Adaptations in nature to urban life

More research shows animals can and do adapt to urban environments:

Whitehead’s work on killifish is one of the signature triumphs of urban evolution, an emergent discipline devoted to figuring out why certain animals, plants, and microbes survive or even flourish no matter how much we transform their habitats. Humans rarely give much thought to the creatures that flit or crawl or skitter about our apartment blocks and strip malls, in part because we tend to dismiss them as either ordinary or less than fully wild. But we should instead marvel at how these organisms have managed to keep pace with our relentless drive to build and cluster in cities. Rather than wilt away as Homo sapiens have spread forth bearing concrete, bitumen, and steel, a select number of species have developed elegant adaptations to cope with the peculiarities of urban life: more rigid cellular membranes that may ward off heat, digestive systems that can absorb sugary garbage, altered limbs and torsos that enhance agility atop asphalt or in runoff-fattened streams.

Whitehead and his colleagues, many of whom are at the dawn of their careers, are now beginning to pinpoint the subtle genetic changes that underlie these novel traits. Their sleuthing promises to solve a conundrum that has vexed biologists for 160 years, and in the process reveal how we might be able to manipulate evolution to make the world’s cities—projected to be home to two-thirds of humanity by 2050—resilient enough to endure the catastrophes that are coming their way…

Like so many of their scientific peers, urban evolution researchers are grappling with the question of how their work can help us make this new environmental reality a bit less grim. On the surface, at least, their inquiries can seem largely aimed at addressing theoretical matters—notably the issue of whether the evolution of complex organisms is a replicable phenomenon, like any ordinary chemical reaction. Cities provide an accidental global network of ad hoc laboratories to test this question: Office towers the world over are fabricated from the same glass panels and steel beams, night skies are illuminated by the same artificial lights, auditory landscapes thrum with the noise of the same cars, food waste comes from the same KFCs and Subways.

This urban sameness is allowing researchers to determine whether isolated populations of the same species develop similar adaptations when placed in parallel environments. “What cities offer us is this amazingly large-scale, worldwide experiment in evolution, where you’ve got thousands of life-forms that are experiencing the same factors,” says Marc Johnson, who heads an evolutionary ecology lab at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

Perhaps sociologist Robert Park was more correct than he knew by suggesting the city was a laboratory. Furthermore, Park and other sociologists like Herbert Spencer borrowed concepts from biology and applied them to social processes and communities.

This research could also help address two other issues (in addition to climate change as discussed in the article):

  1. What really is “nature” in cities? Adding parks and trees is not really grappling with what nature is nor with how cities and their residents see nature around them. And what is the ideal end goal of people-nature interaction in big cities?
  2. Urbanization is not just about harm to the environment but it is also about long-term changes. Humans have been interacting with and affecting nature for a long time but the specific process of urbanization in roughly the last 150 years has been different.

Three possible responses to the finding that human behavior is complicated

A review of a new book includes a paragraph (the second one excerpted below) that serves as a good reminder for those interested in human behavior:

What happens in brains and bodies at the moment humans engage in violence with other humans? That is the subject of Stanford University neurobiologist and primatologist Robert M. Sapolsky’s Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. The book is Sapolsky’s magnum opus, not just in length, scope (nearly every aspect of the human condition is considered), and depth (thousands of references document decades of research by Sapolsky and many others) but also in importance as the acclaimed scientist integrates numerous disciplines to explain both our inner demons and our better angels. It is a magnificent culmination of integrative thinking, on par with similar authoritative works, such as Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. Its length and detail are daunting, but Sapolsky’s engaging style—honed through decades of writing editorials, review essays, and columns for The Wall Street Journal, as well as popular science books (Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, A Primate’s Memoir)—carries the reader effortlessly from one subject to the next. The work is a monumental contribution to the scientific understanding of human behavior that belongs on every bookshelf and many a course syllabus.

