Steven Pinker versus Complexity Part II

In a previous post--click here to see--I discussed Pinker's new book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined in terms of the interest it holds for a complexity scientists working in the social sciences.

The main issue I concentrated on was his argument that, not only has violence decreased over the longue durée of human history and, more specifically, the last 20 years of globalization-induced history, but that this decrease is scale-free, from attitudes on spanking children to wars. I took issue with this argument, pointing out that it is probably much more scale-dependent and context-sensitive than he makes the argument to be.  (Again, remember, in the spirit of Foucault's approach to polemics, the point of my posting on Pinker's book is to think from a complexity perspective to see if it fosters new ideas, not to tear down the work of someone else.)

I spent the next few days thinking, and I have another issue regarding this notion of violence being relatively scale-free that I wanted to address: the fact that Pinker's argument is variable-based--a perspective that case-based complexity scientists such as Charles Ragin and David Byrne, amongst others, seek to avoid. (To read more about their views, see their latest edited book, The Sage Handbook of Case-Based Methods.)

Byrne's work, for example, specifically focuses on the intersection of complexity science and case-based method.  The premise upon which his work is based, while simple enough, is ground-breaking: in the social sciences, cases are the methodological equivalent of complex systems; or, alternatively, complex systems are cases and therefore should be studied as such.  With this premise, Byrne adds to the complexity science literature an entirely new approach to modeling complex systems, alongside the current repertoire of agent (rule-based) modeling, dynamical (equation-based) modeling, statistical (variable-based) modeling, network (relational) modeling, and qualitative (meaning-based) method.

If you think about it, complex systems cannot be studied as a collection of variables.  How, for example, do you study the adjacency or proximity (dissimilarity) matrix of a set of variables?  Systems are made up of agents and structures and environmental forces (top-down, bottom-up, and any other direction you want to consider) which, together, are best conceptualized as cases: configurations of variables that, together, form a self-organizing emergent whole that is more than the sum of its parts, and is nonlinear, dynamic, path (context) dependent and evolving across time/space.  Ragin goes even further: stop thinking of variables as variables; they are sets.  Violence, for example, is not a variable.  Violence is a set--fuzzy or crisp--into which cases represent degrees of membership.  For example, thinking of Pinker's study, "war in the 1800s in Europe" is a case, along with another case such as "war in China in the 1800s."  Both cases could be placed in the set "macro-level violence through war."  Membership in the case could, at least initially, be defined in terms of basic rates, as Pinker uses, or converted into boolean or fuzzy set membership.
But the key point here is that they are different: they are each a case, a different, context-dependent case, which one will explore, in terms of their respective configurations, to find similarities and differences; and it is this comparative approach that will draw out the context-dependent causal similarities and differences amongst these cases.   For example, in relation to Pinker's work, one may find that violence has gone down in both cases, but the reasons for the decrease in violence is different, based on differences in configuration.

Why is something like this important?  Consider policy recommendations.  Insensitivity to configurational differences, context and, ultimately complexity is the failure of much policy--see, for example, Applying Social Science by Byrne.

Following this argument, violence, as a complex system, reconfigured at multiple levels of scale, can be defined as a set, comprised of multiple sub-sets, each representing a type and scale of violence, from the macro to the micro.  Each set is comprised of cases, which are configurations, which take into consideration context and difference.  Such an approach allows one to talk about violence in a much more sophisticated way.  For example, one could show how violence is increasing and decreasing, for example over time; contradictory trends.  The macro-level violence of war in Europe during the 20th century is not the same thing as the macro-level violence of war in China or Africa or South America or between hunter and gathering tribes or war amongst smaller empires.  They constitute different cases, different forms of macro-level violence.  Studying violence this way allows us to ask much more specific questions: which forms of government or social organization in which particular contexts, for example, lead to less war?  Which forms of government or social organization in which particular contexts lead to less micro-level, face-to-face violence?  And, so forth.

complexity art "Two Duche Bags; Or, Toast This"

This is a painting i recently completed called Two Douche-bags; Or, Toast This!  It is a comedic homage to jerks everywhere who, by definition, think they are more incredible then they actually are.  It is also a good example of my exploring complexity through assemblage, as it is the same set of integrated images of my nephew and brother-in-law on both side, except the one on the right was inverted and developed to become something different.

