On the sounds of aberrant ecosystems

On the sounds of aberrant ecosystems

When I was ten years old, I read about a new card game, Magic, in the local newspaper. The article described the basic conceit of the game – you are a wizard who must conquer territory to power your spells – and a few of the cards – the article mentioned Giant Growth, which it said “is just a big rat.”

squeeI was enthralled. It took about a year of searching before I found a place to buy cards, but eventually the local hobby shop would siphon away all my babysitting money.

My favorite card was Squee – a goblin who keeps returning from the dead. Squee was pretty powerful when combined with Survival of the Fittest, which lets you trade your weak creatures for more powerful monsters, and Goblin Bombardment, which lets you fling creatures at your enemies. But I loved Squee disproportionately to his power. This little monster, swimming in his robes, is blessed with infinite renewal … just like humanity’s original misconception of nature.


Before the industrial revolution, no single generation could change the world enough to prove this notion wrong. Humans cut down trees, but there are so many trees and more grow all the time. Humans wash their clothes or defecate in the river, but new clean water flows. Humans hunt game and catch fish, but – as long as you make a god-placating sacrifice every now and then – there will always be more animals to eat.


Jared Diamond remarks upon our inability to notice slow changes in Collapse, his (tragically relevant) account of the factors that cause civilizations to die:

collapseI suspect that landscape amnesia provided part of the answer to my UCLA students’ question, “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say as he was doing it?” We unconsciously imagine a sudden change: one year, the island still covered with a forest of tall palm trees being used to produce wine, fruit, and timber to transport and erect statues; the next year, just a single tree left, which an islander proceeds to fell in an act of incredibly self-damaging stupidity. Much more likely, though, the changes in forest cover from year to year would have been almost undetectable: yes, this year we cut down a few trees over there, but saplings are starting to grow back again here on this abandoned garden site. Only the oldest islanders, thinking back to their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference. Their children could no more have comprehended their parents’ tales of a tall forest than my 17-year-old sons today can comprehend my wife’s and my tales of what Los Angeles used to be like 40 years ago. Gradually, Easter Island’s trees became fewer, smaller, and less important. At the time that the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, the species had long ago ceased to be of any economic significance. That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets. No one would have noticed the falling of the last little palm sapling.

It probably took several generations before trees were expunged from Easter Island. As Homo sapiens migrated into Europe, the Americas, and Australia, most large animals were driven to extinction, including all other species of humans. The Homo sapiens involved probably had no idea what they were doing. Each generation would see some decline in the abundance of an animal, but nothing to worry about. The last few deaths would occur among a people who had no idea what was lost.

Moby_Dick_p510_illustrationIn Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the narrator considers whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff.

The narrator promptly dismisses this fear. Yes, buffalo were driven to extinction in America, but only because a single man could slaughter thousands. At that time, the concerted efforts of many were needed to kill each whale.

Even so, the whales seemed to be disappearing. But the narrator – so obsessed with the hunt that he hardly notices when he’s deluding himself – rejects the evidence:

10838762315_69b85f2e8a_zAnd equally fallacious seems the conceit, that because the so-called whale-bone whales no longer haunt many grounds in former years abounding with them, hence that species also is declining. For they are only being driven from promontory to cape; and if one coast is no longer enlivened with their jets, then, be sure, some other and remoter strand has been very recently startled by the unfamiliar spectacle.

Sperm whale populations plummeted. Gestation lasts over a year; mothers care for their young for a decade; males sexually mature at eighteen and aren’t fully grown until their fifties. They could not reproduce as quickly as we could kill them.


Most whales are extremely social, and communicate in ways that humans don’t yet understand. Their songs show signs of local culture, as do their hunting strategies. Those centuries of “harvest” may have caused several dialects or languages to be lost.

Sperm whale populations have since recovered. But several other species of whale are endangered. Our discarded plastics waft through the sea. The waters are becoming sufficiently acidic to kill off coral reefs.

The ocean is not nearly so infinite as we humans once thought it to be.


