Category Archives: in-group bias

Partisan Innumeracy

In his memoir, China in Ten Words, writer Yu Hua recalled an event following the end of the cultural revolution. Literature had been banned for many years but the memory of its joys had lingered in much of the population. Hua’s formative years had been during the intellectually desiccated period. Emerging from a time when being seen with any book other than officially sanctioned volumes of or about Chairman Mao could have grave consequences, he and many others craved stories featuring relatable human characters and situations.

Eventually China loosened its intellectual restrictions and the word that bookstores would be opening spread like a prairie fire. Hua tells of a local bookstore that announced it would distribute coupons for two books each to the first few customers to come to the shop’s opening. Hua rose before dawn and was dismayed to find several hundred people already in line, many of whom had been in line all night.

To occupy themselves those waiting speculated on how many coupons the shop owner would hand out. The speculations fell into three general groups. Those who’d gotten in line the day prior were sure their proaction would be rewarded with coupons. Those who arrived later and comprised the middle of the line agreed among themselves there would be more coupons for such obviously high-quality people who’d been wise enough to arrive before the deadbeats behind them. Those like Hua, farther back in the line, reached a consensus there would be enough coupons for them. After all, all of them were clearly quality people for having the foresight and diligence to arrive so early. Hilariously, each person’s assessment derived not from any objective assessment, such as estimating the number of books visible through the shop window, but rather on an emotional assessment of how deserving they were for making the effort to be in the line and, tellingly, how undeserving those farther back in the line were, considering they were comparative slackers. When the shop door opened and the actual number of coupons—50—was announced, persons one through 50 smugly congratulated themselves while the remainders moaned and cursed. Person 51 felt auspiciously unlucky and the number ’51’ became shorthand for unlucky throughout the town.

It’s entertaining to poke fun at the sort of irrational innumeracy the Chinese villagers displayed but it’s a universal flaw in human thinking. Our estimates and judgments of others’ estimates and judgments skew sharply in keeping with our sense of identity. Logically, our sense of who we are, which involves ongoing comparisons of ourselves with others, is a psychological matter that has no bearing on quantifiable facts about the world.

Take the results of a recent Ipsos/Axios survey in which American’s belief in whether the reported number of COVID-19 deaths was accurate, under-reported, or excessive. Beliefs closely aligned with political perspectives (which are primarily sociological and psychological, not fact oriented). This does not mean objective facts cannot align with a group’s position on a matter. It means such alignment often has less to do with a group’s objectivity or rationality than with how convenient the facts are to a group’s claims about what is real or important.

As for a more facts-based approach to assessing COVID-19 related death counts, the article linked in the preceding paragraph provides objective reasons for why an undercounting scenario is likely:

  • Insufficient testing obscures many COVID-19 deaths.
  • Several states’ death rates are significantly higher than statistics for other causes would suggest, and are still increasing.

What’s important to most people, however, is not recognizing accurate facts or more valid reasoning but feeling they are true to their in-groups’ values and self-definition.

How the Black Death Radically Changed the Course of History

This article is relevant to our recent discussions and Zak Stein’s (see Edward’s recent post) suggestion that great destabilizing events open gaps in which new structures can supplant older, disintegrating systems–with the inherent risks and opportunities.

Living in the future’s past

I watched a good documentary last night titled, Living in the Future’s Past, a project organized, produced, and narrated by Jeff Bridges. It’s available through your Albuquerque Public Library account’s access to Hoopla Digital, Amazon Prime video, and other services. It lays out the modern dilemma of having a pre-neolithic brain in a Neolithic era and posits several questions that align closely with the theme of our current discussion . The film has commentary from diverse scientific experts, including Daniel Goldman (emotional and social intelligence and mindfulness). The upshot is a recurring suggestion our current brain functionality is capable of reframing our perspective and modulating our perceptions and behaviors around carefully constructed focal questions that get at what sort of future(s) we desire. I like this approach—so well in fact that I Had reserved some web domains months ago:,,, and These domains are not active yet. They will relate to the novel I’m writing and to a related non-fiction project. Edward is onto an important approach in looking to semantics (framing, etc.).

Also, on a short-term level, cultural evolution (including language and semantics) appears much more potent a driver than physiological evolution. Given that, I recently purchased a book by an author who goes into great depth on cultural evolution. The book is Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking, by Cecelia Heyes. I may put it forward for a future discussion.

More on Haidt

Continuing this previous post:

I’m looking at the section “conclusion and critique” of Haidt starting on p. 31. Gibbs appreciates that we should account for our earlier human history and more primitive brain centers in describing morality. But to limit it to these structures and history at the expense of later brain structures and evolutionary development is another thing.

“The negative skew in Haidt’s descriptive work discourages study in moral psychology of higher reaches of morality such as rational moral reflection, empathy for the plight of entire out-groups, moral courage, and the cultivation of responsible, mature moral agency —broadly, study of ‘the scope of human possibilities, of what people can do morally, if they are prepared, through development and education, to approach life’s important issues in a thoughtful way’” (34).

