I can haz rapshur? Endgame effects.

So, you’ve probably heard that the world is ending this Saturday (or, as Tom Scocca explains, sometime between Friday evening and Sunday morning, depending on how the rapture interacts with the time zones). You may already have signed up on Facebook to attend the pre-rapture orgy and/or the post-rapture looting.

Earlier, I posted my discovery that you can be taken up by the rapture even if you’re actively engaging in gay sex when it happens, which is pretty awesome.

But now I want to talk about the timing issue.

Back in January I wrote a post making fun of Harold Camping’s claim that he knew when the rapture was coming. The biblical counter-argument comes from Matthew 24:36, which, in the standard Lolcat edition, reads:

but bout dat dai or hour no wan knows, not even teh angels in heaven, nor teh son, [e] but only teh fathr.

(The non-biblical counter-argument, of course, is, “Wait, what? That’s just stupid.”)

The punchline in my previous post was a variation of the standard one that people like myself like to drop in these situations. In this case, it was, “Look! An evolutionary biologist who was raised in a Unitarian church with an atheist minister knows more about the bible than Harold Camping! Hahahaha!”

This is the bible translation favored by Lost in Transcription.

In fact, this is just one of several places in the bible that emphasize the unpredictability of the rapture (and/or the second coming, which is maybe a different thing — who knew?).

So, what’s that about, then? What it reminds me of is the phenomenon of endgame effects in economic games. If you’re not familiar with endgame effects, well, actually you are, because it is one of those regularities that shows up in life just as much as it does in experimental economics.

I’ll describe this in terms of a public goods game, but the phenomenon occurs in a variety of contexts. In your standard public goods game, players are given some money. Each player chooses how much of their money to contribute to a common pot. The money in the pot is then multiplied by some amount (e.g. 3X), and then divided equally among the players, without regard to whether or not they contributed.

Nice picture illustrating the basic structure of a public goods game. I poached this one from Ben Allen’s blog, which would make him a cooperator, since he made this slide. I would be a defector, since I am freeloading off of his work.

The group as a whole benefits most if everyone puts their whole endowment into the pot. But, each individual gets their best payoff if everyone else donates to the pot, but they don’t. If you run this experiment over and over, you find that people typically start off making a decent contribution (typically ~ 50%), but the contributions decline over time, until eventually pretty much everyone is putting in nothing.

A standard modification, then, is to incorporate a punishment phase after each round of the game. For example, people might be given the option to pay some money in order to have money taken away from one of the people who did not donate to the pot.

The first interesting finding that gets reproduced again and again is that people are willing to pay to punish defectors. The second standard finding is that incorporating a punishment phase stabilizes cooperation. So, given the threat of punishment, people will continue to donate to the pot at a high level.

I was going to write something like, “Punishment in most behavioral economics experiments is monetary rather than physical,” but all I can think is, “This is so wrong on so many levels.” Why do you do this to me, Google? 

Okay, so here’s where the endgame effect comes in. These experiments are typically set up to run a certain number of rounds. Whether the experiment lasts for ten rounds or twenty or a hundred, people will start defecting (contributing less) in the final few rounds. Presumably this is because they know that there will be less opportunity for them to get punished, so they maximize their short term gains.

Now, let’s say you’re starting a religion, and you want to influence people’s behaviors. The first thing you do is you set up a system of rewards and punishments (e.g., heaven and hell). Next, let’s say that you want to be able to convert people. Well, one thing you might do is set up a reset button, say, in the form of forgiveness. This allows you to go up to someone who has not been following your rules, explain to them about the system of rewards and punishments, and tell them that they have the chance not to be punished for their past behavior if they ask for forgiveness and act right moving forward.

This structure sets up a well known issue facing Christianity. In principle, one could completely disregard all of the rules, and then repent at the last minute. If your goal is to get people to act right all the time, one thing you can do is introduce uncertainty about when the reward or punishment is going to be doled out. In fact, this seems to be the explicit goal in many of the relevant passages.

This saying, attributed to George Carlin (or occasionally Rowan Atkinson) can be found on t-shirts, mugs, mouse pads, and bumper stickers. It is sometimes used by actual religious folks, who are either missing or reappropriating the irony.

Matthew 24:43-44 compares the second coming to having a thief break into your house:

but understand dis: if teh ownr ov teh houz had known at wut tiem ov nite teh thief wuz comin, he wud has kept watch an wud not has let his houz be brokd into. so u also must be ready, cuz teh son ov man will come at an hour when u do not expect him.

And the parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) is about always being prepared:

“At that tyme the couch of the cieling will be like 10 gurlz who can has some flashlites and go meetz teh man at teh door. 5 wur stoopid and 5 wur not stoopid. Teh stoopid gurlz gotz flashlites, but no baterys. Teh not stoopid onez brot baterys. Teh man wuz gonna be rly late, n tey al took a nap.