Sapolsky begins with a particular behavioral act, and then works backward to explain it chapter by chapter: one second before, seconds to minutes before, hours to days before, days to months before, and so on back through adolescence, the crib, the womb, and ultimately centuries and millennia in the past, all the way to our evolutionary ancestors and the origin of our moral emotions. He gets deep into the weeds of all the mitigating factors at work at every level of analysis, which is multilayered, not just chronologically but categorically. Or more to the point, uncategorically, for one of Sapolsky’s key insights to understanding human action is that the moment you proffer X as a cause—neurons, neurotransmitters, hormones, brain-specific transcription factors, epigenetic effects, gene transposition during neurogenesis, dopamine D4 receptor gene variants, the prenatal environment, the postnatal environment, teachers, mentors, peers, socioeconomic status, society, culture—it triggers a cascade of links to all such intervening variables. None acts in isolation. Nearly every trait or behavior he considers results in a definitive conclusion, “It’s complicated.”

To adapt sociologist Joel Best’s approach to statistics in Damned Lies and Statistics, I suggest there are three broad approaches to understanding human behavior:

1. The naive. This approach believes human behavior is simple and explainable. We just need the right key to unlock behavior (whether this is a religious text or a single scientific cause or a strongly held personal preferance).

2. The cynical. Human behavior is so complicated that we can never understand it. Why bother trying?

3. The critical. As Best suggests, this is an informed approach that knows how to ask the right questions. To the reductionist, it might ask whether there are other factors to consider. To the cynical, it might say that just because it is really complicated doesn’t mean that we can’t find patterns. Causation is often difficult to determine in the natural and social sciences but this does not mean that we cannot find bundles of factors or processes that occur. The key here is recognizing when people are making reasonable arguments about explaining human behavior: when do their claims go too far or when are they missing something?

When medical care didn’t contribute as much to improved health outcomes

An interesting piece on the efficacy of medicine and medical procedures (TLDR: they aren’t always effective but doctors and patients feel compelled to try something) ends with this suggestion about the power medicine has over the public:

Historians of public health know that most of the life-expectancy improvements in the last two centuries stem from innovations in sanitation, food storage, quarantines, and so on. The so-called “First Public Health Revolution”—from 1880 to 1920—saw the biggest lifespan increase, predating antibiotics or modern surgery.

In the 1990s, the American Cancer Society’s board of directors put out a national challenge to cut cancer rates from a peak in 1990. Encouragingly, deaths in the United States from all types of cancer since then have been falling. Still, American men have a ways to go to return to 1930s levels. Medical innovation has certainly helped; it’s just that public health has more often been the society-wide game changer. Most people just don’t believe it.

In 2014, two researchers at Brigham Young University surveyed Americans and found that typical adults attributed about 80 percent of the increase in life expectancy since the mid-1800s to modern medicine. “The public grossly overestimates how much of our increased life expectancy should be attributed to medical care,” they wrote, “and is largely unaware of the critical role played by public health and improved social conditions determinants.” This perception, they continued, might hinder funding for public health, and it “may also contribute to overfunding the medical sector of the economy and impede efforts to contain health care costs.”

It is a loaded claim. But consider the $6.3 billion 21st Century Cures Act, which recently passed Congress to widespread acclaim. Who can argue with a law created in part to bolster cancer research? Among others, the heads of the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Public Health Association. They argue against the new law because it will take $3.5 billion away from public-health efforts in order to fund research on new medical technology and drugs, including former Vice President Joe Biden’s “cancer moonshot.” The new law takes money from programs—like vaccination and smoking-cessation efforts—that are known to prevent disease and moves it to work that might, eventually, treat disease. The bill will also allow the FDA to approve new uses for drugs based on observational studies or even “summary-level reviews” of data submitted by pharmaceutical companies. Prasad has been a particularly trenchant and public critic, tweeting that “the only people who don’t like the bill are people who study drug approval, safety, and who aren’t paid by Pharma.”

We might attribute this overconfidence in medical care among Americans to two cultural traits: (1) a belief that science can and should solve problems and lead to better lives and (2) an interest in efficient solutions to complex problems. Yet, one takeaway from this is that a healthier lifestyle may be boring and be hard work to implement (on both an individual and community level) but could be more effective in the long-term than medical intervention.

Scientific misinformation flows through online echo chambers

New research examines how scientific misinformation is dispersed:

Research published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences maps out the factors that influence the spread of scientific misinformation and skepticism within online social networks — and the findings were disturbing.