Recently, technological progress has become so fast that the world changes noticeably within single generations. For tens of thousands of years, each human’s life resembled that of the parents. Even after some humans developed an agrarian lifestyle and began curating the evolution of favored plants and animals, the world changed slowly. Over many generations, Zea mays went from a useless scruffy grass to buxom-kernaled ears of corn. But, over the course of any single farmer’s life, the corn gnawed during senescence could probably be mistaken for the corn of youth.

Whereas my grandmother’s cellphone / camera / computer combo looks radically different from any of the bulky, ineffectual devices available when she was young. And my parents’ generation – whose lives spanned the development of modern agricultural practices – has seen a precipitous fall in all non-human animal life. In The Moth Snowstorm, Michael McCarthy describes this decline:

The_Moth_Snowstorm_for_web_df271fb2-a6f7-4703-9f9a-23ea2dbb7f70_1024x1024It had been the most powerful of all the manifestations of abundance, this blizzard of insects in the headlights of cars, this curious side effect of technology, this revelatory view of the natural world which was only made possible with the invention of the motor vehicle. It was extraordinary; yet even more extraordinary was the fact that it had ceased to exist. Its disappearance spoke unchallengeably of a completely unregarded but catastrophic crash in Britain of the invertebrate life which is at the basis of so much else. South Korea may have destroyed Saemangeum, and China may have destroyed its dolphin, but my own country has wrecked a destruction which is just as egregious; in my lifetime, in a process that began in the year I was born, in this great and merciless thinning, it has obliterated half its living things, even though the national consciousness does not register it yet. That has been my fate as a baby boomer: not just to belong to the most privileged generation which ever walked the earth, but, as we can at last see now, to have my life parallel the destruction of the wondrous abundance of nature that still persisted in my childhood, the abundance which sang like nothing else of the force and energy of life and could be witnessed in so many ways, but most strikingly of all in the astonishing summer night display in the headlight beams, which is no more.

Cleaning splattered bugs off a windshield doesn’t sound like fun; drivers rarely have to do this anymore. But … we now have only a tenth as many insects as we did during the 1980s. Which means a tenth as much food for birds: their populations are falling too. Birds breed more slowly now, for lack of food, and many are killed off because our world sports unnaturally high population densities of predatory cats.

And that’s just the decline since 1989. Over the course of McCarthy’s life, insect populations may have fallen by 95% or more. And, because of the “landscape amnesia” described by Diamond above, it’s difficult for anyone born later to even realize what’s been lost. We assume that whatever world we’ve been born into is normal.


Last night, Uncle Max woke me to go outside at 3 a.m. Afterward, I lay in bed listening to the birds singing.

Fewer birds sang at night when I was growing up. But they are adapting to our world. Our streetlights shine all the time, and our cities, during the day, are so loud that their songs cannot be heard. Humanity’s persistent racket is infiltrating even the most secluded corners of the world.

From Ula Chrobak’s article on noise pollution:

noiseSome plants need silence for seed dispersal—revving cars can scare away rodents that might otherwise do the job. Animals need silence to hear predators approaching or to communicate with their mates: A bird whose song would normally travel 100 meters would, with a 10-fold increase in noise, have its melody stifled to a 10-meter radius. “In so many landscapes, both people and other organisms are living in shrunken perceptual worlds,” says [ecologist] Clinton Francis.

In The Songs of Trees, David Haskell describes the way our forests should sound – the natural world has its own rhythms, its own music. In the following passage he listens in the Amazon:

songsoftreesA tinamou sings the forest’s vespers. Although this turkey-size relative of the emu is seldom seen, its melodies accent every dusk. The sound is the work of a silversmith, pure tones that the artist melts and crafts into ornament. The inflections and timbre of the Andean quena flute are surely inspired by the songs of these birds. In the understory the dark is comprehensive, but here in the ceibo crown, dusk lingers another thirty minutes, the orange gray western light of sunset reaching us unobstructed as we hear the tinamou’s song.

