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The Distinction Between Action and Behavior

1300 words

Action and behavior are distinct concepts, although in common lexicon they are used interchangeably. The two concepts are needed to distinguish what one intends to do and what one reacts to and how they react. In this article, I will explain the distinction between the two and how and why people get it wrong when discussing the two concepts—since using them interchangeably is inaccurate.

Actions are intentional; they are done for reasons (Davidson, 1963). Actions are determined by one’s current intentional state and they then act for reasons. So, in effect, the agent’s intentional states cause the action, but the action is carried out for reasons. Actions are that which is done by an agent, but stated in this way, it could be used interchangeably with behavior. The Wikipedia article on “action” states:

action is an intentional, purposive, conscious and subjectively meaningful activity

So actions are conscious, compared to behaviors which are reflexive and unconscious—not done for reasons.

Davidson (1963: 685) writes:

Whenever someone does something for a reason, therefore, he can be characterized as (a) having some sort of pro attitude toward actions of a certain kind, and (b) believing (or knowing, perceiving, noticing, remembering) that his action is of that kind.

So providing the reason why an agent did A requires naming the pro-attitude—beliefs paired with desires—or the related belief that caused the agent’s action. When I explain behavior, this will become clear.

Behavior is different: behavior is a reaction to a stimulus and this reaction is unconscious. For example, take a doctor’s office visit. Hitting the knee in the right spot causes the knee to jerk up—doctors use this test to test for nerve damage. It tests the L2, L3, and L4 segments of the spinal cord, so if there is no reflex, the doctor knows there is a problem.

This is done without thought—the patient does not think about the reflex. This then shows how and why action and behavior are distinct concepts. Here’s what occurs when the doctor hits the patient’s knee:

When the doctor hits the knee, the patient’s thigh muscle stretches. When the thigh muscle stretches, a signal is then sent along the sensory neuron to the spinal cord where it interacts with a motor neuron which goes to the thigh muscle. The muscle then contracts which causes the reflex. (Recall my article on causes of muscle movement.)

So this, compared to consciously taking a step—consciously jerking your leg in the same way as a doctor expects the patellar reflex—is what distinguishes one from the other—what distinguishes action from behavior. Sure, the behavior of the patellar reflex occurred for a reason—but it was not done consciously by the agent so it is therefore not an action.

Perhaps it would be important at this point to explain the differences between action, conduct, and behavior, because we have used these three terms in the discussion of caring. …

Teleology, the reader is reminded, involves goals or lures that provide the reasons for a person acting in a certain way. It is goals or reasons that establish action from simple behavior. On the other hand the concept of efficient causation is involved in the concept of behavior. Behavior is the result of antecedent conditions. The individual behaves in response to causal stimuli or antecedent conditions. Hence, behavior is a reaction to what already is—the result of a push from the past to do something in the present. In contrast, an action aims at the future. It is motivated by a vision of what can be. (Brencick and Webster, 2000: 147)

This is also another thing that Darwin got wrong. He believed that instincts and reflexes are inherited—this is not wrong since they are behaviors and behaviors are dispositional which means they can be selected. However, he believed that before they were inherited as instincts and reflexes, they were intentional acts. As Badcock (2000: 56) writes in Evolutionary Psychology: A Critical Introduction:

Darwin explicitly states this when he says that ‘it seems probable that some actions, which were at first performed consciously, have become through habit and association converted into relex actions, and are now firmly fixed and inherited.’

This is quite obviously wrong, as I have explained above; instead of “reflexive actions”, Darwin meant “reflexive behaviors”. So, it seems that Darwin did not grasp the distinction between “action” and “behavior” either.

We can then form this simple argument, take cognition:

(1) Cognition is intentional;
(2) Behavior is dispositonal;
(3) Therefore, cognition is not responsible for behavior

This is a natural outcome of what has been argued here, due to the distinction between action and behavior. So when we think of “cognition” what comes to mind? Thinking. Thinking is an action—so thinking (cognition) is intentional. Intentionality isthe power of minds and mental states to be about, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs.” So, when we think, our minds/mental states can represent, stand for things, properties and states of affairs. Therefore, cognition is intentional. Since cognition is intentional and behavior is dispositional, it directly follows that cognition cannot be responsible for behavior.

Thinking is a mental activity which results in a thought. So if thinking is a mental activity which results in a thought, what is a thought? A thought is a mental state of considering a particular idea or answer to a question or committing oneself to an idea or answer. These mental states are, or are related to, beliefs. When one considers a particular answer to a question they are paving the way to holding a particular belief; when they commit themselves to an answer they have formulated a new belief.

