binary thinking

Cognition is more complicated than IQ.
Cognition is more complicated than IQ.

I try to stay out of political theory on this blog, but Vox Day’s essay on the differences between the “VHIQ” and the “UHIQ” struck me as intellectually interesting enough that I felt like exploring it further. Personally, I don’t know what my IQ is, so that means I am merely above average*, since only people with very/ultra-high IQ seem to be motivated to willingly take the test. VD lists a number of plausible qualitative traits, of which the following caught my eye:

VHIQ inclines towards binary either/or thinking and taking sides. UHIQ inclines towards probabilistic thinking and balancing between contradictory possibilities.

VHIQ is uncomfortable with chaos and seeks to impose order on it, even if none exists. UHIQ is comfortable with chaos and seeks to recognize patterns in it.

VHIQ is competitive. UHIQ doesn’t keep score.

VD later goes on to quote Wechsler, the founder of the IQ test, at length and summarizes:

Wechsler is saying quite plainly that those with IQs above 150 are different in kind from those below that level. He is saying that they are a different kind of mind, a different kind of human being.

The division into binary groups here – “normal human” (sub-150 IQ) and the Next (150+), and then at the next iteration between VHIQ and UHIQ, is confusing to me, particularly since it is IQ itself being used to classify people into the binary choices. In the comments, VD clarifies (?) that “It’s entirely possible for a 175 IQ to be VHIQ and for a 145 IQ to be UHIQ” but that just moves the binary classifying to a relative scale than an absolute one. Since he also asserts that you need to be at least +3 SD (ie, IQ of 145) to even qualify as VHIQ, it’s clear that the numbers do matter.

There’s a glaring circularity here that I am doing a poor job of articulating. I’ll just make note of it and move on.

VD’s excerpted passage from Wechsler is, however, nonsense. He created an empirical test, intended to assess “varying amounts of the same basic stuff (e.g., mental energy)” and then made it into a score. I have worked with neurologists before and they make the same category error that psychologists like Wechsler do, in ascribing quantitative rigor to tests like the Expanded Disability Status Scale (EDSS). Just because you can ask someone a bunch of qualitative questions and then give them a “score” based on a comparison of their answers to those of a “baseline” person, does not mean you have actually magically created a quantitative test. Wechsler’s very use of the word “quantitative” is an abuse of language, a classic soft-sciences infatuation with concepts best left to hardsci folks. There’s nothing quantitative about the WAIS whatsoever, until you look at aggregate results over populations. Wechsler lacked even a basic understanding of what human cognition’s base units might be – certainly not hand-wavy bullshit like “mental energy”. Volumetric imaging with DT-MRI is probably the only actual quantitative method the human race has yet invented to probe that “basic stuff” of which Wechsler dreams; but there are some serious engineering constraints on how far we can go in that direction.**

Human cognition isn’t so easily captured by a single metric, even one built on such muddy foundation as the WAIS. It’s chaotic, and emergent, and inconsistent. This infatuation with pseudo-qualitative testing isn’t limited to WAIS; people overuse Meyers-Briggs and over-interpret fMRI all the time. Do qualitative metrics like WAIS or EDSS have value in certain contexts? Of course. However, as a signpost towards Homo Superior, it’s no better than Body Mass Index.

* Why bother with false modesty? I do have a PhD in an applied physics field, after all, and I scored higher than VD on that one vocab test, so empirically it seems reasonable to suppose I am somewhat ahead of the curve.

** spouting off about fMRI in this context is a useful marker of a neurosci dilettante.

Rogue One, the Force, and gender


A (female) friend of mine loved Rogue One, but noted an imbalance in the Force:

Wept tears of joy. And not to nitpick the film’s clear feminist intentions, but couldn’t at least a handful of the nameless cannon-fodder strike force be women?

