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The Complexity Matters blog features the Thursday Complexity Post as well as other complexity inspired news items.

 

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The Power of Paradox and a Poet’s Prescience

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, June 24, 2016

Why is the night sky dark?

Edgar Allan Poe, the enigmatic poet and literary critic who created short stories combining human horror and science fiction, may have been the first person to suggest a possible solution to Olbers’ paradox, an astronomical riddle that perplexed scientists for centuries. 

Anthony Aguirre, a physics professor at the University of California—Santa Cruz, says when we find a paradox and explore it and study it, the effort may lead us on a beguiling path that gets close to the truth.  In a short essay in John Brockman’s book “This Will Make You Smarter,”  Aguirre says Olbers’ paradox is one of his favorites. It was named for German astronomer Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers, who recognized that the darkness of the night sky conflicted with the idea of an infinite, eternal and static universe, which was dominant scholarly view during his lifetime (1758-1840). If the universe were fixed and static and filled with an infinite number of stars and galaxies, he figured, any sight line from earth would end on a very bright star. So the night sky would have to be as bright as day.

Why is the sky dark at night? Why don’t we see light from all those stars? Aguirre writes that scientists grappled with this puzzle for centuries, coming up with all sorts of unworkable solutions.  Could there be a dynamic, expanding and evolving universe? Poe thought so, Aguirre observes, and the scientific world took a long time to catch up.

Poe was no scientist, but he had a restless imagination and a mind full of esoteric knowledge.  Contemporary literary critics didn’t much like “Eureka,” his lengthy 1848 prose poem on the nature and origins of the universe. But many scholars say he came up with a rudimentary version of how modern science explains the universe. In a New York Times story, Emily Eakin explains Poe’s “uncanny display of prescience.”  Rather than static and eternal, Poe envisioned universe exploding in “one instantaneous flash” from a “single primordial particle.” Eighty years before scientists hammered out the math, she writes, Poe had envisioned a crude description of the Big Bang theory, which became a mainstream idea in the 1960s.  She notes Poe also imagined an expanding universe that might eventually collapse, and something like black holes.  And she explains that Poe’s thoughts on the Olbers paradox have turned out to be right: he imagined that the universe, while inexpressibly and unimaginably great, was finite in time and space, and if the speed of light is also finite, the light from some of those stars would be eons away and not visible from earth. Watch a scientific explanation of the Olbers paradox here.

Aguirre is wrestling with a number of paradoxes, and he considers them a gift. “Nature appears to contradict itself with the utmost rarity,” he writes, “so a paradox can be an opportunity for us to lay bare our cherished assumptions and discover which of them must be let go….and reveal…that the very model of thinking we used to create the paradox must be replaced.”

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Outsourcing Morality

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Moral Outsourcing and Clever Fudge Factors

Under a Chinese law enacted in November, students caught cheating on the high-stakes Gaokao college entrance exam may face up to seven years in prison. Nine million anxious students recently filed into testing centers across the country to take the exam, widely considered the most important test in the life of a Chinese citizen.  

A New York Times story by Javier C. Hernandez reports that the harsh penalty was, according to the Chinese newspaper Global Times, intended to enforce fairness and uphold a sense of “social justice” in society, because these test results have such critical impact on any individual’s future. A high score means a prestigious university and a well-paid profession and a low score means shame and a lifetime in menial jobs.  Families have gone to extremes to help their kids on the tests, hiring companies to surreptitiously transmit answers, bribing officials for an advance look at the questions, and buying pens and other products designed to facilitate cheating. To help enforce the law, Beijing officials said they had sent eight police officers to each of the city’s 96 testing sites.   Reactions on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, were mixed—some supported enforced fairness, and other considered the penalties too harsh.

Do punishments prevent cheating? Is morality more certain when it relies on external enforcement? High-stakes educational testing in the U.S. has been marred by cheating scandals, and some teachers and other adults involved have faced criminal charges. Student too have faced sanctions. 

Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics, has studied cheating and other forms of dishonest behavior in business environments and private transactions.  He’s the author of The Honest Truth about Dishonesty, and Predictable Irrational. In the latter, he explains that we internalize the values and ethics from the society we live in, and we’re unhappy when we’re not in compliance and happy when we are—or appear to be. His experiments show we want to maintain a positive view of ourselves as honest people, and we also want to get what we want.  When those two goals are in conflict, he says, we devise what he calls a moral fudge factor. In experiments where circumstances allowed students to correct test answers so they would appear smarter, or when they could reward themselves with coins for asserting improved scores that could not be verified, most test subjects cheated a little bit. Compared with scores of students who had no chance to cheat, the groups who could get away with cheating consistently scored higher. But they boosted their performance just a little, so they could still feel good about themselves, not outrageously enough to feel they’d been dishonest.  Ariely and other scholars also examined the Enron scandal, in which a group of executives pushed the company to collapse by deliberately disguising massive debt with creative accounting. The norms within the group blurred and changed as the cheating progressed, and Ariely writes that when social norms collide with market norms, market norms tend to prevail.

David Mayer, writing in Fast Company, suggests that when our morality and self-interest conflict, one of our fudges is to “outsource” unethical behavior to others who can do it for us. So we sometimes like leaders, bosses, officials and political candidates, who do or support things we’d rather not personally acknowledge.  He writes:

“The psychologist Crystal Hoyt and her colleagues found in several experiments that when productivity is at stake, people are less concerned that their leaders use unethical means to reach their goals. This is consistent with recent coverage in the popular press suggesting that jerks can be better bosses because they're efficient, that narcissists are unusually likely to rise into leadership positions, and that we're psychologically vulnerable to trusting obviously untrustworthy people. Many of us want leaders to engage in whatever "goal-pursuit" best serves our self-interest, and we're more willing to make moral accommodations for those who appear hell-bent on doing that.”

Ariely writes that determined people find their way around laws and regulations intended to enforce ethics that thwart their interests, but he urges against giving up on honesty. We need reminders about our personal honest when the temptation occurs. In one large experiment, he asked one group of subjects to name 10 books they read in high school, and another group to name all of the Ten Commandments they could remember.  Given an experimental chance to cheat, some of the book list subjects cheated. Among the Ten Commandments group, even among those who remembered only one or two commandments, none cheated.   The result wasn’t about religion, Ariely wrote in Predictably Irrational. It was because the exercise had evoked the idea of honesty among the subjects.

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The Complex Processes that Make Us Human

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, June 03, 2016


Self-Organization and the Origins of Agency

Philosophers and scientists have for centuries explored the mysteries of self -awareness. What causes the emergence of “I” as a distinct entity with individual thoughts, intentions and physical capacities? 

“We humans tend to believe we are agents, masters and mistresses of our fate, that our deeds and desires are our destiny,” writes neuroscientist J.A. Scott Kelso, PhD. Because scientific basis for that belief has been lacking, he says, our notion of “the self as a causal agent remains a ghost in the machine awaiting exorcism. ” But the main feature of self-organizing systems, he explains, is that they are self-less: no internal or external entity organizes them.  So how does the self as a causal agent emerge?  

Ironically, Dr. Kelso suggests, the first expression of the extraordinary quality of agency in human infants takes the form of phase transition, the most fundamental form of self-organization in natural systems. The mechanism involved is positive feedback, a ubiquitous process in nature, economies and societies in which systems amplify each other’s output so that A produces more B which produces more A.  Dr. Kelso’s insights come from mathematical modeling and a new look at studies of babies.

Dr. Kelso founded the Center for Complex Systems and Brain Sciences at Florida Atlantic University, where he holds the Glenwood and Martha Creech Eminent Scholar Chair in Science and is also professor of complex systems and brain sciences, psychology, biological sciences and biomedical sciences.  He is considered the originator of Coordination Dynamics (CD), a theoretical and empirical framework grounded in concepts of self-organization in physics, chemistry and biology and the mathematical tools of nonlinear dynamical systems.  Processes studied in CD include moving, perceiving, thinking, feeling, learning, remembering, developing and aging.

In a new paper in Trends in Cognitive Science, Dr. Kelso writes that “the birth of agency is due to a eureka-like pattern forming phase transition in which the infant suddenly realizes that it can make things happen in the world.”  Scientists from many fields have pondered the roots of agency, which Dr. Kelso says means deliberate action taken toward an end. He notes the observations and inquiries of Charles Darwin and physicist Edwin Schrodinger, one of the architects of quantum mechanics, who explored the physical basis of life and our sense of being a separate self. He quotes philosopher and evolutionary biologist Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, who believes physical movement is “the mother of all cognition” and the source of agency and selfhood.   