Several neuroscientific studies make clear which parts of the brain are emphasized in liberals and conservatives. The amygdala (indicative of fight or flight fear) is a much older evolutionary brain structure, while the anterior cingulate cortex (higher thinking functions) much newer. Hence there is neuroscientific brain evidence for the evolution of morality per Kohlberg. Haidt admits that conservative morality is rooted in these more evolutionary earlier brain structures, and liberal morality in the newer structures.

The newer neocortex then coordinates and integrates the older brain functions so that the latter do not dominate and send us backward in evolution. It’s not that liberals don’t have the conservative moral traits like Haidt claims; it’s that those earlier evolutionary traits are now modified under neocortex control. Yes, there is a value judgment involved here, but it’s supported by evolutionary science, not ideology.

The abstract from “Neural correlates or post-conventional moral reasoning”:

“Going back to Kohlberg, moral development research affirms that people progress through different stages of moral reasoning as cognitive abilities mature. Individuals at a lower level of moral reasoning judge moral issues mainly based on self-interest (personal interests schema) or based on adherence to laws and rules (maintaining norms schema), whereas individuals at the post-conventional level judge moral issues based on deeper principles and shared ideals. However, the extent to which moral development is reflected in structural brain architecture remains unknown. To investigate this question, we used voxel-based morphometry and examined the brain structure in a sample of 67 Master of Business Administration (MBA) students. Subjects completed the Defining Issues Test (DIT-2) which measures moral development in terms of cognitive schema preference. Results demonstrate that subjects at the post-conventional level of moral reasoning were characterized by increased gray matter volume in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and subgenual anterior cingulate cortex, compared with subjects at a lower level of moral reasoning. Our findings support an important role for both cognitive and emotional processes in moral reasoning and provide first evidence for individual differences in brain structure according to the stages of moral reasoning first proposed by Kohlberg decades ago.”

From Mendez, M. (2017). “A neurology of the conservative-liberal dimension of political ideology.” The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences.

“Differences in political ideology are a major source of human disagreement and conflict. There is increasing evidence that neurobiological mechanisms mediate individual differences in political ideology through effects on a conservative-liberal axis. This review summarizes personality, evolutionary and genetic, cognitive, neuroimaging, and neurological studies of conservatism-liberalism and discusses how they might affect political ideology. What emerges from this highly variable literature is evidence for a normal right-sided cconservative-complex’ involving structures sensitive to negativity bias, threat, disgust, and avoidance.”

The blind spot of science

Good essay by an astrophysicist, theoretical physicist and philosopher on the nature of human experience and its relationship to science. Some excerpts:

“This brings us back to the Blind Spot. When we look at the objects of scientific knowledge, we don’t tend to see the experiences that underpin them. We do not see how experience makes their presence to us possible. Because we lose sight of the necessity of experience, we erect a false idol of science as something that bestows absolute knowledge of reality, independent of how it shows up and how we interact with it.”

“To bring the point home, consider that in certain intense states of absorption – during meditation, dance or highly skilled performances – the subject-object structure can drop away, and we are left with a sense of sheer felt presence. How is such phenomenal presence possible in a physical world? Science is silent on this question. And yet, without such phenomenal presence, science is impossible, for presence is a precondition for any observation or measurement to be possible.”

“Scientific materialists will argue that the scientific method enables us to get outside of experience and grasp the world as it is in itself. As will be clear by now, we disagree; indeed, we believe that this way of thinking misrepresents the very method and practice of science.”

“The Blind Spot arises when we start to believe that this method gives us access to unvarnished reality. But experience is present at every step. Scientific models must be pulled out from observations, often mediated by our complex scientific equipment. They are idealisations, not actual things in the world.  […] Scientific ‘objectivity’ can’t stand outside experience; in this context, ‘objective’ simply means something that’s true to the observations agreed upon by a community of investigators using certain tools.”

“So the belief that scientific models correspond to how things truly are doesn’t follow from the scientific method. Instead, it comes from an ancient impulse – one often found in monotheistic religions – to know the world as it is in itself, as God does. The contention that science reveals a perfectly objective ‘reality’ is more theological than scientific.”

“Recent philosophers of science who target such ‘naive realism’ argue that science doesn’t culminate in a single picture of a theory-independent world. Rather, various aspects of the world – from chemical interactions to the growth and development of organisms, brain dynamics and social interactions – can be more or less successfully described by partial models. These models are always bound to our observations and actions, and circumscribed in their application.”

Mental rigidity in both Parties

Another one of those studies comparing political identification. The study is about extreme attachment to a Party. What about those who strongly identify with humanity with high cognitive complexity and flexibility who don’t identify with a Party? Are their nuanced arguments that account for numerous factors and their interplay ‘extreme?’ Is the Green New Deal extreme? If a living wage extreme? Is corporations paying their fair share extreme? Is addressing the climate crisis extreme? Is transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy extreme? I think we all know the answer to those questions.