The ramblings that follow began as a long-winded reply, but grew so unwieldy and disorganized that I decided it fit better here ๐Ÿ™‚ Spoilers may follow. Continue reading “Rogue One, the Force, and gender”

the Ummm… Drive


So, there is now a peer-reviewed paper on the fabled EmDrive, which empirically measured a statistically significant thrust. The important results are in Figure 19 up above, and here is what the paper has to say about it:

Figure 19 presents a collection of all the empirically collected data. The averaging of the forward and reverse thrust data is presented in the form of circles. A linear curve is fitted to the data and is shown with the corresponding fitted equation. The vacuum test data collected show a consistent performance of 1.2ยฑ0.1uN/kW

It’s not clear if the fit was to the averaged data or the raw data. I suspect the averaged, because looking at the raw data, at no time did thrust exceed 130 uN, even when power was increased from 60 to 80 kW. In fact the data at 80 kW points averages out to the same thrust as at 60 kW, and the error bars are a textbook example of the difference between accuracy and precision.

These results are peer-reviewed, and there is a “statistically significant” linear fit to the data that does demonstrate a correlation between the input power and the observed thrust, but this data does not show that the EmDrive actually works. As Chris Lee at Ars Technica put it, the drive still generates more noise than thrust:

The more important point is that the individual uncertainties in their instrumentation don’t account for the variation in the thrust that they measure, which is a very strong hint that there is an uncontrolled experimental parameter playing havoc with their measurements.

Lee also points out that there are a lot of experimental questions left unanswered, including:

  • Why are there only 18 data points for an experiment that only takes a few minutes to perform?
  • Where is the data related to tuning the microwave frequency for the resonance chamber, and showing the difference between on-resonance mode and an adjacent mode?
  • What is the rise-time of the amplifier?
  • What is the resonance frequency of the pendulum?

on that last point, Lee elaborates:

The use of a pendulum also suggests the sort of experiment that would, again, amplify the signal. Since the pendulum has a resonance frequency, the authors could have used that as a filter. As you modulate the microwave amplifier’s power, the thrust (and any thermal effects) would also be modulated. But thermal effects are subject to a time constant that smears out the oscillation. So as the modulation frequency sweeps through the resonance frequency of the torsion pendulum, the amplitude of motion should greatly increase. However, the thermal response will be averaged over the whole cycle and disappear (well, mostly).

I know that every engineer and physicist in the world knows this technique, so the fact that it wasn’t used here tells us how fragile these results really are.

This is really at the limit of my empirical understanding, but it’s a question that the authors of the paper (not to mention anyone over at /r/emdrive) should be able to field with no worries.

Basically, this paper doesn’t answer any of the substantive questions. But it does at least validate the notion that there is something going on worth investigating. But let’s be real about the outcome – because we’ve seen this before:

For faster-than-light neutrinos, it was a loose cable. For the BICEP2 results, it was an incorrect calibration of galactic gas. For cold fusion, it was a poor experimental setup, and for perpetual motion, it was a scam. No matter what the outcome, thereโ€™s something to be learned from further investigation.

and that’s why we do science. It’s not as if scientists are fat cats out to protect their cash cow. (Seriously. I wish it were so). Maybe we are on the verge of another breakthrough, but it will take a lot more than this paper to convince anyone. And that’s as it should be.

Prayers for Steven DenBeste

via Ubu, SDB has been out of contact for over a week, since the big storm. An escalating investigation by the Otakusphere led to this by Brickmuppet:

A few minutes ago I was contacted by the Beaverton police. My information was quite limited and so there were three addresses that could have been Steven’s. As it happened, the second was Steven’s family. The officer had offered to escort them to Steven’s house, but they said they would handle things in the family and declined further assistance. That is all I know at this time, and, as I’m not family, it’s all I am likely to discover.
It does not sound at all good.

Follow here.

UPDATE: Steven has passed away. Indeed we belong to God and to Him indeed we return. Expressions of sorrow by Pete, Ubu, Brickmuppet, Ed Morrissey, Bill Quick, and others at the thread on Chizumatic. Please share links to other tributes in comments.

Like everyone else, I encountered Steven via his blog, USS Clueless, and appreciated the depth of his analyses even as I disagreed with nearly everything he wrote. He was an incredible writer with a gift for condensing complex ideas into teachable form. He forced me to be more rigorous and think through my positions, strengthening me and making me a better writer and blogger about politics. In a strange way he was akin to a mentor, despite our differences.