Beliefs are propositional attitudes: believing p involves adopting the belief attitude to proposition p. So, cognition is thinking: a mental process that results in the formation of a propositional belief. When one acquires a propositional attitude by thinking, a process takes place in stages. Future propositional attitudes are justified on earlier propositional attitudes. So cognition is thinking; thinking is a mental state of considering a particular view (proposition).

Therefore, thinking is an action (since it is intentional) and cannot possibly be a behavior (a disposition). Something can be either an action or a behavior—it cannot be both.

Let’s say that I have the belief that food is downtown. I desire to eat. So I intend to go downtown to get some food. While the cause is the sensation of hunger. This chain shows how actions are intentional—how one intends to act.

Furthermore, using the example I explained above, how a doctor assesses the patellar reflex is a behavior—it is not an action since the agent himself did not cause it. One could say that it is an action for the doctor performing the reflexive test, but it cannot be an action for the agent the test is being done on—it is, therefore, a behavior.

I have explained the difference between action and behavior and how and why they are distinct. I gave an example of action (cognition) and behavior (patellar reflex) and explained how they are distinct. I then gave an argument showing how cognition (an action) cannot possibly be responsible for behavior. I showed how Darwin believed (falsely) that actions could eventually become behaviors. Darwin pretty much stated “Actions can be selected and eventually become behaviors.” This is nonsense. Actions, by virtue of being intentional, cannot be selected, even if they are done over and over again, they do not eventually become behaviors. On the other hand, behavior, by virtue of being dispositional, can be selected. In any case, I have definitively shown that the two concepts are distinct and that it is nonsense to conflate the terms.

Snapchat Dysmorphia

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I’m not really one for social media (the only social media I use is Twitter and this blog) and so I don’t keep up with the new types of social media that continuously pop up. Snapchat has been around since 2011. It’s a type of social media where users can share pictures before they are then unavailable to the user they sent it to. I don’t understand the utility of media like this but maybe that’s because I’m not the target demographic.

In any case, I’m not going to talk about Snapchat in that way today, because that’s not what this blog is about. What I will talk about today, though, is the rise of “Snapchat dysmorphia.” “Dysmorphia” is defined by the Merriam Webster Dictionary as “characterized by malformation.” “Dysphoria”, according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, is defined as “a state of feeling very unhappy, uneasy, or dissatisfied.” This is a type of body dysmorphia. The two terms—dysphoria and dysmorphia—are similar, in any case.

So where does Snapchat come into play here? Well, there are certain functions that one can do with their pictures—and I’m sure they can do the same with other applications as well. There are what I would term “picture editors” which can change how a person looks. From changing the background you’re in, to changing your facial features, there are a wide range of things these kinds of filters can generate onto photographs/videos.

Well, of course, with the rise of social media and people constantly being glued to their phones day in and day out—along with pretty much living their entire lives on social media—people get sucked into the digital world they make for themselves. People constantly send pictures to others about what they’re doing on that day—they don’t have a chance to live in the moment because they’re always trying to get the “best picture” of the moment they’re in, since they’re trying to get the best picture for their followers on social media. In any case, this is where the problem with these kinds of filters come in—and how Snapchat is driving these problems.

So people use these filters on their pictures. They then get used to seeing themselves as they see themselves in the filtered pictures. Since they spend so much time on social media, constantly filtering their pictures, they—and their social media followers—get used to seeing their filtered photos and not how they really like. This, right here, is the problem.

People then become dysphoric—they become unsatisfied with their appearance due to how they look in their filtered photos. This has lead numerous people to do what I believe is insane—they go and get plastic surgery to look like their Snapchat selves. This is, in part, what the meteoric rise of social media has done to the minds of the youth. They give them unrealistic expectations—through their filters—and then, since they spend so much time Snapchatting and whatever else they do, seeing their filtered pictures, they then get sad that they do not look like they do in their filtered pictures in their digital world, which causes them to become dysphoric about their facial features since they do not look like their Snapchat selves.

One Snapchat user said to Vice:

We’d rather have a digitally obscured version of ourselves than our actual selves out there. It’s honestly sad, but it’s a bitter reality. I try to avoid using them as much as I can because they seriously cause an unhealthy dysphoria.

Therein lies the problem: people become used to what I would say are “idealized versions” of themselves. Some of these filters completely change how one’s facial structure is; some of them give bigger or smaller eyes; others change the shape of the jawline and cheekbones; others give fuller lips. So now, instead of people bringing photographs of celebrities to plastic surgeons and saying to them “This is what I want to look like”, they’re bringing their edited Snapchat pictures to plastic surgeons and telling them that they want that look.

So it’s no wonder that people become dysphoric about their facial features when they pretty much live on social media. They constantly play around with this filter and that filter, and they become used to what then becomes an idealized version of themselves. These types of picture filters have been argued to be bad for self-esteem, and it’s no wonder why they are, given the types of things these filters can do to radically change the appearances of the users who use them.

