Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Trap.

"The Wire" is a great HBO series about the Baltimore Police. One topic throughout the series is the importance of "numbers" to the Police Department: the amount of arrests made, number of homicides that took place in Baltimore, etc. It are these number that are used to promote majors to colonels and that make mayors win their elections. It's not about the quality of the police work, but about these numbers (and as a result they are jigged). This reminded me of a great BBC documentary that a friend suggested when in the Congo last year: "The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom". The documentary, made by Adam Curtis, consist out of three one-hour parts that explore the concept and definition of freedom. The documentary is an absolute must-watch! (Something you can do here).

The documentary shows how "a simplistic model of human beings as self-seeking, almost robotic, creatures led to today's idea of freedom." By making use of contributions by people such as (this is just a selection of what I remember): Frantz Fanon, James Buchanan, Thomas Schelling, John Maynard Smith, Richard Dawkins, John Nash, and Isaiah Berlin, the documentary start by describing how the individualistic, "robotic" description of human kind has its roots in the Cold War with it's use in game theory, and then how it was validated by fields such as psychology and biology (think for example of Dawkins’s "The Selfish Gene"). Curtis continues by conjecturing that this zeitgeist combined with Berlin's concept of negative libery (freedom from coercion) was taken up by the public sector. The state was nothing more than a mechanism of social control and in order to create a stable society and true freedom it had to embraze a free-market economy: social safety nets were thus torn down, subsidies decreased, and state-owned enterprises had to be sold. Curtis argues that by doing so these governments (Blair specifically) had created the opposite of freedom. We now live in a society without meaning, populated only by selfish automatons. People have become slaves of numbers (e.g. output targets). Curtis argues that there is value in positive liberty (the opportunity to strive to fulfill one's potential) in that it allowed people to strive to better themselves.

I enjoyed this documentary a lot. First, it placed connections between readings that I had not yet seen myself (e.g. Hayek and Hawkins). Second, I just can't get this feeling away that there is much truth in the main point of the documentary - and about how society has changed over time; with the decrease of social bonds and the increase of the individual and the importance of numbers. I recently read two books by Geert Mak
(here and here) about how Dutch society changed over the last century and that has only deepened this feeling. Also, I am sure that people who have ever shopped in New York's Century 21 (or any big US shop for that matter), or has tried to get internet for his/her apartment understands me. People are no longer given responsibilities. More and more, people receive a screenplay about how they have to behave and an output target to know what they have to achieve. Welcome to society.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Machine delivered to South Africa without instructions.

Just received a link from a friend to the video below. It's hilarious! (after the laughing do read the comments to this video on YouTube - there is a good chance they are not that dumb).

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Humans are SuperCooperators.

A few months ago the book "SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed" came out. I just finished reading it. The book is written by Martin Nowak - the director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics at Harvard University. He combines evolutionary biology and mathematics and is an extraordinary researcher. I was looking forward reading the book having read all of Nowak's work on cooperation. I am a big fan of his work. To give an idea: he is the only author that has a separate folder on my computer (called "nowak”) in which his publications are listed. His work has been groundbreaking, and for me eye-opening and motivating in a number of cases.

In brief, the book singles out five mechanisms to understand why we cooperate (which in this case means how we can get people to cooperate in Prisoner's Dillema-type of situations):
  1. Direct Reciprocity: I scratch your back and you scratch mine the next time (repeated play);
  2. Indirect Reciprocity: I scratch your back, others see it, and they scratch my back (so reputation);
  3. Spatial Games: We do not meet each other randomly. Populations are structured which promotes cooperation;
  4. Kin selection (nepotism): Haldane's famous "I jump in the water to save 2 brothers or eight cousins"; and
  5. Group (or multilevel) selection: I cooperate because it is beneficial for my group.
After discussing these five mechanisms the book continues and discusses important and interesting topics such as cancer, language, and networks.

So, am I enthousiastic about the book? Unfortunately not that much. I agree with Nowak's main argument, which is that cooperation should be placed together with selection and mutation as one the fundamental parts of evolution to create complex entities. It is cooperation that made us humans (aka SuperCooperators) so successful. Moreover, I also think this book gives a good summary of the work he has done on the topic of cooperation. However the way he gets this message across I do not like. Firstly, there is not a clear red thread in the book. For example, after listing the five mechanisms my Kindle indicated we were at 40% of the book. The book then continued with topics (cancer, networks, language, etc.) that seemed to be only weakly related to the rest of the book. The reason for this is that the book is more like an autobiography of Nowak - discussing his research over the last decades. Nowak definitely deserves an autobiography, but I did not expect this and thus did not enjoy a lot of paragraphs with not-useful information like the following two:

“We discussed the Dilemma as we drove back the next day in the same VW that my father still uses today to putter around Austria.”

