Thursday, June 28, 2012

Personality tests: MBTI and FFM

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is a personality test with four different axes: Introverted/Extraverted, Intuitive/Sensing, Thinking/Feeling, Judging/Perceiving.  It was created by two non-psychologists, based on ideas published by Carl Jung in 1921. 

The Five Factor Model (FFM) is a personality test with five different axes: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.  It is based on empirical research and factor analysis.  Basically, they asked people a bunch of personality questions, and used quantitative analysis to make the most predictive model using the smallest number of factors. 

Years ago, I used to be annoyed by MBTI, because it's so obviously unscientific.  I would give FFM as an example of a personality test that is actually science-based.  But these thoughts never made it to my blog, probably because they were half-baked.  More recently, I've reevaluated MBTI upwards, and FFM downwards.  I no longer think that the MBTI needs to be science-based to be useful, in the sense of resonating with us, and describing patterns that we deem important.  As for FFM, we'll get to that later.

Skeptoid summarized the criticisms of MBTI well, but I should summarize them separately here, along with my thoughts.

1. MBTI isn't psychology.  Psychologists don't take MBTI very seriously, and the scientific study of personalities is very far from MBTI.  Carl Jung was a psychologist but he belongs to the proto-scientific era of psychology (eg he believed in anecdotes over statistics).

2. MBTI does not describe underlying psychology.  Obviously, since MBTI isn't psychology.  But I wanted to include this point because people jump so quickly from "patterns that resonate with us" (ie "usefulness") to "the way stuff works".  There isn't any "extraversion" chemical which is more concentrated in extraverts' brains, but extraversion could still be an emergent pattern.  And if a pattern resonates with us, or seems important, that fact emerges from even more complicated stuff like society and culture.  It's likely that a useful personality model would bear no relation to the underlying psychology, and a personality model based on underlying psychology would not be very useful.

Note that FFM, though it comes from psychological research, is not based on underlying psychology either.  It's a phenomenological model.

3. MBTI is not a typology.  Though people's results are often summarized by listing their "types" (eg INTJ, ENFP), each of the four axes is just a normal distribution centered on the dividing line.  That means most people sit on the dividing line or close to it.  Calling it a typology suggests that people would cluster into the 16 different types, with a lower density of people on the dividing lines.

Note that MBTI practitioners mostly agree that MBTI is not a typology, even though that is what the T stands for.  I'm not sure about FFM, but as far as I know it does not purport to be a typology.  So the fact that MBTI isn't a typology isn't so much a criticism as a comment.

4. MBTI is not self-consistent.  Meaning, people who retake the test tend to get different results.  Or so Skeptoid claims.  I generally trust Skeptoid, but to properly support this claim, I need a broad literature survey, which I'm unwilling to do.

5. MBTI may be influenced by the Forer Effect.  The Forer Effect is when people accept vague positive descriptions of themselves as highly accurate, even though they could describe nearly anyone.  I think the names of the four axes are neutral, but the 16 "types" often come with additional flattering descriptions.  If the Forer Effect influences MBTI, people may accept results as highly accurate even if the descriptions were all randomized.

Earlier, I described "usefulness" as a subjective quality.  If a personality test describes patterns that resonate with us, then it is useful.  The Forer Effect is a way for a personality test to appear useful, but not actually be any more useful than a test that spits out random flattery (eg astrology).  However, it is not clear if the Forer effect is at work here.  I think that would be interesting to research.


Okay, so here's what annoys me about FFM.  FFM is predictive, meaning it makes predictions that could be true or false.  So it's not really affected by the Forer Effect.  We could call the five axes in FFM 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, and it would still succeed just as well in its purpose in making predictions.  However, psychologists decided to tack on additional descriptions of the five axes, calling them Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.  Of those five words, three are normatively positive (Openness, Conscientiousness, and Agreeableness), one is normatively negative (Neuroticism), and one is neutral (Extraversion).

Couldn't psychologists have come up with less normative descriptions?  It could be the case that Agreeableness really is correlated with characteristics that nearly everyone deems positive, but surely this is something to demonstrate with research, not an assumption to sneak into the axis name.  Scientists have been known to do things like describe butterflies with same-sex behavior as immoral, and I think this is similar.