Dr. Kelso describes studies in which researchers tied ribbons around the ankles of three and four month old babies, then attached the ribbons to mobiles over their cribs.  When the babies kicked, the mobiles moved, creating sights and sounds they liked.    A positive feedback loop was triggered. When the baby realized mobile movement was the result of kicking, and that the baby itself could cause the movement, its kicking rate was amplified.  The kicking rate of babies with the ankle ribbon increased three or four times more than the kick rate of babies who were presented with the same stimulation but could not make the mobile move.  These studies measured the movements of the babies but not the movements of the mobiles. 

Looking through a lens of Coordination Dynamics, Dr. Kelso writes, the baby is coupled with the world, and agency arises when the baby has the “aha experience” of realizing it is causing change.  In a mathematical model of the research, which includes the baby, its actions and its environment, he explains, this “aha experience” refers to a bifurcation in a coupled dynamical system. The coupled dynamics refers to the coordinated relation between the baby’s movements and the kinesthetic, visual, auditory and emotional consequences they produce.  Bifurcation happens when a system shows an abrupt but lasting change in typical behavior or function.  And bifurcations, he explains, are the mathematical equivalent of phase transitions.

“The pairing of movement and motion, motor and sensory, action and perception, matter and mind, typically treated as separate, becomes a meaningful unified experience,” Dr. Kelso writes. “Awareness of their intimate relation is the basis of conscious agency.  Just as two cells exchange matter through the joint action of stimulus and inhibitions to form a simple biological structure, so the baby and the mobile form a coupled dynamical system.”

“The causal influence that the baby exerts on the world, “ Dr. Kelso writes, “is the source of what we call ‘I’.”

See a YouTube lecture on coordination by Dr. Kelso here and read the paper  here. .

 

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It Takes a Village to be a Great Leader

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Leaders Get Help from Coaches, Therapists and Friends

Successful CEOs may be rugged individualists and lonely visionaries, but studies show many of the highest achievers get help from a surprising assortment of people, including colleagues, coaches, support groups and personal therapists.

Allen Gannett, the CEO of TrackMaven, a marketing analysis firm, surveyed 56 venture-backed startup CEOs on how they get the personal and professional support they need to get their companies started and keep them going.  In a FastCompany story he reports that 95 percent of entrepreneurs said they got advice and support through informal talks with peers. Many got help from coaches, and the portion who did increased as their companies scaled up. Gannett notes 32 percent of CEOs in beginning stage companies sought coaches, while 60 percent did when their companies were in growth stage. 

Gannet says the late Bill Campbell, the Columbia football coach who became chairman of the board of Intuit, coached such tech giants as Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Eric Schmidt, Larry Page and Sheryl Sandberg.   

Gannett found that overall, fewer than 10 percent of CEOs he studied turned to personal therapists, but the need increased as businesses grew: only 4 percent of seed-sage CEO had psychologists, psychiatrists or licensed therapists, but 30 percent of growth stage CEOs did.

The idea that entrepreneurs or top business executives aren’t immune to mental health issues isn’t new. A 2004 Wall Street Journal story describes how increasing numbers of CEOs were seeking therapy to deal with stress and latent mental illness.  A recent Business Insider story discusses the work of Jeff Hyman, an entrepreneur who launched Startup Therapist, now Strong Suits.  He’s a counselor, rather than a licensed therapist, who helps business leaders deal with a range of  business and workplace issues.  Most often, he says, it’s the human side of the work that’s hardest for CEOs and managers. 

In addition to individual advisors, some executives turn to organizations such as the Young Presidents Organization and Vistage. They charge, but they provide networking opportunities and a range of services.   

No matter how independent, self-reliant and hard-charging CEOs are, Gannett writes, they need lots of help and support as they pursue success. “Great leadership really does take a village,” Gannett says.  Read the Fast Company story here.

 

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Leadership Challenge: Building Trust Short-Term

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Creating Trust Among Worker Who Will Soon Be Gone

More than 40 percent of workers in the U.S. have “contingent” jobs, according to government statistics.  They work part time, they are hired through temp agencies, they are contract employees, or they are freelancers and self-employed workers who find customers for their goods or services. That means growing numbers of people don’t have what have been traditionally considered secure jobs where they might stay and rise in the hierarchy. 

