Alien Crash Site Invades Complexity: Tamara van der Does on Sci-Fi Science, with Guest Co-host Caitlin McShea

Episode Notes

The consequence of living in a complex world: one tiny tweak can lead to massive transformation. Set the stage a slightly different way, and the entire play might unfold differently. This path-dependency shows up in both the science fiction premise and the hypothesis of scientific research: What can we learn about the hidden order of our cosmos by adjusting just a single variable?

Welcome to COMPLEXITY, the official podcast of the Santa Fe Institute. I’m your host, Michael Garfield, and every other week we’ll bring you with us for far-ranging conversations with our worldwide network of rigorous researchers developing new frameworks to explain the deepest mysteries of the universe.

This week, Complexity Podcast becomes its own experiment after an invasion by our sister podcast, InterPlanetary Festival’s Alien Crash Site. SFI Miller Omega Program Manager Caitlin McShea joins as guest co-host for a conversation with SFI Program Postdoctoral Fellow Tamara van der Does (who models belief change using techniques inspired by statistical physics) for a three-headed conversation totally befitting the subject matter: a work of speculative “sci-fi science” produced by SFI’s postdoctoral researchers during a 72-hour lock-in complex systems charette. Their question: how might an extraterrestrial civilization much like our own work if their biology required three-parent families? We discuss the interplay between individual and society, the role of counterfactuals and speculation in both scientific research and sci-fi, and what technology she’d hope to find left in the wake of an alien visitation.

Tune in two weeks from now for a return to our regularly scheduled programming...

If you value our research and communication efforts, please consider making a donation at — and/or rating and reviewing us at Apple Podcasts. You can find numerous other ways to engage with us at Thank you for listening!

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Podcast theme music by Mitch Mignano.

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Go deeper with these additional resources:

• Tamara’s Website, Google Scholar Page & Twitter
• InterPlanetary Festival Website
• Alien Crash Site Podcast

In 72 hours of sci-fi, postdocs transmit parental model of alien civilization [video]
• Greetings from a Triparental Planet 72 Hours of Science Pre-Printby Gizem Bacaksizlar, Stefani Crabtree, Joshua Garland, Natalie Grefenstette, Albert Kao, David Kinney, Artemy Kolchinsky, Tyler Marghetis, Michael Price, Maria Riolo, Hajime Shimao, Ashley Teufel, Tamara van der Does, and Vicky Chuqiao Yang
• Scale and information-processing thresholds in Holocene social evolution by Jaeweon Shin, Michael Holton Price, David H. Wolpert, Hajime Shimao, Brendan Tracey, and Timothy A. Kohler
• SFI’s VP for Science Jennifer Dunne Remembers Ecologist Bob May

• Complexity 43: Vicky Yang & Henrik Olsson on social science
• Complexity 24: Laurent Hébert Dufresne on network epidemiology
• Complexity 19: David Kinney on the philosophy of science

• IPFest 2019 Worldbuilding Panel with Rebecca Roanhorse, Ty Franck, Daniel Abraham, Michael Drout, and Cris Moore
• David Stout on Alien Crash Site Podcast
• Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky Brothers
• Stalker (film adaptation of Roadside Picnic) by Andrei Tarkovsky
• Anathem by former SFI Miller Scholar Neal Stephenson
• Dark Integers by Greg Egan
Aliens comic series by Dark Horse
• UFO sculpture in cover image by R.T. Davis

Episode Transcription

This is a machine-generated transcript courtesy of and edited by Aaron Leventman. If you would like to volunteer to edit our podcast transcripts, please email michaelgarfield[at]santafe[dot]edu.  Thank you and enjoy:


Michael Garfield (24s):

The consequence of living in a complex world. One tiny tweak can lead to massive transformation, set the stage a slightly different way, and the entire play might unfold differently. This path dependency shows up in both the science fiction premise and the hypothesis of scientific research. What if we just break that one thing here? What can we learn about the hidden order of our cosmos by adjusting just a single variable. Welcome to complexity, the official podcast of the Santa Fe Institute. I'm your host, Michael Garfield, and every other week, we'll bring you with us for far ranging conversations with our worldwide network of rigorous researchers, developing new frameworks to explain the deepest mysteries of the universe.