There has been a rise in individuals bringing in their filtered photos to plastic surgeons, telling them that they want to look like the filtered picture. Indeed, some of the before and afters I have seen bear striking similarities to the filtered photo.

The term “Snapchat dysmorphia” has even made it into the journal JAMA in an article titled Selfies—living in the era of filtered photographs (Rajanala, Maymobe, and Vashi, 2018). They write that:

Previously, patients would bring images of celebrities to their consultations to emulate their attractive features. A new phenomenon, dubbed “Snapchat dysmorphia,” has patients seeking out cosmetic surgery to look like filtered versions of themselves instead, with fuller lips, bigger eyes, or a thinner nose.

Ramphus and Mejias (2018) state that while it may be too early to employ the term “Snapchat dysmorphia”, it is imperative to realize the reasons why many young people are thinking and getting plastic surgery. Indeed, a few plastic surgeons have stated that the type of alterations that patients describe to them, indeed, are what are found with Snapchat facial edits.

Ramphul and Mejias (2018) also write:

There are already some ongoing legal issues about the use of Snapchat in the operating room by some plastic surgeons but none currently involving any patients accusing Snapchat of giving them a false perception of themselves yet. The proper code of ethics among plastic surgeons should be respected and an early detection of associated symptoms in such patients might help provide them with the appropriate counseling and help they need.

Clearly, this issue is now becoming large enough that medical journals are now employing the term in their articles.

McLean et al’s (2015) results “showed that girls who regularly shared self-images on social media, relative to those who did not, reported significantly higher overvaluation of shape and weight, body dissatisfaction, dietary restraint, and internalization of the thin ideal. In addition, among girls who shared photos of themselves on social media, higher engagement in manipulation of and investment in these photos, but not higher media exposure, were associated with greater body-related and eating concerns, including after accounting for media use and internalization of the thin ideal.” This seems intuitive: the more time one spends on social media, sharing images, overvalues certain things. And putting this into context in regard to Snapchat dysmorphia, girls spending too much time on these types of applications that can change their appearance, may also develop eating disorders.

Ward et al (2018) report that in 2014, about 93 million selfies were taken per day. With the way selfies are taken—up close—this then distorts the nasal dimensions, increasing them (Ward et al, 2018). Although this is only tangentially related to the issue of Snapchat dysmorphia, it will also increase the chance of people seeking plastic surgery, since a lot of people spend so much time on social media, taking selfies and eventually idealizing their selves with the angles they take the pictures in.

Although there are only 2 pages on Google scholar when you search “Snapchat dysmorphia”, we can expect the number of journal articles and references to the term to increase in the coming years due to people basically living most of their lives on social media. This is troubling: that young people are spending so much time on social media, editing their photos and acquiring dysmorphia due to the types of edits that are possible with these applications is an issue that we will need to soon address. Quite obviously, getting plastic surgery to look more like the idealized Snapchat photo is not the solution to the problem—something more like counseling or therapy would seem to address the issue. Not pretty much telling people “If you have the money and the time to get this surgery done then you should, to look like how you idealize yourself.”

Should people get plastic surgery to fix their selves, or should they get counseling? People who look to, or get, survey to fix dysmorphic issues they have with themselves will never be satisfied. They will always see a blemish, an imperfection to fix. For this reason, getting surgery in an attempt “fix” yourself if addicted to your looks while using these picture filters won’t work, as the deeper problem isn’t addressed—which I would claim is rampant social media use.

Against Scientism

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Scientism is the belief that only scientific claims are meaningful, that science is the only way for us to gain knowledge. However, this is a self-refuting claim. The claim that “only scientific claims are meaningful” cannot be empirically observed, it is a philosophical claim. Thus, those who push scientism as the only way to gain knowledge fail, since the claim itself is a philosophical one. Although science (and the scientific method) do point us in the direction to gain knowledge, it is not the only way for us to gain knowledge. We can, too, gain knowledge through logic and reasoning. The claim that science and science along can point us towards objective facts about knowledge and reality is false.

There is no doubt about it: the natural sciences have pointed us toward facts, facts of the matter that exist in nature. However, this truth has been used in recent times to purport that the sciences are the only way for us to gain knowledge. That, itself, is a philosophical claim and cannot be empirically tested, and so it is self-defeating. Furthermore, the modern sciences themselves arose from philosophy.

Richard Dawkins puts forth a view of epistemology in his book The Magic of Reality in which all of the knowledge concerning reality is derived from our five senses. So if we cannot smell it, hear it, touch it, or taste it, we cannot know it. Thus, how we know what is true or not always comes back to our senses. The claim is “All knowledge of reality is derived from our senses.” There is a problem here, though: this is a philosophical claim and cannot be verified with the five senses. What a conundrum! Nothing that one can see, hear, taste or touch can verify that previous claim; it is a philosophical, not scientific claim and, therefore, the claim is self-refuting.