“The next day, once the cross-Channel ferry had set us down, I caught my first glimpse of Britain. It was not William Blake’s green and pleasant land. The soil was cracked and dry. The grass and foliage were brown and the country was in the grip of drought.”

Secondly, the way it was written I did not like. This could be a cultural thing, though. In the Netherlands we have a saying that translates to something like this: “Do normal and you already do crazy enough”. So, even if you are amazing and do great work, there is no need to keep on pointing this out. Let's just say that this book could have been written more humble. Nowak, for example, moves without hesitation from Michelangelo and Mahler to himself and his own work.

Overall, the book is about a very important topic. Moreover, it is a summary of impressive work Nowak has done on the topic cooperation, which he has covered from a lot of different angles and that definitely deserves a book. Also, it is written in an easier and more accessible way then his academic articles.
So, if don't mind reading paragraphs like the two above and the one below (to give an indication), this book might be something. However, if you already know Nowak's research this book adds little and the reference I give below (one of his 4-page articles in Science) sums up the most important part this book quite well - then from there keep on reading his other academic papers.

“I was fascinated and wanted to formulate a language game around this idea, one that could shed light on the origins of language. I had the same visceral feeling I’d had when Karl mentioned indirect reciprocity in the Wienerwald. I felt something new and great would come out of this idea. In fact I felt it was inevitable. But before I could make a start, my career path in academia would undergo an extraordinary change.”

  • Nowak, Martin A. "Five Rules for the Evolution of Cooperation". Science, 2006, Vol. 314, 1560-1563.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Applying for funding?

Research is often expensive and thus many academics apply for grants. The National Science Foundation is the place to get it. In four days (15th of August) the political science funding proposals are due, which made me think about following article. To quote part of it:

"According to the scientists, the electromagnetic science-maker will make atoms move and spin around very quickly, though spectators at the hearing said afterward they could not account for how one could get some atoms to move around faster than other ones if everything is made of atoms anyway. In addition, the scientists said that the device would be several miles in circumference, which puzzled onlookers who had long assumed that atoms were tiny. Despite these apparent inconsistencies, the scientists, in Rep. Gordon's words, appeared "very smart-sounding" and confident that their big spinner would solve some kind of problem they described."

Fig 1. This is a big expensive science-thing.

Now I that I' m taking material from the Onion anyway, please also see the following video:

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

How God Left Jorwerd.

I just finished “Hoe God Verdween uit Jorwerd” (“How God Left Jorwerd”) by Geert Mak. The book is an autobiography (1945-1995) about Jorwerd – a small, rural Dutch village. The village is representative for much of rural north and east of the Netherlands over the last decades. (The west of the Netherlands, which includes the provinces of Holland, had already undergone modernization for centuries).

As with a previous book by Mak (blogpost here) I was struck by how a large part of the Netherlands only a few decades ago is so similar to the Congo now. Mak discusses how just a few decades ago Dutch farmers did not specialize. Families would make their own bread, milk, butter, potatoes, and even furniture. Only soap, sugar and coffee and those type of products would come from outside the family. At public gatherings there would be a separation of men and women at public gatherings – something that we look at strange now when we see it happening in the Congo. A large part of the Dutch population just a few decades ago lived of the land and often on the edge of survival. I notice that we
(including me) quickly judge Congo as backward – thinking that we, people from the West, lived like that in the medieval period. But take the fighting and minerals away and there are many things really not too different between the Congo now and a large part of the Netherlands just a few decades back.

The most interesting part of the book, though, is Mak’s discussion of why and how things changed in Jorwerd from 1945-1995. In a fantastic way, Mak discusses the influences that modernization had on the village. How this led to urban-rural tensions (an important topic in the developing world literature) and how things changed from a production to a consumption society. Most interesting is how Mak discusses how over time there was a decrease of "community". The emphasize went from
qualitative to quantitative. There was a move away from the community and towards the individual, and towards numbers. For example, he discusses in much detail the importance and role of mechanization for the farmer. Farms, for example. were no longer a place were many people would work together. Mak discusses how in order for the farmers to stay competitive they had to scale up, mechanize and decrease labor costs.

A very impressive read.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Why We Cooperate. Michael Tomasello.

“Why We Cooperate” is a book by Michael Tomasello – co-director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. It’s a thin book, but full with interesting result from years of top-notch research by Tomasello himself and his colleagues.