As the light drains, bromeliad frogs spasm chuckles and grunts from aerial ponds. They call for five or more minutes, then cut to silence. Any sound will set them off again: a stray frog call, a human voice, the bleat of a roosting bird trodden by a companion. Three species of owl join the frogs. Crested owls punch regular groans from below, keeping in touch with mates, neighbors, and the youngster that the pair have hidden in the low branches of an Inga tree. The spectacled owl’s repeated low, rubbery calls wobble around their crooked axis like a badly aligned tire. A distant tawny screech owl sings a high to-to-to-to, an endless, jabbing ellipsis. Insects pulse high drills, clear, sweeping chirps, saws, and tinkles. Monkeys and parrots whose sounds dominate the day have dozed away. The upper leaves of the ceibo chuff in the sharp gusts that accompany the sunset, then the wind eases and stillness comes to the tree.

But these forests, too, are threatened. The ancient trees are cut down and the music wanes. One after another, pockets of nature are forgetting how to speak. Again from Haskell:

In the center of town, Quichua men in suits work with and within the local government. The central, national government hurts and kills the ceibo mother tree, cutting her away piece by piece. Even conservation programs encourage people to cut away the trees. We lose our medicines and hunting. State-driven conservation erodes the indigenous community. Without intact territory, owned and managed by the indigenous community, the forest falls into incoherence, the community dies.


The evidence of harm is all around us. Our world sounds wrong, tastes wrong, smells wrong. We’re scraping too few bugs off our windshields after long drives.

And, if we don’t act, our children won’t feel that they need to. A hot, loud planet will feel just as normal to them as the planet we inherited felt to us.

On free-market economics & the actual meaning of words.

On free-market economics & the actual meaning of words.

CaptureDespite being rather politically liberal, I consider myself a free market economist.

(Maybe it’s unfair to self-describe as an economist, though?  I did the coursework for a master’s degree in economics… but couldn’t get a degree because I didn’t complete the residency requirement.  I was enrolled as an undergraduate at the time, and apparently would’ve needed to be enrolled as a graduate student for my coursework to count.)

Sure, there are instances where free markets don’t fare so well — the free market solution to entertainment is for people to pirate whatever they’d like to watch, hear, or read, and then for producers of those media to realize they can never turn a profit.  But for many types of commerce, free markets work great.

But, just like the term “pro-life” (I describe myself as pro-life, for instance, which can confuse people because I am a staunch supporter of women’s rights and lives), the words “free market” have taken on a political connotation that doesn’t always gel with actual meaning.

For instance, I promptly began to pout when I read the following paragraphs in James Surowiecki’s New York Review of Books article, “Why the Rich Are So Much Richer“:

CaptureThe redistributive policies [Joseph] Stiglitz advocates look pretty much like what you’d expect.  On the tax front, he wants to raise taxes on the highest earners and on capital gains, institute a carbon tax, and cut corporate subsidies.  But dealing with inequality isn’t just about taxation.  It’s also about investing.  As he puts it, “If we spent more on education, health, and infrastructure, we would strengthen our economy, now and in the future.”  So he wants more investment in schools, infrastructure, and basic research.

If you’re a free-market fundamentalist, this sounds disastrous — a recipe for taking money away from the job creators and giving it to the government, which will just waste it on bridges to nowhere.  But here is where Stiglitz’s academic work and his political perspective intersect most clearly.  The core insight of Stiglitz’s research has been that, left on their own, markets are not perfect, and that smart policy can nudge them in better directions.

A strange turn of phrase.

Sure, it’s reasonable to imagine a free-market fundamentalist kvetching over increased taxes on high earners and capital gains (progressive taxation means that, for anyone outside the bottom tax bracket, choosing to work one additional hour produces income taxed at a higher percentage than the average tax rate being applied to your current income.  So the claim is that progressive taxation causes people to work less.  This claim is unverified, though, and indeed you could make an equally plausible argument for the opposite: if people want a certain post-tax income, raising tax rates will cause them to work more in order to earn that same amount).

But it’s very strange to write that a free-market fundamentalist would consider it “disastrous” to cut corporate subsidies.  How do government handouts to high-fructose corn syrup manufacturers reflect the free market?

They don’t, obviously.  But it’s so ingrained in our culture to equate things like “free-market fundamentalist” and “right-wing economist” that even very bright people (I enjoyed the rest of Surowiecki’s article) sometimes make claims about one when they mean the other.

