Temple Grandin, Kinds of Minds and SETI


You’ll see me put up more TED videos over the next few months. I’ve had one in the drafts folder since Christmas, but I need some pho­tos to go with it, and haven’t had the chance to get them. The prod is that I’ve applied for a TED fel­low­ship. I don’t have a real­istic chance of get­ting one, but I thought it might help with organ­ising a TEDx event in Leicester. I’ll be vis­it­ing TEDxWarwick to see how they do it next week.

Temple Grandin is an inter­est­ing per­son to post regard­less of any­thing else. I first heard of her after read­ing an inter­view in NewScientist. I put in an order for Animals in Translation when it came out, that sadly has sat on my shelf since wait­ing for qual­ity free time for me to read it. Temple Grandin has a rad­ic­ally dif­fer­ent view of aut­ism to the com­mon ste­reo­type pushed by the press. I hadn’t real­ised there were many people who see Autism and Asperger’s as pos­it­ive aspects to their lives. In the video below Temple Grandin reframes the aut­istic spec­trum as a need for dif­fer­ent kinds of minds, which quite lit­er­ally requires a whole new way of think­ing about the mind.

If Grandin is right then this is a major span­ner in the works of Evolutionary Psychology. EP as it’s some­times not so affec­tion­ately known, is based on the idea that the human mind is more or less unchanged from the Pleistocene era, so our actions and cog­ni­tion should be under­stood with ref­er­ence to a Palaeolithic world. The video above tor­pedoes that assump­tion. First we have to remove the idea that evol­u­tion is a lin­ear pro­gres­sion from there to here.

Evolution and nudity

Evolution explained by Nick D. Kim at Strange Matter

Instead we have three kinds of mind accord­ing to Temple Grandin, and a social and edu­ca­tional sys­tem set up to dis­crim­in­ate in favour of verbal minds. She’s also very clear about the idea of a spec­trum, so there could be people at the extremes of all three kinds of mind, and the rest of us in the middle with plastic minds. We get shaped to develop verbal minds because of the primacy of verbal com­mu­nic­a­tion and the out­come is a pop­u­la­tion that devel­ops verbal cog­ni­tion to the det­ri­ment of other forms of think­ing, and is unaware that it is doing so. Like she says, it’s nat­ural to assume every­one thinks the way you do. The abil­ity to digest milk is a rel­at­ively recent adapt­a­tion in humans, but it spread quickly. The advant­ages verbal cog­ni­tion could mean that the mod­ern mind is dif­fer­ent to non-literate minds. It opens up whole mine­field of edu­ca­tional policy that I’m com­pletely unqual­i­fied to talk about. It also has implic­a­tions for SETI because it seems we have been rub­bish so far at recog­nising a dif­fer­ent kind of mind in our own species.

The idea that aut­istic people might be more sen­su­ally aware than the aver­age per­son doesn’t fit the ste­reo­type, unless you think of cute sav­ants. Nonetheless it makes a ser­i­ous altern­at­ive cog­nit­ive model. A lot of what I’ve read in SETI is pretty inflex­ible. It’s still the default pos­i­tion that math­em­at­ics could be a uni­ver­sal lan­guage. It relies heav­ily on Platonic ideals in math­em­at­ics, and the ques­tion of whether or not you need a Plato for a Platonic philo­sophy. There is the ques­tion about the unreas­on­able effect­ive­ness of math­em­at­ics. Sundar Sarukkai has debunked this (PDF) (in my opin­ion) by show­ing math­em­at­ics is a lan­guage. Everything in the uni­verse can be described in English, but no one would say English is unreas­on­ably effect­ive. It’s pos­sible that math­em­at­ics appears to work because of an inher­ent struc­ture in our cog­ni­tion and not a struc­ture in the uni­verse, a span­drel of a verbal mind. If that’s the case then math­em­at­ics is a sign of a kind of mind and we will need to rad­ic­ally rethink what we look for in intel­li­gence to recog­nise intel­li­gent extra-terrestrial life.

That’s why I think Temple Grandin has an import­ant mes­sage for SETI, but equally she also has an import­ant mes­sage for Earth. It’s a topic which should be of interest to any­one who’s plan­ning to do some think­ing in the future.