Eames Documentary

I am a huge fan of the work of Charles and Ray Eames and have been waiting for their complexity science, postmodern equivalent.  Anyway, my wife sent me this link to a new documentary on them.  It looks great:http://www.midcenturia.com/2011/10/eames-architect-and-painter-film.html


Steven Pinker Versus Complexity

The evolutionary psychologist, Steven Pinker has published a new book: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. I came across a review of the book in the Dec/Jan 2012 edition (Volume 18, Issue 4) of Book Forum, which, by the way, I thoroughly enjoy. It is a great periodical. CLICK HERE TO SEE THE REVIEW

I decided to quickly blog on the book because, given that this is a blog about complexity, I think Pinker’s book presents an interesting idea that works along with my previous posting about Andrew Wilson's website on complexity and psychology.

In a very ridiculous nutshell, Pinker's basic argument is that humans have progressed to a place of less violence, thanks in large measure to cultural and social forces impinging upon the better half of our evolved nature; "the better angles of our nature," as Lincoln famously stated.

Pinker's study has two historical foci: (1) the longue durée of human history and, more specifically, (2) the last 20 years of globalization-induced history.

Such a provocative thesis often requires careful review and critique. So, it is not a matter of Pinker simply being right or wrong. (As a side note, "Pinker, Right or Wrong?" seems to be the nature of most debates I have seen on the book, with little thinking in the grey area of, "hey, just how well does the model fit?")

As a complexity scientist, I am primarily interested in his notion that the world-wide decrease in violence has a scale-free character to it. Pinker argues that, from macro-level wars to micro-level views on spanking children, the world has become a less violent place both over the longue durée of human history and, more specifically, over the last 20 years of globalization-induced history.

I think further exploration of this argument is a great dissertation or study for a complexity scholar in history, anthropology, epidemiology or applied statistics to examine.

A note on method: Pinker is clear that his focus is physical violence, not violence as a metaphor for political, cultural or economic oppression. Violence as physical violence. His method of analysis is rather simplistic: rates (ratios expressed over time), computed as a basic prevalence--people harmed by violence divided by the total population. There are lots of epidemiological issues that emerge when one thinks of this approach, but we will confine ourselves to just two:

One of the immediate issues that emerges is that, as the world gets larger, large-scale violent events such as wars, by definition, decrease in their rate of harm. If there are several billion people on the planet and a world war emerges where several million people are killed, this comes across as not as bad as the Roman empire killing people in a much smaller world. Is it true, then, that, at a macro-level scale, we live in a less violent world? What, for example, if we used a network analysis approach and looked at degrees of separation. Even in a world of several billion people, are humans less separated from violence than they were 2 thousand years ago? Also, is there, perhaps, some sort of tipping point here, where the world, past a certain population threshold, becomes too large at the macro-level for people to inflict an increasing rate of violence?

And, as another issue, what about regional scale--here I am thinking of path dependency issues in terms of different complex socio-political systems bounded by particular geographies? Should one's focus be broken down into regions? For example, if one just studied Europe, would Pinker's thesis hold--particularly in terms of his argument that smart governments, not too corrupt and reasonably democratic lead to less violence? Or, is it that, at smaller levels of scale, more democratic government leads to less daily violence in the criminal justice system, people-to-people interactions, discriminatory violence, etc. But, at larger scales, particularly country to country, violence through war has not decreased? It is true that over the last 20 years macro-level violence has decreased. But, I am just not sure what to make of that phenomenon. Anyway, these are the sorts of questions that emerged in my head as I worked through Pinker's ideas.

Bottom line: I think Pinker has an interesting thesis, but I think a lot more work needs to be done before it is embraced. In particular, I think his topic is far too complex to be analyzed in terms of simple rates. It needs to be grasped in complex systems terms and truly examined for its scale-free character and regional context. My initial response is that Pinker's findings are more scale-dependent and context-sensitive than they initially seem. But, without conducting a study, it is nothing more than a conjecture on my part.


Psychology & Complexity Science Website

I recently came across this website via one of the Santa Fe listserves to which I belong. It is called: Notes from Two Scientific Psychologists A brave attempt to think out loud about theories of psychology until we get some

Here is how Andrew Wilson, one of the team of psychologists running this blog, explains their focus:

He studies "the perceptual control of action, with a special interest in learning. I had the good fortune to be turned onto the work of James Gibson, the dynamical systems approach and embodied cognition during my PhD at Indiana University. This non-representational, non-computational, radical embodied cognitive science is at odds with the dominant cognitive neuroscience approach, but provides an over-arching theoretical framework that I believe psychology is otherwise missing. My plan for my activity here is to review the theoretical and empirical basis for this approach, to organise my thoughts as I develop my research programme."

