Open Thread, 07/09/2018

My review of The University We Need: Reforming American Higher Education is up at National Review Online (it’s already posted to my total content feed). The book’s publication date is tomorrow.

A  review can only pack in so many things. So if there is something missing that seems obvious, it’s probably something that I cut in the interest of space (e.g., the author is not a fan of the emphasis on football and such at many universities, but I didn’t touch on that in the review). The University We Need is a short book, but it’s very dense in ideas and suggestions. Unfortunately, comments on NRO and Twitter indicate many people haven’t really read the review, so they won’t read the book.

Surely one reason I enjoyed the book is that the author is someone with whom I’m coincidently on the same wavelength. I first encountered his work nearly twenty years ago, when I read A History of the Byzantine State and Society, a ~1,000-page survey of the topic. In many ways a scholarly “core dump”, it has stood me in good stead all these years. But at the time I was totally unaware that the author, Warren Treadgold, and I shared broadly similar politics in the grand scheme of things. That is, we were intellectually oriented people who were also not on the Left.

I don’t consider myself a conservative intellectual. I’m just an intellectual who happens to be conservative because the Left terrifies me (I have real personal reasons!). Treadgold’s work similarly is not informed by him being a conservative intellectual. Rather, he’s a scholar whose views default to the Right as opposed to the center or Left because of where the dominant tendency in academia today is.

I’m currently reading A History of Japan. I think I’m getting stale and predictable. I read John Keay’s Midnight’s Descendants: A History of South Asia since Partition really quickly a few weeks ago. Need to move out beyond my tendency of reading long histories and lots of genetics papers.

I have a stack of books on cognitive psychology and cultural evolution I need to get through, though I think papers are probably more useful in the latter area, since I’ve read a fair number of books already on this topic (e.g., Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences).

Speaking of psychology, there are some really good podcasts in that field out. Part of it is there is so much to talk about with the replication crisis. I really enjoyed Two Psychologists Four Beers, for example. Though not surprisingly they sort of still mischaracterize the views and issues of conservatives or non-liberals in academia…there are so few who are “out” and vocal with their politically normal colleagues that people just don’t know what’s going on in their heads and it’s easy to mischaracterize.

This is the week when you follow the #SMBE2018 hashtag on Twitter. I assume a lot of papers are going to come out in the next few weeks after people present at SMBE.

Estimating recent migration and population size surfaces. This seems important. Definitely going to read.

How eliminating the ‘kill box’ turned Mosul into a meat-grinder.

Genetic analysis of social-class mobility in five longitudinal studies.

Male homosexuality and maternal immune responsivity to the Y-linked protein NLGN4Y.

Hung out with Stuart Ritchie this week. Still recommend his book, Intelligence: All That Matters.

There was some discussion on ancient DNA and archaeology on Twitter. Has ancient DNA changed everything? Or not?

First, I think it’s important to acknowledge that many of the models which have emerged out of ancient DNA are resurrections of older anthropological, archaeological, and historical frameworks, which emphasize migration. But these were long dismissed within many of these fields. Like David Reich in Who We Are and How We Got Here I believe that there was a political rationale for this. As someone who has read deeply in paleoanthropology and history for twenty years, I reject the idea that ancient DNA is actually not that revolutionary because I remember what passed as conventional wisdom 10-20 years ago.

Open Thread, 05/28/2018

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh is now available. The interview with Carl Zimmer will be live on The Insight Wednesday night (EDT).

If you haven’t, please consider leaving a 5-star review on iTunes or Stitcher.

I’ve told that you can already read The University We Need on Google Books. I can’t vouch for this, but on Amazon the publication date is July 10th.

I suspect the field of cultural evolution is going to become big in the next ten years, breaking out its relatively rarified ghetto. If you haven’t, I’d recommend The Secret of Our Success by Joe Henrich.

The older, more technical books, are Cultural Transmission and Evolution, Culture and the Evolutionary Process.

I noticed the other day that the spam filter was a little overactive recently. Just in case you notice comments not going through….