Similarly, I think that someone who self-describes as “pro-life” should be concerned about women’s well-being, would weigh the well-being of a sentient neglected child above that of a pre-sentient fetus, would be an advocate for economic & social justice, would have empathy for livestock subject to torturous existences in CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operation), would be appalled that environmental harm & climate destabilization is aggravating armed conflict across the globe.  Obviously I was thrilled to read Thomas Friedman’s editorial, “Why I Am Pro-Life.”  I thought it’d mean I’d get fewer confused looks.

It didn’t.  But it’s still a lovely editorial.

And, getting back to economics: even though right-wing politicians oppose it, a free-market fundamentalist would support a carbon tax.

CaptureProducing carbon is a negative externality.  That means it’s a cost of production that is not inherently paid by the producers — other well-known negative externalities are the raw sewage, bad smells, & concomitant reduced property values brought by CAFOs, or the suddenly poisonous well water in towns adjacent to certain types of coal mines.

For the free market to work properly, negative externalities must be priced through taxation.  If not, too many of the associated good are produced and everyone’s utility (“happiness” is a reasonable synonym for the word “utility”) is lower than it could’ve been.

(Well, almost everyone’s — in some cases net utility is lower, and all but one person’s utility drops, but the person operating a mine at below-market rates and poisoning everyone’s water is happier.  The mine owner might earn enough that he can afford to buy bottled water, a big house, & a politician or two.)

This is analogous to the well-known “tragedy of the commons,” the idea that if all shepherds have unlimited free access to a shared space, they’ll have their sheep overgraze it.  After a few years, the grass is dead & everyone’s sheep starve.  Similarly, if we give all corporations unlimited free access to the atmosphere as a garbage bin, each has an incentive to overpollute and kill us all.

If that sounds overdramatic, please read the Easter Island chapter of Jared Diamond’s Collapse.  The book’s central message is that environmental disaster obliterates societies, and Easter Island is perhaps the best example of a once-fertile land pillaged by its inhabitants, who then could not survive minor geological shocks.  To this day the island is covered by grassy hills & insouciant gods, but it was once densely forested & harbored a variety of plant life.  Then the inhabitants chopped down the trees.  In Diamond’s words:

CaptureI suspect that landscape amnesia provided part of the answer to my UCLA students’ question, “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say as he was doing it?”  We unconsciously imagine a sudden change: one year, the island still covered with a forest of tall palm trees being used to produce wine, fruit, and timber to transport and erect statues; the next year, just a single tree left, which an islander proceeds to fell in an act of incredibly self-damaging stupidity.  Much more likely, though, the changes in forest cover from year to year would have been almost undetectable: yes, this year we cut down a few trees over there, but saplings are starting to grow back again here on this abandoned garden site.  Only the oldest islanders, thinking back to their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference.  Their children could no more have comprehended their parents’ tales of a tall forest than my 17-year-old sons today can comprehend my wife’s and my tales of what Los Angeles used to be like 40 years ago.  Gradually, Easter Island’s trees became fewer, smaller, and less important.  At the time that the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, the species had long ago ceased to be of any economic significance.  That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets.  No one would have noticed the falling of the last little palm sapling.

Sure, a free-market fundamentalist would bemoan government interventions like a cap & trade system to regulate pollution.  I’m a hippy-dippy liberal and I hate the idea of cap & trade, too.  But assessing the cost to all for each unit of carbon production, then levying a tax so that corporations know the true consequences of their decisions?  That is a free market solution.

Similarly, a free-market fundamentalist should support government subsidies to education, infrastructure, and basic research.  Those are all goods with significant positive externalities, meaning each produces benefits that accrue to the population as a whole, not just to the individual who had to pay to build a road.  Since the value of these goods to the economy as a whole is undercounted, the correct equilibrium amount won’t be produced unless they are subsidized.

CapturePositive externalities are things like keeping bees.  If you keep bees, you get some honey, maybe you get some pleasure by looking at your hive from time to time.  But your decision to keep bees also makes all nearby farmland more productive.  Because it’d be difficult to track each bee & charge each nearby farmer for every flower fertilized by one of your bees, it’s more sensible to simply subsidize beekeeping (with perhaps some restrictions on where you’re keeping bees — if you’re living in the middle of a city, your bees might not be helping much).