“They also found that self-described Independents displayed greater cognitive flexibility compared to both Democrats and Republicans. Other cognitive traits, such as originality or fluency of thought, were not related to heightened political partisanship. […] The aim of this research is not to draw false equivalences between different, and sometimes opposing, ideologies.”

The Map and the Territory

Recent book by Wuppulari and Doria. F___ing Amen man. This would be a good one for discussion. From the Intro by Penrose:

“Is there a global map that can simulate every other map under some constraint? […] If two maps cannot be integrated, is this a limitation of our scientific cartography or is it the nature of the underlying territory itself that prevents us from such an attempt? […] It is safer to let the gaps remain as gaps while we let our maps remain as maps, rather than giving in to the seemingly seductive approach of trading in our understanding and intermingling maps with territory to fill in the conceptual gaps—however, much this may comfort us and appeal to our tastes!”

From the blurb at

This volume presents essays by pioneering thinkers including Tyler Burge, Gregory Chaitin, Daniel Dennett, Barry Mazur, Nicholas Humphrey, John Searle and Ian Stewart. Together they illuminate the Map/Territory Distinction that underlies at the foundation of the scientific method, thought and the very reality itself.

It is imperative to distinguish Map from the Territory while analyzing any subject but we often mistake map for the territory. Meaning for the Reference. Computational tool for what it computes. Representations are handy and tempting that we often end up committing the category error of over-marrying the representation with what is represented, so much so that the distinction between the former and the latter is lost. This error that has its roots in the pedagogy often generates a plethora of paradoxes/confusions which hinder the proper understanding of the subject. What are wave functions? Fields? Forces? Numbers? Sets? Classes? Operators? Functions? Alphabets and Sentences? Are they a part of our map (theory/representation)? Or do they actually belong to the territory (Reality)? Researcher, like a cartographer, clothes (or creates?) the reality by stitching multitudes of maps that simultaneously co-exist. A simple apple, for example, can be analyzed from several viewpoints beginning with evolution and biology, all the way down its microscopic quantum mechanical components. Is there a reality (or a real apple) out there apart from these maps? How do these various maps interact/intermingle with each other to produce a coherent reality that we interact with? Or do they not?

Does our brain uses its own internal maps to facilitate “physicist/mathematician” in us to construct the maps about the external territories in turn? If so, what is the nature of these internal maps? Are there meta-maps? Evolution definitely fences our perception and thereby our ability to construct maps, revealing to us only those aspects beneficial for our survival. But the question is, to what extent? Is there a way out of the metaphorical Platonic cave erected around us by the nature? While “Map is not the territory” as Alfred Korzybski remarked, join us in this journey to know more, while we inquire on the nature and the reality of the maps which try to map the reality out there.

The book also includes a foreword by Sir Roger Penrose and an afterword by Dagfinn Follesdal.

Applying artificial intelligence for social good

This McKinsey article is an excellent overview of this more extensive article (3 MB PDF) enumerating the ways in which varieties of deep learning can improve existence. Worth a look.

The articles cover the following:

  • Mapping AI use cases to domains of social good
  • AI capabilities that can be used for social good
  • Overcoming bottlenecks, especially around data and talent
  • Risks to be managed
  • Scaling up the use of AI for social good

News startups aim to improve public discourse

A Nieman Reports article highlights four startups seeking to improve public discourse. Let’s hope efforts to create methods and technologies along these lines accelerate and succeed in producing positive outcomes.

Neuroscience report on Dumpsters

See this report. While it also applies to ignorant Dems, however “studies have shown that Democrats now tend to be generally more educated than Republicans, making the latter more vulnerable to the Dunning-Kruger effect.”

“Perhaps this helps explain why Trump supporters seem to be so easily tricked into believing obvious falsehoods when their leader delivers his ‘alternative facts’ sprinkled with language designed to activate partisan identities. Because they lack knowledge but are confident that they do […] they are less likely than others to actually fact-check the claims that the President makes. This speculation is supported by evidence from empirical studies.”

Dunning-Kruger effect:

“In the field of psychology, the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is. The cognitive bias of illusory superiority comes from the inability of low-ability people to recognize their lack of ability; without the self-awareness of metacognition, low-ability people cannot objectively evaluate their actual competence or incompetence.”

“A new study published in the journal Political Psychology, carried out by the political scientist Ian Anson at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, not only found that the Dunning-Kruger effect applies to politics, it also appears to be exacerbated when partisan identities are made more salient. In other words, those who score low on political knowledge tend to overestimate their expertise even more when greater emphasis is placed on political affiliation. […] This occurred with both Republicans and Democrats, but only in those who scored low on political knowledge to begin with.”

“We should not lose all hope in trying to reach the victims of the Dunning-Kruger effect. At least one study found that incompetent students increased their ability to accurately estimate their class rank after being tutored in the skills they lacked. With the right education methods and a willingness to learn, the uninformed on both sides of the political aisle can gain a meta-awareness that can help them perceive themselves more objectively.”