Open Thread, 3/26/2018

Does anyone have a galley or review copy of She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity? The book is long, and review copies are in short supply. Would be nice if I could see it before it’s released at the end of May. Just use my contact email if you have a copy.

Pretty excited about it! The use of the word “heredity” is a clue to me that this is going to be a book with a really long historical narrative.

How Genetics Is Changing Our Understanding of ‘Race’. Everyone is talking about this David Reich op-ed in The New York Times. Well, at least in my corner of Twitter.

It’s adapted from a chapter of Who We Are and How We Got Here. That chapter is both more subtle and more punchy than the op-ed. Anthropologists will probably dislike it even more than they dislike this op-ed because Reich does not pull punches (though contrary to the impression you might get from the op-ed he clearly prefers to use “ancestry” rather than the word “race”).

There’s not much to say about the op-ed.

I think it’s more interesting to perceive the dynamics of scientific culture at work in the reaction. The Reich lab is an eminent one, and its Diaspora includes other elite institutions now. He is affiliated with Harvard Medical School and the Broad.

Friends of mine who operate outside of human genetics characterize this subfield within genetics as one with sharp elbows and a mafia-like network of pedigree laboratories and superstar professors. It’s probably worse in the explicitly biomedical area, but population geneticists who don’t work on humans still say human population geneticists are different (we’re talking averages here).

There were many criticisms of the op-ed from human population geneticists…but they were subdued, restrained, and often prefaced by praise for Reich’s scientific chops or his generosity as a collaborator. Both true of course. There was also praise.

But the op-ed illustrated the reality of some unpalatable propositions. In Who We Are and How We Got Her David Reich himself makes it clear that some of the ideas he’s mooting are not palatable to him. If it wasn’t clear from the op-ed already.

It also illustrated a truth in academia from what little I’ve seen and experienced within it: it is a highly feudal culture defined by patronage networks and an ordered understanding of the relationship of superiors to subordinates. As they say: “You come at the king, you best not miss.”

If he was someone less connected, less at the peak of his powers, I believe that David Reich’s reputation would be ground up in a sausage machine. This op-ed reminds me of nothing more than Symmachus’ plea for an old way that is fading before the new. Symmachus was rich and famous. He could dissent from the ascendant orthodoxy that was “passing on to better things.” But his class of the old pagan elite was at its dusk.

Most of the more vociferous criticisms of the 0p-ed are coming from anthropologists because it’s a different field with an alternative nobility of blood and status. David Reich can be thought of as an alien warlord who as trespassed the boundaries of their kingdom. But he is also aiming at the very foundations of their rule, so they can do no other but unleash the dogs of war.

Speaking of that book, my review is up at National Review Online. Hope to contribute more in the future to that publication! Doesn’t look like Kevin Williamson is getting fired from The Atlantic, so there’s space in those pages.

I’ll probably talk more in a spoilerish way next week so that people who purchased the book can read it.

Efficiently inferring the demographic history of many populations with allele count data and Recovering signals of ghost archaic admixture in the genomes of present-day Africans. These deserve close readings.


I assume everyone on this blog has heard about my podcast and are sick of hearing about it. But there are still people who follow me on Twitter who haven’t.

Since nothing has changed in a while, more positive reviews on iTunes and Sticher, please.

I think you’ll enjoy the interview with Stuart Ritchie, though that won’t post until further into April.

In a few days, I’ve going to have a post up on a new shirt which I pushed for at DNAGeeks (we got an artist to do something). But for now, check out the GNXP-helix themes hats and beanies.

The Battle of the Blue Cat Café How an anti-gentrification boycott became a proxy war between the radical left and the alt-right. Hits a little close to home.

The basic outline is that gentrification in East Austin is transforming lower class & lower-middle-class black and Latino neighborhoods into middle and upper-middle-class white neighborhoods. This makes some people really angry because they don’t want their neighborhood to change.