Similarly, if you educate children, employers gain access to a more competent workforce, citizens gain more pleasant neighbors, often less needs to be spent on policing & prisons a few years down the line.  Government-funded research made possible our wireless technologies, the internet, microwave ovens — & these make everyone’s lives more efficient.  The free-market solution that compensates the researchers who gave us all these near-magical technologies is to subsidize their research.

The other common solution, the one that is not a free-market approach but is favored by many right-wing politicians, is to grant patent protections, artificially disallowing all but one corporation from producing any of a good.

That type of distinction is why it saddens me to see habitual misuse of words or phrases as slogans lend them a connotation that’s so different from their actual meaning.  Especially because, in the case of something like “free market” or “pro-life,” the distinction changes the world in appreciable ways.  Like, okay, if everybody wants to use the word “peruse” to mean “skim,” of if everybody wants to use the word “fortuitous” to mean “fortunate,” I’ll just stop using those words.  I don’t want to use them incorrectly, but I don’t want to confuse anyone, either.  But “free market” and “pro-life” are such big, emotionally-charged concepts that I get upset about political efforts to commandeer them.

On watchful gods, trust, and how academic scientists undermined their own credibility.

On watchful gods, trust, and how academic scientists undermined their own credibility.

k10063Despite my disagreements with a lot of its details, I thoroughly enjoyed Ara Norenzayan’s Big Gods.  The book posits an explanation for the current global dominance of the big three Abrahamic religions: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

Instead of the “quirks of history & dumb luck” explanation offered in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, Norenzayan suggests that the Abrahamic religions have so many adherents today because beneficial economic behaviors were made possible by belief in those religions.

Here’s a rough summary of the argument: Economies function best in a culture of trust.  People are more trustworthy when they’re being watched.  If people think they’re being watched, that’s just as good.  Adherents to the Abrahamic faiths think they are always being watched by God.  And, because anybody could claim to believe in an omnipresent, ever-watchful god, it was worthwhile for believers to practice costly rituals (church attendance, dietary restrictions, sexual moderation, risk of murder by those who hate their faith) in order to signal that they were genuine, trustworthy, God-fearing individuals.

A clever argument.  To me, it calls to mind the trustworthiness passage of Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves:

When evolution gets around to creating agents that can learn, and reflect, and consider rationally what they ought to do next, it confronts these agents with a new version of the commitment problem: how to commit to something and convince others you have done so.  Wearing a cap that says “I’m a cooperator” is not going to take you far in a world of other rational agents on the lookout for ploys.  According to [Robert] Frank, over evolutionary time we “learned” how to harness our emotions to the task of keeping us from being too rational, and–just as important–earning us a reputation for not being too rational.  It is our unwanted excess of myopic or local rationality, Frank claims, that makes us so vulnerable to temptations and threats, vulnerable to “offers we can’t refuse,” as the Godfather says.  Part of becoming a truly responsible agent, a good citizen, is making oneself into a being that can be relied upon to be relatively impervious to such offers.

I think that’s a beautiful passage — the logic goes down so easily that I hardly notice the inaccuracies beneath the surface.  It makes a lot of sense unless you consider that many other species, including relatively non-cooperative species, have emotional lives very similar to our own, and will like us act in irrational ways to stay true to those emotions (I still love this clip of an aggrieved monkey rejecting its cucumber slice).

Maybe that doesn’t seem important to Dennett, who shrugs off decades of research indicating the cognitive similarities between humans and other animals when he asserts that only we humans have meaningful free will, but that kind of detail matters to me.

You know, accuracy or truth or whatever.

Similarly, I think Norenzayan’s argument is elegant, even though I don’t agree.  One problem is that he supports his claims with results from social psychology experiments, many of which are not credible.  But that’s not entirely his fault.  Arguments do sound more convincing when there’s experimental data to back them up, and surely there are a few tolerably accurate social psychology results tucked away in the scientific literature. The problem is that the basic methodology of modern academic science produces a lot of inaccurate garbage (References? Here & here & here & here... I could go on, but I already have a half-written post on the reasons why the scientific method is not a good persuasive tool, so I’ll elaborate on this idea later).