“Our analysis shows that users mostly tend to select content according to a specific narrative and to ignore the rest,” Dr. Walter Quattrociocchi, a computer scientist at the IMT Institute for Advanced Studies in Italy and one of the study’s authors, told The Huffington Post in an email. Users are driven to content based on the brain’s natural confirmation bias — the tendency to seek information that reinforces pre-existing beliefs — which leads to the formation of “echo chambers,” he said…

For the study, the researchers conducted a quantitative analysis of articles shared on Facebook related to either conspiracy theories or fact-based science news. They found that users tended to cluster within homogenous, polarized groups, and within those groups, to share the same types of content, perpetuating the circulation of similar ideas.

Is the problem echo chambers or believing misinformation (when certain people want you to believe something else)? The way this article in the Huffington Post is written, it suggests that conservatives get stuck in these echo chambers – particularly for an issue like climate change – and don’t have a chance to engage with the real information. Something then needs to be done to break into or out of these echo chambers. Once people are exposed to ideas beyond the cluster of people like them, they will then find the truth. But, it may not work exactly this way:

  1. What if people actually are exposed to a range of information and still believe certain things? Exposure to a range of ideas is not necessarily a guarantee that people will believe the right things.
  2. How does the echo chamber participation on the conservative side compare with the echo chamber influence on the liberal side? The research study found echo chambers on both sides – the conspiracy and the science sides. Humans tend more toward people like them, a phenomenon called homophily, as found in numerous network studies. Are we worried generally that people might be too influenced by echo chambers (and not figuring out things for themselves) or are more worried that people have the correct ideas? Depending on one’s perspective on a particular issue, echo chambers could be positive or negative influences.

Applying Weber’s concept of disenchantment to Jurassic World

A journalist suggests Weber’s “disenchantment” could explain a world where scientists create new dinosaurs:

Yet the Indominus Rex’s business necessity is itself born of a spiritual void arguably endemic to capitalism itself. If “Jurassic Park” owes its ancestry to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, there’s a straight line between “Jurassic World” and Max Weber, the early 20th century German thinker whose celebrated 1917 lecture “Science As A Vocation” is one of the source texts for an important sociological concept known as “disenchantment.”

“Disenchantment” is the process through which empiricism replaces mysticism as an organising and motivating principle for both individuals and society at large. For Weber, the rise of capitalism meant that the rigors of daily existence started to find meaning through earthly and numerable concerns, rather than through one’s relation to an ineffable metaphysical power. In a sense, disenchantment is shorthand for the victory of the market over religion…

This is the movie about the moral, spiritual, and economic crisis of boredom at a dinosaur park. The crisis is not as far-fetched as it seems. We’re in the era where the Lourve, repository of the some of the world’s most sublime artistic accomplishments, isn’t immune from the selfie stick plague. There are now classes dedicated to taking Instagram photos of food. Look at all these people with their smart-phones out as Nationals pitching demigod Max Scherzer closed in on a (tragically blown) perfect game on June 20th. Layers of distraction and disenchantment separate people from even the rarest and most spectacular of events, even when they’re unfolding directly in front of them…

The movie is a kind of sly meta-joke about the traditional entertainment industry’s finely-honed ability to shovel as much brand identification and fan service down audiences’ throats as is humanly possible. The Indominus Rex — really just a larger, more violent version of “Jurassic Park’s” T-Rex — embodies the soul-deadening, almost self-destructive character of an industry whose primary commercial readout seems to be monstrous retreads. It’s a movie about the movies’ failure to impress audiences, and those audience’s enduring inability to be impressed by anything that’s genuinely new.

And that is why we continue to read and teach Max Weber in sociology courses from the introductory level to graduate school. If this was the subject of an end-of-the-semester research paper in a theory course, it could end up being pretty good. As noted here, Weber saw some of the benefits of capitalism and modernity but was pretty prescient regarding its consequences. Even critiques of the system – such as this film which highlights the downsides of science and progress – still have to play by the same rules, meaning that it has to sell to the mass public to be considered a “success.”