Science is dependent on philosophy, but philosophy is not dependent on science. Indeed, even the question “What is science?” is a philosophical, not scientific, question and cannot be known through the five senses. Even if all knowledge is acquired through the senses, the belief that all knowledge is acquired through the senses is itself not a scientific claim, but a philosophical one, and is therefore self-refuting.

In his book I am Not a Brain: Philosophy of Mind for the 21st Century, philosopher Markus Gabriel writes (pg 82-83):

The question of how we conceive of human knowledge acquisition has many far-reaching consequences and does not concern merely philosophical epistemology. Rampant empiricism — i.e., the thesis that all knowledge derives exclusively from sense experience — means trouble. If all knowledge stemmed from experience, and we could hence never really know anything definitively — since experience could always correct us — how could we know, for example, that one should not torture children or that political equality should be a goal of democratic politics? If empiricism were correct, how would we be supposed to know that 1 + 2 = 3, since it is hard to see how this could be easily revised by sense experience? How could we know on the basis of experience that we know everything only on the basis of experience?

Rampant empiricism breaks down in the face of simple questions. If all knowledge really stems from the source of sense experience, what are we supposed to make of the knowledge concerning this supposed fact? Do we know from sense experience that all knowledge stems from sense experience? One would then have to accept that experience can teach us wrongly even in regard to this claim. In principle, one would have to be able to learn through experience that we cannot learn anything through experience … How would this work? What kind of empirical discovery would tell us that not everything we know is through empirical discovery?

The thing is, the claim that “All knowledge stems from sense experience” cannot be corrected by sense experience, and so, it is not a scientific hypothesis that can be proven or disproven. No matter how well a scientific theory is established, it can always be revised and or refuted and pieces of evidence can come out that render the theory false. Therefore, what Gabriel terms “rampant empiricism” (scientism) is not a scientific hypothesis.

Scientism is believed to be justified on the basis of empirical discoveries and the fact that our senses can lead to the refutation or revision of these scientific theories. That in and of itself justifies scientism for most people. Though, as previously stated, that belief is a philosophical, not scientific, belief and cannot be empirically tested and is therefore self-refuting. Contemporary scientists and pundits who say, for example, that “Philosophy is dead” (i.e., Hawking and de Grasse Tyson) made philosophical claims, therefore proving that “Philosophy is not dead”!

Claims that science (empiricism) is the be-all-end-all for knowledge acquisition fall flat on their face; for if something is not logical, then how can it be scientifically valid? This is further buttressed by the fact that all science is philosophy and science needs philosophy, whereas philosophy does not need science since philosophy has existed long before the natural sciences.

Haak (2009: 3) articulates six signs of scientism:

1. Using the words “science,” “scientific,” “scientifically,” “scientist,” etc., honorifically, as generic terms of epistemic praise.
2. Adopting the manners, the trappings, the technical terminology, etc., of the sciences, irrespective of their real usefulness.
3. A preoccupation with demarcation, i.e., with drawing a sharp line between genuine science, the real thing, and “pseudo-scientific” imposters.
4. A corresponding preoccupation with identifying the “scientific method,” presumed to explain how the sciences have been so successful.
5. Looking to the sciences for answers to questions beyond their scope.
6. Denying or denigrating the legitimacy or the worth of other kinds of inquiry besides the scientific, or the value of human activities other than inquiry, such as poetry or art.

People who take science to be the only way to gain knowledge, in effect, take science to be a religion, which is ironic since most who push these views are atheists (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Lawrence Kraus). Science is not the only way to gain knowledge; we can also gain knowledge through logic and reasoning. There are analytic truths that are known a priori (Zalta, 1988).

Thus, the claim that there is justification for scientism—that all of our knowledge is derived from the five senses—is false and self-refuting since the belief that scientism is true is a philosophical claim that cannot be empirically tested. There are other ways of knowledge-gaining—of course, without denigrating the knowledge we gain from science—and therefore, scientism is not a justified position. Since there are analytic, a priori truths, then the claim that “rampant empiricism“—scientism—is true, is clearly false.

Note that I am not denying that we can gain knowledge through sense experience; I am denying that it is the only way that we gain knowledge. Even Hossain (2014) concludes that:

Empiricism in the traditional sense cannot meet the demands of enquiries in the fields of epistemology and metaphysics because of its inherent limitations. Empiricism cannot provide us with the certainty of scientific knowledge in the sense that it denies the existence of objective reality, ignores the dialectical relationship of the subjective and objective contents of knowledge.

