Thursday, July 20, 2017

Priest Class Craziness Facilitates Pluralism

One of the interesting insights from Chris Beneke's book on the rise of American religious pluralism was the observation that pluralism emerged once ministers' hyperbolic rhetoric about other denominations was seen as both toothless and sensationalistic.

Priest classes exist in an interesting landscape.  To increase their power and reach they must stir up the populace.  This is usually done via rhetoric accentuating existential fears.  That tribe down the road is pure evil.  Or, this practice/behaviour is destructive and evil.  Of course this creates a competitive cultural landscape.  Reach is directly dependent upon virility.  Sensationalism is selected for.

But as Nowak's virus simulations show, too much virulence is counter-productive.  You lose your hosts.  But if you're too weak, you can't expand. Over long time scales moderate virulence stabilizes.  The moderation of syphilis is a classic example.  This solution balances both long-term and short-term selective forces.  (Another improbable solution is spasms of extreme virulence).

Priest classes face a similar quandary.  Once "everyone-else" is labelled an "egregious sinner" it is pretty hard not to see through the holes in this cloth.  Is your neighbour you've known for years really that evil?  Doubtful.  Is that person you trade with once a year really a sub-human? Doubtful.  Populist based priest classes are pressured into self-destructive virulence.  Here's a modern example.

A common path within this descent processes is the move from sins of commission to sins of omission.  Enemies become not just anyone who is against, but rather anyone who is not explicitly for us.

This is a high risk high reward strategy.  The mob mentality it relies upon is great for purges.  There is, after all, a reason why a number of people now liken this evolution in social justice activism to the dynamically similar 20th century communist purges, especially those by Mao.

Fortunately it takes a really nasty despot to successfully control the backlash engendered by the move from sins of commission to sins of omission.  Human's evolutionary past suggests the move to kingdoms was unstable precisely for these reasons.  Chiefdoms might temporarily ally during times of severe existential-level threats.  Power was usually divided between religious leaders and war leaders.  Occasionally though, the temporary war leader/coordinator and temporary spiritual leader/coordinator might be the same.  The temptation to maintain power over this new higher-level (temporarily) adaptive unit was sometimes too much to give up.  For a long time though, such leaders were routinely assassinated.  The supposition is that they could not muster a large enough, loyal enough force to provide adequate 24-7 protection.  Multi-level selection theory is a good lens from which to understand such dynamics.

Eventually though, after enough cultural selection and presumably enough cultural evolution transmission biasing epigenetic or genetic level stuff, the god-king solution stabilized.  However, from what I understand of the archaeology, it took a long time for the god-king solution to stabilize over any substantial period of time.  Egypt, China and the Indus valley are early examples of where individual god-kings broke into multi-decade stability.  One assumption is that stability started to occur as despot levels decreased and the fitness sacrifices of the plebes was offset by state benefits.  Basically, god-kings found out how to provide benefits while at the same time herd-like characteristics were selected for amongst the population.

What does this imply for today's crazy priest class activists?

  • They will likely bifurcate into high-despotic and low-despotic solutions.
  • Successful solutions will amalgamate religious-like leadership with war-like leadership.
  • Heterogeneous interactions are required in order for people to learn that the "other's" evilness is usually priestly hyperbole (at least between similar-enough groups with generally altruistic and liberal tendencies).
  • Populist priest classes have a very narrow solution space to stabilize.  High virulence is self-destructive.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Meme Wars

The culture wars are over.  The progressive wars are ongoing, but slowing down and morphing into a number of distinct battles.  For instance, they've split into tactically distinct strategically linked campaigns like:

  • Immigration
  • Trump impeachment / marginalization
  • BDS (Israel boycott), anti-BDS 
  • Gay inclusion vs gay political purity (i.e. Chicago dyke rally & Gays for Trump bans)
  • Post-secondary progressive cults (i.e. Evergreen & post-modernist religious extremism)
  • Main stream media over-the-top punditry vs. fake media
  • etc.
In the midst of this comes an example of the "Right" adopting the "Left's" long held arms advantage with respect to "hate speech".  In most cases, hate speech is simply any type of heresay against major progressive values.  It ranges from actual attacks based upon identifiable group characteristics to micro-aggressions to any non-supportive stance against intersectionally disadvantaged.  But a good example of the meme wars is the current brouha-ha over Linda Sarsour's Jihad comments (for those unfamiliar with her she fills a Milo Yiannapoulos like niche for the left.

Here's some anti Sarsour stuff

the money quote

And the context which indicates she is using Jihad in its moderate sense as any struggle against evil.

The interesting thing, is of course not the polemical battle ranging, but rather the obvious attempt to normalize / re-appropriate "Jihad" and the even more obvious attempt to hate-speech it like both N words.

In terms of the meme wars, this is a pretty big shift.  Up to now the right has usually been at a substantial disadvantage in linguistical re-appropriation tactics.  It is a prime reason the culture wars ended up as such a rout.  The "rights" obvious tactic is to prevent any normalization of jihad, or presumably many other Islamic in-group terms.  Thus it would seem there is a reaction to fully "other" the intersection of progressivism and Islam.

In terms of battle lines, this probably makes sense.  On the cultural evolution front it is interesting to see how both sides are becoming so structurally similar - at least on the tactics & weapons fronts....

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Social Contract Breaks

Great religious awakenings tend to be associated with major social fabric breaks, particularly morality and its relation and applicability to different group levels.  One way to look at this is via social exchange theory.

The basic idea here is that there are tacit agreements between different parties.  I'll scratch your back here, if you scratch mine there.  In effect, you get non-explicit contracts which are largely mediated by intention rather that legalisms.

As a moral institution in bureaucratic wrappings, education has a lot of social exchange contracts (tacit contracts).  This is neither good nor bad.  It just is.

But, one implication is that major disturbances to social exchanges create hyper-sensitized dynamics. Things that were once a minor ask (arrive early to work) can quickly take on sacralized proportions (how dare they make me watch students on my free time).