Michael Garfield (1m 8s):

This week, complexity becomes its own experiment. After an invasion by our sister podcast, interplanetary festivals, alien crash site. SFI Miller Omega program manager, Caitlin McShea joins as guest co-host for a conversation with SFI fellow Tamara van Der Dose for a three-headed conversation, totally be fitting the subject matter, a work of speculative sci-fi science produced by over a dozen of SFS postdoctoral researchers during a 72 hour lock-in complex systems charrette. Their question, how might an extra terrestrial civilization much like our own work if their biology required three parent families. We discussed the interplay between individual and society, the role of counterfactuals and speculation in both scientific research and sci-fi and what technology Tamara would hope to find left in the wake of an alien visitation. Tune in two weeks from now for a return to our regularly scheduled programming and check the show notes for extensive followup resources, including links to subscribed alien crash site.


Michael Garfield (2m 14s):

If you value our research and communication efforts, please consider making a slash podcast, give and or a rating and reviewing us at Apple podcasts. You can find numerous other ways to engage with us at Santa // Thank you for listening. 


You know, maybe the right place to start this conversation is the fact that this is a three-headed monster. You know, that the dynamics of a three-party conversation are impossible for Isaac Newton to predict so that just having three people in one chat like this automatically brings us to nonlinear dynamics. And here we are squarely and immediately in complexity science 


Michael Garfield (2m 58s):

We're ready for failure. We're ready for a huge explosion


Tamara van der Does (3m 0s):

Is what you're saying? We're not afraid of failure.


Michael Garfield (3m 4s):

Failure is learning right. Well, great. I think this seems like the right place to start. Tamara, tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you get into science? What, what drove your burgeoning curiosity?


Tamara van der Does (3m 18s):

I also kind of have to explanation of what brought me to science. There's like maybe the more real one on a human level. And then the more academic one I've always been interested in people. So that much was clear and just like, why do people function like they do. I also love pop culture and can just look at it and try to dissect it as much as possible. And I think I was definitely drawn to questions that I worked through in my PhD from mostly being in France with like a very large Muslim immigrant population and kind of seeing a lot of my peers who are like, Oh, I'm, I'm a feminist. I don't follow the rules of my parents, but also I'm a Muslim and I wear the veil and all these things are who I am.


Tamara van der Does (4m 2s):

And I was like, Oh, this seems contradicting, but also awesome. And I want to understand how people kind of find who they are in this environment with multiple cultures that are contradicting with each other. And so that was definitely a question from a long time ago that brought me to graduate school to study these questions. But then the more human side is that, you know, I graduated in 2010, the economic recession thought I was going to work, maybe do social work. I hated it. And then I freaked out and my boyfriend said, maybe you should do grad school. And I said, but in what? And he said, sociology. I was like, Oh, that does sound fun. And here I am.


Michael Garfield (4m 45s):

So you fell into SFI.


Tamara van der Does (4m 48s):

Yeah. And I also applied to the PhD program at Indiana University thinking it was a master's program. And then I got a letter that said you have funding for five years. I was like, Oh, okay. And I think I did graduate school the right way in that I always thought I was gonna leave the next year. I was like, Oh, I'll try this out. But once I got my master's I'll leave or once I'll teach a bit, I'll leave. Once I do qualifying exams, I leave. And so it felt less daunting. It was more step-by-step and eventually I was like, Oh, I really like research. I'm almost done. Might as well finished. And the program I was in is a very like classic sociology department.


Tamara van der Does (5m 29s):

So unlike a lot of people at SFI, I was in a very strong department culture. So it was very not interdisciplinary. It was like, here are all the sociological classics. Here's how you do applied stats for sociology purposes only, and cure you are now a perfect sociologist. And so it was really great that mere tech kind of took a chance on hiring me from such a strong sociology only background and seeing the connection with her work. And since then has been a lot of learning, a lot of learning and very exciting stuff.