I am not really sure where the names came from.  But I spotted this history in a 1990 paper:

(click for a bigger picture)

Psychologists are laughably inept at coming up with non-normative names.  "Likeability",  "Culture",  "Positive emotionality", "Psychoticism"?  Srsly.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Science and Religion illustrated

There are maybe three or four major views on the relationship between science and religion.  I'm in an artistic mood, so I decided to illustrate these views.  It's also an exercise in understanding one's opponents, though it is inevitable that I misrepresent them in some way.

1. Science and religion are non-overlapping magisteria.

NOMA is simple enough, and the easiest to represent.  I don't have a scanner, can you tell?

2. Science and religion should interact for mutual benefit

People with this view ask why there must be so much conflict between science and religion.  Clearly, we can only answer our most profound questions if they team up.

3.  Science and religion are in conflict, and religion is in the right.

This representation is the one I'm least sure about, since who knows what creationists really think?  I guess they think that science is only honest if it confirms religious precepts.  I'm not sure how to draw that.

4. Science and religion are in conflict, and science is in the right.

Since this is the camp I'm in, I can vouch for the accuracy of this representation.  However, I know it does not represent all views in this category.  Some might say religion should merely have a reduced role, or science should have an expanded role.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Folding into thirds

It's easy enough to fold a piece of paper in half.  Just fold one end onto the other.  But whenever I fold paper into thirds, I just guess where one third is and fold it there.

But there is a way to fold it into thirds exactly.  Can you figure it out?

(This is a relatively easy puzzle inspired by my recent attempts at origami. In the mean time, I've been trying to figure out if there is a way to fold an exact regular pentagon.  It seems that the standard way is to approximate.)

See the solution

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Dissenting without defecting

The current atheist blogging buzz seems to be Catholics who dissent from Catholic Church teachings without defecting.  Bill Donohue, head of the Catholic League, said in his most recent book that liberal Catholics should just leave the church.  New York Times columnist Bill Keller agreed.
Much as I wish I could encourage the discontented, the Catholics of open minds and open hearts, to stay put and fight the good fight, this is a lost cause. Donohue is right. Summon your fortitude, and just go. If you are not getting the spiritual sustenance you need, if you are uneasy being part of an institution out of step with your conscience — then go. The restive nuns who are planning a field trip to Rome for a bit of dialogue? Be assured, unless you plan to grovel, no one will be listening. Sisters, just go.
Following this, there was an unrelated story that an atheist blogger, Leah, (who I had never heard of before) decided to convert to Catholicism.  Many atheist commenters, knowing little about the particular rationale for this, grabbed on to this one obvious fact, and asked how anyone could support the Catholic Church.
I’m seriously disappointed. Of all religions to join, you choose Catholicism? One of the most despicable, nonsensical, homophobic, misogynistic religions on the planet?
Full disclosure: I'm ex-Catholic, and went to a Jesuit high school.  Jesuits are known for being one of the more liberal and intellectual Catholic organizations.

Catholicism is somewhat in a weird position.  The major distinction between Catholicism and other Christian denominations is the ancient organization of the Church.  But most Catholics dissent on teachings that secularists care most about, such as birth control and gay marriage.  They also seem to dissent about pointless beliefs like transubstantiation.

The Church seems to tolerate a lot of dissent.  I recall from my high school days that there are official teachings on dissent.  Though, I have not seen them anywhere else, so perhaps the teachings were less official than my recollection.  But the idea was that Catholics are allowed to dissent as long as they have a personal conviction, wrestle with the question, consult a leader on the matter, and so forth.  Oh, and you can't dissent from infallible teachings.  (The infallible declarations of the Church are few, and include such things as "The saved see heaven before Judgment day," and "Mary was conceived without original sin.")  Of course, if you're clever, you could just dissent from the idea that Popes can ever speak infallibly.

I'm pretty sure most Catholics aren't following these demanding guidelines.  Priests don't have the time for that many consultations.  No, according to my theory of mind, people take dissent much more lightly.  It's a thing that everyone does, and the Church can't kick them all out!