The interesting thing is that once social breaks start to occur they have significant feedback effects.  We're seeing this in the states with intersectional post-modern activism and popularist nationalism.  Education is no different.  Social exchange breaks in school systems can lead to "great religious awakenings".  Teachers and staff now have the ability to question hitherto implicit social exchange contracts.  "Why do I need to arrive early?"  "What does all this marking really get me?  What does it get my students?"  Of course, these are great ways to rationalize norm-breaks (freeloading).  But this is exactly how the moral unfreezing associated with social fabric breaks proceed.  There is no guarantee that once the break occurs, that you will be able to control it or stop it.

Unfortunately many people associated with educational change are naive to large group dynamics and the quasi-religious behaviour that occurs in moderately moral institutions like education.  Well intentioned reforms can quickly escalate into "breaking-the-back of the resistance".  Business model approaches to education have had a very poor track record of success.  They tend only to succeed in break away factions that have a large enough population base to produce self-selected groups with a critical mass size.

There are a few more things interesting about a "great religious awakening lens" to social exchange contract breaches:

  • Some groups will be fine with superficial orthopraxy in order to free up some operational space.  Contrived compliance (individual and group) is all but guaranteed.
  • Groups will fight using moral language.  "Othering" is likely.
  • Relative minor acts are interpreted as strong signals.  Did you just mark papers on your "non-assigned" time?  "Did you just question the value a student might get from the sacrifice of your personal time to tutor them?"
  • Rational exchanges on sacred values are interpreted as highly offensive.  Do you know the sacred values of the other side?  If not, watch out!
  • It creates a high pressure selective landscape (in the ephemeral Darwinian fitness sense).  This creates all sorts of complex group arrangements and re-alignments. But group cohesion increases rather than decreases (just at a smaller group size level).  Everyone eventually needs a group for protection.  Alliances and micro politics increase tremendously.
  • As per social exchange theory, those who are the most committed to an ideal are often the most disillusioned once it breaks.  Your top teachers will usually flee en masse (if they can).
  • Old grievances and obscure history will get rehashed.  Ex post facto rationalization tendencies go wild.  "Look how evil that other guy is.  Remember is 1889 when...."
  • People tend to harken back to personified historical figures.  "Well John Dewey did....".  If things have really gone to pot, look for the emergence of devil and saviour figures.  If you see this, things are probably on the road to getting screwed.  One school system I know had as their school's panic word, the name of an old superintendent.  Expect to see names and obscure histories like these re-emerging as memetically fit insider jokes which are hard to challenge.
All in all, when social contract breaks reach the point of moral unfreezing, reformers often feel like their job is all but done.  In reality very few people are able to manage "breaking-the-back of the resistance" within a moral enterprise with any degree of control.  Such thinking is illusionary and misconceived at best.  You don't get to tell people what "religion" is best for them.  The "religions" people chose tend to be the ones specifically designed to resist control.

Of course education is a large, multi-nested system which exhibits has non-linear pressure to return practice to normal operation.  Only the most die hard martyr-like ed reformer can make much headway.  This is good and bad.  The fatalistic signals of martyrdom are usually easy to pick up.  
  • They are sacrificing "for the good of all".  
  • They are the only ones who really understand what needs to happen.
  • Everyone is just resisting.
  • Sunken cost heuristics kick in (need to go "all-in").
  • Burnout is detectable under the surface.
  • Planning worries less and less about actual logistics. "It doesn't matter anyway".
  • Resistance actually begins to energize them.  They are addicted to stress and the fight.
  • Proposed compromises and appeals for empathy are castigated as dangerous.
  • Negative sum thinking (even if it's bad for me, as long as it is worse for the other guy, I'm OK with it).
To learn more, keep an eye on the states Trump and antifa dynamics, social justice college cult dynamics and see if you can find any good civil war books that get into the mind of southern rebels (I particularly liked this one)

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Religion of Social Justice Cults

The Evergreen fiasco is a watershed moment that, for many, has solidified the idea that social justice ardents express group-related dynamics similar to those found in extremist (new) religious movements.  This includes:

  • mob-like reactions to sacred value blasphemy
  • non-rationally extreme punishment for defectors
  • extremely clear delineations between in-group and out-group which can be tested by various costly commitment displays (physical and ideological)
  • shared rituals (e.g. protests, conversion experiences, "studies" degrees, etc)
  • appeals to authority (e.g. major authors  in various "studies" departments)
  • highly sacralized ideas & values not subject to rational negotiation nor compromise
  • proselytizing
  • sacred physical paces  (e.g. coloured only events, rooms, and dorms)
  • identity fusion
  • devil figure (whiteness - old powerful white cisgendered males)
  • priest class (studies professors and community organizers/ideologue leaders)
Any one element is certainly not enough to justify the label "religion".  But, taken as a whole, the aggregate paints a fairly clear picture.  Many social justice ardents express religious like behaviour.  But, more than this, I would argue that this new religious movement is in many cases following a cultish developmental curve.

New religious movements are usually started by charismatic figures who leverage strong in-group out-group dynamics to create resonating boundary conditions.  Polarization is self-re-enforcing.  This is often accompanied by the emergence of sacred texts/memes and a descent into ever more ludicrous counter-factual propositions.  In effect in-group commitment is continually tested.  While "sunken cost" heuristics come into play, rational actor logic struggles to explain the technical process of identity fusion.  Ardents are truly ready to give up almost anything to achieve the utopia of their movement.

In Evergreen and other colleges one example of this comes about via the horseshoe theory of politics (see the recent VICE interview for a taste).  We have supposed anti-racists reverting back to Jim-Crow like black-white spaces.  Only the "truly enlightened" can see how this is not racist - even though it goes against most everything I suspect leaders like Martin Luther King stood against.

The Need for Reconciliation
The current social landscape seems to be creating an "us vs. them" dynamic.  Groups on both sides want to fight it out.  Intra-national fighting certainly has the potential to send the U.S. into another civil war.  Perhaps not a hot one.  Perhaps just a series of targeted assignations and broad-based vigilantism which creates some new spatial boundaries. 