Michael Garfield (6m 2s):

Mirta Galesic is also a cultural transplant, right. And so I think there's a resonance there. And especially as it comes to work that you both do, and the relationship between the cultures that a person has to navigate their identities and their belief. And I think it would be helpful to spend some time on the exposition of that and like how it is that you study the relationships of those factors.


Tamara van der Does (6m 24s):

Yeah. So there's kind of, I guess, two ways or multiple ways to look at it. But with Mirta we focus a lot is on this psychological idea of dissonance. So, you know, when you have conflicting beliefs, how, what do you do to change them? And this is kind of a classic theory in psychology of belief change and what she and Henrik and Yonas have added to it at least kind of statistical physics framework to understand this dissonance using this icing related models. And so seeing, Oh, it's not only dissonance, but also how much you feel this dissonance, how much you pay attention to it, et cetera, et cetera.


Tamara van der Does (7m 6s):

But this is not right. This is not just by itself. You and your little mind. So it's you your mind, everything you think about, but also the larger social environment. And so a lot of the models we're working on is how do you incorporate both the social environment and people's minds to try to predict or understand people changing their beliefs. And then what I kind of am a bit more interested in is like the social environment, even better, bigger, so like culture and how does culture kind of creates what kind of beliefs and what kind of identities you can have in the first place. And so creates kind of these ways that you can be understanding you can be.


Tamara van der Does (7m 47s):

And then at the same time, how different people influenced by that then can change themselves, these bigger cultural elements. 


Caitlin McShea

Can you be a little more particular about exactly what types of beliefs you're looking at in this large environment? I think a particular example would be really helpful for me to wrap my mind around this large thing you're examining. 


Tamara Van der Does

This is very vague. Yeah. So I think with Mirta, we're focusing on beliefs about scientific issues, for example. So here is like really beliefs about vaccines, beliefs about gym, food. How do people form their beliefs? How do people understand it? And so you can see, okay, you might think I am against vaccines because I also believe in these other related things or all my friends are anti-vaxxers, but also it's what the government pumps out, what you see in the media.


Tamara van der Does (8m 33s):

How do you understand yourself? I don't know. I'm some more as a hippie. And so what does it mean for you to believe or not believe about vaccines, about other identities you might hold, things like that? Something else I would like to look at is also going back actually to this question of feminism and trying to see the relationship between feminism and religion and that when do people hold onto these two things that are important to them when they choose one over the other or, and why kind of life changes might affect that?


Caitlin McShea (8m 56s):

Well, so when you talk about something like how feminism informs a decision towards belief in a religious system or vice versa, that seems like a really good example of the types of trade offs. I imagine people would experience as their beliefs change like in real time. Have you experienced any similar overlap between for instance, like a trust in science during a time like COVID pandemic and a different type of behavior? I mean, I don't think feminism is one, maybe I'm incorrect, but it seems like I can think about it in the framework of being trapped inside quarantine during a pandemic.


Caitlin McShea (9m 36s):

But how does that relate to, for instance, the way that we select our policymakers or the way that we behave with our neighbors and determine who gets to come into our pot and who doesn't. 


Tamara Van Der Does

So you're saying how kind of beliefs about trust in science then informed your actions or... 


Caitlin McShea

I'm guessing there there's clearly a feedback that you're looking at between the individual's behavior and decision-making in a, in an environment which includes other individuals. Yeah. And so when I'm thinking about quarantine, it's like, who do I allow into my pod? How much does something like their belief in science factor? It would seem to me that those are tethered, but it would also seem to me that this person has a, has a different belief system than I do, but they're empathic in a way that I needed my group.


Caitlin McShea (10m 17s):

I don't know.



Michael Garfield (10m 18s):

Love to stack on that also that when we talked to the Sam Scarpino on complexity, you know, he had done some work and also had done work on the overlapping relationship between networks of different kinds in, in the influencer formation of behavior. We also talked about this with Jeff West in terms of the way that our social networks reorganize when we're no longer seeing people in person and how, rather than your, your neighbors, which is sort of heterogeneous, as far as like belief systems or affinity groups, we end up online where social networks are determined, sort of by homophily right. It's like you're seeking out and you're, you're driven by algorithm to associate with people whose ideas are more like your own.