But many secularists believe that Catholic dissenters have a moral obligation to leave the Church.  The Church is an evil organization, for having enabled and rewarded child-abusing priests, while punishing their victims.  They also have very regressive teachings on abortion, same-sex sexual behavior, and birth control.  I contend that even for Catholics who disagree on these teachings, the Church acts as an immobile anchor which prevents them from progressing to a point where opposing birth control is utterly unreasonable.  People support these regressive causes with their Catholic affiliation, their money, and their implied respect.

Dissenting while staying within Catholicism may be tolerated by the Church, and it may be as ordinary as Catholicism itself.  That doesn't make it right.

People say that they're staying so that they can work for change within.  I'm not convinced that this really works better than working outside the Church, but what do I know?

More to the point, I'm not convinced that all those dissenting Catholics are staying just because they are actively working for change within.  The most vocal people may say they're changing the church, but surely the less vocal people are also less vocal in criticizing the church.  Catholics stay in the church because that's the default thing to do.  Disagreeing with doctrine is ordinary, but leaving the Church is heresy.  The political impact of the church seems abstract and distant, while the impact of leaving your church seems immediate and real.  It is easier to just say that you disagree with the Church on a few matters. And you can always minimize the importance of those few matters--it's just gay rights and women's rights, right?

To be honest, I can imagine myself using similar rationale to stay affiliated with other organizations or communities when my affiliation would contribute to harm.  One hopes that if this comes to pass, you will slap me.  A desire to stay in the community is not a justification, it is just a challenge to making the right decision.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Platonic origami

Check this out:

I now own copies of Beginner's Book of Modular Origami Polyhedra: The Platonic Solids by Rona Gurkewitz and Bennett Arnstein, and Exquisite Modular Origami by Meenakshi Mukerji.


At this rate, I will soon be able to complete another one of my life goals.

miller's life goals:
  1. Be a physicist.
  2. Get in the top 25 of the US Puzzle Championship.
  3. Write a novel.
  4. Learn to play "Pyramid Song".
  5. Create the second brillouin zones of the fcc and bcc structures using origami.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Religious feeling is not the only motive for science

In a previous post, where I quoted Einstein, I took care to look up a bit of the context of the quote.  There I found some other views of Einstein that I for one consider abhorrent.
I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research. Only those who realize the immense efforts and, above all, the devotion without which pioneer work in theoretical science cannot be achieved are able to grasp the strength of the emotion out of which alone such work, remote as it is from the immediate realities of life, can issue. What a deep conviction of the rationality of the universe and what a yearning to understand, were it but a feeble reflection of the mind revealed in this world, Kepler and Newton must have had to enable them to spend years of solitary labor in disentangling the principles of celestial mechanics!
-Albert Einstein (source)

Very pretty prose, but pshaw! I say.  That only shows is that cosmic religious feeling is a very pretty motive for scientific research, not that it is the strongest and noblest.  By calling it the strongest and noblest, Einstein is basically insulting all other possible motives, and praising the one motive that he himself happens to hold.

I am aware that Einstein uses "religion" and "religious feeling" in idiosyncratic ways; however, regardless of what he means, he's still holding one particular motive above all others.  Surely there is more than one respectable motive to do science.  Just as there are many motives to go into law or medicine (two other disciplines that require immense effort and devotion).

If you're having trouble imagining any other motive to do science, a few examples are offered by modern scientist archetypes.  The first one that comes to my mind is the cynical scientist archetype, greatly popularized in House, M.D.  Dr. House's main motivation is the puzzle.  He won't even take a case unless he thinks the medical puzzle is interesting enough.  It's not so much about the truth, as it is about the challenge of figuring out the truth.  This archetypical narrative certainly has its flaws, but I think it more closely reflects my own motivations than does the narrative painted by Einstein.