Are long-term careers in traditional jobs going the way of typewriters and floppy disks?

U.S. Department of Labor figures, reported in a Forbes magazine story by Elaine Pofeldt, show that the number of part time workers, who made up 16.2 percent of the workforce in 2010, had increased 36 percent over the preceding five years.  Independent contract workers, who stay on the job or the duration of a project, rose to 18 percent of the workforce in 2014, up from 12 percent five years earlier.  The number of temporary jobs reached an all time high of 2.9 million last year, accounting for 2.4 percent of all private sector jobs. Among the 17 percent of workers who have unstable schedules are on-call workers who have to be on or near their employers’ premises so they can show up to work only for the hours they are needed.    

According to government and private studies, contingency workers have lower pay, less access to private health insurance, greater reliance on food stamps and other public benefits, less job stability and more erratic hours.  Forbes reports 28.5 percent of contingency workers who are agency temps, on call employees and company contract workers were laid off last year. Job duration is all categories is dropping. Government figures say the average time on the job for a 55-year-old is 10 years, and it’s three years for a 25 year old. 

What happens to friendships, team work, collaboration and trust in work environments where people have uncertain schedules or don’t expect to stay very long?  Surveys have shown decades of sharp declines in the number of people who have close friends at work.   Some theorists think social media contributes to that trend. Why bother with new friends when you have such easy access to old ones?   John Spencer, a U.S. Army Major and West Point instructor who led troops in Afghanistan observed in a New York Times essay that immediately after the traumas of battle soldiers told their stories to friends on FaceBook rather than talking to each other.  Changes in hiring practices are also influential.    

Adam Grant, a Wharton professor of management, wrote in the Times that people invest less in their workplace relationships when they expect them to be short term. Professor Grant and Major Spencer in separate essays each observed more transactional relationships among today’s workers and solders than had been the case in earlier decades.  They noticed that conversations among colleagues were civil and functional but not convivial and analytical.      

How can leaders encourage more trusting and collaborative relationships in environment that are becoming less stable and less lasting?  A LaborTemps blog suggests managers “treat contingent workers as they would like to be treated.” The writer urges leaders to make initial gestures that show they trust workers, and build relationships by frequent and honest communication.  Major Spencer advises against trying to curtail social media use. Instead, he suggests scheduling debriefing sessions to replace the interpretive conversations that used to happen informally. A FastCompany story by Lydia Dishman stresses that leaders need to be systems thinkers who can adapt to rapidly changing work ecosystems and can take a take a holistic view of evolving organizational roles and needs.

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Some Corals Suvive Sick Environment: Scientists Want to Know Why

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, May 16, 2016

Tiny Survivors: Slivers of Hope in Dying Coral

More than 90 percent of the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest living structure of coral that extends more than 1,400 miles along the east coast of Australia, has been devastated by bleaching. Some scientists think a few more years of warm acid water will turn the great reef into eroding banks of rubble. And 2015 marked the third and biggest bleaching event in coral reefs world-wide.  

But exceptions exist. In several places, tiny pieces of baby coral are surviving the adversities causing massive damage and destruction of most of their kind. Climate change and El Nino have raised ocean temperature beyond the tolerance of many coral species.  Fossil fuel emissions are making the ocean more acid, and corals needs alkaline waters to thrive. Over fishing kills, because because corals depend on fish to nibble away the algae that compete for their space.  Marine scientists are trying to discover how some coral varieties survive while others don’t.   

In a New Yorker article, the Pulitzer Prize wining environmental writer Elizabeth Kolbert tells the story of Ruth Gates, a marine biologist who is doing survival experiments in her lab after studying coral all over the planet. She thinks if scientists can identify qualities that made some corals hardier than others, it might be possible to produce tougher varieties of corals. In this way, Kolbert writes, humans might be able to  “design reefs capable of withstanding human influence.”

In 2013, a foundation run by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen held a contest called Ocean Challenge, which asked scientists to present plans to counter rapid change  in the seas.  Gates, director of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, and an Australian collaborator won $4 million to create a “super coral.” Kaneohoe Bay, used as a sewage dump for much of the 20th century, was their inspiration for the project.  After an invasive algae fouled the water, environmentalists  at the University of Hawaii and the nature Conservancy  devised something like a huge marine vacuum cleaner to suck algae off the seabed.  Gates was fascinated by the corals that survived all this adversity. In her labs, she’s experimenting to find which corals survive combinations of warmth, acidity, pollution and sparse fish populations—the conditions they’ll face in the ocean of the future. The most successful offspring will be bred with each other to see if future generations can be even more robust. 