I’ve had some “interesting” discussions about this with locals with deeper roots. It’s fashionable to bemoan gentrification, but when I bring up my experience as an immigrant, and how that naturally results in change and transformation of neighborhoods, people get uncomfortable. The emotions deployed against gentrification aren’t that different from the emotions used against immigration. In many ways, the East Austinites who are being “displaced” can be psychologically analogized to middle and lower-middle-class Trump voters who feel they’re being “displaced.” Both groups feel they are being marginalized by people who are changing the world that their ancestors created with their own labor. And they probably are.

I don’t have a good answer to this. The free-market person in me says that gentrification has to happen, and the neighborhoods are going to change no matter what. But another part of me actually understands the argument by making an analogy to the national level: too much migration into a polity can result in a transformation of its institutions and dispossession of its majority. Pretty soon East Austin will mean something very different from what it has traditionally meant.

If you haven’t had wood ear salad, you haven’t lived. I highly recommend it as one of the major experiences of Sichuan cuisine (and of course don’t go to the place if their green beans are not recommended.

The day we saw Stephen Hawking

In the spring of 1996, several of my dormmates decided to trek north to the University of Portland, to attend a speech by Stephen Hawking. We were still in that phase where we barely left campus, so intense was our social world. So this was a major undertaking. I don’t recall how we found out about the speech. This is before the internet was a widespread means of distribution of this sort of information (though I think we found out from my dormmate who was a journalism student).

I remember the anticipation and excitement. It was like we were going to a rock concert.

The talk Hawking gave was a typical one about cosmology. He also gave some shout outs to Linus Pauling, who was a native Oregonian.

Like many people, I had read A Brief History of Time. Also, perhaps like most people, I didn’t recall much from that book (I read the book years before going to the talk, in my defense).

Even by the mid-1990s, I was aware that Stephen Hawking was part of a somewhat out of control hype-machine. Though he was an eminent physicist, he was not necessarily the most brilliant physicist since Einstein (one of the claims on one edition of A Brief History of Time I saw at one point). We didn’t have Wikipedia, so I didn’t know about his somewhat messy personal life.

What we did know about Hawking was that he was a man of incredible brilliance who didn’t let his medical condition stop him. We admired him. We admired his achievements. He was heroic. By the time my dormmates and I saw Hawking in the flesh, he was already very frail. The only movement that we could perceive was that you could see he was breathing because of some barely perceptible movement around his neck.

At the end of the talk, people mulled around during the Q & A, trying to get as close as possible. I still have a vivid recollection of seeing Hawking up on the dais, in bright light.

Afterward, on the trip home, we reflected that it seemed unlikely that the great physicist had much time left, seeing as how he was nearly immobile. We felt privileged to be in his presence when he gave a talk. That was enough. Of course, he lived on for more than 20 years.

Adaptation is subtle, and that’s the problem


The figure above is from a very important new preprint, Human local adaptation of the TRPM8 cold receptor along a latitudinal cline. A marker in 09TRPM8, rs10166942, seem to be correlated with adaptation to cold.

The abstract:

Ambient temperature is a critical environmental factor for all living organisms. It was likely an important selective force as modern humans recently colonized temperate and cold Eurasian environments. Nevertheless, as of yet we have limited evidence of local adaptation to ambient temperature in populations from those environments. To shed light on this question, we exploit the fact that humans are a cosmopolitan species that inhabits territories under a wide range of temperatures. Focusing on cold perception, which is central to thermoregulation and survival in cold environments, we show evidence of recent local adaptation on TRPM8. This gene encodes for a cation channel that is, to date, the only temperature receptor known to mediate an endogenous response to moderate cold. The upstream variant rs10166942 shows extreme population differentiation, with frequencies that range from 5% in Nigeria to 88% in Finland (placing this SNP in the 0.02% tail of the FST empirical distribution). When all populations are jointly analysed, allele frequencies correlate with latitude and temperature beyond what can be explained by shared ancestry and population substructure. Using a Bayesian approach, we infer that the allele originated and evolved neutrally in Africa, while positive selection raised its frequency to different degrees in Eurasian populations, resulting in allele frequencies that follow a latitudinal cline. We infer strong positive selection, in agreement with ancient DNA showing high frequency of the allele in Europe 3,000 to 8,000 years ago. rs10166942 is important phenotypically because its ancestral allele is protective of migraine. This debilitating disorder varies in prevalence across human populations, with highest prevalence in individuals of European descent, precisely the population with the highest frequency of rs10166942 derived allele. We thus hypothesize that local adaptation on previously neutral standing variation may have contributed to the genetic differences that exist in the prevalence of migraine among human populations today.

