Bayesian truth serum

Neville told me about this neat article from ’04. It presents a way to offer rewards to people taking a poll in such a way so as to motivate them to be honest, with no prior information about what the distribution of correct answers is. Apparently, previous such techniques are based on the idea of rewarding people for agreeing with other people’s answers. This new thing about this technique for calculating the reward is that it provides people with an incentive to tell their true opinion even if they know that they hold a minority viewpoint.

Drazen Prelec. A Bayesian Truth Serum for Subjective Data. Science 15 October 2004: Vol. 306. no. 5695, pp. 462 – 466. DOI: 10.1126/science.1102081

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IARPA and trust detection

Neurodudes reader Jason M. sent me some information about a funding agency, IARPA, or Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, that is funding neuroscience-related research. I had never heard of IARPA before but it has existed since 2006 as something of an intelligence-focused DARPA. There upcoming funding deadline (Aug 21) is for projects on detecting trust signals between humans.

Just last night, I watched the tense but amazing film The Hurt Locker (don’t let the name disuade you, see the phenomenal Metacritic rating), which is about a bomb disposal squad during the recent Iraq War. There is one particularly stirring scene with a suicide bomber who claims that he was forced to wear a vest with explosives and doesn’t want to go through with it. The difficulty in the limited time before the bomb explosion revolves around whether to actually trust the man and the challenge of trusting someone when neither party speaks the other’s language. You can certainly at least understand (putting aside the ethics of war itself) why governments are interested in detecting nonverbal trust cues.

Details about the IARPA call for proposals are after the jump. Continue reading

Determining research trends from Neuroscience abstracts

In this paper at arXiv, Yin et al. report on an analysis of the abstracts from the SfN meetings from 2001 to 2006. It sounds like their analysis uncovered several interesting trends: Two they mention in their abstract are that 60% of authors appear in only one year’s abstracts over the studied period, and that systems neuroscience seems to be on the rise relative to cellular and molecular neuroscience.

-John O’Leary

A ubiquitous human parasite that shapes human culture?

In the provocative-hypothesis-of-the-week department:

Kevin Lafferty, a parasitologist, has put forth the idea that a fairly ubiquitous parasite (infecting O(10%) of Americans, and up to 2/3 of people in places like Brazil) is responsible for some of the diversity of human culures (1). The parasite uses common housecats to increase its transmission to the next host in the life cycle, and has a subtle effect on human personality, with some studies claiming that it even causes neuroticism, and even schizophrenia. (One clinical report (2) claims that “subjects with latent toxoplasmosis had higher intelligence [and] lower guilt proneness.” Hmm!)

Anyway, Lafferty noted that toxoplasmosis varies in prevalence from world region to world region, and then tries to draw correlates between these prevalences and local cultures:

“Drivers of the geographical variation in the prevalence of this parasite include the effects of climate on the persistence of infectious stages in soil, the cultural practices of food preparation and cats as pets. Some variation in culture, therefore, may ultimately be related to how climate affects the distribution of T. gondii, though the results only explain a fraction of the variation in two of the four cultural dimensions, suggesting that if T. gondii does influence human culture, it is only one among many factors.”

I wonder how one could test this hypothesis? Look for recent immigrants from one culture to another, who have lower Toxoplasmosis incidence? (Preferably finding populations that go in opposite directions, as a control.) Track culture change vs. migration vs. climate change?

Unlikely, perhaps. But nice that people are still thinking big 🙂


(1) Lafferty, K
Can the common brain parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, influence human culture?
Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences

Picked up by the popular press here

(2) Flegr J, Havlicek J.
Changes in the personality profile of young women with latent toxoplasmosis.
Folia Parasitol (Praha). 1999;46(1):22-8.