Stopping the devolution of society is a significant and very real problem.  Turchin's secular cycles work doesn't paint a rosy picture for success.  There may be so many resonating feed-back cycles that escape is improbable.  But, never go down with out a fight.... 

But fighting it out directly seems to exasperate not ameliorate the problem.  In military terms, you face the problem of radicalized insurgents in highly moral landscapes where any confrontation (or lack of full acquiesence) is interpreted as an existential threat.

Obviously the evolutionary background surrounding existential group-threats is very deep.  Real pluralism doesn't come easily.  One way to see past the negative-sum conflict scenarios is to look how religions in the past have made it past these points.

The Priest Class
To my way of thinking, one of the first ways to see what is going on is to look at the priest class.  These are the ones mobilizing and radicalizing the populace.  As I've previously explored, elite and priest classes are likely to stabilize either with 1) morals that justify freeloading of the commoners, or 2) morals which promote "purity" and facilitate norm detection via hard to fake commitments (think of selecting for politicians who would never take advantage of a tax loop less scrupulous people might).

It would seem like the religious social justice movement has been selecting for purity.  In academia, increasingly more sensitive expressions and detections of inequality and oppression are promoted.  In "studies" departments, you probably aren't going to get published nor hired by critiquing micro-aggression theory.  You'll get ahead by finding another layer to these issues.   Hence the purifying tendencies and increasingly hard to fake norms.  And, hence the applicability of horseshoe theory of politics.  Only the most "enlightened" can understand and justify how racially pure dorms and "whitey" bans are progressive.

Increasingly leaders within the moderate academic twitter sphere are coming to terms with the idea that many "studies" departments have fanaticized post-modern thought to such an extent that their activist raison d'être has made them into, at best, government funded quasi-religions trying to "balance" things (neo-marxism), and at worst, government funded cults which increasingly have the power to force profs and students into "re-education" pogroms.

To Reconciliation
James Lindsay has a quick video up on the tactical side of college cult take-overs.  It is obviously a bit polemical.  But understanding tactics is always a key to devising strategy.

The rise of religious pluralism in America has a tremendous number of lessons for today.  The first is that you have to leave space for the religions you don't like.

Everyone Gets Space
Just because you think Mormons or Moonies are going to destroy your society - give them space.  Violent death cults, are another thing, but luckily college progressive cults are there only in their most extreme forms of rhetoric, certainly not there (yet) in action.  This means some universities and college will become religious institutions.  Some very liberal colleges will, and should, revert back to religious institutions.  Its just important that they are upfront about what it is (appeal to authority quasi-religion & medieval-like exegesis) and what it isn't (science and critical thinking).

Call Out Title VI and Title IX Infractions
Laws are in place to prevent discrimination based upon gender, race and religion.  Use those laws.  Ion a court system appeals to the disadvantage created by systemic discrimination is unlikely to hold enough sway to justify purposeful oppressions to create "equality".  While it might be justified with some statistical views, discrimination by race gender and religion nullifies that type of coarse-brush bigotry.

Increase the Size of Religious Departments
Yes.  Increase their size by putting appeal-to-authority based disciplines in with religions.  Learning about religion, especially with the new generation's lack of familiarity and engagement with it, is and will remain important.  Learning how to deal with sacred values is important.  Just don't give the content false imprimaturs.

Move Away From Activism
The push to expand post-secondary enrolments has had some significant costs.  Activism pushes universities into vocational roles (the vocation of activism and social work and social engineering).  Playing with theory creates much different dynamics that playing with activism. And yes, I'm quite familiar with action research....  There;s no getting around the academic watering down of post-secondaries (in general).

Target the Priest Class
Hold the priests accountable for the Title IX and VI infractions which occur with their "hate speech". Make academics on both sides of the isle defend their positions via inter-disciplinary debates.  Make University professors work and engage with each other.  Refocus them on their common morality and raison d'être.

Cult Deprogramming
Put some cult deprogramming classes in "Studies" departments.  Heck, many places will even need a cult deprogramming officer to match their diversity officers.

Treat it Like a Religion
The most important thing is to treat these movements like a religion.  Instead of attacking people's talking points (who does that with a Jehova's Witness), politely say, that is not my religious belief, but I'm glad that it gives you meaning, and I believe, as with most every religion, there is someone who probably needs your perspective and the balance it might provide them.

For more information on the Evergreen flash point

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Creedal Confessions in Education

I'm going to explore some problems with creedal statements by looking at a case study in K-12 professional development.  The academic intent is to explore group-dynamic wells.  Here I'm assuming a group-dynamic well is a solution which is evolutionarily probable due to resonating formational feedback processes*.

Case Study
Many educational reform fad programs incorporate mantra-like moral appeals.  For example, Professional Learning Communities (PLC's) rally around the morally impregnated idea that "all children can learn".  You are at a significant moral and rhetorical disadvantage if you try to qualify this statement in any way.  That is why the mantra works as a tool of educational reform.  It is mimetically and rhetorically fit.

So let's think of this statement (and the colour associated with its surrounding training) as a creed.  It may not be technically nuanced like the Nicene creed, but this is offset with explicit supporting orthopraxies.

Creedal Dynamics
The production of the creed itself really doesn't split the population.  Teachers are pretty accepting of all sorts of educational philosophies - as long as they have the best interest of students at heart.  Continued public recitation of the creed, however, does split the population. The creed is no longer one among many individual (or loosely coupled opinions), it is a rallying point.  After public recitations typical reactions I've heard from teachers include:

  • "Do they think whether or not I chant this has any bearing on how I actually treat my students?"
  • "Am I now evil because I don't think a special ed student is going to grasp calculus?"
  • "I feel like I'm going to be vilified if I mention the cost that focussing on low achieving students may have on my high achieving students."
  • "It doesn't seem like there is any nuance allowed. Any time I mention this, I'm shut down and told to 'get with the program'."
  • "I'm not sure this is about the students as much as it is about making anyone who disagrees look bad."