Selective breeding of animals has already produced meatier chickens, cows and pigs and allergy resistant pets.  Selective breeding to thrive within a changing ecosystem ranges pushes new territory, Kolbert writes, but there is already a name for it: assisted evolution.

Individual corals are known as polyps, are tiny organisms that collectively constitute a thin layer on the surface of a reef. The underlying structure is essentially a bone yard of earlier generations of corals. The organisms living in the coral polyps give coral its dramatic colors. When they die the coral is bleached white. 

Gates not only wants to discover what makes some coral varieties more robust. She wants to know whether the more vulnerable varieties can be “trained” for better survival. Corals are inhabited by a multitude of other tiny creatures, called symbionts, which seem to have differing tolerances to heat and other adversities. Gates wonders if corals might be encouraged to take up new symbionts, just as parents urge their children to make new friends.  Or, some differences in survivability could be epigenetic, meaning they are influenced by experiences of earlier generations.  “Epigenetic is to genes what punctuation is to prose,”Kolbert writes. “Epigenetics alter the way genes are expressed, but leave the underlying code unaffected.”      

Even if Gates and other research scientist can produce a super coral in the lab, some scientists Kolbert interviewed doubt such successes could be taken to scale.  But as Gates tells Kolbert, even if it doesn’t immediately work, it’s important to try because changes to earth and is waters aren’t going to stop.

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Reading on Screens Can Influence the Way We Think

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, May 16, 2016

 

Digital Platforms May Shape Our Perceptions

If we want to go paperless and read everything on screen, we may risk missing the forest for the trees.

New research suggests that reading on tablets, laptops and other digital platforms makes us more inclined on focus on specific details and less predisposed to use the kind of abstract interpretations normally at play in understanding the world around us.

The research was conducted at Dartmouth’s Tiltfactor, an interdisciplinary innovation  lab  that designs and studies games for social impact. Geoff Kaufman, PhD, an assistant professor at the Human Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, who was a postdoctoral researcher at Tiltfactor during the study, and Mary Flanagan,  PhD, Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor in Digital Humanities, at Dartmouth and a founding director of Tiltfactor, led the study.  The work was prompted by earlier studies showing people who played the digital version of the health strategy game POX: Save the People” were inclined to propose localized solutions rather than looking at the big picture.

To examine whether screen or paper presentation might trigger a different interpretive lens, more than 300 participants read the same material in the same type and format, some in digital platforms, and some in printouts. Some participants read a short story by David Sedaris on a laptop while other read it in print, and both took a comprehension test afterwards. On questions dealing with abstraction and inference, the print readers did better, scoring  66 percent correct, compared to 48 percent correct for the digital readers.  On concrete questions, the digital readers did better, scoring 73 percent correct, compared with 58 percent correct for the print readers.

Participants were also given tables of information about four fictitious car models on screen and on paper and asked to select the superior cars.  Print readers outperformed digital readers by 66 percent to 43 percent. However, digital readers improve their performance after a priming activity designed to activate a higher construal level leading to more abstract mindset.

While much research has been devoted to how digital platforms impact memory, distractibility, mindfulness and attention, the researchers say, the impact on abstract interpretation has been understudied.

 “Given that psychologist  have shown that construal levels can vastly impact outcomes  such as self-esteem and goal pursuit, it’s crucial to recognize the role that digitization of information might be having on this important aspect of cognition,” Kaufman said in a ScienceDaily story. 

Given the ubiquitous use of digital devise, apps, smart phones, and distribution of iPads in schools, it’s important to study how digital tool impact our understanding, Flanagan said.  Understanding the impact on abstract perceptions, she says, can lead to development of software that overcomes tendencies or deficits inherent in digital devices.

 

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If Our Senses Lie, Who Knows What's True?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, May 16, 2016

 

Can We Recognize Reality, and Would it Help?

If you tend to think of reality as a great hulking mass of moving parts where definable events happen among substantial and identifiable agents, you’re probably deluded. And from an evolutionary standpoint that might be just fine.   

