January 3, 2012

"Study of Fish Suggests the Value of Uninformed Voters."

Scientists trained some golden shiners to associate a blue target with food and a smaller group of shiners to associate food with a yellow target, yellow being the color shiners "more naturally prefer."

When all these trained fish were put together, "most fish pursued yellow targets, suggesting the smaller group’s more intense desire for yellow overwhelmed the larger group’s numerical advantage... But as fish without any training were added, the group increasingly favored the blue target..." said Iain D. Couzin, a Princeton professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

The research team theorized that "A strongly opinionated minority can dictate group choice... But the presence of uninformed individuals spontaneously inhibits this process, returning control to the numerical majority."
The behavior of golden shiners demonstrates “the role of uninformed individuals in achieving democratic consensus amid internal group conflict and informational constraints...”
And thus: “ignorance can promote democracy.” Or so these biology experts observe. Obviously, fish aren't people, and the color target training isn't much the same as learning about the world and then forming judgments on political issues and candidates.
Human civilization, said Larry J. Sabato, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, “is better off when more of its members are well informed and think carefully about the choices facing the society.”
Sure, we're better off educated and thinking consciously and carefully, but most of our political judgments are made reflexively in response to largely unexamined emotional responses, and it's possible that the uninformed masses are doing something valuable in correcting for the intense opinions of radical individuals.

Anyway... the Iowa caucuses take place today. Caucuses — more than primaries — resemble fish tanks. Individuals see what the others are doing and decide which way they want to swim.

ADDED: Here's another problem relating that study of fish to human beings. Let's say that among those who've gotten educated about an issue 60% choose X and 40% choose Y, but the informed citizens are themselves only a small minority of the people, only 20%. Why is this 20% getting super-informed about an issue that 80% of the people are ignoring? These are unusual people. We shouldn't assume that the majority within that small percentage would be the majority if everyone were informed. The uninformed 80%, we're told, would tend to go along with the 60% of the 20%, but that doesn't necessarily correspond to what would be the true preference of the majority if all were informed. Of course, it doesn't make sense to posit a true preference for the majority on this hypothetical issue that only 20% of the people were willing to get educated about, since the people are defined by their lack of interest in that issue, and if they were to be transformed into people who are engaged and educated, they'd be different people, with different preferences.

43 comments:

Paco Wové said...

"Individuals see what the others are doing and decide which way they want to swim"

That's true of the Democratic caucuses, where there is no secret ballot, and everybody knows, very blatantly, who you voted for. The Republican ones, not as much, I think -- you write your choice on a piece of paper, and while it may not be strictly 'secret', it's at least a quiet whispery ballot.

Paco Wové said...

I can't believe they got this published in Science, by the way. It seems worthy of some obscure psychobabbly journal.

Bob_R said...

Sabato, of course, has no evidence to back up his claim. Pretending that articles of faith are matters of scientific certainty is pretty much par for the course in the social sciences.

Political choice is one where the situation is complex, the relevant information is hidden or disguised, and the impact of our individual choice is almost zero.

So yeah, going with the candidate with the best hair is the rational way to go. Mitt or Michele?

Pogo said...

"...most of our political judgments are made reflexively in response to largely unexamined emotional responses, and it's possible that the uninformed masses are doing something valuable"

It's equally possible they are doing something dangerous.

Like when the majority wants more free ponies than we can pay for.

And "correcting for the intense opinions of radical individuals"?

"Correcting" presumes an error.
"Radical" stigmatizes favoring blue versus yellow without analysis.

Like, why do shiners 'more naturally prefer' yellow? Perhaps it reflects an essential nutrient lacking which they will die or be unable to reproduce?

The "right" answer, for fish anyway, is survival of the species. The right answer for people is survival of (and success for) their nation.

Absolute democracy will always be a failure precisely because it eventually devolves to a majority of people voting themselves the contents of the treasury.

Pogo said...

"A human group transforms itself into a crowd when it suddenly responds to a suggestion rather than to reasoning, to an image rather than to an idea, to an affirmation rather than to proof, to the repetition of a phrase rather than to arguments, to prestige rather than to competence."

Jean-François Revel

Ann Althouse said...

"Like, why do shiners 'more naturally prefer' yellow? Perhaps it reflects an essential nutrient lacking which they will die or be unable to reproduce?"

Yes, I thought that was very strange. That's how they produced the passionate minority, but the untrained fish ought to have had the same orientation, so the "true preference" of the majority should have gone toward yellow. The fact that the untrained fish went with the blue-preferrers uncovers a problem.

Matthew said...

How often would a blue-liker go for blue instead of yellow if placed alone with just blue and yellow? Unless it was 100% of the time, it seems to me that we don't know the fish preferred blue, when given an actual choice. Maybe, blue-preferers just had an illusion of choice!

Matthew said...

Also, if there is no difference, qualitatively, between blue and yellow, and it is purely preference, maybe fish don't really have a preference for what gets them food. Like how a starving dog placed equi-distance from two identical food bowls won't starve to death unable to decide where to go, he'll just pick whichever at random.