The mechanism and adaptive story make sense. They used several methods which corrected/accounted for population structure, and noted that the allele frequency difference was still significantly predicted by variation in latitude (though not temperature).

In the plot above you can see that South Asian populations share allele frequency distributions closer to East Asians, though genetically they are somewhat closer to Europeans. Looking at the haplotype structure this variant looks to be old variation that has been under selection in Eurasia. Additionally if you look at the frequencies it doesn’t look like the sweeps are completing. Since migraines are one correlated side effect that probably makes sense.

The problem I have with this preprint is a simple one. The SNP seems to be in the HGDP browser (it’s in your 23andMe genotype if you have one, I checked). The geographic distribution doesn’t look as clear as it does in the 1000 Genomes data. In particular in the New World populations the latitudinal cline is reversed from what we’d expect.

These sorts of objections are pretty typical. And they authors did do a sophisticated statistical analysis…but sometimes visual inspection of the raw frequencies is still important when the effect is subtle. Over the next decade there is going to be a lot of sophisticated analysis of adaptation, because the low hanging fruit has been picked. But we need to still look over the results with care….

The Dravidianization of India

On this week’s The Insight Spencer Wells and I talk about the Indo-Aryan arrival to South Asia. This was recorded very early last summer, and I’m rather unguarded (it’s well before I had the piece published in India Today).

I think 2018 will finally be the year that a lot of South Asia will be “solved.” There has been some foot-dragging on papers and results, but that can only go so long.

All that being said I suppose I should make some suppositions I have arrived at on this topic more explicit, as in a discussion with an Indian friend he admitted had no idea about some of my views, though he reads this weblog when I expressed them. That’s because they are speculative and my confidence in them is weak, though you can infer my opinions if you look very closely.

The figure to the left is from Genomic insights into the origin of farming in the ancient Near East, a paper published about a year and a half ago. You see various South Asian populations being modeled as a mixture of four different source populations. The Onge are an Andaman Islander population (and the closest we can get to the aboriginal peoples of South Asia). Iran_N represents Neolithic Iranians, the canonical “eastern farmer” population. Steppe_EMBA represent Yamnaya pastoralists, who are themselves modeled as a mixture of Eastern European Hunter-Gatherers (EHG) and southern population which has affinities with the Iran_N cluster. EHG in their turn seems to exhibit ancestry from Western European Hunter-Gatherers (WHG), whose heritage dates to the late Pleistocene, and Ancient North Eurasians (ANE), who flourished in Siberia, and contributed ancestry to populations to the west and east (including the ancestors of Native Americans).

When I first saw this specific figure I was incredulous. I had long thought that “Ancient North Indians” (ANI) were a compound of two elements, one related to the farmers of West Asia (Iran_N), and the other steppe Indo-European (Steppe_EMBA/Yamnaya). But the fraction of Yamnaya/Indo-European/Indo-Aryan ancestry seemed far too high.

A few years later I am less certain about my skepticism. The fractions here in the details are debatable. Within the text of the paper, the author admits that the true ancestral populations are probably not represented by the model. But they are close. In most cases, the “Han” ancestry is probably indicative of the fact that the non-ANI component of South Asian ancestry is most closely related to the Onge, but is significantly different nonetheless.