Tomasello tries to answer whether humans are born cooperatively and society corrupts them (Rousseau), or born selfish but society teaches them better (Hobbes). He distinguishes three types of altruism: 1. with regards to food: sharing, with regards to services: helpful, with regards to information: informative. Over time Tomasello and colleagues have conducted many (very interesting!) behavioral games with young children (around one year old) along these three dimensions. Based on this work he argues for what he calls the “Early Spelke, Late Dweck” hypothesis. In brief, young children are from a very early age cooperative. They do not learn this from adults, it comes naturally. It’s only later on in life that this indiscriminate cooperativeness becomes mediated by people’s judgement of likely reciprocity and concerns about reputation.

Tomasello and colleagues also worked with non-human primates and found that
humans are more cooperative. Why? Behavioral games indicate that humans alone humans alone have "joint attention" for altruistic communicative purposes (joint attention = something that is interactionally-achieved when one person, animal or agent alerts another to a stimulus by means of eye-gazing, finger-pointing or other verbal or non-verbal indication). Also, apes do group activities in the "I"-mode, not "We"-mode. While humans can form a joint goal with a partner and see this from a births-eye-view, non-human primates understand their own action only from a first-person perspective and that of the partner from a third person perspective. Compared to their fellow primates, humans are therefore more likely to undertake mutualistic activates (for example, Rousseau’s staghunt). Tomasello argues that theses mutualistic activities - because in these type of activities helping you means helping me - provide a protected environment for the initial steps in the evolution of altruistic motives.

At the end of the book Carol Dweck, Joan Silk, Brian Skyrms and Elizabeth Spelke also write each several pages in reaction to Tomasello’s argument. All in all, a very good read with much more interesting (and worked-out) information than what I just wrote above.

Friday, August 5, 2011

My 250th blogpost - some reflections on 2 years blogging

This is my 250th blogpost. Wooh! This blog was launched in May 2009 just before me leaving for the first time to Congo for fieldwork (first post here), and I definitely did not expect to write this many posts. I've come to enjoy blogging, though. The benefit of this particular blog (at least for me) is that it is "A not-really academic blog for family, friends and others". In contrast to a "real" blog I therefore do not feel obliged to upload things regularly or keep the posts to a certain high (academic) standard. Moreover, I often give my own, Dutch opinion. As a result this is frequently (and without meaning to) blunt, and over time I have received several upset emails. Several of them, however, have lead to debate - something I (and I hope the other) enjoyed a lot. The approach of this blog also gives me the liberty to post about a large set of different things:
The biggest benefit of the blog, though, is that it often forces me to think a bit more about issues and to learn just a bit more about a subject I want to write about. A post often starts by me thinking "I will post X", often followed with me noticing that I know too little about X to write an interesting post. Or that in order for X to come across properly also Y and Z have to be discussed, or X has to be properly worked out. Whether it is about things that strike me as strange or experiences during fieldwork, conferences, etc..

I am very (happily) surprised of the traffic received over the last two years. My expectation was that mom, dad and maybe one or two friends would occasionaly visit the blog to see what I was up to. However - I just checked Blogspot's statistics - the blog has received 14,540 unique visitors! And the Flagcounter that I installed on July 18 2010 indicates that these visitors have been from 123 different countries! I really don't have that many family or friends. :) Moreover, some blogposts were mentioned on several well-established, "real" blogs: Mo'dernity Mo'problems, Wronging Rights, and Texas in Africa. Although I mainly blog for myself, family and friends, knowing that more people read the blogposts really gives a kick.

So, what about the future? I'll keep on blogging. However, when looking back at the first set of posts I am afraid that my posts are becoming less 'nice'. For example, at first every new activity in the Congo was a new experience: visiting villages, sitting in a 4x4, etc. I seem to write differently about that now (if at all) than back then. Things are no longer new; I do not want to upload yet again a Dutch white guy in an African village. I seem to have lost part of the naivity; probably at the expense of the posts being interesting or at least written in an exited and ethousiastic way. But! I'm now starting my fifth year at Columbia University. And this is going to be a very interesting year: with projects in the Congo and Sierra Leone, visiting conferences to present work, a ton of work on the dissertation ahead, and a lot of ideas on migration, cooperation, networks and natural resources to be worked with Macartan Humphreys, Massimo Morelli, and colleagues Raul and Neelan. There are definitely more posts ahead.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Causal inference in the Dutch Parliament.

A friend recently sent me the video below. Its a discussion taking place in the Dutch Parliament about what works better to avoid backsliding: community service or a prison sentence. One MP notes that recent reports show that community service works better - compared to somebody with community service, a person with a prison sentence is twice as likely to backslide. The MP at the stand (Lilian Helder from the PVV) doesn't belief this. She keeps on saying "You can't compare person A with person B. They are different."

