Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Here are three short things to read

Here are three short things to read.

First, a piece by Randy Gallistel (sent to me by Kleanthes, thx) where he discusses our current state of knowledge in Cog Neuro. He takes it for granted that we are all Marrians now (something that indicates what a terrific optimist he is). He also assumes that all of us accept the “computational theory of mind” and that we are comfortable with assuming a roughly Rationalist conception of cognition and the brain, one, that Kant, for example, would have been very comfortable with. Here is Randy:

Second, we have learned from behavioral experiments that foundational abstractions such as space, time, number, and probability play fundamental roles not only in our own mentation but also in the cognition and behavior of animals that we thought had no minds at all — rodents and insects, for example. We have learned from neuroscience experiments that signals based on these abstractions — spatial- and temporal-location signals, for example — are seen in individual neurons in very small brains. The number of neurons in the brain of a typical insect is about the same as the number in one voxel of a human functional magnetic resonance image (fMRI). Thus, both behavioral data and neurobiological data have taught us that it does not take a human-size brain to compute locations in space and time, to count, or to estimate uncertainty. Nor does it take extensive experience; many insects live only a few days to a few weeks, and rodents already display behavior based on these abstractions when they are at most a few months old.

So, quick learning without “extensive experience” and lots of innate structure concerning the primitives of space, time, number, probability a.o. No blank slate here.

Randy believes that we have learned that this Rationalist picture of the mind/brain is correct, though problems of detail abound. Where then are the mysteries? Well, you can guess given that it is Randy. In his own words:

What we haven’t yet learned are the answers to the computational questions that we have learned to ask. We do not yet know how the brain implements the basic elements of computation (the basic operations of arithmetic and logic). We do not yet know the mind’s computational primitives. We do not yet know in what abstract form (e.g., analog or digital) the mind stores the basic numerical quantities that give substance to the foundational abstractions, the information acquired from experience that specifies learned distances, directions, circadian phases, durations, and probabilities. Much less do we know the physical medium in nervous tissue that is modified in order to preserve these empirical quantities for use in later computations.

In other words, we know that quite a bit about the mental computations and the implications this has for brains, but we really know very little about how brains embody these computations. We don’t know how the physical bases of the required computations (e.g. how do brains store numbers? How do they add and subtract them? What’s the brain analogue of a register? Or writing to memory? Or …) In fact, to put this in Chomsky terms, Randy catalogues the problem of “the physical basis of memory in the brain” as a mystery, not a problem. This, I am quite sure, would come as a surprise to most CNSers. Why? Because as Randy has amply demonstrated elsewhere, most CNSers are still hyper-Empiricists (see here). They deny that we know what Randy is sure that we do. This is too bad. For if the critical Randy is right, then one of the reasons the physical basis of cognition is a mystery (and will remain one for quite a while) is that the bulk of the CNS community is asking the wrong questions and hence looking for the wrong mechanisms in the wrong places.

Here is a second piece. It is on sexism in science, in this case a real one, viz. physics. It is depressing reading. Many of the problems cited, though very serious (e.g. being propositioned and gropped by advisors who drop you as an advisee if rebuffed), are obviously disgusting and, I believe, uncontroversially horrible. I agree that we are slow to call out egregious offenders and I agree that this almost certainly serves to dampen scientific curiosity of those on the receiving end. But at least these things are now acknowledged to be disgusting. People are now fired for such offenses and ridiculed for their views and behaviors (e.g. presidents of prestigious instituions have become ex-presidents for saying otherwise). This is a good thing and I believe (hope) that over time this overt bad behavior will be weeded out and become as unacceptable as overt racism and homophobia are now.