What about other archetypes, like the geeky engineer?  Totally motivated by cool explosions, right?  That sounds way more noble than whatever Einstein said.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Einstein was ableist

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.
-Albert Einstein (source)

This quote is sometimes cited in favor of certain views of science and religion.  Recently, I noticed for the first time that Einstein uses the words "lame" and "blind" specifically to refer to the disabilities (rather than the modern usage of "lame"), and uses them pejoratively.  In Einstein's metaphor, science without religion is dysfunctional, unable to do anything, just like how he thought of people with disabilities.

Looking at another way, the metaphor is somewhat apt, but not in the way Einstein intended.  I think religion is unjustifiable, even independent of its anti-science tendencies, and so we should go on without it.  This does not lessen the value of science any more than a disability lessens the value of a person, it just means that we have to find other ways of fulfilling whatever needs religion fulfilled, or discover that they weren't such important needs after all.

I don't know what attitudes towards disabled people were like in Einstein's time, or whether Einstein was any better or worse than his contemporaries.  But at most, this is a mitigating factor in Einstein's culpability, not a mitigating factor in Einstein's wrongness.   Reflecting on the ableism of Einstein's quote has made clear to me the absurdity of citing Einstein's views on religion.  Einstein clearly had some wrong views in areas outside his expertise, so how can merely citing Einstein's view do anything to support the same views?

Einstein is not an expert on religion.  His opinion on religion is irrelevant, just as my opinion is irrelevant.  What matters are the arguments supporting those opinions.  Einstein did make such arguments, but they're not contained within the pithy quotes frequently cited.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Survey of asexual communities

In 2011, the Asexual Awareness Week team conducted an internet survey of asexual communites, and had over 3000 respondents.  For months, the results languished without proper analysis, but I volunteered to look at it.

Analysis of the 2011 Asexual Awareness Week Community Census

Thanks to AAW for hosting this document.

I still have the data, so I can answer additional questions.  I was also fielding questions on tumblr, so you can see what other people asked.

I tried to just present the results with as little interpretation as possible.  Of course, analysis requires at least a little interpretation, but I tried.  Here on my blog I can speak more freely, because it's just some blog on the internet and my words will not have too much weight.

The first most important thing to realize: This survey does not tell us about asexuality in general, but about internet asexual communities.  I seriously doubt that asexuals in general are 64% women, 13% men, 22% heteroromantic, and 42% atheist/agnostic.  However, the numbers are not meaningless, because the asexual community is itself important.  When I represent asexuals, I mostly represent the community.  When I talk to other asexuals, I mostly talk to people in the community.

The second most important thing to realize: The survey questions are flawed.  They give the sense of wanting to be politically correct at the expense of extractable information, and simultaneously has some rather un-PC errors, also at the expense of extractable information.

For example, question #11 asked how people perceive themselves.  Possible responses included "I am a virgin" and "I am not a virgin", and people could check as many boxes as they wanted.  It's nice that they allowed people to express themselves, and even disobey the law of excluded middle, but why didn't they just get rid of the loaded term "virgin"?  I mean, what we really want to know is how much sex asexuals are having, not how they feel about the word "virgin".