Tamara Van Der Does (11m 3s):

Yeah. And I think that's kind of an interesting point as far as how much yeah. How much having to choose fewer friends or making this decision of pods could change how beliefs spreads, how identities of form, and even trying to think of what if this had always been the case and like what kind of society would actually, what have, would we have just like a lot of tinier identities or would beliefs not change at all because it's all these disconnected little pods. I think that's a very interesting question. I haven't really put that much thought into studying that, but I really liked thinking about how this could affect things. Yeah.


Michael Garfield (11m 43s):

So that's a hook into this question, that animated, the really interesting project that we're here to talk about today, which is the 72 hours of science project, the SFI fellows were involved in, in 2019. It seems like forever that I've been wanting to talk about the Sunday show since like the first episode.


Caitlin McShea (12m 4s):

It feels like yesterday to me, I have to say, because we were so close to bringing it to like a public forum with interplanetary. And then we were going to try to figure out this experimentally evolved book thing with ASU. And so it's both very far away. I'm very proximal.


Michael Garfield (12m 17s):

Yeah. But so the question about the role of counterfactuals or, you know, alternate histories or, you know, change one variable and see what happens. There's that relationship between science fiction and the role of speculation in forecasting and in civilization design. And then this other thing, which is, you know, the way that science is practiced as an, you know, an intellectual enterprise. And I'd love to hear you speak to that.


Tamara van der Does (12m 42s):

So 72 hours is something that's been happening at SFI for a few years. Now that actually Chris Kempes, and his cohort of post-docs first did. And the idea was based from, I think it was a 48 hours of movie where they made a movie in 48 hours. And the idea was to do the same thing with science to try to show, okay, this, try to bring a bunch of people together and make one paper in 72 hours. And they did that for two years. And the two papers are online. One is published, I believe. And it was very cool that they came up with a whole paper and did all the analysis and writing all in 72 hours.


Tamara van der Does (13m 23s):

And when it was, are you, we thought, Oh, it'd be very fun to do a 72 hour project again. And this time we decided all this maybe pitch ideas beforehand. So we have a little bit of a direction of way to go. And I really tried to find what I wanted to do for 72 hours. And I was like, I don't want to do just a model of like, Oh, look, these two things are similar or all here, some simulations. I was like, I want to do something fun. And so I came and I had a very vague idea. My only idea I proposed was like, maybe we don't have to make 72 hours actual scientific paper, but maybe it could mean more story. I was thinking something in between like the Little Prince and Sophia's Choice when maybe somebody would go from planet to planet.


Tamara van der Does (14m 9s):

And like each planet would have like one physics law broken until you would learn about it and get to learn about science or complexity through that. And people really liked that idea. However, a lot of people still wanted the experience of learning about how different people do science. I mean, I think it's a very exciting group we had with some physicists and biologists, A philosopher, some social scientists. And so people were like, we still want to know how we each do science and do a scientific inquiry together. And so then the idea was like, let's write a paper, but from the perspective of alien scientists explaining their planets and we doing the 72 hours, did a long brainstorm on what this would be.


Tamara van der Does (14m 54s):

And we came to a planet that needs three parents for reproduction. And I think the whole counter factor is especially interesting because we, in the process of working through this project, we came across a paper actually by Perry in 2017 that used the previous paper modeling the benefits of biparentalism by Kondrashov and Perry. And I were like, Oh, you know, it seems that actually tri parental reproduction could be more effective. So this was an actual paper that came out just two years. They know, but nobody cared about it. It's like, why would you worry about this, given that this is clearly not the case on this planet?


Tamara van der Does (15m 35s):

And we're like, this is genius. And actually it's very good. And it makes sense that as far as like making sure that like bad mutations, don't just like expand. It will be better to have three parents, but given the situation on our home planet, when you maybe need better corporation and that there's not too many mutations, two parents still seem like a good place to be.


Michael Garfield (15m 60s):

Yeah. So, so that key idea, I feel like in a lot of this research, the notion of historical contingency or, or path dependency and the way that things get canalized or entrenched by the vagaries of historical unfolding. And so we've got this situation, like you said, where it's like, yeah, there may be some contexts in which three parents is actually a better approach, but that's not what we have.