“In teh night some dood yelld: ‘It’s teh man! Go meets him!’

“Then al teh gurlz wok up n turnd on teh flashlites. Teh stoopid gurlz said to teh not stoopid gurlz: ‘I can has ur baterys? Mine r dead.’

“‘No’ teh not stoopid gurlz said ‘These r mah baterys! Go buys some.’

“But wile tey wur gone buyin teh baterys, teh man arived. Teh not stoopid gurlz went in wit teh man to his crib to parteh n tey close teh door.

“Latr teh stoopid gurlz came. ‘Dood!’ tey said ‘We r outsid r door, waitin for u to let us in!’

“But teh man said ‘Who r u? Go away, this is mah parteh!’

“So keep redy for teh couch of the cieling, cus u don’t kno wen Jebus is comin bak.

So, the whole thing seems structured to deal with this aspect of human nature that has been shown by lots of different economics experiments, but is well known to you from everyday life, as it was well known to the people writing the new testament two thousand years ago: people will cheat if they think they can get away with it.

Bad behavior is something that you can get away with right up until the point where you can’t.

Selten, R., & Stoecker, R. (1986). End behavior in sequences of finite Prisoner’s Dilemma supergames A learning theory approach Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 7 (1), 47-70 DOI: 10.1016/0167-2681(86)90021-1

Rapture doesn’t care about gay marriage

So, you know that the rapture is supposedly coming this Saturday (more on that in the next post). Most people who believe this probably also believe that homosexuality automatically gets you put on the “naughty” list.

However, the description of the rapture in Luke 17 explicitly confirms what is obvious to anyone who is not blinded by homophobia and bigotry: some gay people are good and some are bad.  How about that! Just like non-gay people. Here is Luke 17:34-35, describing how some people will be “taken” in the rapture while others will not:

I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left.

Two women shall be grinding together; the one shall be taken, and the other left.

I’m just sayin’.

Should you be reading Darwin Eats Cake?

So, speaking as the author, I would say, yes you should! You should repost it on your blog, share it on Facebook, tweet it, digg it, redditize it, and print it out in hard copy for your grandmother. The only requirement is that you have eyes, or a friend with eyes who can describe the comic to you.

But, I recognize that you might want a little more of a sense of who the target audience is. I hope this helps.

Best URL for sharing: http://www.darwineatscake.com/?id=28
URL for hotlinking or embedding: http://www.darwineatscake.com/img/comic/28.jpg

You know what, "God," I don’t negotiate with terrorists

So, do you know what caused the rash of tornadoes across the southern United States at the end of april? Something about temperature inversions and wind shear, you say?


According to the folks over at Faith2Action (via Wonkette), the problem is the trifecta of insufficient forced birth, insufficient sexual bigotry, and insufficient shitting on Palestinians:

Is God trying to get our attention?

The worst tornado outbreak in American history has left hundreds dead.   Mississippi flooding has not been this bad in 80 years.  Wildfires have swept through millions of acres in Texas and Oklahoma. 

There are a number of things that could give God reason to at least partially lift His protective Hand from America, including the millions of abortions done here each year, the flaunting of sexual sin, and our recent treatment of Israel.

Any support that the U.S. provides for dividing the Holy Land risks God’s wrath against us.  Rabbi Aryeh Spero says that a division could displace 400,000 Jews from their homes and more Christian holy sites would fall under Muslim control.

Pray that this will not happen and that many Americans will give their undivided attention to God.

Of course, this type of statement is not really news. Every time anything bad happens, from tornadoes to 9/11, there are always religious leaders who come forward to claim responsibility that “God” is punishing us for something or other.

Two things.

First, it’s interesting that “God” always seems to be punishing us for something that just so happens to be a current hot-button political issue.

Second, the punishment almost always seems to come in the form of killing a whole bunch of people who have no connection to the relevant policy decisions.

Some gay people get married in Massachusetts, so you murder a whole bunch of people in Alabama? I’m sorry, but those are not the actions of some benevolent Universe-creating deity, those are the actions of an abusive psychopath.

Now I’m not claiming that Faith2Action caused the tornadoes, but their actions in the wake of the tragedy are no different from any group claiming responsibility for a terrorist act: “A bunch of people are dead, and if you don’t do what we want, a bunch more are going to die.”

In any other context, from an abusive marriage to a hostage situation, it is clear who the bad guy is. It is also clear what you should do. You have to tell Faith2Action’s “God” to go to hell (as it were), because otherwise they’ll just be back with more demands the next time a river floods or some lunatic carries a bomb into a marketplace, and the cycle of abuse with perpetuate itself.

That’s the first rule in these situations: we don’t negotiate with terrorists.