I wish to highlight a few statistics that I found particularly interesting.
  1. 22% of asexuals are heteroromantic, and 13% of heteroromantics consider themselves part of the LGBT community.  There are people out there who complain about heteroromantic asexuals are appropriating queer spaces.  But even if we believed they did not have a right to queer spaces, this fear is still totally unfounded.  Ironically, this complaint mostly comes from tumblr, where heteroromantics are an even smaller proportion, 17%.
  2. Men are a minority group, even less common than non-binary gender people.  This varies between communities, with men being 16% of AVEN, 11% of Tumblr, and 6% of LiveJournal.  It could be that asexuals are less likely to be men in general, or they are less likely to identify as asexual, or less likely to stay in the community.  Maybe we need male asexual support groups for a minority-within-a-minority, haha.
  3. 3% of asexuals are sexually active, 9% of gray-As, and 14% of demisexuals.  I believe this is significantly smaller than in the general population.  Many people find it confusing that asexuals can be sexually active, and wonder how this is different from normative sexuality.  But even demisexuals, who are closest to normative sexuality, are noticeably different.  This is consistent with the idea that asexuality is a lack of intrinsic motivation to have sex, though other factors may cause them to have sex anyway.
  4. 29% of asexuals do not fit in any romantic orientation.  (In the survey, I operationally defined this group as people who are not romantically attracted to anyone, but do not identify as aromantic.)  In my own visibility work, I try to emphasize that while romantic orientation is an important concept, it does not apply to everyone.  But I did not expect it was so large a group!
  5. 23% of asexuals are atheist, 42% are atheist/agnostic, and 64% are atheist/agnostic/non-religious.  I already knew the numbers were high, but that's just ridiculous.  Greta Christina once said that she felt more at home as a queer in the atheist community than as an atheist in the queer community.  I suspect the opposite is true of asexual atheists.
  6. Among people with non-binary gender (ie both male and female, or neither), 24% identified as transgender, 50% did not identify as transgender, and 26% were unsure.  I found this surprising, since it's at odds with the definition of transgender as "being a different gender from the one assigned at birth".  Clearly there is something I do not understand about the way transgender is used by non-binary people, and I feel humbled by my ignorance.  A friend suggested that many non-binary people feel uncomfortable with the term because of connotations of a change in gender or because it frequently gets conflated with transsexual.  Or maybe some are the sort of people who say, "I don't have a gender because gender isn't real". >_<
What statistics did you find most interesting?

Thursday, June 7, 2012

No fault lines solution

See the original puzzle

Click to see spoiler images:
2x1 bricks solution
3x1 bricks solution

2x1 can be done with a 5x6 rectangle.  3x1 can be done with a 7x9 rectangle.  I'm fairly sure these are the best solutions (though they are not unique).  I do not think I could prove it.

Bill Maher interviews Vatican priest

I hardly remember Religulous, Bill Maher's documentary about religion, which I saw in 2008, but I do remember my favorite interviewee was a senior Vatican priest.

See video

Kids get taught these "nice stories", but if they ever receive a more serious Catholic education they learn that they're just nice stories.  It's sort of a bait and switch.  Impress 'em with miracles, and only later, to people privileged enough to get a good education, reveal that it was just tradition and metaphor all along.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Irrational physics

In physics, you expect that it doesn't really matter whether a number is rational or irrational.  Physics measurements rarely have perfect precision.  If you measure a number to be 0.750000, it sure looks like the rational number 3/4, but it may be just slightly different, after the sixteenth decimal place.  Who can say?

But rational and irrational numbers sometimes make a difference.

Consider the case of two crystals.  On the atomic level, the surfaces of these crystals are very bumpy.  You would expect that when you place one crystal on top of the other, the bumps on the top crystal's surface would prefer to align with the grooves on the bottom crystal's surface.  But what if the bumps on the top crystal and the bumps on the bottom crystal are spaced differently?  Will one crystal squeeze or stretch to fit the other?  Or will the crystals just lay on top of each other, bumps and grooves be damned?

As usual, we solve this problem by considering a simpler problem: a string of atoms sitting on top of a bumpy surface.  The atoms behave like they are attached by springs.  There is a preferred distance between two atoms, which we'll call distance A.  You can push the atoms closer to each other by compressing the springs, or pull them apart by stretching the springs, but it requires energy to do so.  It also requires energy to place an atom on a bump rather than a groove.  The bumps are evenly spaced, with distance B between each bump.

At low temperature, the atoms will settle down to the lowest energy state.  But the lowest energy state depends on the ratio A/B.  Specifically, it depends on whether A/B is "nearly rational", or if it is "sufficiently irrational".

So let us first consider the case where A/B is nearly rational.  For simplicity's sake, let's say A/B is near the rational number 1.  Of course, if A/B is exactly one, then the atoms will all slide to the lowest points of the bumpy surface, and that's that.  But if A/B is just a little different, then the atoms will still lie at the lowest points of the bumpy surface. It may cost a little bit of energy to stretch or compress the springs a little, but it would cost even more energy to have the atoms completely unaligned with the bumpy surface.

On the other hand, if A/B is too far from 1, then the energy cost of stretching or compressing the springs just to get all the atoms exactly at the grooves is too much.  It requires less energy to just have the atoms evenly spaced, even if that means that they're scattered all over the groove structure from high to low.

