A Bit of Dissent on rational actors and organizations

Anthropologists and economists often try to figure out why large-scale systems (tribes, corporations, societies, etc.) operate the way they do. Why does this tribe have polygamy and that tribe polyandry? Why do these people tattoo themselves all over and those people abhor tattoos? What is “business casual” and why do I have to wear it? Why are we at war with Eastasia?

The general presumption is that even when societies do things look irrational, they have some hidden logic that actually makes them good or adaptive–we just have to figure out what it is.

Here’s an example:

Here are researchers asking if people get complicated all-over body tattoos because it’s an “honest signal” of enhanced immune response? (IMO, this is a silly idea, but rather than go off on a tangent I’ll save the longer discussion for the end of the post.)

By contrast, we fully admit that individual behavior is often wrong, irrational, stupid, or outright crazy. Individuals make mistakes. I make mistakes. You make mistakes. We all make mistakes.

So when people do things that don’t make much sense, we are quick to write them off:  people are dumb. They do dumb shit.

I would like to offer a dissenting view. I think people are, most of the time, reasonably intelligent and competent. They make mistakes, but if you look at how we have evolved and learned to think and react to the world, most of our mistakes make a kind of sense–they’re often just misplaced heuristics.

By contrast, the collective behavior of groups and organizations is often irrational and stupid, and the only thing that keeps them going is either humans inside doing their best despite their organizations, or society having been constructed in such a way that it is extremely difficult to get people to stop doing stupid things.

Let’s take war. Most people say they are opposed to war, or they don’t like war, or they prefer peace. Many people say that world peace is an admirable goal. Most people who’ve thought at all about WWI say it was a dumb and pointless war. Many wars look dumb and pointless.

Ask people whose countries are actually involved in a war, and many of them, perhaps most, will assert that they want peace (it’s just those bastards on the other side who are making it difficult).

If everyone wants peace, why do we have wars?

Because “it’s complicated.”

Systems are complicated and it can be very hard for people, even well-meaning ones who mostly agree on what ought to be done, to reign them in and pull an entire society away from the brink. It is obvious to anyone who has ever seen a machine gun that walking toward one is a bad idea, yet the commanders in WWI kept ordering wave after wave of men to charge the guns; tens of thousands of men were mowed down every day during the Battle of the Somme. This went on for months. Over a million people died, and in the end the Allies gained a whole 6 miles of territory. The battle didn’t stop because the commanders wised up to the stupidity of charging at machine guns, but because the weather was too cold to continue.

It sickens me just thinking about it.

And then everyone decided that WWI was such a riot, they should hold a sequel!

In sum, humans are usually competent enough to run their own lives and only occasionally need interventions by their friends and families. After all, most of us are descended from people who were competent enough to make it to adulthood and find a partner willing to reproduce with them, so at least we have that going for us, genetically.

By contrast, organizations go awry all the time. Anyone who has been to the DMV (or worse, the VA) probably has stories to tell. Societies do lots of good things, like get food from farms to the supermarket, where I can buy it, and it makes sure I have electricity and heat so I can cook my foot, but societies also do lots of stupid things, like invade Iraq. 

Stupid systems are a much bigger problem than stupid individuals. Stupid are usually only a danger to themselves. Even the most successful terrorists (that I know of) have only killed a few thousand people. Stupid systems, by contrast, can kill millions of people.

From an anthropology perspective, the implication is that sometimes when we see societies doing things that don’t make sense, maybe they actually don’t make sense. Not because the people involved are necessarily stupid, but because groups can get stuck in stupid ruts.

 

Tattooing: the article would be sounder if the authors just said that tattooing appears to be protective against disease. It doesn’t need to signal anything; if it keeps people alive in a rough environment, that alone is enough to make the behavior persist.

Interestingly, here’s a guy’s story of dealing with eczema his whole life, then getting a tattoo and the eczema clearing up:

At 23, I eventually got my right arm tattooed—a glorious, multicolored, three-quarter-length traditional Japanese piece composed predominantly of geishas and flowers. …

After it was done, my eczema did start to clear up — not just on the skin that was tattooed, but everywhere. That led me to believe that it would have improved anyway as I got older. I had such a positive experience, I got the other arm done a couple years later. So, yeah, fuck eczema.

Maybe the tattoo did have an effect on his immune system.

But there are plenty of places outside of Polynesia where people also face high disease burdens, but don’t have massive, body-spanning tattoos. Most of sub-Saharan Africa, for example, has high rates of disease and the locals have certainly heard of tattoos, but they haven’t adopted Maori style full-body decoration.

It’s hard to come up with a sensible answer for why some cultures adopted tattoos and some didn’t besides “they wanted to.”