I just think this website is great! While my doctorate is in medical sociology, my masters is in clinical psychology, and my early research was in addiction. I love this website because it is pushing hard to move psychology in the direction of systems and complexity. For example, the idea that cognition is restricted to the brain (along with basic notions of a computational or representational mind) or that our embodied mind (which also has emotions, don't forget those things as well, along with intuitions, meaning making, immune system intelligence, etc) is not an emergent phenomenon, developmentally and bio-psychologically progressed through our symbolic interactions with our sociological and ecological systems, is (pun intended) mind-numbing. Just a little plug for symbolic interaction (going all the way back to Mead, Blumer, etc, etc) and neo-pragmatism (a good example is Rorty): these scholars, while not getting it always entirely right, have been pushing these ideas since the turn of the previous century and, in mass, for the past several decades!

anyway, check out the website.


Complexity, Professionalism, and the Hidden Curriculum

Just got back from the The Association for Medical Education in Europe Conference. AMEE "is a worldwide organisation with members in 90 countries on five continents. Members include educators, researchers, administrators, curriculum developers, assessors and students in medicine and the healthcare professions."

We did a pre-conference workshop on complexity method as applied to the topics of medical professionalism and the hidden curriculum. It went very well. My co-conspirators in presenting were:

1) Jim Price (Institute of Postgraduate Medicine, Brighton & Sussex Medical School, UK)
2) Susan Lieff (Centre for Faculty Development, Department of Psychiatry, University of Toronto, Canada)
3) Frederic Hafferty (Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota, USA)
4) John Castellani (Johns Hopkins University, USA)

We also had two student presentations using social networks to analyze medical education:

O B Nikolaus*, R Hofer, W Pawlina, B Castellani, P K Hafferty, F W Hafferty. “Social networks and academic help seeking among first year medical students.” The Association for Medical Education in Europe Annual Conference, Vienna Austria 2011.

Ryan E Hofer, O Brant Nikolaus, Wojciech Pawlina, Brian Castellani, Philip K Hafferty, Frederic Hafferty. “Peer-to-peer assessments of professionalism: A time dependent social network perspective.” The Association for Medical Education in Europe Annual Conference, Vienna Austria 2011

Overall, a very successful conference.


Kent State University at Ashtabula Commerical

Check it out! i am in a commercial for our campus, Kent State University at Ashtabula. Very Cool! And for those in Northeastern Ohio, consider attending our campus.

CLICK HERE to see the commercial on YouTube


Eighth International Conference on Complex Systems

This coming weekend i am going to the Eighth International Conference on Complex Systems in Boston. My colleagues Jürgen and Christina Klüver have put together a session on complex social systems.

Our session is Monday June 27th Evening Parallel Session 1/ Chair: Christina Kluever
Workshop: Mathematical Aspects of Social and Cognitive Complexity

Jürgen Klüver: Meaning, Information, and the Understanding of Ambiguity

Brian Castellani and Rajeev Rajaram: Social Complexity Theory: A Mathematical Outline

Dwight Read: Cultural Kinship as a Computational System: From Bottom-Up to Top-down Forms of Social Organization

Robert Reynolds and Yousof Gawasmeh: Evolving Heterogeneous Social Fabrics for the Solution of Real valued Optimization Problems Using Cultural Algorithms

Christina Stoica-Kluever: Solving problems of project management with a Self Enforcing Network (SEN)

Here is a program guide Wiki, complete with the list of presenters and abstracts of their presentations. CLICK HERE TO SEE THE PROGRAM

Eighth International Conference on Complex Systems

This coming weekend i am going to the Eighth International Conference on Complex Systems in Boston. My colleagues Jürgen and Christina Klüver have put together a session on complex social systems. I will say more in my next post. Here i just wanted to advertise the conference. It has some amazing people attending.

Monday June 13, 2011

World Scientific Leaders to Gather in Boston for Conference on the Complex World Around Us

Cambridge, MA --- The Eighth International Conference on Complex Systems, hosted by the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI), is coming to Boston June 26-July 1. ICCS 2011 is expected to bring together more than 400 researchers from around the world. They will be presenting more than 300 papers on topics ranging from food (Cuisines as Complex Networks) to dealing with destructive cults.