And then he retired and became an anime blogger, which opened up an entirely new vista, for myself and also my children. Steven’s recommendations of Bottle Fairy, Someday’s Dreamers, and Sugar Snow Fairy truly delighted my kids and enriched them. His recommendations of darker, sometimes offbeat fare such as Kino and Haibane Renmei resonated with me, to the extent that I named the blog after the latter, which is a honest example of something that truly blew my mind. And Steven plied me with his fair share of guilty pleasures, of which Ranma is easily the standard bearer ๐Ÿ™‚

Steven was a kind soul whose opinions and passions were grounded in his essential humanism. I wish I’d had the chance to tell him at least once what he meant to me and how much I appreciated him.

A Muslim crew member on Star Trek: Discovery?


As this essay at puts it, having a Muslim crew member aboard is fulfilling Gene Roddenberry’s mission:

There are many people facing discrimination in the current fraught social climate, and positive representation in the media can go a long way to helping ease these tensions. There’s no denying that Islamophobia has risen in recent years. Without delving into a political discussion of the specifics, suffice it to say that introducing a Muslim character to Star Trek might be the most revolutionary thing that Discovery could do โ€” and this would be the best way to parallel Chekov’s role in The Original Series.

… including a Muslim character in Discovery would go a long way to fulfilling Roddenberry’s aim of easing social tensions between different human cultures and peoples. Admittedly, to do so the Discovery writers would have to flout another one of Roddenberry’s beliefs, but there’s already ample evidence for religion existing within the Federation.

Personally, I would love to see a woman sporting a hijab on the bridge of the Discovery โ€” and not just because it would be neat to see how the scarf is incorporated into the uniform. If the Discovery writers do want to combat Islamophobia with representation, the character in question must be a practicing Muslim, as this isn’t just a racial prejudice, but one against the religion and culture.

I have two reasons for why I dislike this idea. First, I don’t like the analogy of Islam being the modern era’s Soviet Union. I don’t like talking politics here so I won’t belabor this, it’s a topic for City of Brass. Second, I think that social engineering on this sort works better with ethnicity than religion. Pavel Chekov was not a Soviet Russian. He was simply Russian, ethnically, in a way that was unambiguously obvious (ie, his accent). Worf was as Klingon as you could get – an explicit racial presence, also obvious. For Roddenberry’s strategy of de-Otherizing to work in the context of Islam, a similarly obvious approach needs to be taken.

I think including an explicit Muslim would be jarring since tehre is no other “real world” religion represented in Star Trek, at least for the Human society. It was Roddenberry’s world and he chose to eliminate religion from it. Adding a character who is explicitly Muslim complicates canon and introduces tension that undermines Star Trek’s appeal to all of humanity. Then you also need canon explanations for the status of Jews, Christians, Hindus, etc. This mess is exactly why religion was introduced to DS9 using the alien Bajoran society rather than picking one from our own.

The solution is to recognize that Islamophobia is not an intellectual reaction to a religion’s precepts, but rooted in racial and ethnic fears. Having a stand-in on the crew for a “Muslim-y” ethnic type would be great because that way when someone sees a Muslim on the street, they should be able to counter their knee-jerk stereotype by relating that person to this crewmember. Therefore, the ethnic choice of the actor is relevant to maximize that stereotype-defeating analogy. Which ethnicity works best for this purpose?

Arabs seem an obvious choice, because of the long ethnic association with Islam, but are not as visually distinguishable as Muslim due to high in-group diversity. A better choice would be bearded, brown-skinned, and male, ideally played by a Indian or Pakistani actor. But not Faran Tahir, who looks so badass in real-life that he isn’t connectable as a Muslim stereotype. I think Muslim American women are on the receiving end of more Islamophobia than men are, but for a different reason, and one that isn’t as addressable by casting in this way.

Overall, a bearded brown dude on the bridge would be a great nod to Roddenberry’s Bridge tradition, and avoid needless complication of the Trek universe’s canon or real-world appeal.