The ratio of Iran_N and Steppe_EMBA is the key. Here is a selection from the paper:

Group Iran_N Steppe_EMBA Ratio
Jew_Cochin 0.53 0.23 2.27
Brahui 0.60 0.30 1.98
Kharia 0.13 0.07 1.97
Balochi 0.57 0.32 1.75
Mala 0.23 0.18 1.25
Vishwabrahmin 0.25 0.20 1.21
GujaratiD 0.29 0.28 1.04
Sindhi 0.38 0.38 1.00
Bengali 0.22 0.25 0.91
Pathan 0.36 0.45 0.81
Punjabi 0.24 0.33 0.72
GujaratiB 0.27 0.38 0.72
Lodhi 0.21 0.29 0.72
Burusho 0.27 0.43 0.64
GujaratiC 0.23 0.37 0.61
Kalash 0.29 0.50 0.58
GujaratiA 0.26 0.46 0.57
Brahmin_Tiwari 0.23 0.44 0.51

Any way you slice it, a group like the Tiwari Brahmins of Northern India have more Onge-like ancestry than most of the groups in Pakistan. But also observe that the ratio toward Steppe_EMBA is more skewed in them than among even Pathans or Kalash.  The Lodhi, a non-upper caste population from Uttar Pradesh in north-central South Asia are more skewed toward Steppe_EMBA than Pathans.

It is important for me to reiterate that the key is to focus on ratios and not exact percentages. Though the Steppe_EMBA fraction did strike me as high, glimmers of these sorts of results were evident in model-based clustering approaches as early as 2010. The population in the list above most skewed toward Iran_N are Cochin Jews. This group has known Middle Eastern ancestry. But next on the list are Brahui, a Dravidian speaking group in Pakistan. There is a north-south cline within Pakistan, with northern populations (Burusho) being skewed toward Steppe_EMBA and southern ones (Sindhi) being skewed toward Iran_N. Additionally, Iranian groups such as Pathans and Baloch likely have had some continuous gene flow with Middle Eastern groups, probably inflating their Iran_N.

Trends I see in the data:

  1. There is a north-south cline within Pakistan with Steppe_EMBA vs. Iran_N
  2. There is a north-south cline within South Asia with Steppe_EMBA vs. Iran_N
  3. There is caste stratification within regions between Steppe_EMBA vs. Iran_N
  4. Though not clear in this table, there are strong suggestions that Indo-European speaking groups tend to be enriched in Steppe_EMBA, all things equal (e.g., the Bengalis in the 1000 Genomes look a lot like the middle-caste Telugus in the 1000 Genomes when you remove the East Asian ancestry…except for a noticeable small fraction of a component which I think points to Indo-European ancestry)

What does this mean in terms of a model of the settlement of South Asian over the past 4,000 years? One conclusion I have come to is that Dravidian speaking groups are not the aboriginal peoples of the subcontinent. Rather, their settlement across much of South Asia is very recent. Almost as recent as Indo-Aryan habitation. In First Farmers the archaeologist Peter Bellwood proposed this model, whereby Indo-Aryans and Dravidians both expanded across South Asia concurrently. Though I think elements of Bellwood’s model that are incorrect, it’s far more correct in my opinion than I believed when I first encountered it.

Why do I believe this?

  1. The Neolithic begins in South India in 3000 BC.
  2. Sri Lanka is Indo-European speaking
  3. The Dravidian languages of South India don’t seem particularly diverged from each other
  4. There is ancestry/caste stratification in South India even excluding Brahmins (e.g., Reddys and Naidus in Andhra Pradesh look somewhat different from Dalits and tribals)
  5. Some scholars claim that there isn’t a Dravidian substrate in the Gangetic plain
  6. R1a1a-Z93, almost certainly associated with Indo-Aryans, is found in South Indian tribal populations
  7. Using LD-based methods researchers are rather sure that the last admixture events between ANI and ASI (“Ancestral South Indians”) populations occurred around ~4,000 years ago

Here is my revised model as succinctly as I can outline it. The northwest fringes of South Asia, today Pakistan, and later to be the home of the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC), was populated by a mix of indigenous populations, a form of ASI, when West Asian agriculturalists arrived ~9,000 years ago from what is today Iran. These were the Iran_N or “eastern farmer” groups. The West Asian agricultural toolkit was serviceable in northwestern South Asia for reasons of climate and ecology, but could not expand further east and south for thousands of years.