(Note: I’m not calling tattooing stupid.)

 

 

Can Ice Packs Stop A Seizure? (epilepsy)

Source: WHO infographics on epilepsy

Ice packs (cold packs) applied to the lower back at the first sign of a seizure may be able to halt or significantly decrease the severity of a seizure.

(If I’m correct, then this is the most important post on this blog, so please share.)

After researching ways to stop seizures, I suggested this to a friend with epilepsy. Her previous seizure lasted for 5 minutes (absolutely terrifying); this time her husband ran to the fridge, got two ice packs on her back, and the seizure immediately began slowing.

Obviously this is only an anecdote, but if you or a loved one has seizures, I can’t imagine it would hurt to try.

Let’s run through the evidence in favor of ice packs:

Seizures can definitely be triggered by being too hot–febrile seizures are somewhat common in children with fevers. Hyperthermia (heat stroke) can also cause seizures. And, yes, you can induce seizures in rats by heating them up. In the rat experiment, note that the seizure-prone rats’s temperatures went up more than the seizure-resistant rats–seizures may be more common in people whose bodies have difficulty regulating their temperatures.

Seizures also independently increase brain temperature in rats, and preventing this temperature increase, at least during hypoxic seizures, appears to protect rats against brain damage. But these are rats, obviously, not humans.

“Status epilepticus” is a seizure that lasts for more than 5 minutes or that recurs within a 5 minute period, and is considered a life-threatening emergency. 10-30% of people with status epilepticus die within 30 days. The immediate treatment for such cases is of course with anti-seizure medications, but some seizures (refractory status epilepticus) don’t even respond to this. In these cases, hypothermia–cooling the patient–appears to stop the seizures. (At least until the patient warms up again, but this gives doctors time to work out a better treatment plan.)

That said, seizure-prone people don’t need to be cold all the time–summer weather doesn’t cause an overall uptick in seizures (and some people’s seizures are actually triggered by being cold. If you are one of these people, ice packs may not be for you.)

I encountered the ice packs trick on forums where people were talking about treating seizures in dogs. (Yes, there are dogs with epilepsy.) There are many accounts of people successfully stopping or preventing their dogs from going into a seizure by grabbing a cold pack at the first warning signs and putting it directly onto the dog’s lower back:

We have a precious little Jack Russell Terrier named Scamp. … he is one of many dogs who have epilepsy. This has broken our hearts over the last three-and-a-half years. …

Recently my husband and I did research on the Internet regarding dogs with epilepsy. What we found was amazing. Something the eight or so vets we have seen over the past years had never even mentioned to us. It’s as simple as keeping a bag of ice in your freezer.

We had never tried this until this morning at 5:00 a.m. when Scamp began seizuring. I’ve never seen anything work so fast in my life. As I write this this morning I’m still amazed and can’t believe that what ended a seziure was as simple as a bag of ice and 2 teaspoons of vanilla ice cream to elevate his blood sugar level.

Here’s how it works: all you do is fill a food storage bag (at least one quart size) with crushed ice and leave it in the freezer. When your dog starts to seizure remove the bag of ice from the freezer and place it firmly on his lower back. Scamp came out of his seizure in about 30 to 60 seconds. …

He came out of the seizure smoothly and with no post-ictal symptoms whatsoever. He began to walk and followed my husband and I right into the kitchen. I went to the freezer and took out vanilla ice cream and took two teaspoons out of the carton. … he lapped it up. He was fine. He wanted to go outside so my husband followed him out to make sure he would be OK. He went to the bathroom, roamed around the yard for a bit and came in and went back to sleep on our bed. I’m still in shock.

The ice cream is to help get the dog’s blood sugar levels back up to normal. Humans might also find this useful.

Here’s another testimonial, from one of the links above:

We have been using ice packs to help manage our girl’s seizures for over a year now. From what I have heard first hand from others is that it either doesn’t work at all or it works fabulously. With our girl it “works fabulously”. It is not the miracle cure and it does not prevent future seizures but it definitely stops her grand mal right in its tracks. It is the most amazing thing I have ever seen. I would love to get it on video but as you all know a seizure is such a highly emotionally time that grabbing the camera is the last thing on my mind. If we get the ice pack on her within the first 15 seconds or so, the grand mal just suddenly stops. Like a light switch. All motor movement comes to a halt. She continues to be incoherent for a bit but all movements stop.

“Lani” is a 65 lb. Lab with a pretty thick coat. Our first attempts did not go so well because those little blue ice packs or baggies did nothing. So I custom made her packs using large seal a meal bags with water and rubbing alcohol that I keep in the freezer. It is perfect because its super cold but pliable so you can form it over their back. Every seizure she has is treated with the ice packs. She is also on high doses of meds, supplements, etc. but my personal belief is that the ice pack treatment helps to significantly reduce the length of the seizure.

