Related: The Blank Slate, The Psychological Diversity of Mankind, Admitting to Bias

"Hjernevask" a well known (in Norway at least) documentary series that I am sure will be interesting to rationalists here is now available with English subtitles online. Produced by Ole Martin Ihle and Harald Eia a Norwegian documentarian and comedian, it casts a light on both ways in which we know people to be different as well as the culture that is academia in the Nordic country and probably elsewhere as well.


The Series

  1. The Gender Equality Paradox - Why do girls tend to go into empathizing professions and boys into systemizing professions? Why does the labor market become more gender segregated the more economic prosperity a country has?
  2. The Parental Effect - How much influence do parents really have on their children? To what degree is intelligence inherited?
  3. Gay/Straight - To what extent is sexual preference innate? Are there differences between heterosexual and homosexual brains? Is homosexuality a result of a choice or is it innate?
  4. Violence - Are people from some cultures more aggressive than others?
  5. Sex - Are there biological reasons men have a greater tendency than women to want sex without obligation?
  6. Race - Are there significant genetic differences between different peoples?
  7. Nature or Nurture - Is personality acquired or inherited?

The link go to the YouTube videos with English subtitles. Because linkrot sucks I'm providing another source for the videos.


Some Commentary

There was very little in the series that I found new and disagreed with some presentations. But this is not surprising given my eccentric interest in humans. (^_^) I found the interviews with the scientists and academics interesting and think that overall the series presents a good overview something well worth watching especially considering some of the debates I've seen taken place here recently. (;_;)

I'm somewhat frustrated by the frequent posts warning us about the dangers of Ev. Psych reasoning. (It seems like we average at least one of these per month).

It seems like a lot of this widespread hostility (the reaction to Harald Eia's Hjernevask is a good example of this hostility) stems from the fact that ev. psych is new. New ideas are held to much higher standard than old ones. The early reaction to ev. psych within psychology was characteristic of this effect. Behaviorists, Freudians, and Social Psychologists all had created their own theories of "ultimate causation" for human behaviour. None of those theories would have stood up to the strenuous demands for experimental validation that Ev. psych endured.


But science started to suffer. With so much easy money, few wanted to study the hard sciences. And the social sciences suffered in another way: The ties with the government became too tight, and created a culture where controversial issues, and tough discussions were avoided. Too critical, and you could risk getting no more money.

It was in this culture Harald Eia started his studies, in sociology, early in the nineties. He made it as far as becoming a junior researcher, but then dropped off, and started a career as a comedian instead. He has said that he suddenly, after reading some books which not were on the syllabus, discovered that he had been cheated. What he was taught in his sociology classes was not up-to-date with international research, and more based on ideology than science.

-Bjørn Vassnes

The latter wrote that in a 2010 article on the documentary series that I would also recommend reading. HT to iSteve where it is quoted in full.

New Comment
15 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:18 AM

Tangentially... I know it should not be important, but I am still curious: Is there any example where knowing the truth about genetic causes of personality traits lead to some outcome benefiting humanity?

Because the negative outcomes, e.g. eugenics and racism, are widely known, and people will point them out when talking about "politically incorrect" research, in fact claimimg that the potential damage caused by such knowledge is much greater than a potential benefit, and knowing the truth just for the sake of knowing some technical truth, should not be more important than e.g. avoiding a genocide. Yeah, I know it's an exageration, but the idea is: such knowledge can cause harm (and here are the examples), and cannot cause any good (at least I don't have an example). So it's about the instrumental value for the society as a whole, of having this knowledge.

(For me personally, the idea that "when you lie once, the truth is forever your enemy; and all truths are connected" is a sufficient answer, but it probably wouldn't be enough for other people. Especially when the connection of all truths is not very relevant for humans who compartmentalize as they breathe. So I would like to have a more tangible example.)

Is there any example where knowing the truth about genetic causes of personality traits lead to some outcome benefiting humanity?

This example does not conform to Your specification exactly. There is a genetic disease called phenylketonuria, which, if detected early, can be managed by a strict, lifelong diet, low on aminoacid phenylalanine. This prevents mental retardation (plus health problems like seizures). So, in this particular health condition, you can affect IQ by food, and you can do that in time thanks to genetic screening of newborns. IQ is not exactly a personality trait, although we use intelligence as something to describe a psychology of a person. Still, even if the IQ is under the focus of psychology, phenylketonuria is a medical condition, there are other effects than those on intelligence.

Please, does anybody have a better example than this for Viliam ? I am really curious...

I don't think eugenics is obviously bad. For example, what if we were to start sterilizing criminals, as another punishment in our current regimen of (community service, prison time, fines, imprisonment, capital punishment)? Seems like a pretty obvious win to me.

I also think it's possible that if more people realize how large the genetic contribution to intelligence is, we'll see more research in to its genetic basis and how we can genetically engineer future humans to be smarter... a very soft and friendly kind of singularity.

For example, what if we were to start sterilizing criminals, as another punishment in our current regimen of (community service, prison time, fines, imprisonment, capital punishment)? Seems like a pretty obvious win to me.

One major issue that I see with this is that in our legal system (by which I mean the American system in particular, although this is true of others to varying extents,) where arrest and conviction and degree of punishment are subject to discretion by the officials charged with enforcement, they tend to vary tremendously with factors other than likelihood or severity of guilt. So while the intent might be to gradually filter people with criminal inclinations from the gene pool, the real effect is unlikely to be an evenhanded application of that process.

Hm. Well, if we identify specific genes associated with criminality, then the law could be more objective: commit a felony and if you have a criminal gene, you get sterilization in addition to whatever your punishment would have been.

