[]’s take on the education system

Great little interview with a psychologist on how he believes our education system is failing us.  

To be honest, you’ve probably heard it all before if you’re a current or recent student. Our collective obsession with standardized tests has crowded out the focus we should be providing on qualities like creativity, practical problem-solving, and ethical reasoning.

Even though I’ve heard people give the same diagnoses for our educational system, this article was interesting in part because the interviewee, Robert Sternberg, claimed that we should add wisdom to the list of skills —like creativity— that should be taught in school. It made my ears perk up to hear this coming from a bona fide scientist rather than a philosopher or cultural critic. An excerpt:

(bold is the questioner)

Our overemphasis on narrow academic skills—the kinds that get you high grades in school—can be a bad thing for several reasons. You end up with people who are good at taking tests and fiddling with phones and computers, and those are good skills, but they are not tantamount to the skills we need to make the world a better place.


Do we know how to cultivate wisdom?
Yes, we do. A whole bunch of my colleagues and I study wisdom. Wisdom is about using your abilities and knowledge not just for your own selfish ends and for people like you. It’s about using them to help achieve a common good by balancing your own interests with other people’s and with high-order interests through the infusion of positive ethical values.

The division between technical competencies and a type of “soft” reasoning ability reminds me of a distinction that philosophers have made for centuries. In a nutshell, there are two types of reasoning, or “rationalities:” Instrumental and intrinsic. Instrumental rationality concerns itself with selecting the best means to achieve a given end. For example, the road tripper who is figuring out the best arrangement to pack her gear in her trunk so everything will fit is exercising instrumental rationality. Intrinsic rationality deals with setting the goals/ends an actor may strive towards. If the same road tripper deliberates between driving to Yosemite or Las Vegas, she exercises intrinsic rationality in weighing how much she values sweeping vistas of mountains and forests versus casinos.

In this view, the critique against modern schooling seems to be that we’re getting really good at cultivating certain types of instrumental thinking in students, but are ignoring all things intrinsic. Students may be damn good on the ACT, but they can’t be counted on to think ethically or make value judgements unless those are already given. This, coupled with the fact that the institutions our students spend the majority their time in tend to emphasize performance and prestige above all else, leads to an environment that is successful at producing “people who are very good at advancing themselves, often at other people’s expense,” according to Sternberg.

Obviously, this needs to change, but the conversation gets weird to me when we look hard about how Sternberg conceives of the “ethical reasoning” that seems to be part of his conception of wisdom. Rather than describe something that resembles reasoning about ethics and morals, he seems to say we should take those as givens and think about how to implement them.  

Basically, ethical reasoning involves eight steps: [1] seeing that there’s a problem to deal with (say, you see your roommate cheat on an assignment); [2] identifying it as an ethical problem; [3] seeing it as a large enough problem to be worth your attention (it’s not like he’s just one mile over the speed limit); [4] seeing it as personally relevant; [5] thinking about what ethical rules apply; [6] thinking about how to apply them; [7] thinking, “What are the consequences of acting ethically?”—because people who act ethically usually don’t get rewarded; [8] and, finally, acting. What I’ve argued is that ethical reasoning is really hard. Most people don’t make it through all eight steps.

(numbers added)

This is beginning to look a lot like the instrumental rationality that we’re trying to escape from, especially the “what’s in it for me?” mentality that sneaks through in step 7. Sternberg seems to think our students are receiving the correct ethical principles already, and following an 8-point plan is all that is necessary. This description of what needs to happen doesn’t quite explain the presence of the social ills he wants to combat, unless you believe that people do have socially constructive values, but something goes wrong in the Sternberg 8-point™ plan so they never end up acting on them. This is possible, but it is much easier to explain the same phenomena as originating from deficient values/lack thereof as opposed to thinking everyone is a saint on the inside but can’t make the connection between [4] and [5], for example.

In any common-sense conception of wisdom, critical thinking plays a large part. Questioning the “ends” is part of what makes intrinsic rationality such an interesting concept, and potentially useful (instrumental — hah!) in achieving what Sternberg wants to. Rather than banking on our educational institutions to provide us with the correct values off the bat, we can task our students to engage in a little bit of intrinsic rationality and interrogate the ideas they come across. Hopefully, after reflection and a bit of adolescent angst, they arrive on the side of altruism, curiosity, civic engagement, and a deep concern for the well-being of the world, rather than the tribalism Sternberg describes.