I have an impulse to apologize to anyone who was offended by this post, but I’m going to resist it. You see, there are a lot of religious people I know and respect, but I would hope that they all see the distinction between “God” and God.

If you’re irreligious, or believe in a hands-off type of God, you probably already share my view that it is disgusting when religious leaders exploit tragedy to push a political agenda.

If you believe in a God who is a more active participant in human affairs, I hope that you were not offended by my post, although you might well be offended by arrogance and blasphemy inherent in someone’s claiming to know why God allowed these tragedies to occur.

But what if you believe in a “God” who uses mass murder to push a political agenda, and you think that you’re the one who gets to tell everyone what that political agenda is? Well, you probably were offended by this post, but I also don’t apologize to terrorists.

Sunday Linkasaurolophus: May 15, 2011

So, here’s the newest Lost in Transcription feature: Sunday Linkasaurolophus. What’s a Linkasaurolophus, you ask? It’s like a Linkasaurus Rex, but more hipster.

Which is to say, this is going to be a weekly feature where I provide a round-up of things that I wanted to write about, but about which I subsequently found that I had nothing interesting to add.

At Science Not Fiction, Kyle Munkittrick exposes the hidden message in Pixar’s films, which lays the groundwork for social justice in the future:

The message hidden inside Pixar’s magnificent films is this: humanity does not have a monopoly on personhood. In whatever form non- or super-human intelligence takes, it will need brave souls on both sides to defend what is right. If we can live up to this burden, humanity and the world we live in will be better for it.

At The Nation, William Deresiewicz writes about the crises facing higher education, from exploitation of graduate students to the double-edged nature of tenure to the defunding of the liberal arts:

A system of higher education that ignores the liberal arts, as Jonathan Cole points out in The Great American University (2009), is what they have in China, where they don’t want people to think about other ways to arrange society or other meanings than the authorized ones. A scientific education creates technologists. A liberal arts education creates citizens: people who can think broadly and critically about themselves and the world.

Yet of course it is precisely China—and Singapore, another great democracy—that the Obama administration holds up as the model to emulate in our new Sputnik moment. It’s funny; after the original Sputnik, we didn’t decide to become more like the Soviet Union. But we don’t possess that kind of confidence anymore.

At Jezebel, Anna North wrote about a controversy in which the president-elect of the American College of Surgeons, Lazar Greenfield, tackily referenced 2002 study claiming that semen has antidepressant properties. Greenfield resigned as a result of the ensuing controversy, but Gordon Gallup, the author of the original study, has stepped forward to defend him. The story features comments by Kate Clancy, as well as this take-home:

Basically, there are a lot of questions scientists would have to answer before they could really conclude that semen is an antidepressant. Clancy also reminded me that Gallup and his co-authors were clear in their initial paper that their research was by no means the last word on the subject, and that it’s a shame that much other scientific literature (other than the Mota study) has cited it uncritically. It’s also a shame that Greenfield thought it was a good idea to present the semen-antidepressant link essentially as fact in his editorial, and then make a tasteless joke about it. His resignation isn’t a case of politics silencing science, as Gallup alleges. It’s a case of science poorly and offensively reported. If Gallup’s research were followed up in appropriate ways and appropriate venues, we might all learn something about sexual and mental health — and yes, even about semen.

Dan Adler, Democratic candidate in the upcoming special election for California’s 36th congressional district, has produced a sequence of videos, some of which have gone viral. The most viral, and the one you’ve probably seen, is Stick Together, but also check out Rudy! Rudy! Rudy!, which features his real-life campaign manager Sean Astin (Samwise Gamgee) and Patty Duke getting s**t done with Dan, which features, well, Patty Duke, who once played identical cousins. For the whole series, check out his YouTube channel.

Finally, over at Darwin Eats Cake, this week’s episodes were: Base 10 and Welcome to our OOL.

1971 Canadian Evolution Video

So, do you remember 1971? Me neither. As I understand it, everyone was on drugs. And in Canada, they were all on METRIC DRUGS!!

This video is a little on the long side for the 2011 sensibility, but is pretty awesome. There are a couple of the things in particular that I like about it. First, most videos that I have seen illustrate evolution by having organisms transform. You know, like you have the fish who swims to the edge of the land, wriggles out, and grows legs. Unfortunately, I think that can reinforce two surprisingly common misunderstandings about evolution: (1) that it involves organisms changing adaptively during their lifetimes, and (2) that it involves a degree of intentionality.

That’s not so say that those video makers misunderstand the evolutionary process, just that the most common way of presenting the process to a broader audience lends itself to a particular misinterpretation.

In this video, novel forms arise as offspring, often to the noticeable surprise of their parents. Also, some of those novel forms are adaptive, while others are not.