Quite clearly, it is not rational to be an empiricist—a rampant empiricist that believes that sense experience is the only way to acquire knowledge—since there are other ways of gaining knowledge that are not only based on sense experience. In any case, the argument I’ve formulated below proves that scientism is not justified since we can acquire knowledge through logic and reasoning. It is, for these reasons, that we should be against scientism since the claim that science is the only path to knowledge is itself a philosophical and not scientific claim which therefore falsifies the claim that empiricism is true.

Premise 1: Scientism is justified.
Premise 2: If scientism is justified, then science is the only way we can acquire knowledge.
Premise 3: We can acquire knowledge through logic and reasoning, along with science.
Conclusion: Therefore scientism is unjustified since we can acquire knowledge through logic and reasoning.

(The Lack of) IQ Construct Validity and Neuroreductionism

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Construct validity for IQ is fleeting. Some people may refer to Haier’s brain imaging data as evidence for construct validity for IQ, even though there are numerous problems with brain imaging and that neuroreductionist explanations for cognition are “probably not” possible (Uttal, 2014; also see Uttal, 2012). Construct validity refers to how well a test measures what it purports to measure—and this is non-existent for IQ (see Richardson and Norgate, 2014). If the tests did test what they purport to (intelligence), then they would be construct valid. I will show an example of a measure that was validated and shown to be reliable without circular reliance of the instrument itself; I will show that the measures people use in attempt to prove that IQ has construct validity fail; and finally I will provide an argument that the claim “IQ tests test intelligence” is false since the tests are not construct valid.

Jung and Haier (2007) formulated the P-FIT hypothesis—the Parieto-Frontal Intelligence Theory. The theory purports to show how individual differences in test scores are linked to variations in brain structure and function. There are, however, a few problems with the theory (as Richardson and Norgate, 2007 point out in the same issue; pg 162-163). IQ and brain region volumes are experience-dependent (eg Shonkoff et al, 2014; Betancourt et al, 2015Lipina, 2016; Kim et al, 2019). So since they are experience-dependent, then different experiences will form different brains/test scores. Richardson and Norgate (2007) state that such bigger brain areas are not the cause of IQ, rather that, the cause of IQ is the experience-dependency of both: exposure to middle-class knowledge and skills leads to a better knowledge base for test-taking (Richardson, 2002), whereas access to better nutrition would be found in middle- and upper-classes, which, as Richardson and Norgate (2007) note, lower-quality, more energy-dense foods are more likely to be found in lower classes. Thus, Haier et al did not “find” what they purported too, based on simplistic correlations.

Now let me provide the argument about IQ test experience-dependency:

Premise 1: IQ tests are experience-dependent.
Premise 2: IQ tests are experience-dependent because some classes are more exposed to the knowledge and structure of the test by way of being born into a certain social class.
Premise 3: If IQ tests are experience-dependent because some social classes are more exposed to the knowledge and structure of the test along with whatever else comes with the membership of that social class then the tests test distance from the middle class and its knowledge structure.
Conclusion 1: IQ tests test distance from the middle class and its knowledge structure (P1, P2, P3).
Premise 4: If IQ tests test distance from the middle class and its knowledge structure, then how an individual scores on a test is a function of that individual’s cultural/social distance from the middle class.
Conclusion 2: How an individual scores on a test is a function of that individual’s cultural/social distance from the middle class since the items on the test are more likely to be found in the middle class (i.e., they are experience-dependent) and so, one who is of a lower class will necessarily score lower due to not being exposed to the items on the test (C1, P4)
Conclusion 3: IQ tests test distance from the middle class and its knowledge structure, thus, IQ scores are middle-class scores (C1, C2).

Still further regarding neuroimaging, we need to take a look at William Uttal’s work.

Uttal (2014) shows that “The problem is that both of these approaches are deeply flawed for methodological, conceptual, and empirical reasons. One reason is that simple models composed of a few neurons may simulate behavior but actually be based on completely different neuronal interactions. Therefore, the current best answer to the question asked in the title of this contribution [Are neuroreductionist explanations of cognition possible?] is–probably not.

Uttal even has a book on meta-analyses and brain imaging—which, of course, has implications for Jung and Haier’s P-FIT theory. In his book Reliability in Cognitive Neuroscience: A Meta-meta Analysis, Uttal (2012: 2) writes:

There is a real possibility, therefore, that we are ascribing much too much meaning to what are possibly random, quasi-random, or irrelevant response patterns. That is, given the many factors that can influence a brain image, it may be that cognitive states and braib image activations are, in actuality, only weakly associated. Other cryptic, uncontrolled intervening factors may account for much, if not all, of the observed findings. Furthermore, differences in the localization patterns observed from one experiment to the next nowadays seems to reflect the inescapable fact that most of the brain is involved in virtually any cognitive process.