For instance, many of the experiments Norenzayan cites are based on “priming.”  Study subjects are unconsciously inoculated with an idea: will they behave differently?

Naturally, Norenzayan includes a flattering description of the first priming experiment, the Bargh et al. study (“Automaticity of Social Behavior: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation on Action”) in which subjects walked more slowly down a hallway after being unconsciously exposed to words about old age.  But this study is terrible!  It’s a classic in the field, sure, and its “success” has resulted in many other laboratories copying the technique, but it almost certainly isn’t meaningful.

Look at the actual data from the Bargh paper: they’ve drawn a bar graph that suggests a big effect, but that’s just because they picked an arbitrary starting point for their axis.  There are no error bars.  The work couldn’t be replicated (unless a research assistant was “primed” to know what the data “should” look like in advance).


The author of the original priming study also published a few apoplectic screeds denouncing the researchers who attempted to replicate his work — here’s a quote from Ed Yong’s analysis:

Bargh also directs personal attacks at the authors of the paper (“incompetent or ill-informed”), at PLoS (“does not receive the usual high scientific journal standards of peer-review scrutiny”), and at me (“superficial online science journalism”).  The entire post is entitled “Nothing in their heads”.

Personally, I am extremely skeptical of any work based on the “priming” methodology.  You might expect the methodology to be sound because it’s been used in so many subsequent studies.  I don’t think so.  Scientific publishing is sufficiently broken that unsound methodologies could be used to prove all sorts of untrue things, including precognition.

If you’re interested in the failings of modern academic science and don’t want to wait for my full post on the topic, you should check out Simmons et al.’s “False-Positive Psychology: Undisclosed Flexibility in Data Collection and AnalysNais Allows Presenting Anything as Significant.”  This paper demonstrates that listening to the Beatles will make you chronologically younger.

Wait.  No.  That can’t be right.


The Simmons et al. paper actually demonstrates why so many contemporary scientific results are false, a nice experimental supplement to the theoretical Ioannidis model (“Why Most Published Research Findings Are False”).  The paper pre-emptively rebuts empty rationalizations such as those given in Lisa Feldman Barrett’s New York Times editorial (“Psychology Is not in Crisis,” in which she incorrectly argues that it’s no big deal that most findings cannot be replicated).

Academia rewards researchers who can successfully hunt for publishable results.  But the optimal strategy for obtaining something publishable (collect lots of data, analyze it repeatedly using different mathematical formula, discard all the data that look “wrong”) is very different from the optimal strategy for uncovering truth.


Here’s one way to understand why much of modern academic publishing isn’t really science: in general, results are publishable only if they are positive (i.e. a treatment causes a change, as opposed to a treatment having no effect) and significant (i.e. you would see the result only 1 out of 20 times if the claim were not actually true).  But that means that if twenty labs decide to test the same false idea, 19 of them will get negative results and be unable to publish their findings, whereas 1 of them will see a false positive and publish.  Newspapers will announce that the finding is real, and there will be a published record of only the incorrect lab’s result.

Because academic training is set up like a pyramid scheme, we have a huge glut of researchers.  For any scientific question, there are probably enough laboratories studying it to nearly guarantee that significance testing will provide one of them an untrue publishable result.

And that’s even if everyone involved were 100% ethical.  Even then, a huge quantity of published research would be incorrect.  In our world, where many researchers are not ethical, the situation is even worse.

Norenzayan even documents this sort of unscientific over-analysis of data in his book.  One example appears in his chapter on anti-atheist prejudice:

In addition to assessing demographic information and individual religious beliefs, we asked [American] participants to rate the degree to which they viewed both atheists and gays with either distrust or with disgust.

. . .

It is possible that, for whatever reason, people may have felt similarly toward both atheists and gays, but felt more comfortable openly voicing distrust of atheists than of gays.  In addition, our sample consisted of American adults, overall a quite religious group.  To address these concerns, we performed additional studies in a population with considerable variability in religious involvement, but overall far less religious on the whole than most Americans.  We studied the attitudes of university students in Vancouver, Canada.  To circumvent any possible artifacts that result from overtly asking people about their prejudices, we designed studies that included more covert ways of measuring distrust.