Here’s the second thing. Videos like this always face a challenge: how do you illustrate mating and reproduction without traumatizing the children? This video comes up with some awesome mating procedures, from eyeball things smashing into each other to a system that involves the male blowing into the female’s nose.

Confidential to my wife: I’ve got an idea for later.

More on Nowak et al at the Chronicle

So, an article has just come out this morning in the Chronicle of Higher Education covering the controversy over the Nowak et al Nature paper attacking kin selection. I’ve written about the paper twice previously, once here, providing an xtranormal video dramatization of the issues, and once here, trying to provide some context to explain why so many people had gotten up in arms about this particular paper (as opposed to the hundreds of scientific papers published every year that are equally wrong).

Unfortunately, the article is behind the Chronicle’s paywall, so you may not be able to read it. (I don’t know if they permit the same sorts of work-arounds that the New York Times does.)

The thing that most strikes me in the article comes at the end:

Right now Mr. Nowak is working to understand the mathematics of cancer; previously, he has outlined the mathematics of viruses. It falls within his career mission to “provide a mathematical description where there is none,” he says, a goal at once modest and lofty. He would also like to write a book on the inter­section of religion and science, a publication that would no doubt further endear him to atheists.

He knows that the debate on kin selection is far from over, though he sees the ad hominem attacks as a good sign. “If the argument is now on this level,” he says, “I have won.”

along with this comment from Smayersu

Science is written in the language of mathematics. Why is it that the biologists cry “foul” when the mathematicians and physicists investigate the theory of evolution? The biological community should welcome the help of those who are trained to examine problems from a rigorous mathematical perspective.

Two things.

First, the criticism of Nowak had nothing to do with his providing a mathematical framework. In fact, most of the people who have criticized Nowak are, themselves, mathematical biologists. The issue is that the paper discounts and misrepresents a huge body of mathematical work. In fact, while Nowak has written a number of interesting and original papers, he has also written a number of papers in which he claims to “provide a mathematical description where there is none,” the problem being that in many cases, there actually is a mathematical description. Often quite an old one.

It is as if I were to write a paper that said, “You know who was wrong? Albert Einstein! Because, look, Special Relativity does not work when you incorporate gravity. So I’ve created a new thing that I call “Generalized Relativity.”

Second, it is absolutely true that ad hominem attacks do not constitute legitimate scientific criticism. However, the fact that some of the attacks on Nowak have been ad hominem certainly does not constitute evidence that he is right.

To my mind, the relevance of the ad hominem attacks is this. They reflect a deep sense of frustration on the part of the field towards Nowak and his career success. Nowak has repeatedly violated one of the basic principles of academic scholarship: that you give appropriate credit to previous work. And yet, the academic system has consistently rewarded him over other researchers who put more effort into making sure that they are doing original work and into making sure to credit their colleagues.

It is as if, after publishing my paper on Generalized Relativity, I were to be awarded tens of millions of dollars in grant money and a chair at Harvard, while the legions of physicists pointing out Einstein’s later work were ignored. I’m guessing that I might find myself the subject of some ad hominem attacks, but it would not mean that I was right.

As a colleague of mine commented this morning, “ah, Nowak thinks he’s won because of the ad hominem attacks. by that standard, Donald Trump must be a serious presidential candidate.”

Nowak, M., Tarnita, C., & Wilson, E. (2010). The evolution of eusociality Nature, 466 (7310), 1057-1062 DOI: 10.1038/nature09205

My wife interviews the creator of the evil supervillain Zachary Ruthless

So, although this blog tends not to dwell on personal topics, I have written before (here and here) about my wife, Lizzie K. Foley, whose middle-grade novel, Remarkable, is slated to come out next April under the Dial imprint of Penguin. This makes her a member of the Apocalypsies, a group of writers whose first middle-grad or young-adult novels come out in 2012. The Apocalypsies have a group blog, the motto of which is “Read ’em like there’s no tomorrow!”

The Apocalypsies are posting interviews with authors from the analogous 2011 group. My wife has just posted her interview with Allan Woodrow, author of The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless, which introduces us to this child supervillain.

Here’s an excerpt:

1. So I’m working under the assumption that this book is autobiographical. Do you care to elaborate?

My book, Mr. Fuzzy Pants Goes To The Zoo, is the heartwarming story of Carl the Cockatoo who falls in love with a pair of pants. I love zoos and … wait! What’s this? They changed the title to The Rotten Adventures of Zachary Ruthless … (pulling out hair) … What the … (spitting and slamming fist) … This isn’t the book I wrote! How dare they! (howling and stomping) … They’ll be sorry! I’ll blast them with ray guns! Hide their notebook paper! Put spiders in their shoes! Eat their dessert! I’ll … I’ll … but to answer your question, no this story isn’t autobiographical at all. Why would you think that?

 Check out the rest of the interview here.