Tamara van der Does (16m 24s):

Yeah. The path dependency is pretty huge. Even now linking it a little bit more again to my work, for example, with Vicky coming up with a motto of categorization, but just like once people have been categorized based on one, you know, specific characteristics in your life is based on that. It's really hard to move past this. And so I think this is something that each country that has many cultures, many genders, many sexual orientations is trying to deal with is like, now that we have made these categories based on sometimes genetics, sometimes not, it's like, what do we do with them and how do we move forward? And there's a huge, yeah, there's a huge path dependency. And you can say, Oh, these things are socially constructed.


Tamara van der Does (17m 7s):

They're not actually real. It's like, yes, but now we're kind of in this world. 


Caitlin McShea

Well, what I think is interesting to you from the counterfactual perspective of something like a 72 hours, because as you said, it was a diverse group of individuals, practicing science from all different realms. And so I think that one can immediately imagine how difficult it might be to find two partners to make a baby and think about it in that kind of a sociological sense. But you also have, you know, physicists and biologists and mathematicians and philosophers examining a potential mechanism for which the genetic material doesn't mix. It has to actually breed instead of spin. And so it just, it covers like all scales of imagination, which I think is really cool. I'm going to presume that there wasn't a mechanism proposed as to how the genetic material became tripartite or was there, 


Tamara van der Does (18m 12s):

Oh, there definitely like a whole section on like three branch chromosomes and how they would like interweave with each other as like the wall behind you, if there's, so I think that was one, there was the development of gametes asymmetry, which was also quite fascinating. So what kind of, so I don't know if, you know, for example here, this gamut assymetry given like the egg sperm, different size type of situation. And so here we're like, Oh, what would be the gametes asymmetry? And it seems like the best would be one bigger two smaller ones. And so you had, yeah, you had people working on this people drawing chromosomes and at the same time, people writing about cultural mixing and how maybe they offspring of people who have three parents would have maybe more capacity to hold on multiple language, multiple cultures. And here again, this is something we did not explore, but I was talking with Yonas who started sadly after 72 hours, started here at SFI about how maybe you would have been nice to look at these models of belief, dissonance, and identities, and maybe see, okay, what if people had a lot more ability to hold on to contradicting things within them because there were so used to them from birth.


Michael Garfield (19m 10s):

So, you know, to that point in tying back into the first piece here about a belief and identity, when we had Vicky Yang and Henrik Olson on the show, one of the papers that we discussed was a paper you co-authored Falling Through the Cracks, the Dynamical Model for the Formation of Ingroups and Outgroups, and much has been written about the way that the eruption of Intercontinental trade during the Renaissance. And, you know, the, the so-called rational enlightenment led to greater tolerance between people and the emergence of new subtleties of psychological complexity, people being able to move between different value systems and different social persona.


Michael Garfield (19m 54s):

And there's this question that the section that you just mentioned in this paper on cultural mixing under try parental reproduction, I think you said David Kenney was primarily in charge of this piece. So there's, there's this piece here where I think this is this, this ties into your paper with Vicky and Henrik about where he writes at some point, the cognitive load of maintaining multiple cultural identities becomes overwhelming. And that's true, whether you're in a two parents society or three parents society that it's like, there is a minimal psychological complexity required to navigate an environment. And the dissonance that you're talking about generates ingroups and outgroups. And so like the speculation here in this paper is that the culture ends up becoming homogeneous because it's too much work to try and shuffle all of these.


Michael Garfield (20m 44s):

And I guess, you know, that's, that's, that's, that's like, it's, it's interesting in terms of questions about, again, what is happening to us online and how do we navigate the proliferation of partial identities in this way? I'm curious what your thoughts are on all of that. It's a big bite to chew, but I'd love to hear what you think.