In this particular case, the creed was less about nuanced technocracy and more about reform dynamics.  It engendered debate along the lines of right and wrong not academic precision.  Why?  Because the central tenet was both moralized and injected into a morally infused landscape (education).

Acceptance of the tenet was re-enforced by "empirical studies" and a logic grounded in structural supports.  Tenet "rejection" was remediated with principal and central office supports.  The outcomes teachers actually produced (student academic effects) were blatantly disregarded.  "Just because what you are doing works to a certain level doesn't mean you can't do better.  You do want all children to learn and learn at higher levels, don't you?"

What was assessed was creedal compliance.  Compliance was assessed largely by observed degree of espoused commitment & enthusiasm toward implementation supports or the foundational moral mantra.

Mid-Term Results
Several years after creedal bifurcation things have evolved as expected.  There is a cadre of true-believers, a fairly large cadre of superficial compliers, and a big swath of teachers in the middle who hybridize practices to try and do what is best for students and the system in general.

But creedal thinking is anathema to hybridization.  In the particular context I'm describing, having the right outcomes is less important than being trusted to have the right ideas and attitudes.  After all, the right idea and attitude ensure things are headed in the right direction. Good-enough outcomes are assumed to have all sorts of theoretical problems whose insidious results are hidden by superficial and imprecise assessments.

In practice things no longer revolve around simplistic "all students can lear" statements.  They revolve around a cluster of power based issues.

  • What is the right unit of direction, a lone classroom, a cluster of teachers, a school, the division? 
  • Who is best situated to filter what knowledge (academic studies or practical experience) are relevant, trustworthy, and actionable.
  • What is more relevant, theory or results?  Who determines this?
  • What level of contrived compliance is acceptable or actionable?
  • Who can be trusted?
While one would be very naive to assume a simplistic creedal statement facilitated tribablization of a hitherto extremely unified population, you really have to bury your head in the sand to think that formalization of belief and morality played no role in the dynamical changes which ensued. 

Moral based creeds enable the dividing of in-groups from out-groups.  You then have a probabilistic likelyhood for highly efficient norm detection dynamics to kick in.  This changes the cultural landscape.  And while tribablization isn't guaranteed, it becomes more and more likely that self-organization will produce groups selected for adaptive operation (i.e adaptive groups as per multi-level selection theory).

That's the point where this case study is now at.  A fight is on.  The old creed statement is, at best, tangentially related to current tribal lines. Things are now framed as a fight between insiders who know what is really going on and outsiders who don't.  Unfortunately both sides see the other as the "real outsider".  When fights occur, moral based language emerges.  The dynamics of social exchange theory kick in and the dividing lines intensify.  

Both sides view their morality as the one true unifier.  However one side takes a pluralistic approach - let us do what we want, you can do what you want.  We're different.  The other side takes a homogenizing approach - we need to be unified, because any allowance of ineffectiveness is itself immoral.  When push comes to shove, one side trots out its creedal test "do you believe all kids can learn or don't you"?  But now the other side trots out its moral test "do you believe teachers are best situated to know what works best in their classrooms or do you think your answers are best?"

There are no clear answers to these questions.  It's not hard to find examples of a teacher's imperfections.  Similarly it is not hard to find problem areas in any one-size fits all solution.  Hypocrisy simply bets out-group bias confirmation heuristics.  "That group can't be trusted, they don't follow the morals I assume they should be operating within.  Heck, they don't even follow their own morals - look at all those hypocritical problems!"

The parallels with levels of selection within multi-level selection theory should be obvious to anyone mildly familiar with the field.

The introduction of creedal based thinking based upon moral rights-and-wrongs is probabilistically problematic.  It opens a well in which group-dynamics can produce feedback resonances which alter the landscape and produce phase changing behaviour.  As cultural evolution shows, this trajectory mirrors content bias + conformity bias curves.  It does not produce guided variation curves where each person individually stumbles upon an ideal solution.  

But content and conformity are rarely strong enough or stable enough to transition to a higher level of selection.  Sub-group competition is highly probabilistic.  Sub-groups divide on moral lines.  New moralities enable emergent sub-groups to compete with larger or more powerful groups.  Pluralism can re-emerge, but in moderately moral institutions, like education, the chances of any "out of character" morality over-throwing the system is vanishingly small.  Education responds to societal level trends not planned reform.

So creeds initially create some potentially useful academic hubbub.  But, when infused with a moral element (purposeful or emergent), they foster tribabilizationn. This burns up human capital.  Conflict increases innovation (hybridization, invention, new weapons/articulations, etc.), but is very unlikely to lead to any long-term solutions.  In a sense, it is the larger system's way of experimenting with its environment.  At some point though, just with the protestant-catholic schism, a shadow system can take over.  And so while I see the evolutionary point of these hubbub cycles, leveraging morally iimpregnated creedalism just seems like a stupid idea that sacrifices long term human capital concerns on the altar of "well at-least-we-tried educational reform".

* For example, I would consider knapped spear points to be a behavioural well.  There is no purely abstract reason why arrow and spear points shouldn't come in a continuum of sizes or shapes.  In some sense they do.  But in practice, they tend to stabilize to a few solution classes.  Spear points tend to be optimized to fit success constraints around hand thrown projectiles.  Arrows tend to be optimized for spring propelled constraints.  Both inhabit a functional landscape which resonates with physical and behavioural constraints.  In practice then, cultural evolution selects for a certain class of product which are influenced by a physical-functional landscape.  It doesn't really matter what one's "first" spear point might look like.  Over time, selective forces (positive or negative) function like landscape wells.  Cultural-physical selection may be very steep at the start (you need a point) and then slow down (fine taper to thickness & radi tweaks).  This produces an R shaped trajectory typical of guided variation.  The group-dynamic well I'm talking about follows a content +  conformity bias trajectory.  Things are slow at the start, but resonating feedback produces an accelerating curve which then maxes out as between-group and within-group selective tensions come to equilibrium.