There is where the first admixture occurred that led to a population was mixed between ANI and ASI. These people lacked Steppe_EMBA. They were pre-Indo-European. They were almost certainly not all Dravidian speaking. The Burusho people of northern Pakistan, for example, speak a language isolate (in India proper you have Nihali and Kusunda)

By ~3000 BC this proto-South Asian (in a modern sense) population began to expand, while the IVC matured and waxed. Eventually, the IVC waned, fragmented, and disappeared.

Around ~2000 BC, or perhaps somewhat later, Indo-Aryans arrive in South Asia. The situation at this stage in not one of a primordial and static Dravidian India, on which Indo-Aryans place themselves on top. Rather, it’s a dynamic one as the collapse of the IVC has opened up a disordered power vacuum, and a reconfiguration of cultural and sociopolitical alliances.

In the paper above the author alludes to the pervasiveness of both Iran_N and Steppe_EMBA ancestry in South Asia, including in South India. “Indo-European” Y chromosomal lineages are also found among many South Indian groups, albeit at attenuated proportions region-wide. In Peter Turchin’s formulation, I believe that “Indo-Aryan” and “Dravidian” identities became meta-ethnic coalitions in the post-IVC world. Genetically the two groups are different, on average. But some Dravidian populations assimilated and integrated Indo-Aryan tribes and bands, while Indo-Aryans as newcomers assimilated many Dravidian populations.

The reason that the ratio of Iran_N to Steppe_EMBA does not decline monotonically as one goes from west to east along North Indian plain is that Indo-Aryans were not expanding into a Dravidian India.  Dravidian India was expanding only somewhat ahead of Indo-Aryan India, and in some places not all at all. In the northwest fringe of South Asia there had long been a settled population of peasants with West Asian ancestry with Iran_N affinities. In contrast to the east the landscape was populated by nomadic tribal populations with ASI affinities. North Indian Brahmins may have more Steppe_EMBA than some populations in Pakistan and more ASI because they descend from Indo-Aryan groups who absorbed indigenous ASI populations as they expanded across the landscape.

Dravidian groups as they expanded also assimilated indigenous populations. This explains some groups with very high fractions of ASI. Their ASI ancestry is a compound, of an old admixture in Northwest India, and also later assimilation in South India. The presence of R1a1a-Z93 in these populations reflects the integration of some originally Indo-Aryan groups into the expanding Dravidian wavefront.

Where does this leave us?

  1. The Indo-Aryan vs. Dravidian dichotomy is not one of newcomers vs. aboriginals. It is of two different sociocultural configurations which came into their current shape in the waning days of the IVC. That is, it is less than 4,000 years old
  2. The two populations were clearly interacting closely around the time of the collapse and disintegration of the IVC and post-IVC societies. There has been gene flow between the two
  3. ~4000 years ago ANI and ASI populations existed in their “pure” form, but that is because ASI aboriginals still existed to the south and east of the IVC, while Indo-Aryans were a new intrusive presence in the Indian subcontinent

Genomic ancestry tests are not cons, part 2: the problem of ethnicity

The results to the left are from 23andMe for someone whose paternal grandparents were immigrants from southern Germany. Their mother had a father who was of English American background (his father was a Yankee American with an English surname and his mother was an immigrant from England), and grandparents who were German (Rhinelander) and French Canadian respectively on their maternal side.

Looking at the results from 23andMe one has to wonder, why is this individual only a bit under 25% French & German, when genealogical records show places of birth that indicates they should be 75% French & German (more precisely, 62.5% German and 12.5% French). Though their ancestry is 25% English, only 13% of their ancestry is listed as such.

First, notice that nearly half of their ancestry is “Broadly Northwestern European.” Last I  checked  23andMe uses phased haplotypes to detect segments of ancestry. This is a very powerful method and is often quite good at zeroing in on people of European ancestry. But with Americans of predominant, but mixed, Northern European background rather than giving back precise proportions often you obtain results of the form of “Broadly…” because presumably, recombination has generated novel haplotypes in white Americans.