Donald D. Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California at Irvine, has spent decade studying perception, artificial intelligence, evolutionary game theory and the brain, and has concluded that what we think we know is nothing at all like reality. Further, he and colleagues say evolution doesn’t necessarily favor perceptions that accurately describe the environment. The greatest evolutionary fitness for any creature may result from limited perceptions that are approximations of what the creature needs to know, these scientists suggest, not the whole truth about everything there.

Dr. Hoffman explored these ideas in a Quanta Magazine article by Amanda Gefter.

In the strange world of quantum physics, Gefter writes, “definite objects localized in space” don’t exist until we observe them. She quotes the late physicist John Wheeler: “Useful as it is under ordinary circumstances to say that the world exists ‘out there’ independent of us, that view can no longer be upheld.”   Gefter says Dr. Hoffman is at the boundary of physics and neuroscience, “attempting a mathematical model of the observer, tying to get at the reality behind the illusion.” Dr. Hoffman has experimented with mathematical models to test how well given evolutionary strategies serve the goals of survival and reproduction. 

“An organism that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but is just tuned to fitness,” he told Gefter. “Never.” 

It’s a matter of adaptive behavior, he explains. A person who spends too much time contemplating what reality really is risks being eaten by a tiger. But it’s even more complex than that. According to physics, there are no public physical objects.  Dr. Hoffman thinks there is an external world of sorts and that each sentient being has its own perception of its experiences.  So you can have whole networks of arbitrary complexity and that’s the world, he says; objective reality is “just conscious agents, just points of view.”  He doesn’t think we are machines.  But he has come up with a mathematical model of consciousness. He explains:

I have a space X of experiences, a space G of actions and an algorithm D that lets me choose a new action given my experiences. Then I posit a W for a world, which is also a probability space. Somehow the world affects my perceptions, so there’s a perception map P from the world to my experience, and when I act I change the world, so there’s a map A from the space of actions to the world.   That’s the entire structure.  Six elements.

Dr. Hoffman does distinguish between mathematical representation and the things being represented.  So there is reality, and it’s first person.

“As a conscious realist, I am postulating conscious experience as ontological primitives, the most basic ingredient of the world.  I’m claiming experiences are the real coin of the realm. The experiences of everyday life—my real feeling of a headache, my real taste of chocolate—that really is the ultimate nature of reality.”  Read the Quanta article here.

With Thanks to Buck Lawrimore.

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Genetic Escape Artists Offer Clues to Illnesses

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Wednesday, April 27, 2016

How Did a Lucky 13 Defy an 'Inevitable' Fate?
 
A very small number of healthy adults over age 30 whose genetic mutations have been thought to guarantee fatal or extremely debilitating childhood illnesses may provide clues for scientists seeking to prevent or treat genetic diseases.
 
In a study published in Nature Biotechnology, researchers examined genetic data from more than half a million people around the world. Working with 12 previously collected large data sets, they searched for adults who remained healthy even though they carried genetic mutations linked with severe childhood disorders. They focused on diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, that produce severe symptoms in childhood and are caused by mutations on a single gene.    
 
The idea of the new research was "study the healthy, don't just study the sick," co-author Stephen Friend, MD, PhD, said in a Scientific American story by Live Science writer Agata Blaszczak-Boxe. Dr. Friend, president of the nonprofit Sage Bionetworks and a genomics professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, explained in a press briefing that the findings may be a step in findings therapies that prevent manifestations of the diseases in other people who carry the unlucky mutations.      
 
A New York Times story by Gina Kolata explains the researchers looked for mutations in 874 genes that are linked to 84 severe diseases, and found 15,597 people who might fit the criteria for resilience. But they discarded nearly all because of errors in the data or because evidence didn't support the idea that the mutation would inevitably cause the disease. They ended up with 13 people whose verifiable mutations were thought to inevitably cause eight serious childhood diseases in the individuals who inherit the mutations.
 
While the discovery provides a new research tool, scientists can't examine the 13 "genetic superheroes" because when people whose information is in the data bases signed up to have their DNA analyzed an studied, they were promised anonymity. As a result, researchers don't know exactly what protected the 13 against their disease linked mutations. One possibility is the existence of genes that suppress the effect of the mutations.
 