Matthew said...

Also... maybe yellow is easier for the fish to see, you know, under the water?

Paco Wové said...

Dismayed to see that the P.I. on this was an actual biologist by training, rather than a psychologist playing at being a scientist. Alas, how my old field of study has fallen.

Matthew said...

Also, it makes sense as the population grows that they go after the blue target, which they know also gives them food without having to compete with the ones who prefer yellow.

It's why I go to seedy dives for food. Because no one else is there, so I can grab what I want and go. Only, blue-preferers aren't sacrificing anything. They are literally making a better choice; the same quality for less competition.

I'm not a scientist, but, I have problems with this study.

traditionalguy said...

This explains the ease with which humans identify with the personalities of the fake Wrestlers acting in the WWF shows.

Unless there is a reality check taught to the group by shared experiences, the group remains easy to delude.

And man's greatest shared teaching experiences have been its tribal wars with real losses for the losing group, but sometimes with great gains for the winners.

Karnival said...

We get the leaders we deserve.
This morning I saw an interview of a 'random' Iowan who confessed he was there to caucus for Obama. (how MSNBC happened to find this person is another story).
He said his major issue was about education. He had my attention. He said that he had the benefit of a great education and that the Republican candidates all had elite educations (whatever that is these days). But he then said that's why he was there for Obama. How large a disconnect can this person have? Obama, who rejects the freedom of choice that charter schools can offer to the underserved, has his own children driven past the schools he condemns others to go to, on their way to Sidwell Friends.
The difference between half a chance in life, and no chance at all might just be charter schools. At every turn, for decades now, the Democrat Party has made it clear: the Teachers Union is more important than educating the kids. The teachers vote, the kids do not.

Schools of fish could select our leaders better than we, the 'educated'.

Pogo said...

Althouse: "but the untrained fish ought to have had the same orientation"

From the Science paper:
"Democratic decisions tend to be more moderate, minimizing group consensus costs, particularly in large animal groups."

But the refence cited does not in fact say anything at all about the size of animal groups. It was a "dry lab' study (no animals were in fact studied at all), and assuned that animal decisions were done either by 'despotism' or via 'democracy'.

It neglected "instinct."

It assumed 'trained' means the same thing as 'informed', where clearly those are not the same.

It also negelcted to account for "discrete (binary) opinions" that are in fact wrong or even dangerous.

And the study from Science makes more errors.

"When the minority (N2 = 5) are trained to the intrinsically preferred (yellow) target"

Bullshit.

NO evidence is cited that the color of food is important to fish. So blue and yellow may make no difference at all to the fish. That is, blue = yellow, and neither is an extreme. Preferring one over the other is meaningless.

So for meaningless discrete (binary) opinions, untrained fish may follow the majority of trained fish.

What this means for people is unclear, except perhaps as an explanation for the brief popularity of disco in the late 1970s..

Scott M said...

And thus: “ignorance can promote democracy.”

Because fish are people are fish. It makes perfect sense.

Matthew said...

"When the minority (N2 = 5) are trained to the intrinsically preferred (yellow) target"

New question for the study!

How do you know that you've successfully trained something to choose what it already intrinsically preferred?

The Crack Emcee said...

"A strongly opinionated minority can dictate group choice... But the presence of uninformed individuals spontaneously inhibits this process,...

Yes, dumb fish explain why Obama's election over McCain appears as a "rational choice" anyway. And why it's still insisted McCain would've made a worse president.

Ignorance - especially the kind forced upon us today, by feminists, regarding the nature of men - is a powerful force in this society. I blame men.

Why?

All bitches ain't women,....

The Crack Emcee said...

traditionalguy,

Unless there is a reality check taught to the group by shared experiences, the group remains easy to delude.

And that's why I still insist on critical thinking being taught in schools at the earliest age possible for kids to grasp it.

You know, like kindergarden,...

Pogo said...

The Science article references "Innate and Learned Colour Preference in the Zebrafish, Danio rerio" as the scource for saying "Under our experimental conditions, shiners exhibited a spontaneous preexisting bias toward the yellow target".

I suppose it meant they used the same methods, because the fish are different, but there was no evidence beyond the brief training spell whether or not these fish exhibit a true yellow preference or not.

Max said...

I'm just a blue (not yellow) collar worker from New Jersey and I don't know much BUT, most fish are colorblind, despite the opinions of many scientists and sportfishermen. Fish can see color shadings, reflected light, shape, and movement, which probably accounts for the acceptance or rejection of artificial lures used by fishermen. I wonder how this small detail might change the outcome of the present experiment? Back to my fishing hole!

Scott M said...

You know, like kindergarden...

This is why I'm such a huge proponent of math regardless of what the kid wants to go into. We've all heard the laments of "what the hell am I ever going to use this for" and I actually had the unpleasant experience of watching a kid explode in the middle of a college algebra test and storm out ranting the same thing.