With genes it is complicated. Sometimes one gene encodes one trait. But often dozen genes cooperate on one trait, and one gene contributes to dozen traits. And most often, we don't know exactly, either because our knowledge is poor, or the terittory is very complicated.

So if there would be a political pressure for "criminal gene" elimination, it could easily translate to a law of elimination some specific gene XYZ123, which according to one (low p-value, never replicated) study increases criminality by 1% (although only in presence of genes ABC987 and MN45, and only if given individual has a diabetes and was born in Sagittarius constellation) and also increases creativity by 2% (in presence of gene PQR654, and if the individual's mother drank wine daily during pregnancy). For the lack of better candidates, this gene would be declared The Criminal Gene, and the 15% of people who have it would be sterilized when they commit a felony (and 5% of them would be exonerated later because some mistake during the trial would be discovered).

In absence of the reliable science (which means: until we are able to engineer it genetically), the "objective" laws would be guesses, based mostly on political pressure.

Also, would you like to break this taboo and allow your opponents to use sterilization to achieve their goals too? (Imagine that one day feminists would get enough power, and decide that the only way to get rid of the evil patriarchy forever is to sterilize all the white able hetero cis males. If you protest, you are the first to go to sterilization.) Sometimes it is good to have taboos.

Thanks for writing.

However, I had an argument with Viliam saying, that people have experience from the past, that searching genetic causes of personality traits, if it resulted into policies, always led to actions, which were ranging from somewhat morally uncomfortable to downright horrible. I could not recollect any single positive example from the past. Has anybody heard of any ?

The first example is closer to specification. We at least know how sterilisation work, we do not need to make a new discovery, so even if the example is not from the past, it is somewhat predictable.

As for my personal reaction to Your both examples, they give me shudders. Right now I am not capable to support this emotion by rational reasoning. I could come up with objections, but would stumble a lot in the process. Probably we can call it aesthetic preference for now. It is possible, other people would shudder too. It is not something uplifting enough to counter the Hitler precedens, for the propaganda purposes outside the Lesswrong culture.

It was said in the first part that newborn boys look more at mechanical things, and newborn girls look more at human faces. I have heard that newborn children have difficulty to see things; at least their eye movements do not follow moving objects. Could someone give me a better information on this?

EDIT: By the way, I found a study that male and female monkeys prefer different toys. This seems like a more solid evidence for the biological differences. Still curious about the newborns' eyesight, though.

EDIT2: Use the Wikipedia, duh! Seems like newborns have poor eye coordination and depth perception, but are still very good at recognizing a face of their mother.

Though look at this clip out of the documentary "no more boys and girls", showing how when adults think babies are the opposite sex than they actually are, they give them toys that match the stereotype.

Thing is, even little babies have environmental influence (There's even prenatal environmental influence), so just showing behavioral changes in babies doesn't cut it, that's why i always wonder how studies suggesting genetic influence are done.

(searched for LW posts on documentaries and found this one, hopefully commenting on old comments is well received :) )

I would like to know whether the Norwegian sociologists interviewed in the video are considered authorities or at least representative of mainstream in their country. So far I have seen only the first two parts, but I think the author plays fair... he shows the videos with opposing opinions to his interviewees, and allows them to defend themselves. (Which they do rather horribly. As in: "No, I don't know anything about biology, but I am nonetheless 100% sure this cannot be biologically caused. What is the evidence for my opinions? Why, I don't have any, but this is my starting position, and you failed to convince me otherwise.) But still, he could be strawmanning the whole profession of sociology by selecting its weakest members for the interviews.

So, if anyone familiar with sociology in Norway is here, could you please confirm or disprove the relevance of the interviewees' positions for the whole field of sociology in Norway?

I would be very disappointed and surprised if he were setting up strawmen.

Harald Eia (the presenter) recieved his Candidate's Degree (hovedoppgave) (= Bachelor's/Master's Degree?) in sociology according to Wikipedia. In one of Norway's talk-shows (I don't remember which) Bård Tufte Johansen, Harald's close colleague, said something along the lines of "We [Harald and Me] can not make a comedy-sketch where humans are interacting with dinosaurs, because Harald would protest that dinosaurs died out long before humans existed. [Quoted from memory!]". The point being that Harald Eia is very particular about scientific details.

He is also host of a TV-show called "Brille" (which I haven't seen myself) which according to the Norwegian Wikipedia-page is similar in concept to QI.

Being highly intelligent and strawmanning one's opponent are not mutually exclusive.

Being highly intelligent and strawmanning one's opponent are not mutually exclusive.

(My observations suggest a positive correlation.)

Could that be because you use the "strawman" label only for those incorrect depictions of opponent's possition that are above some minimum quality?

E.g. you wouldn't consider "they sold their souls to Devil" or "they hate our freedoms" or "they are just all stupid" or "they are simply evil" examples of the strawman fallacy, although technically they also do misrepresent the opponent. But for something to be worth the label "fallacy" it must include some minimum (albeit flawed) reasoning... and that is positively correlated with intelligence.

Could that be because you use the "strawman" label only for those incorrect depictions of opponent's possition that are above some minimum quality?

Mostly I associate it with an increased tendency to consider 'intellectual' debate to be a practical way to gain status and dominance (wait, I mean, an increased tendency to consider it 'fun'). From there practice and exposure to others teaches what kind of debate tactics are the most effective. Straw manning is at the top of the list. (In my observation the challenge for the debater is to judge the audience well to work out what degree of misrepresentation they can get away with in the context and go the easiest target within those bounds.)