Category Archives: Learning

Nature vs Nurture –> vs Noise

Source: Quanta, Mar 2020

Common sense tells us that if it’s not nature, it’s nurture: environmental influences that interact with an animal’s genome to generate different outcomes for various traits. But that’s not the whole story.

New research on crayfish and scores of other organisms is revealing an important role for a third, often-overlooked source of variation and diversity — a surprising foundation for what makes us unique that begins in the first days of an embryo’s development: random, intrinsic noise.

Nature Versus Nurture Versus Noise

Scientists typically consider the phenotype of a cell or organism — the traits it expresses in its form, physiology and behavior — to be the complex sum of genetic and environmental factors, or “nature” and “nurture.”

A great deal of research is dedicated to identifying the contributions of the former: to pinning down, for instance, how given mutations might determine the shape of a limb or the onset of a disease. “That’s certainly a very powerful paradigm,” said Arjun Raj, a systems biologist at the University of Pennsylvania. “We’ve learned an enormous amount from that, [and] it’s really easy to tell a story about it.”

Everything not chalked up to genetic control tends to get attributed to diverse environmental factors, ranging from nutrition to stress to idiosyncratic social interactions. It’s a line of thought that “suggests that it must be something outside the organism,” said Kevin Mitchell, a geneticist and neuroscientist at Trinity College Dublin.

But proof abounds that this is not entirely true. Identical human twins who share both a genome and a home don’t look or act exactly the same. A mutation that causes a disorder in one might not in the other. Twins even have different fingerprints.

Which leaves noise — the random tremors and fluctuations that characterize any biological process. “Noise is inevitable,” said Andreas Wagner, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Zurich, “an inevitable byproduct of life.”

What makes noise inescapable, Mitchell explained, is that any organism is far too complex for genes to delineate, exhaustively and single-handedly, exactly how to build it. The wiring of the brain alone has to arise with relatively little instruction.

“The genome is not a blueprint,” Mitchell said. “It doesn’t encode some specific outcome. It only encodes some biochemical rules, some cellular algorithms by which the developing embryo will self-organize.”

Molecules bounce around and interact in a cell, binding and pulling apart and diffusing at random.

The processes that make proteins and turn genes on and off are subject to this “molecular jitter in the system,” as Mitchell calls it — which leads to some degree of randomness in how many protein molecules are made, how they assemble and fold, and how they fulfill their function and help cells make decisions.

As a result, it’s perfectly natural that development, the complex process that turns a single cell into an entire organism, would be “a bit messy,” Mitchell said.

Even when scientists did want to focus on the effects of that noise, they found themselves hitting a wall: By definition, noise is not systematic or predictable, and as a result, it’s almost prohibitively difficult to isolate and measure.

“It’s the most difficult [factor] to actually control, to play with,” said Bassem Hassan, a neurobiologist at the Paris Brain Institute. “You can play with the genome, you can play with the environment, you can play with physiology, you can activate certain cells and not others. … It’s a lot harder to manipulate the variation” and prove it to be the cause of differences in a trait of interest.

… developmental noise plays a role that can no longer be overlooked. It’s not just an inescapable effect that living systems have to put up with, but something that those systems evolved to take advantage of, turning it into a necessary driver of an individual’s proper development and perhaps even of evolution more broadly.

Fluctuations Affecting Behavior

Those random events seem to play the biggest role when it comes to behavior.

In humans, for instance, identical twins differ far more in psychological traits than they do physically. And since psychological differences are thought to reflect how the brain is put together, the brain is where scientists are starting to look.

During development, brains are particularly noisy: Connections between neurons are constantly growing and getting pruned, often randomly. Ion channels spontaneously open up, and synapses spontaneously release neurotransmitters, for no obvious reason.

Genes have been found that govern the developmental variation in anatomical and behavioral traits. By altering those genes, researchers have been able to test their hypotheses about the role of noise in dictating brain formation and behavior. The most tantalizing example of this came earlier this month, in a paper published by Hassan and his colleagues in Science.

The fact that randomness in development may be just as important as genetic and environmental variation could also change how we understand phenotype more broadly.

“We always look for patterns and explanations for everything,” Laskowski said. “And so when we think about our behaviors and our personalities, we obviously want to think, ‘Oh, this is from how you were raised as a child,’ or ‘it was what happened to your mom,’ or some big explanation. But it turns out that it might not be such a big explanation. It might just be random chance.”

This idea carries other implications, particularly for those trying to use genetics to predict traits ranging from height and body mass index to intelligence and disease risk. “Ultimately, you’re going to be really, really limited in how accurately you can ever predict anything about an individual, if this kind of random variation is important for many aspects of traits that we care about,” Mitchell said.

Chesterton’s Fence: Why Does it Exist in the First Place?

Source: FS blog, Mar 2020

Chesterton’s Fence is a heuristic inspired by a quote from the writer and polymath G. K. Chesterton’s 1929 book, The ThingIt’s best known as being one of John F. Kennedy’s favored sayings, as well as a principle Wikipedia encourages its editors to follow.