Perhaps Sternberg is using “wisdom” and in a sense different than mine, but I’ll claim his idea of it doesn’t look like the wisdom we want. Part of wisdom is indeed using your “abilities not just for your own selfish ends,” yet, the decision to be altruistic must be a result of autonomous reasoning as opposed to the internalization of dogma that only happens to be constructive

Bullshit and Ideology + a little about swedish politics

A study I came across today courtesy of MR.

Swedish researchers mapped the relationship between political ideology and receptivity to bullshit. I’ll let the abstract speak for itself.

Among Swedish adults (N = 985), bullshit receptivity was (a) robustly positively associated with socially conservative (vs. liberal) self-placement, resistance to change, and particularly binding moral intuitions (loyalty, authority, purity); (b) associated with centrism on preference for equality and even leftism (when controlling for other aspects of ideology) on economic ideology self-placement; and (c) lowest among right-of-center social liberal voters and highest among left-wing green voters

(emphasis added)

Note the study happened in Sweden, not the United States. This is actually part of why they were able look into bullshit receptivity as it relates to social versus economic liberal/conservative beliefs. Apparently, Sweden has a varied political field with parties that range the social and economic political spectrum (probably like the rest of Europe, but it’s funny thinking about this as an American).

  From the study. What variation!
From the study. What variation!

This allowed them to compare results between social conservatives that may have different economic perspectives, and really try to isolate if a tendency is closely associated with a specific political viewpoint.

The article is also good for a brief review of the literature surrounding a lot of this type of reserach. There’s a lot of recent psychological work that is focuses on an individual’s epistemic style (need for certainty, order, tends to reason intuitively, etc) and moral judgements that is covered.

Some interesting things I came across:

insofar as a certainty- and security-oriented epistemic style is associated with a lack of analytic, deliberative forms of thinking (Jost & Krochik, 2014), this account predicts that bullshit receptivity is associated with right-wing ideology in the social domain but with left-wing ideology in the economic domain, particularly among persons low in political engagement.

The reasoning is that those in need of epistemic certainty will tend to process issues of economic policy through a personal lens, and prefer laws that can give financial security to a greater portion of the population.

Pfattheicher and Schindler (2016) found that bullshit receptivity predicted general conservative self- placement and favorable ratings of Republican presidential candidates (especially Ted Cruz) in the United States

The study also confirms, through claiming bullshit receptivity was highest among green voters, anecdotal beliefs about the level of self-reflection members of far-left parties may engage in on a daily basis.

Green party (which is on the left) stood out in terms of their belief in alternative medicine (including acu- puncture, energy healing, and homeopathy), astrology, anthroposophy (Waldorf education and biodynamic growth), electric allergy, paranormal phenomena, and the moon land- ing conspiracy theory, although they had strong faith in the scientific method, the theory of evolution, and the reality of global warming

This description seems to recall images of young, LA/West Coast liberals that love to proselytize progressive views but will also try to convince you of the predictive powers of astrology. We may make fun of conservatives believing in “Q” or the deep state, but having faith in healing crystals is equally epistemologically irresponsible to me.

The Efference Copy Paper

Here is the paper I wrote while doing a little bit of research on efference copies. Each sentence was restricted to fewer than 17 words. While trying to stay under the limit makes for slow going, it’s a rewarding exercise. The sentences end up sounding a bit simple, but the primary purpose of any paper is to be understood. After that, you can worry about trying to dazzle a reader with your insights (or confuse them into believing you have any).

Efference and Objectification

Perception begins with bugs. Spiders, praying mantises, and bees have all demonstrated the ability to perceive the world around them.[1] This is impressive. It prods us to reconsider which species have perceptual capabilities similar to our own. Yet, there remains a high standard of proof for attributing perception. The existence of efference copies in simple organisms appears to be evidence of perceptual ability. If this is correct, types of worms and slugs will be granted perception. Close examination suggests this conclusion is misguided. The existence of efference copies alone is not a sufficient mark of perception.