Dr. Friend and his colleagues Eric Schadt PhD, and Jason Bobe, MSc, of Mount Sinai are beginning the Resilience Project. Their plan is to recruit 100,000 people who agree to have their genomes sequenced and be contacted if they are healthy despite a gene mutation that would have been expected to kill or sicken them.
In addition to cystic fibrosis, which affects the lungs and digestive system, the researchers looked at seven other serious genetic diseases. Pfeiffer syndrome affects the bones of the skull; a skeletal condition called atelosteogeneis, which is usually fatal at birth; familial dysautonomia, which affects nerve cells; epidermolysis bullosa simplex, a severe skin condition; autoimmune polyendrocrinopathy syndrome, a complex autoimmune disorder with many symptoms; Smith-Lemli-Opitz syndrome, which causes developmental problems, and acampomelic campomelic dysplasia, which is usually fatal to newborns.
 

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Emergence, Attractors, Tipping Points Complexity Science in Service of Peace

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, April 08, 2016

 

Math as a Tool to Study Peace: With Equations 'You Can't Fudge'


Did a 19-year-old Serb nationalist named Gavrilo Pricip really detonate the world-shattering conflagration that killed some 80 million people when he assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary in June 1914? Some historians and CNN have called him the man who started World War I.  

Were the forces that led to the Crimean War set in motion by a squabble over the keys to the front gate of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem? Historian Trevor -Roper has argued they were. And in his book The Landscape of History, military historian John Lewis Gaddis says that dispute and its consequences exemplify sensitive dependence on initial conditions. Also known as the “butterfly effect,” this sensitive dependence means that in nonlinear systems, such as international relations, small details of initial conditions can be amplified tremendously and unpredictably.

What makes some conflicts bloody and intractable while others can be resolved? Larry Liebovitch and Peter Coleman belong to a team of leading edge scholars and researchers who are trying to understand peace and conflict by applying principles of complexity science. War and violence have been studied more than peace, and Dr. Liebovitch and Dr. Coleman are among the authors of a research paper focusing on the challenge of identifying variables and interactions that would be needed for sustainable world peace.

 Dr. Peter T. Coleman is a professor of psychology and education, a certified mediator, and a scholar who has researched the dynamics of conflict and sustainable peace.   He is the director of the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Teachers College, Columbia University and Executive Director of Columbia University’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity (AC4).

Dr. Larry S. Liebovitch is an astrophysicist, mathematician and multi-disciplinary scholar who has created mathematical models to explore phenomena large and small—on scales that range from the molecular interactions to the dynamics of international politics. He has studied cooperation and competition in small world networks and the dynamics of two people in conflict trying to reach consensus, in marriage, in therapy, and in randomly assigned pairs.

As Dr. Liebovitch explains, math can provide new ideas to approach conflict. For example, he says, looking at conflict in terms of attractors, you find that people keep trying to do different things but wind up in the same place. Math can also suggest new ideas and paradigms for looking at sudden changes in systems, and the elements that preceded the changes.

In a Columbia radio discussion, Dr. Coleman provided an example of roommates who  live together for a while, seem to get along, then suddenly separate in anger. He said research suggests the split may not have been caused by a bad event, but because of something one or both roommates had from the beginning that later emerged as very important.  As Dr. Liebovitch puts it, conflict involves people, their past, the way they have interacted before, the environment, the culture, space, time, emotions and rationality. “So this system has many moving pieces.  How do we need to think of a system like that, and what are its properties?” he reflects. “What I do is make rigorous mathematical models of how people behave and translate assumptions of how people interact into equations, and then use math to see the consequences.”

 Sometimes, he says, the math will show things in the system that were previously imperceptible, and sometimes a metaphor from math can suggest a more precise equation. Not all human behaviors can be quantified, he explained in an interview with Plexus, but it is possible to gain insights from mathematical examination of slices of behaviors—specific actions or feelings and results of those actions or feelings.

“Making anything quantitative forces you to be really clear about what you are stating,” Dr. Liebovitch said. “If you want to operationalize a dyad and examine if one person feels one way, how will the other person feel, and make it quantitative, you have to decide what’s a reasonable function.  If you’re writing an equation, you can’t fudge. You can’t write words you don’t understand or effects you’re just intuiting.”  Dr. Liebovitch and scientists in many fields say understanding the simplest and most basic dynamics is useful in understanding what happens in pairs, small groups, and networks of people. 

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