Uttal (2012: 86) also warns about individual variability throughout the day, writing:

However, based on these findings, McGonigle and his colleagues emphasized the lack of reliability even within this highly constrained single-subject experimental design. They warned that: “If researchers had access to only a single session from a single subject, erroneous conclusions are a possibility, in that responses to this single session may be claimed to be typical responses for this subject” (p. 708).

The point, of course, is that if individual subjects are different from day to day, what chance will we have of answering the “where” question by pooling the results of a number of subjects?

That such neural activations gleaned from neuroimaging studies vary from individual to individual, and even time of day in regard to individual, means that these differences are not accounted for in such group analyses (meta-analyses). “… the pooling process could lead to grossly distorted interpretations that deviate greatly from the actual biological function of an individual brain. If this conclusion is generally confirmed, the goal of using pooled data to produce some kind of mythical average response to predict the location of activation sites on an individual brain would become less and less achievable“‘ (Uttal, 2012: 88).

Clearly, individual differences in brain imaging are not stable and they change day to day, hour to hour. Since this is the case, how does it make sense to pool (meta-analyze) such data and then point to a few brain images as important for X if there is such large variation in individuals day to day? Neuroimaging data is extremely variable, which I hope no one would deny. So when such studies are meta-analyzed, inter- and intrasubject variation is obscured.

The idea of an average or typical “activation region” is probably nonsensical in light of the neurophysiological and neuroanatomical differences among subjects. Researchers must acknowledge that pooling data obscures what may be meaningful differences among people and their brain mechanisms. THowever, there is an even more negative outcome. That is, by reifying some kinds of “average,” we may be abetting and preserving some false ideas concerning the localization of modular cognitive function (Uttal, 2012: 91).

So when we are dealing with the raw neuroimaging data (i.e., the unprocessed locations of activation peaks), the graphical plots provided of the peaks do not lead to convergence onto a small number of brain areas for that cognitive process.

… inconsistencies abound at all levels of data pooling when one uses brain imaging techniques to search for macroscopic regional correlates of cognitive processes. Individual subjects exhibit a high degree of day-to-day variability. Intersubject comparisons between subjects produce an even greater degree of variability.


The overall pattern of inconsistency and unreliability that is evident in the literature to be reviewed here again suggests that intrinsic variability observed at the subject and experimental level propagates upward into the meta-analysis level and is not relieved by subsequent pooling of additional data or averaging. It does not encourage us to believe that the individual meta-analyses will provide a better answer to the localization of cognitive processes question than does any individual study. Indeed, it now seems plausible that carrying out a meta-analysis actually increases variability of the empirical findings (Uttal, 2012: 132).

So since reliability is low at all levels of neuroimaging analysis, it is very likely that the relations between particular brain regions and specific cognitive processes have not been established and may not even exist. The numerous reports purporting to find such relations report random and quasi-random fluctuations in extremely complex systems.

Construct validity (CV) is “the degree to which a test measures what it claims, or purports, to be measuring.” A “construct” is a theoretical psychological construct. So CV in this instance refers to whether IQ tests test intelligence. We accept that unseen functions measure what they purport to when they’re mechanistically related to differences in two variables. E.g, blood alcohol and consumption level nd the height of the mercury column and blood pressure. These measures are valid because they rely on well-known theoretical constructs. There is no theory for individual intelligence differences (Richardson, 2012). So IQ tests can’t be construct valid.

The accuracy of thermometers was established without circular reliance on the instrument itself. Thermometers measure temperature. IQ tests (supposedly) measure intelligence. There is a difference between these two, though: the reliability of thermometers measuring temperature was established without circular reliance on the thermometer itself (see Chang, 2007).

In regard to IQ tests, it is proposed that the tests are valid since they predict school performance and adult occupation levels, income and wealth. Though, this is circular reasoning and doesn’t establish the claim that IQ tests are valid measures (Richardson, 2017). IQ tests rely on other tests to attempt to prove they are valid. Though, as seen with the valid example of thermometers being validated without circular reliance on the instrument itself, IQ tests are said to be valid by claiming that it predicts test scores and life success. IQ and other similar tests are different versions of the same test, and so, it cannot be said that they are validated on that measure, since they are relating how “well” the test is valid with previous IQ tests, for example, the Stanford-Binet test. This is because “Most other tests have followed the Stanford–Binet in this regard (and, indeed are usually ‘validated’ by their level of agreement with it; Anastasi, 1990)” (Richardson, 2002: 301). How weird… new tests are validated with their agreement with other, non-construct valid tests, which does not, of course, prove the validity of IQ tests.