What worries me more are the subtle forms of sexism. Here are two observations from the post:

As one male physicist has reputedly put it, ‘only blunt bright bastards make it in the field’. Though that has never been wholly true (think of the gentle genius Michael Faraday), it sums up sentiments that run deep through the physical sciences community, creating psychological and sociological barriers not only for women but also for many men. (10)

…most science forums were invented by men, are headed by men, and maintained by men to sustain the interests of overwhelmingly male audiences. It’s not just women who should be asked to change. (13)

Changing these attitudes will be harder. We do have a conception of “what being smart” looks like. Brash, pushy, talkative, argumentative, to name four traits. We (or at least I) value argument and disputation as the route to knowledge. I also recognize that this might not be everyone’s preferred method of thinking, though it is enshrined in standard scientific practice (e.g. journals, conferences, colloquia). The piece made me wonder about how to change this and whether we should (i.e. what we might loose were we to do so).

Let me be upfront: I find that one of the things that has disimproved since my early days is the readiness to critically evaluate competing proposals. There is a cost to letting a thousand flowers bloom, especially if some of the flowers are dangerous weeds dressed up in attractive petals. So, I believe that criticism is called for and bluntness in the evaluation of ideas is not vice. However, I can also see that there might be a down side to this. So it seems plausible to me that one of the endowments of privilege is a thicker skin (though in my experience, nobody’s skin is actually all that thick) and hence greater tolerance when it comes to having ones favorite ideas savaged. Less privilege, more susceptibility to the ravages of criticism. This makes sense to me.

What I am less clear about is how to modulate this without eliminating strong criticism, which I believe is a necessary part of making scientific progress. In the best of all possible worlds, we would attack ideas not the people that hold them and so nobody would take criticism personally. However, academics (in fact most people) often identify themselves with their ideas. And they do so for good reason. Theories/proposals are like works of art, personal creations. Thus, being told that these ideas are not worth the time of day (if not worse) is not something that one generally takes impersonally. So criticism hurts the scientist not only the scientific proposal. And if one is not that confident to begin with, well, there will be a downside.

However, there is also a downside to not engaging in very vigorous criticism. A good part of science involves focusing the community on the right questions and approaches. There is rhetoric to scientific persuasion and part of that can involve harsh criticism. Bad ideas need to be weeded out and the process of doing this is seldom petty. So Lake Wobegon science where every idea is pretty and above average is, IMO, a recipe for stagnation.

At any rate, let me know what you think. Especially as it applies to our little pleasant part of the scientific universe. How is this in linguistics? Cogneuro? Psycho? What can we do about it? Should we do anything about it? Can we have our cake and eat it too. DO we need a new ethics of discourse and if so what should it look like?

Last point: there are also many obviously less sybtle barriers to the advancement of women and others in science. These too are important. Please flag them and discuss. Btw, FoL has relatively few female commenters. Your opinions would be valuable here. In fact, let me make an offer: anyone wishing to post on this topic rather than merely comment, send me your stuff and I will seriously try to post it (subject to the usual caveats, of course).

Last paper: I found this paper on bees fascinating. It has nothing to do with anything. Put it in my fun category with singing mice.


  1. I don't think the problem is that women argue less or take criticism less well because of our lack of privilege. I think that the problem is with Implicit Bias which still afflicts us all. We (the ones of us who have made it in the field) are mostly doing the same things, but not listened to or noticed as much. I don't know how to fix this. We are all guilty of it. Also, perhaps because of (our) long history of frustration in terms of scientific advancement, I have noticed that there are proportionately more male linguists concerned with fame/ambition and simply being noticed, and more female linguists simply concerned with figuring out the answer to something. The latter is slightly less loud and attention drawing, but of course involves argumentation and critiquing in a deeper way than the former.
    But maybe that's just my pro-female implicit bias.

  2. I would just like to add in case that all sounded rather unfair, that I think Linguistics is probably better than most fields when it comes to sexism. Testimony to this is the large number of brilliant women in our field, and pretty good gender balance at all levels. There is still a tail off towards the senior levels, and there is still a preponderance of invited speakers and question askers who are male. Also, I am not sure the situation is improving. Ora Matushansky has been studying the numbers on this.