When I see an explanation like that, it suggests that the researchers first conducted their study using the same methodology for both populations, obtained data that did not agree with their hypothesis, then collected more data for only one group in order to build a consistent, publishable story (if you’re interested, you can see their final paper here).

Because researchers can (and do!) collect data until they see what they want — until they have results that agree with a pet hypothesis, perhaps one they’ve built their career around — it’s not hard to obtain publishable data that appear to support any claim.  Doesn’t matter whether the claim is true or not.  And that, in essence, is why the practices that masquerade as the scientific method in the hands of modern researchers are not convincing persuasive tools.

I think it’s unfair to denounce people for not believing scientific results about climate change, for instance.  Because modern scientific results simply are not believable.

scientists_montageWhich is a shame.  The scientific method, used correctly, is the best way to understand the world.  And many scientists are very bright, ethical people.  And we should act upon certain research findings.

For instance, even if the reality underlying most climate change studies is a little less dire than some papers would lead you to believe, our world will be better off — more ecological diversity, less asthma, less terrorism, and, yes, less climate destabilization — if we pretend the results are real.

So it’s tragic, in my opinion, that a toxic publishing culture has undermined the authority of academic scientists.

And that’s one downside to Norenzayan’s book.  He supports his argument with a lot of data that I’m disinclined to believe.

The other problem is that he barely addresses historical information that doesn’t agree with his hypothesis.  For instance, several cultures developed long-range trust-based commerce without believing in omnipresent, watchful, morality-enforcing gods, including ancient Kanesh, China, the pre-Christian Greco-Roman empires, some regions of Polynesia.

CaptureThere’s also historical data demonstrating that trust is separable from religion (and not just in contemporary secular societies, where Norenzayan would argue that a god-like role is played by the police… didn’t sound so scary the way he wrote it).  The most heart-wrenching example of this, in my opinion, is presented in Nunn & Wantchekon’s paper, “The Slave Trade and the Origins of Mistrust in Africa.” They suggest a casual relationship between kidnapping & treachery during the transatlantic slave trade and contemporary mistrust in the plundered regions.  Which would mean that slavery in the United States created a drag on many African nations’ economies that persists to this day.

That legacy of mistrust persists despite the once-plundered nations (untrusting, with high economic transaction costs to show for it) & their neighbors (trusting, with greater prosperity) having similar proportions of believers in the Abrahamic faiths.

Is it so wrong to wish Norenzayan had addressed some of these issues?  I’ll admit that complexity might’ve sullied his clever logic.  But, all apologies to Keats, sometimes it’s necessary to introduce some inelegance in the pursuit of truth.

Still, the book was pleasurable to read.  Definitely gave me a lot to think about, and the writing is far more lucid and accessible than I’d expected.  Check out this passage on the evolutionary flux — replete with dead ends — that the world’s religions have gone through:

CaptureThis cultural winnowing of religions over time is evident throughout history and is occurring every day.  It is easy to miss this dynamic process, because the enduring religious movements are all that we often see in the present.  However, this would be an error.  It is called survivor bias.  When groups, entities, or persons undergo a process of competition and selective retention, we see abundant cases of those that “survived” the competition process; the cases that did not survive and flourish are buried in the dark recesses of the past, and are overlooked.  To understand how religions propagate, we of course want to put the successful religions under the microscope, but we do not want to forget the unsuccessful ones that did not make it — the reasons for their failures can be equally instructive.

This idea, that the histories we know preserve only a lucky few voices & occurrences, is also beautifully alluded to in Jurgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World (trans. Patrick Camiller).  The first clause here just slays me:

The teeth of time gnaw selectively: the industrial architecture of the nineteenth century has worn away more quickly than many monuments from the Middle Ages.  Scarcely anywhere is it still possible to gain a sensory impression of what the Industrial “Revolution” meant–of the sudden appearance of a huge factory in a narrow valley, or of tall smokestacks in a world where nothing had risen higher than the church tower.

Indeed, Norenzayan is currently looking for a way to numerically analyze oft-overlooked facets of history.  So, who knows?  Perhaps, given more data, and a more thorough consideration of data that don’t slot nicely into his favored hypothesis, he could convince me yet.