Myers-Briggs not scientifically valid but offers space for self-reflection, ideal types

Critics argue the Myers-Briggs Personality Test doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny:

The obvious criticism of this test is that it’s based on dichotomies. Are you perceiving or judging? Introverted or extroverted? You must choose. This reeks of pseudo-science. Of course, most of us don’t fall clearly on one side or the other. When the specific introvert vs. extrovert duality was a hot topic a few years ago, many writers persuasively argued against reducing socialization patterns to a simplistic either/or. Indeed, reams of psychological literature debunks MBTI as wildly inconsistent—many people will test differently within weeks—and over reliant on polarities. For instance, someone can certainly be both deeply thinking and feeling, and we all know folks who appear to be neither. “In social science, we use four standards: are the categories reliable, valid, independent, and comprehensive? For the MBTI, the evidence says not very, no, no, and not really,” organizational psychologist Adam Grant wrote in Psychology Today after reviewing all the science on MBTI. It’s pretty damning.

But the same journalist admits she still finds the test useful:

Any means for busy adults to take time to comprehend ourselves and see how our styles converge and diverge from others has a use—and more honestly, it’s fascinating. So while I remain skeptical of MBTI’s accuracy and I don’t think the test should be given to children and then treated like a blueprint for their future life, I’m optimistic about its potential to make us feel less alone and less hamstrung by our imperfections. A smart aleck might observe drily that this idealistic conclusion was foreordained: “how typically ENFP of you.” Guilty as charged.

So perhaps the Myers-Briggs is only helpful in that it gives people an excuse to engage in self-reflection. Is self-reflection only possible today (and not viewed as indulgent or unnecessary) when given a pseudo-scientific veneer?

Organizational psychologist Adam Grant gives two reasons Myers-Briggs has been so popular:

Murphy Paul argues that people cling to the test for two major reasons. One is that thousands of people have invested time and money in becoming MBTI-certified trainers and coaches. As I wrote over the summer, it’s awfully hard to let go of our big commitments. The other is the “aha” moment that people experience when the test gives them insight about others—and especially themselves. “Those who love type,” Murphy Paul writes, “have been seduced by an image of their own ideal self.” Once that occurs, personality psychologist Brian Little says, raising doubts about “reliability and validity is like commenting on the tastiness of communion wine. Or how good a yarmulke is at protecting your head.”

Perhaps this “ideal self” concept could be analogous to Max Weber’s ideal types. Social scientists do a lot of categorizing as they empirically observe the social world but it can be difficult (Weber suggests pretty much impossible) to exhaustively describe and explain social phenomena. Ideal types can provide analytical anchors that may not be often found in reality but provide a starting point. Plus, using ideal types of personality might help give individuals something to aspire to.

Lancet editor suggests “much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may be simply untrue”

The editor of The Lancet quickly summarizes several major issues regarding scientific studies:

The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness. As one participant put it, “poor methods get results”. The Academy of Medical Sciences, Medical Research Council, and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council have now put their reputational weight behind an investigation into these questionable research practices. The apparent endemicity of bad research behaviour is alarming. In their quest for telling a compelling story, scientists too often sculpt data to fit their preferred theory of the world. Or they retrofit hypotheses to fit their data. Journal editors deserve their fair share of criticism too. We aid and abet the worst behaviours. Our acquiescence to the impact factor fuels an unhealthy competition to win a place in a select few journals. Our love of “significance” pollutes the literature
with many a statistical fairy-tale. We reject important confirmations. Journals are not the only miscreants. Universities are in a perpetual struggle for money and talent, endpoints that foster reductive metrics, such as high-impact publication. National assessment procedures, such as the Research Excellence Framework, incentivise bad practices. And individual scientists, including their most senior leaders, do little to alter a research culture that occasionally veers close to misconduct.

He goes to suggest some solutions such as different incentives, data review before publication, and a higher bar for statistical significance. Are there also some basic questions here about methodology such as whether randomized controlled experiments are the best way to go, particularly if the N is small? Dr. John Ioaniddis has argued for more rigorous methods in medical research, suggesting trials need to compare a new treatment to an existing treatment rather than a new option to a placebo. Perhaps we also need more metastudies that look across various studies to summarize findings rather than relying on a single study or a small group of studies to validate a finding.

At the least, this is a public relations issue for the natural and social sciences. The public tends to trust science but an increasing number of studies that are later retracted amongst breathless pronouncements of new findings will not go over well. Beyond the optics, this gets at a basic question for scientists: are we/they truly interested in finding reality? What is this scientific work intended to do anyway?