The Journal of American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association published an article on the use of ice packs to stop seizures in dogs, A Simple, Effective Technique for Arresting Canine Epileptic Seizures, back in 2004. You can read it for a mere $95, or check out the highlights on Dawg Business’s blog:

Fifty-one epileptic canine patients were successfully treated during an epileptic seizure with a technique involving the application of ice on the back (T10 to L4). This technique was found to be effective in aborting or shortening the duration of the seizure.

And of course, in a study of rat seizures, the cold rats didn’t have any while the warm rats did.

The technique doesn’t work for all dogs, but it works for enough that it really seems like there must be something there.

But I haven’t read any cases of people using ice packs to treat seizures in humans–the (small quantity of) veterinary literature doesn’t appear to have made it over to human trials. But if it works for dogs, why not try it on people? It would be simplest, cheapest, least side-effect-inducing option for millions of people whose seizures can’t be fully controlled by medication.

Why does it work?

I don’t know. The ice packs probably aren’t in contact with the dogs for long enough to significantly lower the dog’s brain temperature, although they might lower the temperature of spinal nerves.

Perhaps the sudden cold just has an overwhelming effect on the brain that interrupts whatever feedback loop is causing the seizure.

From The Hidden Genetics of Epilepsy

Why not just medicate the seizures away?

Seizures are serious, potentially life-threatening conditions (actually, a friend of the family who had epilepsy died of a seizure that occurred while taking a bath.) Seizure medications, by necessity, are also serious and can have major side effects. According to the WHO, 70% of epileptics respond well to medication and live normal lives–leaving 30% of people who don’t. For many people, especially children, treatment is about trying to find a balance between minimizing harm from seizures and minimizing harm from anti-seizure medications.

So for anyone out there with epilepsy or another seizure condition, please consider ice packs as one more tool in your arsenal. And for any doctors out there, please do some research on this; there’s got to be some medical award for anyone who can prove it.

Good luck.

Bi-modal brains?

But... the second equation makes perfect sense.
But… the second equation makes sense.

So I have this co-woker–we’ll call her Delta. (Certain details have been changed to protect the privacy of the innocent.) Delta is an obviously competent, skilled worker who has succeeded at her job in a somewhat technical field for many years. She has multiple non-humanities degrees or accredidations. And yet, she frequently says things that are mind-numbingly dumb and make me want to bang my head on my desk.

To be fair, everybody makes mistakes and says incorrect things sometimes; maybe she thinks the exact same thing about me. Also, I have no real perspective on how dumb people think, because I haven’t spent much of my life talking to them. Even the formerly homeless people I know can carry on a layman’s discussion of quantum physics.

At any rate, I don’t actually think Delta is dumb. Instead, I think she has, essentially, two brain modes: Feeling Mode and Logic Mode.

Feeling Mode happens to be her default; she can do Logic Mode perfectly well, but she has to concentrate to activate it. If Logic Mode isn’t on, then things just get automatically processed through Feelings Mode and, as a result, don’t always make sense.

When Logic Mode is on, she does quite fine–her career, after all, is dependent on her rational, logical abilities, above-average math skills, etc. But her job is just that, not a passion, not something she’d do if it didn’t put food on the table. When she is in default mode, her brain just doesn’t make logical connections, notice patterns (especially meta-patterns), or otherwise understand a lot of the stuff going on around her. And her inability to judge distances/estimate sizes just makes me cringe.

My conversation topics typically go over like lead balloons.

In a recent Stanford Magazine article, Content to Code? in which Marissa Messina discusses her decision to major in computer science:

BEFORE STANFORD, I’d never heard the term “CS.” When my pre-Orientation mates used it repeatedly during our technology-free week of hiking in Yosemite prior to the start of freshman year, I had to ask them what it stood for. But their matter-of-fact response—”computer science”—was still a foreign concept to me. …

“Nonetheless, I celebrate my decision to develop my technical side. Although it does not come naturally to me, in Bay Area culture, knowing how to code feels like a prerequisite to existing. …

“I quickly learned through get-to-know-you conversations that being a “techie” was inherently cooler than being a “fuzzie,” and that social standard plus rumors of superior job prospects for engineers began to make me question my plan to major in psychology.

“Three years later, here I am, close to graduating and capable of coding. Now what?

“I certainly don’t imagine myself thriving as a professional programmer, because thinking in syntactically flawless computer-speak remains a wearisome process for me. … “

How on Earth does anyone arrive at Stanford without knowing that computer science exists?