We check if organisms have perception by seeing if they exhibit perceptual constancies. A perceptual constancy is an ability. Imagine I have a red water bottle. The top half is in sunlight, while the other half is in shade. Therefore, the top appears a light red, while the bottom looks darker. The human visual system attributes the same shade of red to the entire bottle. This happens despite it looking like it is two different shades of red. The ability to do this is a perceptual constancy. The visual system can attribute the same redness despite different kinds of light hitting the eye. This light is called the “proximal stimulus” and is registered the moment it strikes retinal sensors. For example, the two halves of the bottle cause different registrations of proximal stimulus. In realizing a perceptual constancy, the visual system also engages in “objectification.”[2] It picks out elements in the proximal stimulus relevant to the object. It also ignores elements specific to its perspective of the object. In terms of the example, the visual system did two things in exercising objectification. First, it identified which parts of the registered stimulus were due to the bottle’s redness. Second, it discarded parts caused by circumstantial factors like shade and perspective.

Using the new vocabulary, an explanation of perceptual constancies takes shape. A perceptual constancy is the ability to represent accurately despite variation in registrations of proximal stimulus. The thing represented can be a particular or an attribute.[3] Objectification also happens if and only if there are perceptual constancies. Therefore, it is a reliable indicator of perceptual constancies, and thus perception.[4]

Some maintain organisms like the nematode worm exhibit objectification, as evidenced through efference copies. Efference copies arise to handle conflicting behavior associated with sensory input. When tactile sensors in the head of the worm are stimulated, it moves backward. If similar sensors are activated in its tail, it moves forward. The result is a cruel dilemma. Moving forward stimulates its head sensors, inducing backward movement. Backward movement stimulates its tail sensors, triggering forward movement. Under these circumstances, the poor worm would be unable to move meaningfully in either direction. Fortunately, its sensory system, and those like it, has overcome the problem. Imagine the worm receives stimulus from its tail and activates the move forward reflex. To avoid the feedback loop described, the activation sends an efference copy to the sensory system. This copy functions as a report to the rest of the organism. It indicates that the worm is moving forward.[5] Therefore, any stimulation of head sensors is due to movement, not obstacles or predators. The activation of the second, move-backward reflex is then inhibited, allowing the worm to travel peacefully.

Supporters claim the worm’s sensory system discriminates between different types of proximal stimulus. Due to the efference copy, the worm “knows” further stimulus is caused by its own movement. This amounts to a type of separation between stimulus caused by distal objects versus circumstantial factors.[6] The result is to inform appropriate worm behavior. Efference copies, it seems, are evidence of objectification.

We can call what happens in the worm “objectification.” Yet, it bears little relation to the stronger kind displayed in perceptual constancies. There is a high standard for marking processes as perceptual objectification. It is set in the science of visual psychology.

Scientists explain the natural world. Good explanations implicate only what is necessary to explain the phenomena in question, and no more. Imagine frogs croaking in a pond. We can explain their croaks as plangent pleas to a wizard to retransform them into humans. This is unlikely. Nothing about the croaks suggests the presence of magic or that the frogs were once human. An explanation that doesn’t posit the existence of wizards and animal-human transmutation would suffice. Viewing the croaks as mating calls is simpler, and does the same explanatory work. It fits with our existing biological knowledge. Scientists would have to be presented with compelling circumstances to resort to the anthro-amphibian explanation. Perhaps the croaks sound like “help” and wizards were spotted in the area. Otherwise, the mating call description remains the most likely to be accurate.

Visual psychologists must settle on explanations of animal behavior. Behaviors can often be explained in terms of the proximal stimulus and an animals’ neurology. This is in contrast to explanations that implicate objectification or perception. Consider olfactory navigation by salmon. We can sufficiently explain how they traverse oceans back to their home stream. Olfactory proximal stimulus causes the neurons to fire in a certain pattern, driving accurate navigation. No reference is made to external objects or perception. This neuro-causal explanation is the simplest, and most descriptive science has to offer.[7] If science only postulates a neuro-causal explanation, objectification or perception are probably not taking place. By contrast, the science does implicate external objects in some causal explanations of behavior. In these circumstances, we can be confident objectification and perception are present.