CNN Senior Vice President and Chief Innovation Officer David Bohrman, inventor of the Magic Wall and other CNN data visualization techniques, will give the opening conference reception presentation Sunday evening, June 26.

“Papers such as those presented at this conference provide a logical approach that helps policymakers predict results in fields ranging from healthcare to Middle East unrest to crowd control,” says Yaneer Bar-Yam, NECSI President. “The approach is a useful and much needed aid to decision-making.”

Among the many noteworthy presentations:

The Herbert A. Simon Award will be presented to banquet speaker Thomas Schelling, author of “Micromotives and Macrobehavior,” Nobel Laureate and Emeritus Professor of the University of Maryland and Harvard University.

"Model Error, Convexity and Skewness" is the topic of New York University Polytechnic Institute Distinguished Professor Nassim Taleb, best known as the author of "The Black Swan."

David Gondek of IBM’s Thomas J. Watson’s Research Center and a major force behind the new Jeopardy champion, Watson, will talk on machine intelligence algorithms.

Professor Jerome Kagan, Daniel and Amy Starch Research Professor of Psychology, Emeritus, at Harvard University, is one of the world's leading psychologists. He discovered behaviors in infants that predict behaviors later in life.

Princeton University Professor John Hopfield, one of the world’s foremost authorities on neural networks, will be presenting "Animal Behavior and Emergent Computational Dynamics," a paper describing how animal brains employ collective neuron behavior to achieve ‘thinking.’

Dr. Stephen Wolfram, distinguished scientist, inventor and business leader. Dr. Wolfram founded his own complexity science research organization and is the author of "A New Kind of Science," which advocates for computational systems to explain complexity in nature.

Tel Aviv University’s Professor Eshel Ben Jacob will speak about how bacteria collectively solve problems by forming a kind of multicellular brain, and will show movies of the bacteria solving optimization problems that cannot be solved by modern computers.

Professor Kunihiko Kaneko of Tokyo University will speak about the principles behind the evolution of multiple levels of biological organization: molecules, cells, organisms, and ecosystems.

The Santa Fe Institute's Distinguished Professor and former President Geoffrey West’s presentation, “The Complexity, Simplicity, and Unity of Living Systems from Cells to Cities: Towards a Quantitative, Unifying Framework of Biological and Social Structure, Organization and Dynamics," describes in mathematical terms how cities and other large social structures are merely 'large organisms', and the implications for growth, development, and potential collapse.

MIT's Human Dynamics Laboratory's Professor Alex 'Sandy' Pentland, DARPA Internet Grand Challenge winner and serial entrepreneur, will be presenting "How Social Networks Shape Human Behavior."

Boston University Professor of Physics, Chemistry and Bioengineering Eugene Stanley is a pioneer in interdisciplinary science and econophysics. His paper, "Economic Fluctuations and Statistical Physics: Quantifying Extremely Rare Events with Applications to the Present World Crisis," explores financial crises as extensions of normal events and not outliers.

The New England Complex Systems Institute is based in Cambridge, MA. A pioneer in the field of complex systems science, NECSI addresses questions previously considered to be outside of the realm of scientific inquiry. Its research draws on foundations from mathematics, physics, and computer science to solve pressing problems in such areas as economics, healthcare, education, military conflict, ethnic violence, and international development. Its goal is to expand the boundaries of knowledge and to solve problems of science and society.

The conference runs from June 26 to July 1. Details and registration (including press registration) are at www.necsi.edu.


Wall Eye Gallery presents Pedaling Art (20 May 6:00pm to 11:00pm)

TRICYCLE by Brian Castellani

For local 'clevelandites,' come see one of my latest assemblages (a sneak peek of part of it shown above) at the Wall Eye Gallery (details above) dealing with my love of bicycles! It should be a great show!

sorry for taking so long to post

Hi Folks! Cowboy Bri here! Sorry it has been a while since i last posted anything worth reading or viewing, but complexity ideas, as you know, do not come easy. The past four months I have been working on a series of painting and photo assemblages as well as working with my friend and colleague, Rajeev Rajaram, on a mathematical outline of the SACS Toolkit--our case-based, methodological framework for modeling complex systems. This summer I plan on posting extensively on the SACS Toolkit and on my latest round of art. Hope you find them interesting!