Talking Bollocks with Andreas Moritz


To be hon­est I wouldn’t have heard of Andreas Moritz if he hadn’t been a bit silly. Andreas Moritz is someone who thinks can­cer is a heal­ing mech­an­ism. Student Michael Hawkins cri­ti­cised Moritz, so Moritz is nat­ur­ally respond­ing by provid­ing evid­ence to sup­port his argu­ment threat­en­ing law­suits and get­ting WordPress​.com to pull his web­log. You can judge the san­ity or oth­er­wise of Moritz’s debat­ing tech­nique here. One upshot of this is the news of Moritz’s threats is spread­ing through vari­ous blogs.

There’s all sorts of prob­lems with debat­ing cranks. The argu­ments can get lost in irrel­ev­ant detail, inven­ted terms and then often the vari­ous people tend to talk past each other. What people want to know is: Is Moritz right when he says things like “As you will find out, can­cer does not attempt to kill the body; to the con­trary, it tries to save it.” or “Today’s con­ven­tional approaches of killing, cut­ting or burn­ing can­cer­ous cells offer a mere 7% “suc­cess” rate for can­cer remis­sion, and the major­ity of the few sur­viv­ors are “cured” for just a period of five years or less”? Or is he a dan­ger­ous lun­atic profit­ing from lethal advice? How can you meas­ure suc­cess? I have the answer.


A year ago I was dia­gnosed with testic­u­lar can­cer. I had the cut and chemo treat­ment and, so far I’m not dead. That’s not just a per­sonal opin­ion. I had a check up recently and the onco­lo­gist con­firmed that I’m not dead. So we can clear away the whole “read this book” or “read that art­icle” palaver. We have a simple bet. I will bet $1000, and my life, against Moritz’s $1000 that I will be alive in five years time.

If you know any­thing about testic­u­lar can­cer that sounds a bit over dra­matic. In the past being dia­gnosed with testic­u­lar can­cer was a major worry. Surgery had about a 75% suc­cess rate. Thanks to sur­gery and chemo­ther­apy the sur­vival rate for someone my age over five years is now above 95%. That might not sound bril­liant, but the chances of someone my age liv­ing for another ten years is about 95% any­way. That 5% does includes people where can­cer returns, but also deaths from being run over by a bus, stabbed by a jeal­ous lover or killed by aster­oid strike.

That’s what makes a bet so reas­on­able. If Moritz is sin­cere, then he should believe that the $1000 is easy money that he could keep or donate to a char­ity for med­ical edu­ca­tion or whatever he chooses. He’s say­ing most con­ven­tional treat­ments are only suc­cess­ful for five years or less. On the other hand if the National Health Service with their mor­tal­ity records and so on are right, then I’ve got $1000 of easy money.

So here’s the bet:

Alun Salt bets Andreas Moritz $1000 that he will be alive after five years time (20 February 2015). For the period up to this dead­line the will of Alun Salt will make pro­vi­sion for the pay­ment of $1000 to Andreas Moritz. If after this date Alun Salt is still alive Andreas Moritz will make a pay­ment of $1000 to the Richard Dawkins Foundation.

In the event of there being a dis­pute as to whether or not Alun Salt is alive, then Andreas Moritz may nom­in­ate any altern­at­ive medi­cine prac­ti­tioner within 50km of Alun Salt’s res­id­ence to determ­ine whether or not the body is alive. Transportation and admin­is­trat­ive costs will be paid for by the loser of the bet.

No need for name-calling, threats or smears. I think that chemo­ther­apy is far from per­fect, but it’s a bet­ter altern­at­ive than any­thing alt-med offers. I’m will­ing to back up the belief that I’ll be alive six years after treat­ment with cash. Mr Moritz will you put your money where your mouth is?

(As a note the RDF haven’t got any­thing to do with organ­ising this bet. I simply pulled the name from the air as they cam­paign for bet­ter sci­ence edu­ca­tion among other things.)

Impactful Invaders


Which invader could steal past the Tower of London?

Heritage Key are hold­ing a com­pet­i­tion, ask­ing for blog posts about “Which invaders have had the biggest impact on London?” I can’t enter for vari­ous reas­ons, but it’s an inter­est­ing ques­tion. In the spirit of cre­at­ively com­ing up with the wrong answer, I’m going to go for:

Yersinia pestis

Y. pestis is without doubt the invader who has had the biggest impact, for cer­tain defin­i­tions of invader and impact. I think it’s an invader, because it’s thought to have come from the Gobi desert ori­gin­ally. It’s cer­tainly had impact, because no other invader has come close to killing half of London’s pop­u­la­tion. If you’re won­der­ing which invader killed so many people, it’s thought that Y. pestis in one form or another was the bac­terium that caused the Black Death.

