Thursday, December 25, 2008

Neuroscience: Unconscious brain makes best possible decisions

According to a recent Physorg story, the 1970s claim that humans rarely make rational decisions is false:
Pouget analyzed the data from a test performed in the laboratory of Michael Shadlen, a professor of physiology and biophysics at the University of Washington. Shadlen's team watched the activity of a pair of neurons that normally respond to the sight of things moving to the left or right. For instance, when the test consisted of a few dots moving to the right within the jumble of other random dots, the neuron coding for "rightward movement" would occasionally fire. As the test continued, the neuron would fire more and more frequently until it reached a certain threshold, triggering a flurry of activity in the brain and a response from the subject of "rightward."

Pouget says a probabilistic decision-making system like this has several advantages. The most important is that it allows us to reach a reasonable decision in a reasonable amount of time. If we had to wait until we're 99 percent sure before we make a decision, Pouget says, then we would waste time accumulating data unnecessarily. If we only required a 51 percent certainty, then we might reach a decision before enough data has been collected.
I would be interested to know whether this is in part learned behaviour - as I suspect it is. That is, determining how much information is necessary to make a decision is probably partly a matter of experience. It would be interesting to test small children and see.

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Religious-based civil rights movement a key underplayed story

In "God Is a Problem, Sources Say: How secular newsrooms handle stories with a religious component, "Vincent Carroll reports,
No less revealing has been coverage of the faith-based effort to deploy U.S. foreign policy on behalf of victims of persecution. An alliance that included conservative evangelicals, the Catholic Church, Jewish groups and a variety of other organizations prodded Congress into passing four watershed measures: the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, the Sudan Peace Act of 2002 and the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004. "Any one of these initiatives is a major story," Allen D. Hertzke writes, "but together they represent the most important human rights movement since the end of the cold war."

Not only was this story underplayed in the press; it was often miscast as merely a crusade of Christian conservatives and reported with patronizing, skeptical references to their claims - as if the persecution of Christians abroad was a matter of debate. Too many journalists apparently have trouble treating with respect any movement in which Christian conservatives provide what Mr. Hertzke calls "crucial grass-roots muscle." (December 22, 2008, Wall Street Journal)
The headline writer gets it entirely wrong. It's not God's problem.

God isn't in receivership; the legacy mainstream media are in receivership.

Getting this type of thing all wrong for decades is part of their culture. It won't and can't change. So people just go elsewhere for news now.