In the book, Chesterton describes the classic case of the reformer who notices something, such as a fence, and fails to see the reason for its existence. However, before they decide to remove it, they must figure out why it exists in the first place. If they do not do this, they are likely to do more harm than good with its removal. In its most concise version, Chesterton’s Fence states the following:

He explained that fences are built by people who carefully planned them out and “had some reason for thinking [the fence] would be a good thing for somebody.” Until we establish that reason, we have no business taking an ax to it.

Chesterton also alluded to the all-too-common belief that previous generations were bumbling fools, stumbling around, constructing fences wherever they fancied. Should we fail to respect their judgement and not try to understand it, we run the risk of creating new, unexpected problems. By and large, people do not do things for no reason. We’re all lazy at heart. We don’t like to waste time and resources on useless fences. Not understanding something does not mean it must be pointless.

Take the case of supposedly hierarchy-free companies. Someone came along and figured that having management and an overall hierarchy is an imperfect system. It places additional stress on those at the bottom and can even be damaging to their health. It leaves room for abuse of power and manipulative company politics. It makes it unlikely that good ideas from those at the bottom will get listened to.

However, despite the numerous problems inherent in hierarchical companies, doing away with this structure altogether belies a lack of awareness of the reasons why it is so ubiquitous. Someone needs to make decisions and be held responsible for their consequences. During times of stress or disorganization, people naturally tend to look to leaders for direction. Without a formal hierarchy, people often form an invisible one, which is far more complex to navigate and can lead to the most charismatic or domineering individual taking control, rather than the most qualified.

It is certainly admirable that hierarchy-free companies are taking the enormous risk inherent in breaking the mold and trying something new. However, their approach ignores Chesterton’s Fence and doesn’t address why hierarchies exist within companies in the first place. Removing them does not necessarily lead to a fairer, more productive system.

Yes, doing things the way they’ve always been done means getting what we’ve always got. There’s certainly nothing positive about being resistant to any change. Things become out of date and redundant with time. Sometimes an outside perspective is ideal for shaking things up and finding new ways. Even so, we can’t let ourselves be too overconfident about the redundancy of things we see as pointless.

… the peacock’s tail is not about efficiency. In fact, its whole value lies in its inefficiency.

It signals a bird is healthy enough to waste energy growing it and has the strength to carry it around. Peahens use the tails of peacocks as guidance for choosing which mates are likely to have the best genes to pass on to their offspring. If an outside observer were to somehow swoop in and give peacocks regular, functional tails, it would be more energy efficient and practical, but it would deprive them of the ability to advertise their genetic potential.

Chesterton’s Fence is not an admonishment of anyone who tries to make improvements; it is a call to be aware of second-order thinking before intervening. It reminds us that we don’t always know better than those who made decisions before us, and we can’t see all the nuances to a situation until we’re intimate with it. Unless we know why someone made a decision, we can’t safely change it or conclude that they were wrong.

Using Technology to Disrupt Education

Source: UC-San Diego, Sep 2018

We study the impact of a personalized technology-aided after-school instruction program in middle-school grades in urban India using a lottery that provided inners free access to the program.

Lottery winners scored 0.37σ higher in math and 0.23σ higher in Hindi over just a 4.5-month period. IV estimates suggest that attending the program for 90 days would increase math and Hindi test scores by 0.6σ and 0.39σ respectively. We find similar absolute test score gains for all students, but much greater relative gains for academically-weaker students. Our results suggest that well-designed technology-aided instruction programs can sharply improve productivity in delivering education

Charming Helps!

Source: Medium, Jan 2020

Bring The Positive Energy

Here’s the first key to being charming: you have to make other people want to talk to you… and that means that you want to be open and welcoming.

People who are charming are people who make us feel good. They make us feel like they understand us, value us and think we’re awesome. They’re nonjudgmental, empathetic and caring. They’re the sort of people you feel like you could rely on when the chips are down because they’re just that kind of person.

So how does one convey warmth to others?

To start with, you want to smile. A broad, genuine smile that reaches the eyes — the famous Duchene smile — is a way of making yourself instantly seem friendlier and more approachable. It also forces you to feel happier and friendlier in a nice bit of biofeedback; by making yourself feel more friendly, you will come across as friendlier and more likable.

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You want to make sure to be as positive as possible. You don’t have to be a wide-eyed optimist, but we are instinctively drawn to people who are happier. Happy people give energy to the room and make others feel good.

Build The Emotional Connections

The next key to being charming is to build the emotional chemistry by finding commonalities with the person you’re talking to. Charming people have the ability to make us feel as though we’ve known them forever — even if we’ve only just met them thirty minutes ago. They bring an easy sense of familiarity and intimacy that we don’t often feel with other people, especially with people we’ve only just met… but it feels so natural that we never think about it.

In fact, one researcher found that it was possible to build an incredibly intense emotional connection — one stronger than even some long-term friendships — in the span of an hour.