It arrived in the UK in 1348. One record is the Grey Friars Chronicle, which has the best description:

In this year 1348 in Melcombe, in the county of Dorset, a little before the feast of St. John the Baptist, two ships, one of them from Bristol came along­side. One of the sail­ors had brought with him from Gascony the seeds of the ter­rible pes­ti­lence and through him the men of that town of Melcombe were the first in England to be infected.

In real­ity it prob­ably came in on sev­eral ships from across the chan­nel. News of the plague spread much faster than the plague itself, so Gloucester was able to pre­pare by shut­ting the gates of the city. As a plan this would have worked if the rats had been trained to enter the city by the com­mer­cial routes. For some­where like London this was not a remotely plaus­ible strategy, and so the pop­u­la­tion would have been await­ing what seemed like the judge­ment of a wrath­ful god. It arrived in London by autumn of the same year, almost cer­tainly aboard a ship rather than from an over­land route.

If you were a killer bug with a pen­chant for pes­ti­lence then 1300s London would have been para­dise. Hitching a ride in the gut of a flea, you could have trans­ferred to a human or one of the many mil­lions of rats which thrived in the squalor of the city. The hygiene prac­tices of the time, and I use the word hygiene wholly incor­rectly, meant that there was a plen­ti­ful sup­ply of fresh rats to incub­ate a trav­el­ling plague. It gave the dis­ease a tre­mend­ous longev­ity, in sad con­trast to its many vic­tims. If you meas­ure impact purely in terms of people dead, then it’s hard to find any­thing with greater impact than Y. pestis, which hung around till 1665. Yet it’s not just death that made Y. pestis London’s greatest invader.

Across Britain a third of the pop­u­la­tion died. The land­scape is littered with what archae­olo­gists call DMVs, Deserted Medieval Villages. You can still see them around today with the occa­sional church in the middle of nowhere, with no obvi­ous con­greg­a­tion. You can’t remove that many people without some­thing break­ing, and in the Middle Ages, this was Feudalism. Before the plague serfs had been tied to their master’s estates. The massive cull­ing of the pop­u­la­tion by the Black Death increased the value of labour­ers, and set in motion a series of revolts and upris­ings which would even­tu­ally end Feudalism.

Another effect was the aban­don­ment of land. This helped place more wealth in hands of the church. This wealth helped fuel the con­flicts between church and state in later times. More con­tro­ver­sially, it’s also been pro­posed that agri­cul­tural use of land could have affected the cli­mate. Bill Ruddiman has argued that the plague led to refor­est­a­tion of the land, redu­cing the car­bon con­cen­tra­tion of the atmo­sphere, ulti­mately lead­ing to cool­ing in the Little Ice Age. This is not a main­stream idea, but it is taken ser­i­ously by many cli­mate research­ers and does appear in cli­mate change journ­als, rather than social sci­ences journals.

Regardless of the cli­mactic con­sequences, it’s inter­est­ing to ask if the Renaissance would have happened without the Black Death. Some of the social changes were hap­pen­ing before the arrival of the plague, but at the very least Y. pestis amp­li­fied them. The removal of so many people from the pop­u­la­tion wasn’t just a quant­at­ive change, it was a qual­it­at­ive change, because it meant rethink­ing how people were val­ued in an eco­nomy. The Black Death fuelled social changes in the Late Middle Ages which would even­tu­ally blos­som as the Renaissance. Still, this is one his­tor­ical char­ac­ter who might not stay in the past. Y. pestis may yet have a role to play in the future.

If you’re inter­ested in read­ing more about the arrival of the Black Death as an inva­sion, there’s a very read­able chapter in Benedictow’s book The Black Death, 1346–1353: the com­plete his­tory avail­able in Google Books.

Re-thinking the archaeology of Mars


I’ve been rum­ma­ging through the depths of my hard-drive and found a few things I’d for­got­ten about. Here’s one of them, from 2006 I see, a present­a­tion on the con­tem­por­ary archae­ology of Mars.

The reason I’ve pulled it up is I might want to go back and think this over again. I’m not happy with it, which is why it was left on the drive, but it might have potential.

The slide on the 1980s probes is inten­tion­ally blank, because there were hardly any probes sent in the 1980s to Mars. The reason is that the com­pet­i­tion between the major powers has moved to Earth Orbit, with the USA build­ing the Shuttle and the USSR build­ing long-term space sta­tions. Recent events have high­lighted a couple of reas­ons why it’s worth look­ing at this again. One is the regis­tra­tion of lunar her­it­age by California, which is grabbing head­lines for some­thing that Alice Gorman and Beth O’Leary have been say­ing for a while. The other is Obama’s can­cel­la­tion of the return to the Moon.