The former scenario is called the commensurate phase.  The latter scenario is called the incommensurate phase.  You can imagine the ratio A/B changing (perhaps the bumps shrink as the temperature changes), leading to a phase transition between commensurate and incommensurate.  Yes, just like the phase transition between solid, liquid, and gas.  In condensed matter we talk about all sorts of subtle phases, and the phase transitions between them.

As for where exactly the phase transition occurs, you have to know something about the strength of the springs, the height and shape of the bumps, and which rational number is being considered.  Bigger bumps means that the system is commensurate for a larger range of values of A/B.  Typically,* the larger the denominator of the rational number, the smaller the commensurate range.  So you can imagine that there is a large commensurate range around 1, a smaller range around 1/2, and an even smaller range around 7/9.

*This depends on the exact shape of the bumps.  If the bumps are perfect sine waves, I believe most rational numbers don't produce any commensurate phase whatsoever.

But even though the rational numbers are densely packed on the number line, the commensurate phase does not necessarily cover all numbers.  That may be hard for the non-mathematicians to grok, but imagine that the commensurate ranges get exponentially smaller as you include more and more rational numbers.  If you sum up all the terms in an exponentially decreasing series (eg 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + 1/16 + ...), you get a finite number.  It could be the case that this number is less than the total length of the numbers we're considering.  If that is the case, there must be some numbers which are not covered by any of the commensurate phases.

We call these numbers "sufficiently irrational."  If A/B is sufficiently irrational, then the incommensurate phase is stable.

Of course, this only applies at absolute zero temperature, when there is an infinite string of atoms.  In a real system, here's no need to consider rational numbers with denominators greater than the number of atoms.  On the other hand, in a real system, there are about 10^8 atoms in a centimeter.  On the other other hand, a nonzero temperature will kill a lot of commensurate phases, since the random motion of atoms would be enough to overcome the tiny amount of energy saved by being in the commensurate phase.

The complications of reality notwithstanding, I think it is mathematically beautiful to think of all these commensurate phases arranged in a fractal pattern.

This fractal pattern also appears somewhere else in physics--chaos theory.  If the initial conditions of a system are nearly rational, the system may follow a completely different trajectory than if the initial conditions were sufficiently irrational.  Since it's hard for us to know, with our imperfect measurements, whether a number is sufficiently irrational or not, the system may be unpredictable.  That's what leads to chaotic motion.

Friday, June 1, 2012

My new favorite book: Cloud Atlas

I read books at a rate of about one a month.  The last book I read was Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.  Natalie recommended it.  I really enjoyed it.

Without giving away any spoilers, the book consists of six stories, each in a different historical era.  Two are in the future.  The relationship between the stories is mostly thematic, but each story also contains a copy of the previous story within it.  For example, the first story is a diary or travelogue which is found and read by the protagonist of the next story.

I rather like the idea of having multiple very different voices.  Each one has a very distinct style, distinct concerns, distinct values, and distinct worldview.  And though all the protagonists are sympathetic, each story implies criticism of the previous one.  The second protagonist thinks the first is gullible.  The fourth protagonist thinks the third story is trying too hard to be clever.  The sixth story, set in a post-apocalyptic world, implies that whatever happened in the fifth story ultimately didn't save civilization.

If I wrote a book, that's more or less what I would want to do with it: have a bunch of compelling and sympathetic characters who nonetheless contradict each other.  That's sort of how I feel about life.

Midway through the book, I felt the unifying theme crystallized.  For me, the crystallizing moment was when a post-apocalyptic ethnographer tells a tribesman, it wasn't old Georgie (the devil) who caused the fall of civilization, it was humans!  The unifying theme is about the human desire for power, and how power gets abused on both the individual and macroscopic levels.  The different stories each show it in a different place and different level.

They're making a major film out of Cloud Atlas, set to come out in December!  It's codirected by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis (of Matrix fame).  I'm not really sure what to think of it; I'm not sure this book is suited for film.  I am, however, excited by the prospect of a film that will treat race in a mature way, and have a multicultural cast.