  7. Weather prediction is one of the first application of powerful computers. To this day, we rely on predictions made by specialized services: we don’t generally compute our own weather predictions. Google Deepmind claims to be able to predict the weather accurately on a normal computer using artificial intelligence.

Daniel Lemire, "Science and Technology links (December 30th 2023)," in Daniel Lemire's blog, December 30, 2023.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

3 thoughts on “Science and Technology links (December 30th 2023)”

  1. I think that your conclusion regarding the Asch experiment is overly negative, and possibly incorrect. There’s been a bit of attention given to the way individuals vs. groups perform problem solving. The key finding is that groups have much higher success rates than individuals do on average, particularly with problems like brain teasers such as “A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total…” (I learned this via the podcast, “You are Not So Smart”)

    The fact that individuals defer to the group’s view is clearly a part of this dynamic, which overall is likely a win. So in my mind, the Asch experiments highlights the importance of smart, yet disagreeable people in reaching correct consensus.

    1. Solomon Asch was a Jew born in Poland. He was trying to understand how Nazism could take over a country like Germany and openly carry atrocities.

      We don’t know of a single German who was ever formally punished for refusing to kill a Jew. Yet 6 million Jews were killed in a few years. Throughout Ukraine, the Jews were often killed right in the village, or nearby. We know of very few people who stood up and did something.

      We know that 90% of medical doctors joined the Nazi party. Doctors took active part in the atrocities from the start. They would kill babies without telling the mothers if they felt that these babies were somehow handicapped.

      How would have you behaved in Germany back in 1938 when they declared that for public health reasons, Jews were fired from their jobs, forbidden to go to restaurants and so forth?

      What the Asch experiment tells us is that most people would have been Nazis back in 1938.

      Whether a team of honest players solve a puzzle better than an individual is irrelevant in this context. What is relevant is that a tiny fraction of all human beings are capable of critical thinking. Because most people defer easily to the group, it is easy for a few (say Hitler’s friends) to quickly take over.

      All it takes is a few doctors to say ‘Jews spread germs, we have to isolate them and get rid of them’… and people go along.

      It is quite different from the problem of genuine trying to determine whether Jews spread diseases. That’s an open question, and having several honest participants can help you reach the answer faster.

      The Asch experiment tells us that it is easy to get a group to go along with what is obviously the wrong answer. And that’s ultimately because people choose not to think.

      1. Completely fair point. To be clear I wasn’t trying to make some comparison that was too clever by half. I wholeheartedly applaud and support vigilance for aspects of our human nature that lead us to mindless (and often evil!) mob behavior.

        I think that I was just trying to point out that perhaps a notable connection between this as a defective side-effect of our apparent wiring that values collective cognitive solutions to problems. In the case of brain-teasers and complex problems that are addressed in good-faith, there is a clear an obvious benefit. In the case of Asch-like conditions, there is enormous downsides.

        Additionally, as you correctly point out, I was ignoring the coercive social aspects to the Asch experiments, which is simply an entirely different dynamic than I was considering.

        I think that one additional reason that I find the connection between the two strands of thought notable is that while we do NOT need to be naive regarding bad actors, it is also easy to overlook how often people don’t have clear ideas in their heads about what is actually true. Bad actors use various tropes for a reason. The most effective are the ones that are sort of unexamined beliefs in a general population. So if a certain minority are declared to be vermin, it may have a ring of truth that would not survive close examination, but is good enough so that someone just decides “not to get into that right now”, and looks the other way. So while the experiment proves that someone will go along with something that they don’t think is correct, we have all been wrong about things enough in our lives that we’re willing to trust other people’s very strongly held convictions.

        I’ve often considered major social evils in the past of my own country that are so obviously odious to me now, such as segregation, slavery, the severe caricaturing of various immigrant groups (ie. Charlie Chan type figures). While it’s easy to think, I’d never be like that, I’m sure that given the limits of knowledge/exposure/etc, I would be far more subject to bad behavior than I’m comfortable admitting.

        Anyway, thanks for taking the time to respond so clearly, and I certainly hope that I don’t come off as treating the importance of this study with flippance.

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