It could be a sci­entific re-prioritisation, but like the Mars gap in the 1980s, it could also be due to polit­ics. The Nobel laur­eate already has wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to man­age, and he wants to keep his options open for a war with Iran. That could turn very nasty as Iran is next door to his two other prob­lems. It’s pos­sible that there simply isn’t a threat on the Moon, but there is in the Middle East. Unless China devel­ops lunar ambi­tions, the dis­cov­ery of water on the Moon could be a sci­entific curi­os­ity rather than a step­ping stone to colonisation.

There’s a few reas­ons why I don’t like this present­a­tion as it stands. I think the biggest prob­lem is that one of the big factors for mak­ing it was that I needed a present­a­tion. It wasn’t an idea that was ready, and to some extent the prob­lem was “there’s some­thing archae­ology could say about this, but what?” Now I’m think­ing about the social, polit­ical and eco­nomic effects of Mars explor­a­tion. This time around I see archae­ology as a tool to find­ing out about these factors, rather than ‘being archae­olo­gical’ as the pur­pose of project.

Friendfeed: I’m doing it wrong


I’ve been put­ting together a work­shop on social media for the Physics depart­ment here at Leicester. It’s two hours to cover Web 2.0, so to cover it all I’d have to work at the rate of 1.0 per hour. Instead I’ve opted to cover a small range of the most use­ful tools. deli­cious, Google Reader and blog­ging, which I’m using Posterous for. The more ser­vices you sign up for the more dif­fuse your pres­ence, so I’m put­ting Friendfeed at the centre of the work­shop to pull it all together.

The model I’m using is one I’ve stolen from Alan Cann which is that Friendfeed is Facebook for sci­ent­ists. I know it’s not exactly, but it’s close enough as an intro­duc­tion. In some ways it’s a Twitter sub­sti­tute too. I’ve left Twitter out of the work­shop, which I know is a big hole, but Twitter takes a couple of days to under­stand because it doesn’t make sense without the replies and inter­ac­tion, while Friendfeed has more tools for shar­ing stuff. Friendfeed needs inter­ac­tion too, but it is at least a bit easier to see the point of Friendfeed using the Facebook model. If you’re not really plugged into the idea of net­works then Twitter looks like a dull and crippled rip-off of Facebook.

So while I’ve been put­ting this together I’ve also been think­ing about how I use web­sites. Blogs are still the place for gath­er­ing longer ideas like this, and reflect­ing on them. They’re not so good for some other things. I find inter­est­ing things on the web and I want to share them. This is a prob­lem, and it’s one that Brett Holman blogged on while I was put­ting this post together.

How do you put together links for a blog post? You could just put up the links and titles, but that doesn’t make for much of a post. You could blog on each one, but that’s a lot of work. In the past I’ve used things like deli­cious or ma.gnolia to com­pile posts from book­marks. The prob­lem with that is that you need a cer­tain num­ber of book­marks in a post else almost every posts is Links for %date%. On the other hand if you store up links in groups of 10, then link 1 could be out-of-date by the time you have ten links to make a post. Blogging used to be the best way to share links, but now there are bet­ter ways. Brett Holman is using Twitter. I’m using Friendfeed, because the way it handles com­ments is easier and it can post to Twitter any­way; it’s not an either/or choice.

I don’t see it as blog­ging versus twit­ter­ing as some people have either. You could see the move to put links onto Friendfeed as cut­ting back on blog­ging. I prefer to see it as free­ing the blog from hav­ing to carry posts that don’t suit it. Friendfeed or Twitter is the per­fect place for point to this photo of cute nuzz­ling chee­tahs.

There are some prob­lems with Friendfeed. People import their twit­ter streams, and that doesn’t usu­ally work very well. Conversations appear out of con­text, but it’s an easy enough issue to solve. Friendfeed has a ‘hide’ but­ton, and you can hide all entries from Twitter unless they get a ‘like’. You’re rely­ing on other people to find the note­worthy tweets for you, but if you’re on Friendfeed you’re prob­ably also on twit­ter too — so it’s no great loss.

Following that, I’ve made a slight change to the front of the blog, with the Friendfeed stream going to the front instead of the fea­tures gal­lery. If you want to fol­low me, then you can find my Friendfeed account at http://​friend​feed​.com/​a​lun and if you tell what account you’re using I can fol­low you back.

I’ll be post­ing a link to the work­sheets for the work­shop once the class has star­ted on Friendfeed.