**For another perspective on leveraging moral based thinking in landscapes that produce ironic results, see  Donald Clark's excellent blog post on the same

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Why Creedal Statements Annoy Me

I'll admit - I have a bias against creedal statements - especially moralized ones coming from academic departments.

Here is the main reason why.

The first is a classic case of what a lot of people feared from the March for (intersectional) Science - the community would be heavily divided, bifurcating along creedal lines.  One camp values the pursuit of cold objectivity, the other values embracing intersectionality and "equitable" outcomes.

(By the way Tara Smith is an associate professor of infectious diseases and so is certainly aware of many scientific process debates.  She was also up on Science Blogs.)

Like most things, there's value to both teloses.  I'd suggest the intersectional camp facilitates religious like dynamics more than the objective camp, but as the New Atheists showed, quasi-religious dynamics never go away.  Once groups coalesce, the chances of them stumbling into adaptive group resonances and then into quasi-religious dynamics increase.

What's the danger?  "We don't debate hate speech and hate facts!"  It's the inevitable polarization that (stochastically) occurs once you remove the boundaries against decohering polarization.  Only certain experts are allowed to moralize.

Because morality is usually dogmatic, debates tend to utilitarianism.  However, the utilitarianism is tribalized.  It is not what is "good" for all (at least directly), it is what is primarily good for identifiable groups which is secondarily assumed to be good for all.  Identity politics rears its cancerous head, and while I may be naive, it seems that marginalization of "privilege" based on identifiable characteristics is inevitable.  This sets the stage for severe group competition.

While acquiescence is certainly possible, it is very unlikely except in certain exploratory groups who are playing the odds that loss of individual fitness will be offset by gains emerging from group-oriented altruism.  But the only way to protect the group from cancerous within-group competition via identification (oppression olympics) ad infinitum is to have some very strong boundary norms about where divineness stops.  Hence the value of clear confessional statements and strong in-group out-group gradients (via norms, costly commitment displays, shared rituals, behavioural/dress demarkers, etc.).

So why do I hate creedal statements in academia?  Because I am very tempted to support the Shermer approach to science, sign what ever creedal statement they eventually come up with and start sticking it to all those medieval retrogrades!  You see, if we position it so that intersectionality is a sin as egregious as modern racism, because, well it is classically racist, and our side is sure these acts will decohere society as much as any well-intentioned political communism ever could, then I'd be fully justified.

So why not just let the issues of intersectionality stay under the cover and ignore them?  For me, ignoring problems is just stupid.  But formalizing them in a way that invites their resonance (by some) into weaponized inter-group competition weapons is equally silly.  

Listen to voices and deal with issues at a personal rather than group level.  Group dynamics, especially around moral issues are very different from what happens at the individual level.

I fear Western society will re-learn this "fact" as society continues to bifurcate between the quasi-religious political left (ctrl-left) and the far / alt-right.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Creedal Confessions in Academia

Creedal religious confessions seem to be a structural feature of universalizing religions.  This might range from fairly basic "there is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet" to technical Nicene-like statements. 

Recently a statement of confession and commitment was produced by Christian faculty members from across the United States.  In the tribalized trajectory of Western society, what might this portend and what light does cultural-evolution theory shed on the general dynamics of groups evolving to formal-creedal practice?

Tribal religions "just are".  In highly implicit cultures where religion, group membership and culture have no boundaries, technically precise definitions of minimal belief standards are non-sensical.  Beliefs aren’t aren’t designed to make sense to outsiders and they certainly aren’t optimized for proselytization. 

However, religion and governance (Norezayan, 2013) have co-evolved.  Some multi-level selection researchers view this as a series punctuated co-evolutionary steps (Turchin, Norezayan, Atran).  Basically human groups bounce around an evolution-transition-landscape* which due to between-group competition selects for highly cohesive highly coordinated small groups or less continuously cohesive less continuously coordinated large groups.

Under some conditions large groups can outcompete smaller more efficient groups.  In other conditions they can’t.  Tensions between within-group selection and between-group selection makes the whole scenario rather complex (in the technical sense of the word).  But, evidence strongly suggest a directional arrow to the products of selection*: Increasingly larger groups facilitated by better conflict minimization tools, better coordinating tools and sufficient within-group dependencies.

The emergence and stabilization of universalizing religion as a higher-level of selection was, in part facilitated by overt belief structures and easier in-group immigration paths.

A small-group "coherence" approach minimizes within-group freeloading at the expense of size.  A large-group "size" approach threads the omnipresent freeloading needle by making essential norms very overt and by leveraging various natural tendencies for group-to-individual biasing.  Obviously religion and quasi-religious dynamics are very effective in this regard.  Atran's “In God's We Trust” provides a pretty good base in this regard.  Norezayan's “Big Gods” makes a compelling evolutionary argument why these dynamics are selected for (albeit only making tangential use of formal multi-level selection tools).

The Big Question
This multi-level lens leads to some interesting speculation about the dynamical landscape of formal belief (creedal) statements within the intersection of academia and todays increasingly tribablized quasi-religious political environment.

Speculation will avoid value-based analyses.  While I favour the conflict minization that comes with higher levels of selection, I’m also pragmatic enough to realize some structures just aren’t yet stable enough (selection amongst component actors hasn’t stabilized the conditions required for an evolutionary “transition”).  Unfortunately this situates conversation in the world of utilitarianism.  As a naïve non-philosopher, I see not way around this.  So, this argument is obviously subject to all the faults and critiques inherit with utilitarianism.  Alternative suggestions are welcome.