Tamara van der Does (21m 4s):

I think one thing to remember is that also people are not just little ponds moved around, taking in these identities and beliefs. I mean, there's a lot of agencies still and a lot of agencies of like what you want and also what people with more power really want. And so I think once you add that to the mix, it's very hard to predict what will actually happen. And so one of my projects is actually looking at a more looking at textual data. So Google books or congressional speeches or newspapers, and how these places decide to construct different ideas about who counts as like us Americans and who is not.


Tamara van der Does (21m 47s):

And so they are delimiting, they are creating the conversations. I was like, what are these categories in the first place? And so there's a lot of agencies and different actors who have specific goals in making sure that maybe there is a homogeneous culture. Like a lot of people want all of America to be United for like power or something, but, you know, in some people want more, want to create divisible groups. And so I don't know. Adding this to the mix makes it more complicated to predict, like in this case, would you actually have a homogeneous culture or once you have all these small groups online, what, what happened? I think there's still a big push by politician. Some to try to unite some, to try to divide and I'm unsure, uncertain what would actually happen in the end.


Michael Garfield (22m 33s):

Well, just to offer another speculative link back to Jennifer Dunn just gave a really beautiful Memorial lecture on the legacy of ecologist Bob May a former chair of the SFI science board. And like, we're going to, one of his contributions was showing how as an ecology becomes more and more complex, it becomes more and more brittle or susceptible to collapse in certain ways. And so it does seem like that's kind of what Kenny is suggesting here.


Tamara van der Does (23m 0s):

Yeah. I think what really interests me here in the 72 hours more than like applications for society is just this, this exercise of trying to see, okay, if we change what things, what are all the far ranging consequences, both on biology and from society and what could emerge out of that. And this alternative world is really what drew me to propose this project and what still makes me excited about it. And if you find that this could be, if we could do this every year. 


Caitlin McShea

Yeah. I want to, I want to talk a little bit too about the origins of 72 hours and how it's shifted by this proposal. Because as you say, it was originally inspired by the 48 hour film festival, which is to say like, what can we accomplish under this very firm limit and was like, we, we lock ourselves in this crazy place. And I think the crazy geography that you occupied for this project is worth mentioning like practically an alien landing pad. So there is something like meritable about having to push yourself against this wall in terms of deriving creativity. But what's interesting about your project is that the resources were limited in terms of time. You had literally 72 hours, you couldn't leave the house and you could only work with the people who were in your group, but at the same time you chose to do an almost creatively imaginatively unlimited project. And I wonder how, if you could speak to how you approach that, because I guess this is why I was interested in the DNA question, like how clever to you have thought up triple parentalism and then reconciled all of the science that you practice in a way that's still navigable from like someone like myself who understands the earth DNA, but it's still like, how do you get that third string in there?


Caitlin McShea (24m 35s):

How do you get the communication? It's through the golden record? Like, so some of the unlimited newness was tethered to certain artifacts themselves that we, the audience can engage with. And I wonder if you have anything to say about that.


Tamara van der Does (24m 48s):

Yeah. And I think that was, I should say the premise , yeah the whole story was these aliens coming by earth, coming into the Voyager, seeing the golden record, being like, Hmm, interesting, two parents and then studying reverse engineering, our methods to get all the data from our planet to read all these academic papers and send back the report within 72 hours. I think those constraint more nice as far as telling the story. I thought, I think it was very hard at the beginning because it almost is unlimited which directions you can go with this kind of prompt. And I think it made it harder actually for social scientists, because you can literally, you can go and billions of direction.


Tamara van der Does (25m 35s):

And it's a little bit hard to know where to start. So we really try to narrow it down by first coming into, okay, how would this happen and what would lead to a planet where this is the case. And so that helped us narrow the focus of the 72 hours by looking at, let's say, everything is the same. What would make it so that this is true in another planet, given all the laws we know. And, and I think through that, we were able to just, you know, go step-by-step okay, you need three parents. Okay. You need three mating types. Okay. What about gametes size? And then you build on until that, and then afterwards, it was really just picking and choosing a few things that seem interesting to people to explore, but this really kind of helped narrow down the, why would this be rather than all possible consequences?