IQ tests are constructed by excising items that discriminate between better and worse test takers, meaning, of course, that the bell curve is not natural, but forced (see Simon, 1997). Humans make the bell curve, it is not a natural phenomenon re IQ tests, since the first tests produced weird-looking distributions. (Also see Richardson, 2017a, Chapter 2 for more arguments against the bell curve distribution.)

Finally, Richardson and Norgate (2014) write:

In scientific method, generally, we accept external, observable, differences as a valid measure of an unseen function when we can mechanistically relate differences in one to differences in the other (e.g., height of a column of mercury and blood pressure; white cell count and internal infection; erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) and internal levels of inflammation; breath alcohol and level of consumption). Such measures are valid because they rely on detailed, and widely accepted, theoretical models of the functions in question. There is no such theory for cognitive ability nor, therefore, of the true nature of individual differences in cognitive functions.

That “There is no such theory for cognitive ability” is even admitted by lead IQ-ist Ian Deary in his 2001 book Intelligence: A Very Short Introduction, in which he writes “There is no such thing as a theory of human intelligence differences—not in the way that grown-up sciences like physics or chemistry have theories” (Richardson, 2012). Thus, due to this, this is yet another barrier against IQ’s attempted validity, since there is no such thing as a theory of human intelligence.


In sum, neuroimaging meta-analyses (like Jung and Haier, 2007; see also Richardson and Norgate, 2007 in the same issue, pg 162-163) do not show what they purport to show for numerous reasons. (1) There are, of course, consequences of malnutrition for brain development and lower classes are more likely to not have their nutritional needs met (Ruxton and Kirk, 1996); (2) low classes are more likely to be exposed to substance abuse (Karriker-Jaffe, 2013), which may well impact brain regions; (3) “Stress arising from the poor sense of control over circumstances, including financial and workplace insecurity, affects children and leaves “an indelible impression on brain structure and function” (Teicher 2002, p. 68; cf. Austin et al. 2005)” (Richardson and Norgate, 2007: 163); and (4) working-class attitudes are related to poor self-efficacy beliefs, which also affect test performance (Richardson, 2002). So, Jung and Haier’s (2007) theory “merely redescribes the class structure and social history of society and its unfortunate consequences” (Richardson and Norgate, 2007: 163).

In regard to neuroimaging, pooling together (meta-analyzing) numerous studies is fraught with conceptual and methodological problems, since a high-degree of individual variability exists. Thus, attempting to find “average” brain differences in individuals fails, and the meta-analytic technique used (eg by Jung and Haier, 2007) fails to find what they want to find: average brain areas where, supposedly, cognition occurs between individuals. Meta-analyzing such disparate studies does not show an “average” where cognitive processes occur, and thusly, cause differences in IQ test-taking. Reductionist neuroimaging studies do not, as is popularly believed, pinpoint where cognitive processes take place in the brain, they have not been established and they may not even exist.

Nueroreductionism does not work; attempting to reduce cognitive processes to different regions of the brain, even using meta-analytic techniques as discussed here, fail. There “probably cannot” be neuroreductionist explanations for cognition (Uttal, 2014), and so, using these studies to attempt to pinpoint where in the brain—supposedly—cognition occurs for such ancillary things such as IQ test-taking fails. (Neuro)Reductionism fails.

Since there is no theory of individual differences in IQ, then they cannot be construct valid. Even if there were a theory of individual differences, IQ tests would still not be construct valid, since it would need to be established that there is a mechanistic relation between IQ tests and variable X. Attempts at validating IQ tests rely on correlations with other tests and older IQ tests—but that’s what is under contention, IQ validity, and so, correlating with older tests does not give the requisite validity to IQ tests to make the claim “IQ tests test intelligence” true. IQ does not even measure ability for complex cognition; real-life tasks are more complex than the most complex items on any IQ test (Richardson and Norgate, 2014b)

Now, having said all that, the argument can be formulated very simply:

Premise 1: If the claim “IQ tests test intelligence” is true, then IQ tests must be construct valid.
Premise 2: IQ tests are not construct valid.
Conclusion: Therefore, the claim “IQ tests test intelligence” is false. (modus tollens, P1, P2)

Just-so Stories: Beards

1050 words

As a bearded man, this has to be one of my favorite just-so stories. In Descent of Man, Darwin spoke quite a bit about the beard, and the different races/ethnies and the distribution of beards in them. Darwin (1871: 581) wrote:

On the other hand, bearded races admire and greatly value their beards ; among the Anglo-Saxons every part of the body had a recognised value … [also writing on pg 603] … for we know that with savages, the men of the beardless races take infinite pains in eradicating every hair from their faces as something odious, whilst the men of the bearded races feel the greatest pride in their beards.