I’ll talk about the dynamics of creeds in religious-secular intersections by situating the formalization of belief in a multi-level selection context.  This will be done by showing how creedal statements function as a higher-level of selection for an individual and a lower-level of selection for a nation-state. Next, I’ll frame this as a classic example of tension between adjacent levels of selection.  This brings in complex oscillatory dynamics.  When expressed in a sufficiently large population we should therefore see multiple (drift) paths expressed.  Gene-culture co-evolution suggests which paths are (stochastic) wells. The cultural phenotypes of these wells will be explored and compared to some recent examples of quasi-religious secular social movements who have also tended to semi-formal creedal-like confessions.  I’ll then speculate, using cultural evolutionary insights, what difference the explicitness of formalized creeds might make.  Finally, I’ll remind you that just because formalization may facilitate between-group competition does not mean that creeds are either good or bad.  Rather it means that good intentions can have bad outcomes and bad intentions can have good outcomes.  I’ll tackle this by coming back to the issue of time scales and units of analysis.

Creeds & Levels of Selection
The academic “statement of confession and commitment” presents an interesting case study in levels of selection.  It brings together a number of Christian faculty from across the country.  Its pretty likely that signatories will “have each other’s backs”.  In other words, the signing of this confession increases the probability of mutual support, especially as related to attacks against the morality espoused therein, and the ability to espouse such morality within academic settings.  While some signatories may view this creed as simply a “good-enough” statement of their own values, the group nature of this statement makes omission of  a functional analysis naive. 

Functionally, why a joint statement?  Why a statement at all?  A levels of selection analysis looks at these functional question in terms of whether it brings people together as a group or separates them into smaller groups. 

This question is not simple.  Human acts are nested in multiple strong and weak overlapping group hierarchies.  For instance, what is the functional effect of this type of creed on a University as a whole? On a pluralistic political society? On a nation torn by questions of open or closed borders? On a lone individual in an isolated university department?

In this regard delving into a deconstruction of the creed itself may just muddy the waters.  Some might find the creed unifying.  Some may find it divisive.  Do we arbitrate who is right?

My particular approach is to simply reference classic studies, especially those in social identification theory, which suggest identity politics – well intentioned or not, tends to lead to clearly identifiable groups which then (probabilistically of course) increase the likelihood of between-group competition. 

But, in this regard trajectory is key.  Identity politics may facilitate a move up a level of selection; individuals coalesce as small groups which can then coalesce as groups of small groups (medium groups), and so on…  But identity politics may also facilitate tribalization.  Large group cohesion is replaced by a focus on smaller group ties.  Instead of nationalism, we get various levels of tribalism.  Does nationalism disappear?  Of course not.  Rather the tension between adjacent levels of selection is tweaked.

Which way do things go? In most cases, we just don’t know.  Speculation exceeds error bounds by quite a bit.  We do know that as the fitness between adjacent levels of selection become equivalent the degree of complexity in cycling between adjacent levels increases commensurately (Okasha, 2006).  But, not knowing which way things will go doesn’t mean we’re blind.

For instance, a recent Nature co-authored by Nowak (who has done a lot of simulation work in the field of evolutionary altruism) suggests pairwise bonds facilitate within-group altruism.  Too many connections limit the conditions necessary for reciprocal altruism.  Too few connections and altruism can’t spread.  Cordes and Richerson (among lots of others) have also done good technical work in this field.  Unfortunately in a world with multiple level of selections, “pairwise” is always relative…  is it between individuals?  Between small groups?  Medium groups, etc.  The math is agnostic on scale.

A random walk approach (aka. the default drift hypothesis previously mentioned) is quite useful in large populations.  Most every possible walk eventually gets expressed.  What then matters then is comparing potential paths to natural evolutionary wells.  In other words, what proximate causes influence (stochastically) the relative cultural fitness of different paths?  This doesn’t imply what will happen.  It simply informs what is likely to happen if the population is large and our gene-culture co-evolution information is accurate.

Gene-Culture Co-evolution
For a primer on gene-co-evolution basics watch a classic presentation on lactase persistence or look at the classic Cavali-Sforza book or the Boyd Richerson version or any of the modern stuff by Gintis, Mesoudi, Henrich and others.  Darwin’s Cathedral is a good intro as well. Although it doesn’t get into the technicalities of dual inheritance much, it’s a classic work on multi-level selection insights into religion, quasi-religion and adaptive group resonances.

Some of the most salient applications can be summarized by combining D.S. Wilson’s and Scott Atran’s works.  Adaptive groups resonate around morality.  As List & Pettit (2011) show, quasi-real group agents emerge in non-deterministic judgment aggregation problems via a process of inferred moral ascription.  Both Wilson and Atran suggest hypsentitive agent detection heuristics do this, as does a strong fitness advantage for being able to predict other people’s actions (in a way where false positive are much less problematic than false negatives).

Once groups start getting moral, the tensions between within-group selection and between-group selection (i.e. freeloading vs. altruism) are well handled by religious / quasi-religious processes.  Atran’s “In Gods We Trust” is excellent here.  Religion is fit for a good reason.  Sacrilized politics is similarly fit for the same reasons.  The different degree of embodiment of “moral Big Brothers” and relative levels of supernaturalism, is, in my mind, of secondary importance.  Human dynamics are similar at the first order.

As per Atran, processes which enhance group adaptiveness include:

  • Shared rituals
  • Moral Big Brothers
  • Slightly counter-intuitive (and hence highly memorable) memes
  • Costly commitment displays
  • Norm enforcement
  • Hard to fake beliefs & actions

At extreme levels of morality identify fusion processes come into play.  However, it seems like these are mainly expressed during periods of severe group competition or as “loss leaders” amongst population tails who facilitate group expansion via slightly counter-intuitive costly commitment displays (think of the first Christian’s seemingly maladaptive martyr fixations) or “don’t mess with us” dynamics.

But enough theorizing, what insights does this give us with regard to creedal dynamics?

This might be best seen by looking at quasi-religious secular social movements who have also tended to semi-formal creedal-like confessions.  Here are some obviously non-random examples.