No reference to objectification is present in the scientific explanation of nematode worm behavior. It is a neuro-causal explanation that does not implicate objects in the distal environment. The worm does not separate aspects of the proximal stimulus. Its sensory system does not distinguish which elements are perspectival. It merely reacts to the stimulus. This is true despite the presence of efference copies. They only inhibit reflexes, and have no bearing on how stimulus is processed.[8] We can, however, still maintain the worm’s actions are relevant to environmental objects. Its sensory system functions to keep it from bumping into things. This is a functional explanation of its behavior, and implicates external objects. Indeed, any behavior, perceptual or non-perceptual, can be explained functionally. Yet, we’re interested in what causes worm behavior. The science only appeals to the stimulus received in its causal explanation. There is no compelling evidence to reference external objects. This suggests efference copies alone aren’t indicators of objectification, and thus perception.

Efference copies without perception are observed in other species. Consider crayfish. While more complex than worms, they utilize efference copies in a similar way. The lower abdomens of crayfish are covered in sensitive hairs that trigger a tail-flipping escape response.[9] This leaves them susceptible to a similar type of feedback loop described above. Efference copies prevent this scenario. As self-initiated movement commences, a crayfish’s sensory system blocks signals from the hairs. The registration of stimulus does not progress far enough in the system to trigger a response.[10] Clearly, objectification is not present in this situation either. There is no evidence crayfish distinguish proximal stimulus caused by objects versus circumstantial factors. The causal explanation of crayfish behavior does not implicate objects in the world. Functionally, the crayfish is escaping predators. Yet, the behavior can be sufficiently explained with respect only to the initial proximal stimulus. Hypothetical predators need not enter the conversation. Objectification and perception are equally absent from the causal explanations of crayfish and worm behavior.

Efference copies are a fascinating biological feature. They allow species to better interact with the environment. Yet, their presence is not an indicator of perception. That capacity still begins with bugs, and seemingly not earlier.


Works Cited

Burge, Tyler. Origins of Objectivity. Oxford University Press, 2010.

—. “Perception: Where the Mind Begins.” The Royal Institute of Philosophy. 2014.

—. “Perceptual Constancy – A Central Natural Psychological Kind .” n.d.

Crapse, Trinity B and Marc A Sommer. “Corollary discharge across the animal kingdom.” National Neuroscience Review (2008): 587-600.

[1]Burge, Perception: Where the Mind Begins

[2]Burge 397, Origins of Objectivity

[3]Burge 1, Perceptual Constancy – A Central Natural Psychological Kind

[4]Burge 2, Perceptual Constancy – A Central Natural Psychological Kind

[5]Crapse and Sommer

[6] Burge 11, Perceptual Constancy – A Central Natural Psychological Kind

[7] Burge 425, Origins of Objectivity

[8] Burge 12, Perceptual Constancy – A Central Natural Psychological Kind

[9] Crapse and Sommer

[10] Crapse and Sommer

Efference Copies Everywhere

I’m writing a paper right now about efference copies in nematode worms and what they can tell us about perception. The more I learn, the more impressed I am with the little guys, and all of the strange minor procedures organisms undergo so they can function.

I’ll start with the issue that faces the worms. First, they are super simple creatures. They only have 302 neurons (compare to 250,000 in a fruit fly) and thus have a limited repertoire of behavior. For example, if tactile sensors in the head are stimulated, the worm moves backwards. If sensors in the tail are stimulated, it moves forwards. These reflexes are useful for obvious reasons. The worms need a way to avoid predators and obstacles, and this simple behavioral schema seems to do the trick.

But, a dilemma lurks below the surface. Suppose a worm’s head sensors are activated and it starts moving backwards, only to have its tail sensors activate by virtue of moving through the soil. Now, it reverses direction and moves forwards, to have its head sensors activate and trigger the move backward reflex. In moving backwards… its tail sensors activate… and now it tries to move forwards…

Like someone trying to squeeze into a parking space, the worm would stop and start, making little movements forward and backwards in vain as it struggles in a vicious cycle. These seemingly reasonable stimuli responses would render the worm static for eternity, unable to feed or find a mate.

Yet, the nematodes have not gone extinct. They continue to thrive in rotting fruit and be bred for all sorts of scientific experiments. What, then, keeps them mobile?