Messina illustrates my theory rather well. She can go into logic mode, she can write code well enough to major in CS at Stanford, but it does not come naturally to her and she finds it rather unpleasant. She is only doing it because, back in freshman year, someone said her job prospects would be better with a CS degree. Now she realizes that she doesn’t actually want to do CS for a full-time job.

I suspect that most people operate primarily in Feelings Mode, and may be even worse than my co-worker at activating Logic Mode. Some may not have an operative Logic Mode at all; a few people may not have a Feeling Mode, but that seems less common. Feelings are instinctual, irrational, and messy. They exist because they are useful, but that does not mean they make logical sense.

For example, let’s suppose an out-of-control train is racing toward a group of schoolchildren who’ve been tied to the railroad tracks, but if you push a 9-foot tall man in heavy plate mail in front of the train, his death will save the children.

People operating in Logic Mode start debating the virtues of Kant’s Categorical Imperative verses Mill’s Utilitarianism.

People operating in Feelings Mode want to know what kind of psycho came up with a fucked up question like that. Children tied to the train tracks? Murdering an innocent bystander by pushing him in front of the train? Why are you fuckers debating this? Are you all sick in the head?

When Feeling people switch over into Logic Mode, I suspect it exerts some cost on them: that is, they can do it, but they don’t really like it. It’s uncomfortable, unpleasant, and sometimes exhausting. So most of the time, they prefer to be in default mode.

So there are things that they can understand in Logic Mode, but since they find the whole business unpleasant, they prefer to ignore such conclusions if they possibly can. This probably makes it very difficult to get people to make any kind of decisions involving unpleasant scenarios + data. The unpleasantness itself of the scenario breaks them out of Logic Mode and into Feeling Mode, and then the whole business is flushed down the toilet because someone goes into a screaming fit because you hurt their feelings with your data.

Earlier this morning, I happened across this “Systematizing Quotient” Quiz that HBD Chick linked to. Obviously the quiz has certain drawbacks, like user bias and the difficulty of comparing oneself to others (do I know more or less about car engines than other people? I probably know less about them than most men, but since I can diagram how an engine works and explain it, do I know more than the average woman? Where do I fall on a population scale? And what if I wouldn’t research something before buying it because I already know all about it, or because I think the brands available on the market are similar enough that the time spent resourcing would not be cost-effective?) but I thought I’d try it, anyway.

I scored in the 61-80 range, which is not terribly surprising. What’s weird is just how low everyone else scores, since the averages are 24 and 30 for women and men, respectively, and it’s not like the scale goes down to -50 or anything.

At any rate, when Delta started talking about how much she hates the Common Core math, well, I was curious. I did some digging and came up with problems like the one at the top of the screen, generally accompanied by a bunch of comments from parents like, “What are they even doing?” and “I have no idea what that is!” and “That makes no sense!” And I just look at them all like, Wow, you can’t figure out that 5+2+10+10+10=37?

Sure, math is a recently evolved trait and all, but those sorts of comments still vaguely surprise me.

IQ probably intersects the two modes via a separate axis. That is, a high-IQ Feelings Person might be able to concentrate enough of their mental resources to out-math a low-IQ Logic person, and vice versa, a high-IQ Logic Person might be able to concentrate enough mental resources to out-feel a Feeling Person. (For example, by reading a book about what various facial expressions mean and then using that knowledge in real life.) Delta, for example, could probably figure out the problem after a while, but would still say it’s a terrible problem.

There was a conversation around here somewhere about a recent paper that came out claiming that the discrepancy between the number of men and women in high-end mathematics was due to not enough girls taking rigorous math courses in middle school. Well, I don’t know about the middle schools where the paper was published, but my middle school only had one math class, and we all took it, so I don’t think that’s exactly the problem. More likely, cognitive differences just happen to be manifesting themselves in Middle School, and the math geniuses are starting to outshine people who are smart and hard working but not geniuses.

In the conversation, someone remarked that while women (or in this case, girls,) they’ve known can do math perfectly well, they tend not to enjoy it, and prefer doing other things, whereas the men they know are more or less forced to do it because their brains just happen to automatically look for patterns. This was the original inspiration for this post; the idea that someone might be able to switch back and forth between two modes, but would generally prefer one, while someone else might generally prefer the other. I might call it “Logic Mode” and The Guardian might call it “Systematizing Mode”, but they’re both basically the same.

If this is true, most people may not operate in Feeling Mode, but most women do. On the other hand, it may be that only a small sub-set of men operate primarily in Logic Mode, either, but they happen to be a larger sub-set than the sub-set of women who operate primarily in Logic Mode. Since I don’t talk to most people (no one possibly could,) and my real-life conversations are largely limited to other women, I am curious about your personal observations.