We are intentional about amplifying the particular experience of state and gendered violence that Black queer, trans, gender nonconforming, women and intersex people face… we know that patriarchy, exploitative capitalism, militarism, and white supremacy know no borders. We stand in solidarity with our international family against the ravages of global capitalism and anti-Black racism, human-made climate change, war, and exploitation

No formal creedal statements are readily available.  Morality is situated around attacking/resisting authoritarianism especially as represented by neo-nazi’s and far right politics.  There are obvious intersections between anti-patriarchy, anti-capitalism, and minority empowerment.  Allowing the normalization of authoritarianism and repression are clearly seen as sins.

Donald Trump is building a broad coalition as he makes an historic run for the White House. We were among the first to recognize the LGBT community had a place in his campaign. As Americans from all walks of life listen to Trump's message of economic nationalism, American exceptionalism, and limited government, those of us in the LGBT community should start paying close attention. Now that America has entered a post-Marriage Equality era, it is time for the LGBT community to stop viewing politics through the narrow lens of the culture war and start engaging the whole political spectrum. For too long LGBT folks were told they had to be Democrats to be for equality. Well, those times have changed and it is time for us to unshackle ourselves from the ideology of the past and embrace the ideas of the future.

Inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility are central to the mission and principles of the March for Science. Scientists and people who care about science are an intersectional group, embodying a diverse range of races, sexual orientations, gender identities, abilities, religions, ages, socioeconomic and immigration statuses. We, the march organizers, represent and stand in solidarity with historically underrepresented scientists and science advocates. We are united by our passion to pursue and share knowledge.

We acknowledge that society and scientific institutions often fail to include and value the contributions of scientists from underrepresented groups. Systems of privilege influence who becomes a part of the science community, what topics we study, and how we apply our work in creating new technologies and crafting policy. We recognize that, historically and today, some scientific endeavors have been used to harm and oppress marginalized communities. Political actions -- such as gag orders for government science agencies, funding freezes, immigration bans, and policy changes blocking action on climate change -- lead to greater damage for vulnerable populations. Science itself can drive our conversations about the importance of diversity, as it provides us with the data to understand how systemic bias and discrimination impact our communities and how best to change it

Given that, since 1948, hundreds of UN resolutions have condemned Israel's colonial and discriminatory policies as illegal and called for immediate, adequate and effective remedies; and

Given that all forms of international intervention and peace-making have until now failed to convince or force Israel to comply with humanitarian law, to respect fundamental human rights and to end its occupation and oppression of the people of Palestine; and

In view of the fact that people of conscience in the international community have historically shouldered the moral responsibility to fight injustice, as exemplified in the struggle to abolish apartheid in South Africa through diverse forms of boycott, divestment and sanctions; and Inspired by the struggle of South Africans against apartheid and in the spirit of international solidarity, moral consistency and resistance to injustice and oppression;

We, representatives of Palestinian civil society, call upon international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era. We appeal to you to pressure your respective states to impose embargoes and sanctions against Israel. We also invite conscientious Israelis to support this Call, for the sake of justice and genuine peace.

But how is any of this different from the vision statement of business and other institutions?  The evolution of intersectionality provides one interesting data point. From McKibbin et. al (2015)

Carbin and Edenheim argue that intersectionality has shifted from being a metaphor grounded in structuralist ontology to being an overarching feminist theory which makes explicit an ontology of neither the subject nor power. Intersectionality is no longer defined as a metaphor for the way in which intersecting systems of oppression impact on women’s subjectivities, but is referred to in the literature variously as a methodology, a tool for data analysis, a nodal point in feminist theory, a feminist project or platform, and a framework for social policy development.

But is this academic parsing of categories or belief-based tribablization?  I would argue it can be all of these, with the key being the nodal aspect of bifurcations.  This gets back to the value of a random walk approach where various paths are analyzed according to likely gene-culture wells.

I would also argue that for some, perhaps many groups, intersectionality has become a creedal like confession.  For example the distinction between second wave and third wave feminism revolves around intersectionality and the targeting of resources/concern.  A case in point is whether Beyonce’s sexualization can be considered “feminist”. 

White feminism is a set of beliefs that allows for the exclusion of issues that specifically affect women of color. It is ‘one size-fits all’ feminism, where middle class White women are the mold that others must fit. It is a method of practicing feminism, not an indictment of every individual White feminist, everywhere, always.”

It is usually not that overt, and most White feminists would deny that this is what’s being said or done, but you notice it in more subtle comments like “Why do you have to divide us by bringing up race?” or “Are trans women really women? There should be a distinction.”

In the face of calls for a more intersectional feminism, there are even White feminists who claim the whole concept of intersectionality is just academic jargon that doesn’t connect with the real world.
Yet the irony seems lost on some feminists who make these claims while staunchly opposing the language of “humanism” in place of “feminism.”

Simply put, it’s not those who are calling for a feminism that is responsive to the specific issues they face that are being divisive. It’s those of us who refuse to acknowledge the need for an intersectional ethic in feminism.

A certain type of belief is required for membership in certain types of groups. This belief is moral.  In business is making money a morality?  Perhaps for some wall-streeters.  But for most employees it is a transactional good.  Sacred values attachment is minimal. This is what distinguishes a business value statement that may or may not be moral and may or may not be morally interpreted from moralized creedal statements like the Christian faculty’s Statement of Confession and Commitment.   In-group actions are communicated as moral and out-group actions as immoral (implied or overt). 

The Difference of Explicitness
There’s a bit of complication in the fact that many of the cited creed-like statements don’t come right out and call those who don’t ascribe to their central tenets sinners.  For example in the Statement of Confession and Commitment there is little doubt that any Trump supporting or closed border supporter is a sinner someway.  But they don’t come right out and say this.  Other cited movements do (if you don’t support intersectionality and acknowledge your privilege you’re a racist).  I think my brother reference Derrida’s “Force of Law” work for his understanding of this general issue.

What we have is a bifurcation point.  Formalized belief statements don’t cause the viewing of out-groups as sinners.  Such direct causation is farcical.  But the trend to formalized belief statements with explicit morality in zones where few hitherto existed does change the cultural-evolutionary landscape.

