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Blame, shame, and how our genes are the devil that make us do things
Nov 11th, 2007 by Sam

Why do we do those things we know we’ll regret – over and over.

Historically, the modern explanation, in Western culture at least, has been that people just choose to do things of their own free will.

When I was growing up, it was the devil – causing you to do things against God.  Of course, the free will thing was still there…  We were given free will so we could choose to follow God or the devil.

But now those darn scientists are finding out that a lot of our behavior seems to be driven by our genes.  Dare-devil behavior, or overeating, or talking a lot (!) may be personality traits that we get from our genetic inheritance.  Not only that, but those things our parents did that drove/drive us crazy were, oh my gosh, caused by their genetic inheritance.  Yes.  I am saying that everything your parents did wasn’t 1) intentionally designed to drive you crazy, or 2) chosen by them of their ‘own free will.’

How people react to this news depends on how they feel about their own and other’s behaviors as far as I can tell.

Those who don’t want to let go of free will:

  • When someone is frustrated with other people’s behaviors, they tend to not want to give up the idea that those people could choose to do otherwise, and therefore want to have the right to blame them.
  • On the other hand, if people are pretty happy with where they are in life, and feel like they have achieved a lot, they want the right to claim credit.

Those who don’t have a problem letting go:

  • When they are frustrated by other’s behavior, but have come to the realization that just yelling at people that “they can change and are just choosing not to” has been futile at best and counterproductive at worst.
  • When people see that their own behavior is caused and accept that willing themselves out of bad behaviors it isn’t likely to work.

So, the blamers are frustrated.  The credit seekers are frustrated.  But the acceptors are not only more serene, they are more likely to get the changes they seek as they explore the causal chain of behavior.

Apparently the Buddists have known this for a while…..  Well, Western culture figured out electricity first, and that’s pretty important too, so we shouldn’t blame ourselves……

UPDATE

Tom Clark of the Center for Naturalism reminded me that our behavior isn’t caused only by our genes – our environment, which includes all of our past, present, and future experiences, interacts with our genes and shapes us going forward.  So, the future has many possibilities, depending on every and all link in the causal chain.

Race, genetic differences, and being careful what you wish for
Nov 11th, 2007 by Sam

Before conservatives jump too far on the bandwagon that Asians are the smartest, Europeans next, and Africans the dumbest (yes, I do listen to conservative talk radio and there was quite a bit of conversation about this when James Watson of DNA fame said his bit about this a few weeks ago), I’d suggest they 1) get the science right, and 2) consider the implications.

As reported in today’s New York Times,

“Nonscientists are already beginning to stitch together highly speculative conclusions about the historically charged subject of race and intelligence from the new biological data. Last month, a blogger in Manhattan described a recently published study that linked several snippets of DNA to high I.Q. An online genetic database used by medical researchers, he told readers, showed that two of the snippets were found more often in Europeans and Asians than in Africans.

No matter that the link between I.Q. and those particular bits of DNA was unconfirmed, or that other high I.Q. snippets are more common in Africans, or that hundreds or thousands of others may also affect intelligence, or that their combined influence might be dwarfed by environmental factors.

Conducting and discussing science about racial and gender differences will always be difficult, because everyone has a dog in this fight.  Just as I don’t trust chemical companies to do the research into the environmental impact of fertilizers, or the oil and coal industries to research whether climate change is even happening, let along human-caused; I am skeptical of research conducted by men or women about gender differences, or research done by Asians, Europeans, or Africans about the relative smartness of each.

Really.  I want aliens to buzz on down, do the research, present their findings, and then get out of Dodge.

Since that is unlikely to happen, we’re stuck with doing very careful research, reporting findings in context, and keeping us all honest.

And for those white conservatives who so freely state that they think Asians are smarter, and if they feel that way, Africans shouldn’t be upset that people say they are dumber – well, when China buys all our companies and starts making us repay the debt we owe them while repeating the fact that they deserve to live better because they are smarter – well, let’s just say I suspect those same white conservatives won’t be hummin’ the same tune….

UPDATE

Speaking of keeping us honest, be sure to read Steve’s comment below where he addresses the issue of Watson’s utter failure to be honest about the science.  An excerpt:

“[Watson has] not been honest about the data already in hand, and that to me is the one failing no serious scientist can let pass. I wish he would say he’d gotten the facts wrong, and then his apologies might lead to social changes that would give them some force. So far, he’s gone down another path: he’s made his initial remarks even worse by suggesting that data on the role of childhood experience, as shaped by nature versus nurture, are not yet in, and that when they will be in, we will know that one’s DNA is indeed one’s fate. But the facts are in, and the results are just the opposite. Watson is just wrong. And what’s alarming–shocking even–is that he ought to know he’s wrong.” The Nation, November 1, 2007

These comments were made by Dr. Robert Pollack, former Dean of Columbia University and mentee of Watson.  He goes on to say:

“Under the First Amendment, you can be any kind of nut case and babble your piece. But honesty is the cornerstone of empirical inquiry…. You don’t, you simply cannot, either ignore or make up facts. Watson has trashed that precept. Watson’s fame rests on his being a consummate icon of the scientific profession. But he tanked the clearest of data. This is as inexplicable as it is inexcusable.”

Kudos  to Steve for providing this link.

Stagflation: you heard it here
Nov 9th, 2007 by Sam

Lots of headlines saying “US economy to slow,” like this one on the BBC website.  When even Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chief is chiming in, it’s time to pay attention.  He said that there was likely to be more

“financial restraint on economic growth as credit becomes more expensive and difficult to obtain”.

Now, doesn’t that mean interest rates are going up?  Isn’t that what makes credit more expensive??

And yet later in the article, it says “Some analysts say that the comments make it more likely that there will be another interest rate cut before the end of the year.”  Well, ‘In particular, it’s his comment that the FOMC (the rate-setting committee) expects growth to slow noticeably in the fourth quarter and expects sluggish growth in early 2008,’ said Dustin Reid from ABN Amro in Chicago.”

And then later they talk about inflation – yes, they are worried about inflation.

So, inflation + a shrinking economy = stagflation, if I remember from high school.

Now, they aren’t saying anything about a shrinking economy.  And I’ve read reports about how the economy is doing well by other measures – productivity is up.  Well, what is productivity?  Output divided by number of workers.

Well, we think we can measure output.  But, are we accurately measuring workers?  What if the reason our productivity numbers look so good is because we have millions workers who are not being counted?  Because they are not here legally?  What if the productivity numbers are bogus?

I’ve only seen stagflation mentioned a couple of times in the press in the last months.  But, I have a hunch that we’re going to see more, and that we’ll find out those productivity numbers are a little, shall I say, unrealistic.  Don’t get me started on the US dollar….  China’s going to diversify its currency holdings??  Stay tuned….

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