This video received a lot of attention. Up to now, it has already received more than 300,000 views, 2,000 comments and almost a 1,000 "likes". Moreover, the reactions to this video are all of a particular kind, nicely reflected in the title "PVV lady doesn't understand statistics".

Lilian Helder is an MP from the Partij Voor de Vrijheid (PVV) - indeed, the infamous Dutch right-wing party of Geert Wilders. The people that read this blog know that I'm against almost all that this party stands for: anti-Islam, anti-immigration, anti-development aid, anti-Europe, etc. As a result, any possibility to take a shot at the PVV I take - even cheap ones. However, Lilian Helder - probably without knowing it herself - touches on a fundamental issue in statistics.

Person A is indeed different than person B. In order to make a proper causal claim one would have to compare the occurence of backsliding by person A that has community service with the occurance of backsliding of exactly that same person A that has a prison sentence. Of course this is not possible - we only live one life. This problem is so important in statistics that it is called "the fundamental problem of causal inference".

Comparing person A with a community service and person B with a prison sentence does indeed not make sense because they are different people. Any difference in occurence of backsliding between these two might very well be because of individual characteristics. Maybe person A is well-educated and quickly finds a job, while person B is not and thus might backslide. It is true that one can use statistical regression techniques to control for these factors. However, not all variables can be measured (psychological variables for example), and one can never be sure that all the necessary variables are included in the regression. These are very important problems in causal inference.

In order to make a correct causal claim one has to make sure to find a correct comparison. One way to do this is by a so-called Randomized Control Trail (RCT). Under this technique instead of individuals one compares groups. In our case above it would look as follows (I'll keep it brief). Let's say we have 10,000 people that have to be punished. We then randomly select 5,000 people for community service and 5,000 people for a prison sentence. Because these two groups have been selected randomly, the groups will have the same characteristics. For example the number of people that backslide in each of these two groups (community service vs prison sentence) can then be compared. While this technique has been used in bio-medical sciences for decades they have only recently been introduced in the social sciences. For a more complete discussion (with development aid as an example) please see here (in English) or here (in Dutch).

I haven't read the studies that the MPs refer to but it is very well possible that they did not make use of an RCT or a related strategy to make these causal claims. I have difficulties writing this, but Lilian Helder's remarks might not have been that dumb.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Back online & Pillars of the Earth.

After two weeks in Martignas sur Jalle (close to Bordeaux) and three in Sauveterre de Béarn (in the Pyrenees), I'm back online. Short summary? Well, I gained 5 kilograms. This is not that strange with French wine and cheese around. Also, with pâté and foie gras, and more than half a baquette per day, I think I ate more than 20 meters of baguette and probably a duck or two. ;)

During the last three of those five weeks we didn't have internet so I got a lot of dissertation work done (that was the goal of being away). I probably read close to every paper in economics, political science and evolutionary biology on "cooperation" (more on this in future blogposts). Raul -
a colleague from Columbia - joined the last week in Sauveterre so we could work together. Did you know that by putting white paper behind a window, the window becomes a perfectly good whiteboard?

Fig 1. This was day 1. On day 2 the paper touched
the floor, and on day 3 we had also paper on
the wall. On Day 4 Raul was writing on the fridge.

I also read the first two books in the series "Wheel of Time" by Robert Jordan. But I'm not that enthousiastic about it. The book is well written, but it was difficult getting into the story. "A Dance with Dragons" by George R. Martin was much better. The book is the fourth in the "A Song of Ice and Fire" series. However, the big suprise was a book that was partly related to my dissertation. I am fascinated by cathedrals and castles. One of the reasons for this, and also one of the reasons for my disseration's topic, comes from a question (maybe more a frustration) that I have had for years now: "Why are there villages now that can't get their act together and build a simple school, while hundreds of years ago people build enormous cathedrals and castles that still stand today?"

The book is "The Pillars of the Earth" by Ken Follett - a (thank you Wikipedia): "historical novel about the building of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge, England. It is set in the middle of the 12th century, primarily during the Anarchy, between the time of the sinking of the White Ship and the murder of Thomas Becket. The book traces the development of Gothic architecture out of the preceding Romanesque architecture and the fortunes of the Kingsbridge priory against the backdrop of actual historical events of the time." It is informative and very well written. Thanks Ali for recommending it! (she's another colleague and survived a full five weeks with me).

Fig 2. The Pillars of the Earth