The main cultural tools you use in this regard are:

  • horizontal transfer
  • oblique transfer
  • prestige bias
  • content bias
  • conformity

Each has a different growth curve, which is unfortunately beyond my time to analyze with respect to the evolution of formalized-belief-statement based groups.  

Explicitness enables high fidelity copying.  Memetic fitness is optimized with a sprinkling of slightly counter-intuitive beliefs.  This also resonates with the characteristics associated with adaptive group formation (costly commitment displays, hard-to-fake beliefs/actions, norm detection & policing).  This gives us two things to look for: 1) what cultural transmission resonates with high fidelity copying and 2) what beliefs statements are memetically fit in their formalized state?

According to Mesoudi’s interpretation of Boyd & Richerson,

Guided variation is where people individually modify acquired cultural traits according to their own individual learning biases.  Content biases, like other forms of cultural selection, occur when people preferentially choose among existing traits found in the population without changing those traits.  Guided variation is an individual process, content bias is a population process

So if the interpretational range of formalized belief statements is loose and it is used to move up levels of selection, then guided variation is a possibility and log-like expansion should be expected.  But the fidelity of tightly written belief statements suggests a content bias.  The question then becomes about conformity levels.

Group-to individual feedback mechanisms are examples of conformity biases.  Group-to-individual feedback in morally impregnated landscapes is well studied and is significant.  One you become part of a group and make a commitment as simply as signing a statement, the probability of expressing group-to-individual feedback increases significantly.

Prestige is also a powerful conforming bias.  Prestige bias involves mimicking observed behaviours of successful individuals (i.e. buying the same shoes as Michael Jordan). As per Mesoudi (pp. 74-75)

Boyd and Richerson constructed models to explore this intuition more formally.  They confirmed that a general prestige bias is indeed a good way of acquiring adaptive behavior compared to individual learning and unbiased transmission (random copying).  However, this depends on the extent to which indicator of success correlate with the traits that are copied.

Other experiments support Boyd and Richerson’s specific prediction that prestige bias is broad and not necessarily always adaptive.

Prestige bias can also lead to a runaway “arms race” between the markers of prestige and the copied traits.  To illustrate this, Boyd and Richerson drew an analogy with sexual selection in biological evolution.

Perhaps one of the most informative articles is The Herding Behaviour in Heterogeneous Populations.  Here’s the abstract.

Here we study the emergence of spontaneous leadership in large populations. In standard models of opinion dynamics, herding behavior is only obeyed at the local scale due to the interaction of single agents with their neighbors; while at the global scale, such models are governed by purely diffusive processes. Surprisingly, in this paper we show that the combination of a strong separation of time scales within the population and a hierarchical organization of the influences of some agents on the others induces a phase transition between a purely diffusive phase, as in the standard case, and a herding phase where a fraction of the agents self-organize and lead the global opinion of the whole population

Multi-agent models often describe populations segregated either in the physical space, i.e. subdivided in metapopulations, or in the ecology of opinions, i.e. partitioned in echo chambers. Here we show how both kinds of segregation can emerge from the interplay between homophily and social influence in a simple model of mobile agents endowed with a continuous opinion variable. In the model, physical proximity determines a progressive convergence of opinions but differing opinions result in agents moving away from each others. This feedback between mobility and social dynamics determines the onset of a stable dynamical metapopulation scenario where physically separated groups of like-minded individuals interact with each other through the exchange of agents. The further introduction of confirmation bias in social interactions, defined as the tendency of an individual to favor opinions that match his own, leads to the emergence of echo chambers where different opinions coexist also within the same group.
So formalization sews the seeds of hierarchy (the original draftees are high status, as are early adopters and high commitment expressers).  It also facilitates content bias plus conformity growth curves (people can pick which creed to sign, but once they do they are biased by in-group dynamics).  These growth curves clearly have the dynamics associated with cultural phase changes.

Formalized belief statements are subject to gene-culture co-evolutionary forces.  Cultural selection resonates with genetic dispositions.  In large populations random walk drifts ensure all cultural pathways are expressed.  Those that are most fit (genetically and culturally) are of the most interest.  Groups which express adaptive group traits are selected for under conditions of weak and strong between-group selection.  It is hard not to see current political and social turmoil as anything other than a case of mounting group selection pressure.

Academic belief statements with strong moral components have a probabilistic chance of resonating with individuals who will leverage them adaptively.  Explicit moral statements facilitate this process.  Such statements enable in-group out group gradients.  Are they simple statement of belief?  Yes, and no.  As soon as it becomes a group enterprise group dynamics ensue.

Between Group Competition
Coming in another part***….


* Remember, evolutionary transitions require: 
1  in-group conflict suppression mechanism  - belief formalization enables this by delineating belief lines enabling clear distinctions between in-group and out-groups. (and no, it doesn't just minimize in-group conflict by defining away anyone in conflict as an out-group....)
2  coordination - the morality (implied or overt) of belief statements aids this
3  extreme dependency - belief statement facilitate this only in as much as they facilitate the creation of adaptive groups (other signatories have your back).  But extreme dependency is very unlikely except in momentary times of severe selection pressure (such as violent schisms).

** Note: a directional arrow does not imply a Fukuyama “end to history” nor any kind of directed process.  It especially does not imply a stage-based theory to societal evolution.  The default hypothesis for any evolutionary process is drift.  In some environments smaller groups are more fit.  In other environments they are not.  What you see is expression of both phenotypical tails.  Migration (tied to within-group competition) and between-group competition play important roles in selecting whether or not the tails are or are not cut off.  Tribal sized groups who are unable to coordinate with others as needed are certainly much less dominant than the were 10,000 years ago.  So the default hypothesis is drift with selection pressure against uncoordinatable small groups.   A number of authors take a stronger stance and suggest that war is in fact an active selector for large groups.  While I personally favour the active selection stance, for this argument the weaker drift hypothesis suffices.

*** This particular instance of group competition has some tangential connection to social media swarm politics I talked about last year (not that it is causative in a one-to-one way, but rather that it facilitates a landscape which produces such dynamics under the right conditions)