But this isn’t the whole story. Why, for example, are many of the Finnish people I know on 23andMe assigned as >90% Finnish, while a Danish friend is 40% Scandinavian?

The issue here is that to be “Finnish” and “Scandinavian” are not equivalent units in terms of population genetics. Finns are a relatively homogeneous ethnic group who seem to have undergone a recent population bottleneck. In contrast, Scandinavia encompasses several different, albeit related, ethnicities which are geographically widely distributed.

Ethnic identities are socially and historically constructed. Additionally, they are often clear and distinct. This is not always the case for population genetic classifications. On a continental scale, racial classification is trivial, and feasible with only a modest number of genetic markers. Why? Because the demographic and evolutionary history of Melanesians and West Africans, to give two concrete examples, are distinct over tens of thousands of years. Population genetic analyses which attempt to identify or differentiate these groups have a lot of raw material to work with.

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Video is for consumption and text is for production

The Information has a piece up, The Case Against Video. The Information charges a decent amount for its services which are in text form, so of course there is some bias here insofar as this belief was probably preexistent.

But I happen to agree. It strikes me that video is relatively low density, and it often takes reading to be able to combine facts/concepts together to form something new. It can be done via video, but it ends up taking more time.

For most people video will be sufficient, just as for most people television news is sufficient. But real depth will require reading.

Smartphones killed the fabulist

EVIL!!!

In The Wall Street Journal Nicholas Carr has a bizarre but unsurprising op-ed, How Smartphones Hijack Our Minds:
Research suggests that as the brain grows dependent on phone technology, the intellect weakens
. By the title, you can immediately pick out tells that should induce skepticism. “Research suggests” is usually indicating that the author has a hypothesis, and they went and searched the literature for research that confirmed their hypothesis. Carr actually did better than much of modern journalism. He found peer-reviewed literature, instead of quote mining, or selective elisions. Journalism, you have a story to tell, and you’ll make someone else tell it!

And to his credit, Carr cites the publications transparently, with links. Unfortunately, you see that in some cases the sample sizes are very small, and the statistical significance is marginal. In other instances, it doesn’t seem like there’s any real causality. One can’t know if there is a confound with who decides to take phones to class and who does not. It may be that those students who are very focused simply don’t take their phones. Finally, a lot of the research cited in the piece looks like it was sliced and diced to me.

This is where a little history and cognitive neuroscience would go a long way. Traditionalists have inveighed against new information technologies for the whole history of the human race. No doubt when complex syntax emerged some spoiled-sport argued that it was being abused to gossip and waste time.

Most people know that some of the ancient Greeks worried that the spread of literacy was eroding the power of memory. Less well known is that the printing press helped usher in the final decline of the art of memory.

And literacy does rewire our brains. In Reading in the Brain Stanislas Dehaene outlines just how certain regions of the brain focused on shape perception are co-opted to recognize letters effortlessly. This may not be without cost. Muhammed Ali was semi-literate, in part due to dyslexia, and a recent biographer has argued that he had better visual-spatial abilities in part because he didn’t waste his attention and focus on learning to read instinctively.

Nicholas Carr has now built a career in large part on skepticism of the internet and information technology. He knows exactly how to write viral stories which travel on the internet by criticizing the internet.

And it is certainly hard to deny the distracting effect of the internet. But that’s looking at the glass half-empty. One of the positives of the ubiquity of smartphones is that it has forced the retirement of so many bullshitters. Today people can make something up, and you can just “look it up.” Everyone is fact-checking everyone, and distracting from the fabulous bullshit stories and “facts” that a certain type of person has always specialized in.

Like free trade, it’s easy to see the downsides of the internet, and mine the social science literature to “prove” that you’re right. That’s one of the benefits of the internet, it lets you find scientific research which can confirm any assertion you make under heaven. Carr’s leveraging the literature to service his likely false arguments is one of the internet’s downsides.