Math teaches systematic problem solving. This is useful regardless of what field you go into. My experiences in the "grown-up" business world (as opposed to most of my jobs prior) are less pure business acumen and more one-after-another problem solving from day to day.

Even the most liberal professors I had in college groused about the lack of problem-solving and critical thinking skills they perceived as getting worse, year to year, in new students.

Chip S. said...

Coming soon: Study of Sheep Suggests the Value of Submission to Authority

I think uninformed voters are Iain Couzin's best hope for tenure.

Scott M said...

Coming soon: Study of Sheep Suggests the Value of Submission to Authority

A appendix of this study will include details about the curious problem they kept running into with researchers constantly falling asleep while trying to ascertain quantitative parameters.

Chip S. said...

@ScottM: all in the forthcoming tome Crooks and Lyres: Politics as Shepherding

Bob_R said...

The problem with teaching critical thinking skills in school is that you have to find teachers who are capable of critical thinking. The problem with finding teachers with critical thinking skills is that they would need to be taught be professors in education and social sciences with critical thinking skills. These people would have to be self aware. They would have to be conscious of their own biases and how confirmation bias affects all of their actions.

Ain't gonna happen.

Bender said...

it's possible that the uninformed masses are doing something valuable

Freedom is slavery.

Thankfully, by being so uninformed, we can have Dear Leader and Big Sis be informed for us.

edutcher said...

If he proved the uninformed ones followed the smart ones, that might be worth something.

Bruce Hayden said...

Pogo - Nice critique. Someone here seems to read articles as part of their job.

And, he points out a problem with scientific articles, that those reporting on them tend to lack the scientific background to do so, and so seem to often give them more importance and meaning than they deserve.

Craig said...

My older sister married an animal psychologist.

Scott M said...

My older sister married an animal psychologist.

So...he's yellow?

Craig said...

So...he's yellow?

Blue, but he did get hired by Microsoft.

Crimso said...

Pogo, you're being dishonest (and doing the Althouse readers a great disservice) by minimizing the problem. The popularity of disco wasn't brief. At least, not brief enough.

Smilin' Jack said...

...there was no evidence beyond the brief training spell whether or not these fish exhibit a true yellow preference or not.

Well, FWIW I think untrained people would rather eat yellow food than blue food. I know I would.

ic said...

“ignorance can promote democracy.”

A pointy head mistook "mob rule" for "democracy".

To paraphrase "A Man for All Seasons": there are some people who will follow anything that moves.

chrisnavin said...

I'm going to be conducting a study about what percentage of Alaskan brown bears do in fact defecate in the arboreal growth within 2 km of their dens and communal paths they use.

My theory is that the males unfairly dominate and unnecessarily compete in this growth and by using defecation and scent-marking...they adversely affect of early female bearhood environmental adaptation.

Anyone know a good grant writer?

ic said...

"critical thinking being taught in schools"

Are you kidding, where'll the teachers union find their supporters, and Deomcrats their constituents?

ricpic said...

As usual educated is being confused with thoughtful.

Scott M said...

Anyone know a good grant writer?

Micheal Grant, Donna Grant, or Andrew Grant?

Chip S. said...

Ulysses

Gahrie said...

Many fish (like most Democrats) only have 3 seconds of memory.

Pogo said...

"Golden shiners (Notemigonus crysoleucas use two distinct foraging modes when feeding on zooplankton. Shiners particulate-feed on large cladocerans, visually locating and attacking individual prey items. Shiners also pump filter-feed on high densities of small zooplankton, using no apparent visual cues to detect prey. "
Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences (1989)
Volume: 46, Issue: 7, Pages: 1250-1254

"Consume zooplankton during the lowlight hours after sunset and just before sunrise"

Large cladocerans, like Leptodora, are "nearly transparent predatory water fleas".

Golden shiners "eyes and medial fins [are] usually yellow-green."

So it locates some food nonvisually, and finds the larger fleas by sight, but they are nearly transparent, and this is done in low light or at night.

Jeez.

Crunchy Frog said...

Spoo - the other blue meat.

wv: scuigna - Italian sausage apologetics

jimspice said...

I agreed with Pogo's first comment, but the following statement falls short:

"It assumed 'trained' means the same thing as 'informed'"

No, it was simply a poorly chosen descriptor, which often occurs in science. I've discussed here several times here the different meanings of the word "significant" in the scientific and lay communities and the confusion it produces.

IF shiners do in fact prefer yellow food, perhaps a better choice of words would be to "reinforce" or to "undermine" the natural tendency. And yes, yellow is the "correct" choice here, as presumably yellow provides some evolutionary benefit.

I believe the most obvious conclusion is that grouping is a stronger urge than eating "correctly,' but for me, the more striking observation is that shiners can be urged to act outside of their best interest in the first place.

By the way, do y'all have a picture in your heads of the "group think" described -- the almost hypnotizing mass schooling behavior similar to the starling murmurs which recently swept the web? Now THAT'S politics.