Any man who has grown a beard admires and greatly values their beard. Darwin noted that beards were scant in Asian and Native American populations, as well as in Africa.

“Darwin specifically cited the human beard as a response to sexual selection serving mate attraction.” [Psychology Today, Beauty and the Beard]

Now, going off of this, we have this just-so story.

Men with the best beards attracted the most mates. Men who attracted the most mates had the most children. Men who had the most children had the best beards therefore, “beard genes” were naturally selected and eventually became fixated in males.

This has to be my favorite just-so story.

The New Republic almost word-for-word states my just-so story provided above:

Over the millennia, the theory goes, beardedmen were more successful in procreation than their smoother competitors, and the human beardevolved into its present form.

With so many so-called adaptations and things serving as “mate attractors”, how can selection “know” which trait to “act on”? This shows the ridiculousness of the just-so storytellers main weapon: reverse engineering.

Reverse engineering is “the inference from function to cause” (Richardson, 2007: 51). So they take the function (beards are seen as attractive to women) and then infer the cause (men with the best, most attractive beards were selected by women and thus “beard genes” became fixated in males since the best beards were fitness signallers to women since they found them attractive). But there is a flaw with reverse engineering: when accounting for such “design” in nature, in terms of adaptation, it can lead to just-so storytelling. AKA ad hoc hypotheses that explain what they purport to explain and only what they purport to explain.

Reverse engineering uses the design feature (beards) then extrapolate backward to presume its function (men with beards were seen as more attractive and thus, ‘beard genes’ became fixated since that’s what women found attractive). Reverse engineering can be used to make any story sound coherent; they necessarily conform with the data. Indeed, as Smith (2016: 279; emphasis mine) writes:

An important weakness in the use of narratives for scientific purposes is that the ending is known before the narrative is constructed. Merton42 pointed out that a “disarming characteristic” of ex post facto explanations is that they are always consistent with the observations because they are selected to be so.

This is why it’s problematic to accept this type of storytelling: they are consistent with the observations because they are crafted that way, but there is no observation that would increase the probability of the hypothesis being true so it’s just storytelling. In lieu of a time machine, we cannot verify these types of stories.

So we notice that beards (obviously) exist. Then we work backward and infer the function from the already-known outcome (as seen above). We then create the story that they were seen as attractive to women, thus they have been selected by women since they make for a more attractive mate. That a hypothesis conforms with the observation is not evidence that the hypothesis in question is true.

Research exists that men with beards are seen as more formidable mates for long-term relationships (Dixson et al, 2016). Mcintosh et al (2017) reported that “Women preferred full beards over clean-shaven faces and masculinised over feminised faces.” However, there is data that men with beards are perceived as more dominant but are not seen as more attractive than clean-shaven faces (Muscarella and Cunningham, 1996; Neave and Shields, 2008) Though evidence for current adaptiveness is not evidence for evolutionary adaptiveness. The fact that X is adaptive today is not evidence that X was adaptive in the human OEE (original evolutionary environment). This again goes back to reverse engineering. Attempting to account for design in nature amounts to nothing but storytelling since the hypotheses are inherently ad hoc. Evolutionary functional analysis most definitely leads to just-so storytelling, and the story of how and why men have beards falls prey to this as well.

Men’s beards may be the result of women’s choice, as X may be the reason for Y, but without a way to independently verify the hypothesis in question, it is then a just-so story. No, showing that women find men with beards to be better long-term partners is not evidence that female choice in the OEE (or in any point in evolutionary history) is evidence for the claim that beards became fixated in males due to female choice—sexual selection.

The problem with adaptationist explanations is that other modes of evolution are disregarded (nevermind the fact that the supposed mode of adaptation is supposed to be natural selection for the specific fitness-enhancing trait which cannot occur since NS has no mind and there are no laws of selection for trait fixation; Fodor, 2008; Fodor and Piatteli-Palmarini, 2010; also see Replies to Our Critics) such as drift, mutation, and migration (see Gould and Lewontin, 1979; also see Simon, 2018 for other critiques of EP hypotheses, namely that they are not testable).

In sum, the story that beards were sexually selected-for by women due to X (no matter what X is, be it attractiveness, dominance, etc) is a just-so story. It cannot be independently verified. Yes, beards are seen as status symbols and there is a considerable amount of research on men’s beards and what women think they mean today, but, again, that X is adaptive today is not evidence that X was adaptive in an evolutionary context. Simplicity, coherence, and fruitfulness are no reasons to believe a hypothesis (Smith, 2016); the hypothesis must be independently testable but there is no way to test this hypothesis—or any other—that trait X (beards, in this case) moved to fixation in virtue of its effect on reproductive fitness, therefore it is a just-so story.