The answer lies in efference copies. When a worm’s tail sensors are activated, for example, it triggers the move forward reflex, and signals the nervous system to inhibit the move backward response. This signal is an efference copy. (Note: from my understanding, the worm’s head sensors still register stimulus, but it is only the corresponding behavior that is blocked by the copy.)

We can crudely think of efference copies as the neurological equivalent of the nervous system CCing the rest of the body so everybody is on the same page.

More interesting applications of efference copies are present in complex organisms. For example, crickets make noise by rubbing their wings together in a process called stridulation (which is a cool word). The ruckus they create is loud for us, but much more so for them. To ensure they don’t lose their sense of hearing, the signal to make a song that is sent to the cricket’s motor neurons is simultaneously routed to the auditory system. The auditory system then prevents signals from the tympanum (eardrum) from being processed, effectively cutting off hearing. This example differs from the case of the worm, as the cricket only inhibits the processing of stimulus. The worm processes stimulus, but prevents corresponding reflex-based actions.

Efference copies are present in humans, too. They play a role in vision and movement, but my favorite example is tickling.

Feeling tickled is the result of tactile stimulation on sensitive parts of your body. It’s apparently a simple process. If your feet/stomach/armpits, receive the correct stimulus, you feel giggly. Why, then, can you not tickle yourself? You can provide the same type of stimulus as anyone else, so we can’t we bring ourselves to fits of laughter?

Efference copies. Whenever we act, our sensory systems create a “prediction” of how that action will create additional sensory input. We’re just like the worm in this regard. We need a way of distinguishing stimulus created by external objects, versus us. If you run a little brush across your own palm, it’s not very tickly. Your sensory system has already predicted the stimulus associated with the action and is primed to ignore it.

It is possible to tickle yourself, though. You just need to be indirect about it.

Scientists studying this phenomena created a tickling robot. In the robot’s arm is a little brush. Underneath its arm is your open, right palm. In your left hand, you have a small stylus you can use to draw a pattern. The robot will then take the same pattern drawn with your left hand and trace it on your right palm with the brush, hopefully tickling you.

What the researchers found was that if the robot traces the pattern as you’re drawing it, it’s not very tickly. However,as the delay between you drawing the pattern and the robot tracing it increased, the more tickly the result was. A delay of 300ms between you telling the robot how to tickle and it tickling increased subjective feelings of ticklishness by ~50% (full disclosure: I’m eyeballing the graph from the study for this number. The authors don’t provide it. From what I can see, it jumps from 2.1ish to around 3.4 on the tickle rating rank).

I hope you can see why I find efference copies so interesting now. Beyond fulfilling functions just described, they also play a big role in generally distinguishing self from the environment. There is a study describing efference copies’ role in internal speech, as well as a section in the tickling-robot section detailing how auditory illusions with schizophrenia can be attributed to issues with efference copies.

If you want a survey of efference copies across the animal kingdom, you can check out this article.

Slow and Steady

David Brooks thinks single-payer is worth considering, but has no clue how we would make the transition.

He cites bunch of reasons.

Jobs will be lost in the health system; jobs will be lost in the insurance industry; patients will have to switch from private insurance they generally like to coverage provided by the government; doctors’ salaries will go down; the Federal government will have to spend ~$3.26 trillion more a year; taxes will go up; time between needing an appointment and seeing a doctor will increase.

These are hurdles worth considering. One of the scariest statistics he cites is that support for Medicare-for-all drops 23% if people hear we would need to pay more taxes.


It’s clear political support for Medicare-for-all will be difficult once the fervor clears and the extent of the changes/costs become apparent. As the diagram suggests, nobody wants to cut out private health insurance, endanger medicare, pay more taxes, and on top of that have additional delays in treatment.

Here is my question to David Brooks: how slow can we go? If we were hell-bent on getting universal healthcare with as little growing pain as possible, what’s the best way to go about it? Doing it as slow as possible (perhaps over a century) would do a lot alleviate the economic impacts, the strain on budgets, and the sticker shock of having to pay more taxes. By the time everyone got universal healthcare, all of its critics/anyone who remembers an alternative would be dead.

In fact, the same study claims support for marginal changes in the system is high.