The key to building this emotional intensity comes from sharing personal emotional information with one another.

You want to share emotional truths that illustrate some of what makes you who you are. One of the easiest ways to do this is through the Question Game– taking turns asking meaningful questions of one another. Those questions like “what would a perfect day look like to you”? They may sound cheesy… but they’re the ones that elicit the emotional truths and help forge those surprisingly deep and intimate connections that make us feel so close to someone we’ve just met.

So you may want to ask something like “What would you do if you could do anything with no chance of failure?” or even just sharing an embarrassing — but amusing — incident in your life. The key is that you want to allow yourself to be vulnerable; being charming means letting others feel as though they’re getting insight into you that few other people may get.

Just be sure to leaven it with humor. After all…

Funny is Sexy

As I’ve said many times before, there’s a reason why women rank a sense of humor so highly when they’re listing what they find attractive in men. In fact, some researchers believe that there’s a direct correlation between being able to make a woman laugh and her level of sexual or romantic interest.

The most charming people out there have excellent senses of humor. Some are droll and witty, others are self-deprecating, while yet others are brash, even borderline offensive… and we love them for it.

So why is humor so important to charm? It’s the way that it makes people feel.

Charm is all about making the other person feel good in your presence. Laughter releases muscle tension in the body, leaving you feeling relaxed calm while also releasing endorphins in the brain. If you’re able to make a woman laugh, you’re able to make her feel good… and she’s going to associate that feeling with being in your presence.

A good sense of humor is also a reliable indicator of intelligence; after all, most humor — even puns — is intellectual in nature. Even pratfalls and low-brow humor require a strong sense of comedic timing and being able to gauge the social appropriateness of the situation. Plus: being able to understand the proper time and place for different forms of humor is a sign of finely tuned social calibration.

Develop Your Presence

The final part of charm is to utilize your presence. We often talk about people who feel larger than life, or who have us riveted. These people have presence.

We like people who like us… and the ability to make you feel liked is one of the keys of being charming. Charming people have a way of making you feel like the most important person in the world. They give you their full attention and give you the impression that not only are they hanging on your every word, they’re finding absolutely everything you have to say fascinating.

The first and most important way of using presence is simply to give someone your full attention.

The next way that you develop presence is to indicate that you’re actually paying attention. There are many ways of doing this — countless non-verbal signs like nodding your head and “go on, I’m listening” sounds, for example — but the most powerful is to be an active listener.

Making a point to ask questions about the things that she’s telling you, especially if you use her choice of words or phrasing, makes it abundantly clear that not only are you paying attention but that you’re making a point to engage with her, not just passively absorbing her words like a sponge. Even just repeating the last couple of words back in an intrigued, questioning tone can build and signal your interest in what she has to say.

Overcoming Survivorship Bias

Source: FS, Dec 2019

Survivorship bias is a common logical error that distorts our understanding of the world. It happens when we assume that success tells the whole story and when we don’t adequately consider past failures.

Bill Gates, Batuli Lamichhane, and the Beatles are oft-cited examples of people who broke the rules without the expected consequences. We like to focus on people like them—the result of a cognitive shortcut known as survivorship bias.

When we only pay attention to those who survive, we fail to account for base rates and end up misunderstanding how selection processes actually work. The base rate is the probability of a given result we can expect from a sample, expressed as a percentage. If you play roulette, for example, you can be expected to win one out of 38 games, or 2.63%, which is the base rate.

The problem arises when we mistake the winners for the rule and not the exception. People like Gates, Lamichhane, and the Beatles are anomalies at one end of a distribution curve. While there is much to learn from them, it would be a mistake to expect the same results from doing the same things.

Examining the lives of successful entrepreneurs teaches us very little. We would do far better to analyze the causes of failure, then act accordingly. Even better would be learning from both failures and successes.

Consider What You Don’t See

When we read about survivorship bias, we usually come across the archetypical story of Abraham Wald, a statistician studying World War II airplanes. His research group at Columbia University was asked to figure out how to better protect airplanes from damage. The initial approach to the problem was to look at the planes coming back, seeing where they were hit the worst, then reinforcing that area.

However, Wald realized there was a missing, yet valuable, source of evidence: Planes that were hit that did not make it back. Planes that went down, that weren’t surviving, had much better information to provide on areas that were most important to reinforce. Wald’s approach is an example of how to overcome survivorship bias.

Don’t look just at what you can see. Consider all the things that started on the same path but didn’t make it. Try to figure out their story, as there is as much, if not more, to be learned from failure.

Considering survivorship bias when presented with examples of success is difficult. It is not instinctive to pause, reflect, and think through what the base rate odds of success are and whether you’re looking at an outlier or the expected outcome. And yet if you don’t know the real odds, if you don’t know if what you’re looking at is an example of survivorship bias, then you’ve got a blind spot.

What Language will Aliens Use to Communicate with Humans?

Source: Economist, Nov 2019

Reproducible Management Research

Source: Economist, Nov 2019

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