Larger majorities of the public favor more incremental changes to the health care system such as a Medicare buy-in plan for adults between the ages of 50 and 64 (77 percent), a Medicaid buy-in plan for individuals who don’t receive health coverage through their employer (75 percent), and an optional program similar to Medicare for those who want it (74 percent).

I’m not an expert, but I’d really like to know what a molasses-like plan for healthcare reform would look like. How would we phase out private insurance? Is it reasonable to expand things like Medicare and Medicaid in search of incremental change and then cut/transform them later? Would a slow, drawn-out process be messier and more bureaucratic than a clean cut?

How to Make it as a Millennial

The New 30-Somethings (came to my attention courtesy of a good friend).

This article is great. It ties together a lot of things I’m personally interested in. Stagnating wages, the residue of the great recession, intergenerational wealth, insane real estate prices, student loans, the cost of lower-education, and parental dependence.

The informal synopsis is that millennials are fucked because they are encountering all of these things at once. The paradigmatic millennial took out student loans to attend college, graduated in the midst of the great recession, has seen no real growth in wages, lives parsimoniously in NY, LA, SF, etc… can’t afford rent, is raising a kid, can’t afford preschool either, but scrapes by on the assistance of their boomer parents. ‘Rental financial assistance allows them to purchase real estate and maintain a high-ish standard of living when traditional financial life milestones like paying off student loans or putting a down payment on a house would otherwise be unachievable.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes:

As one economic analysis concluded recently: “For Americans under the age of 40, the 21st century has resembled one long recession.”


On average, each millennial parent receives $11,011 per year in combined financial support and unpaid labor, the 2017 TD Ameritrade Millennial Parents Survey found, for an annual total of $253 billion in America.

[back of the napkin math reveals this to be ~2.2% of GDP]

“Education is incredibly expensive and keeps going up, but grandparents feel very strongly about their grandchildren having a good education,” said Dana Haddad, who runs New York Admissions, an education consultancy that works with children starting at 10 months.

10 months!! The rat race is starting earlier and earlier. The article doesn’t push this point, but I believe it’s the case we can attribute much of the competition and insanity surrounding American higher education to the financial insecurity faced by recent college grads. The plight of the millennials makes this extra salient.

While it’s true that families with means have always helped their children (discreetly or not), what’s different today is that as the economy has more extreme gyrations and wages flatten, family wealth plays an outsize role in helping people get ahead, said Chuck Collins, a scion of the Oscar Mayer food corporation and the author of “Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good.”

Sudden, unexpected gain in respect for a sausage heir.

So last year Ms. Alvarez’s parents surprised her with a $50,000 cash gift to help with a down payment on a $435,000 condo three blocks from the beach in San Diego. “I grew up middle-class, and my parents immigrated from Cuba,” she said. “They saw that I’ve worked hard but also that I had the bad luck to graduate into the 2008 recession

Millennials aren’t lazy. They’re just unlucky to come-of-age during a recession and but are fortunate to have parents that earned when there wasn’t one.

[these transfers of wealth] create a distorted idea of what it takes to attain success and what financial milestones are actually achievable if you are starting from zero or less.


If this article isn’t terrifying, you either have a boomer parent or are majoring in CS/engineering. We’re becoming more financially dependent on our parents than we’ve ever been. Beyond the economic woes the article directly addresses, I see this as threatening the supposed autonomy in young adulthood that is necessary to establish a complete person.

Being bankrolled by your parents is nice, but it comes at a cost to your agency. How can you really develop your own thoughts/opinions if you need to make nice with your parents so they’ll pay your way through school? How can you truly explore your interests if there is financial pressure to pick a high-paying degree? In a more extreme case mentioned in the article, how can you ensure the best education for your child if your parents are footing the bill for their tuition?

A perpetual antagonistic relationship with your parents is bad, but if you’ve never really pissed them off I maintain you’re doing something wrong. Economic freedom is necessary for our development as autonomous, responsible agents. Young people taking risks in their 20s also fuels economic growth, raising the general standard of living and creating enormous wealth — problems of distribution aside.

This article’s prognosis is grim. It’s easy, and even rational, to read this as a student and decide to double down on academic competition and credentialsim to ensure your financial security. Yet, it doesn’t have to be like this. I am idealistic, but also optimistic. A solution should be reachable, but currently it is a mystery to me.