Tamara van der Does (26m 30s):

But I think in a way it really worked well as far as bringing people from different disciplines together, because I think it's very hard to work on a project with like 14 people who all come very different backgrounds. And so here, it was a little bit easier to actually be like, whatever you can do, do it, but do it within this very broad constraint, which is three parents.


Michael Garfield (26m 56s):

We would be remiss without mentioning that we live in a world now where three parent babies are possible and that while this doesn't obey this the same sort of genetic dynamics of the speculative race in this paper, that some of the same sort of sociopolitical cultural, psychological outcomes here may be swiftly moving, like so many other things from the domain of science fiction into a matter of mundane concern. I wonder what your thoughts are on that.


Tamara van der Does (27m 26s):

Yeah. I mean, I think that was also useful in this project was to focus a bit more on the biology side of it, because I do think that actually having three parents or having actually a whole family taking care of it, of you has actually been the norm here and there for many years. So I'm not sure that was like a key and that interesting difference. I think really the biological side is the uniqueness. And then if you have to have there's biology cool side, then it leads to maybe some differences and disease spreading or marriage rates or cultural shifting, but really having three parents in a household that is actually not that different from, you know, a lot of different possibilities on earth.


Caitlin McShea  (28m 11s):

And let's not forget the near usage of the word thrupple in the actual scientific paper, because there is such an example in the world that we occupied. Like, I love that.


Michael Garfield (28m 21s):

This may not make it into the final cut, but I do think it's of note that you and Artemy Kolchinsky, your, your partner who's also at SFI fellow once presented at SFI for slice of science on Burning Man. And that burning man is where I went to learn about like polycules and non-binary identities and forms of human intimacy. I think we've, we've stepped way off the path as far as the show is concerned.


Tamara van der Does (28m 51s):

But I, I think part of me, I actually wished we would have gone further is a weird term, but I was like hoping for some more major differences in like the kind of maths or truths that this other planet would have. So I think we went for something quiet biological, and it actually did. I was a math undergrad, but I was at a Christian college and my senior thesis was Is God above Math or Math above God. I love that question. And I really also inspired, but quite a bit of like Greg Egan stuff, thinking about different maths and different logics, it kind of could attacking each other.


Tamara van der Does (29m 34s):

I mean, how cool was that? And in here, was part of me still wants to do a project that is maybe more the Little Prince, but with like kind of deep mathematical truth or not true. And how would that work? But I think that would take more than 72 hours. 


Michael Garfield

Maybe worth mentioning a little bit about, I think, are you talking about Permutation City, Greg Egan's novel. 


Tamara van der Does

Dark Integers. 


Michael Garfield

So yeah, it might be worth just, just giving people a little bite to chew on it that. 


Tamara van der Does

Dark Integers or their mathematicians are not biting against a logical invasions from alien. I mean, that's pretty much the premise.


Tamara van der Does (30m 15s):

There are a few small stories also as well, but this is like the major thing. And so you follow these groups of researchers who are like realizing that things are right with their super computers I believe. And then yeah, it's like swallowing up and then has he figured out how to fix it?


Caitlin McShea (30m 32s):

I can't imagine a better signal to science fiction. And so I'm just going to take that and run with it. I appreciate that there is this possibility for what did you call it, a logical invasion and how one might approach it as a, as a post visitation civilian earth. Michael and I were talking about this earlier in terms of the alien crash site question, which of course takes its premise. It's a page out of the roadside picnic novel by The Strugatsky Brothers as beautifully adapted by Tarkovsky, Michael and I were talking about how convenient it would have been if the triple parental civilization had made it to earth so that we could say that this was an object that you were like plucking from them. But I don't actually think that that would work in retrospect because I'm not sure that they would be so remarkably more sophisticated than us. They seem very similar to us.


Caitlin McShea (31m 13s):

Right. So, okay, scratch that some much more markedly, sophisticated alien civilization stopped for a bathroom break, decided to clean out the car before exiting and entering onto a much more interesting path to some other better destination. But when they landed, they dropped all this junk off. You happened to stumble upon one of these zones and knowing that something inside of it might change the course of human civilization at the risk of great personal injury, imprisonment, and even death. Tamara, what object would you like to uncover from the zone and why?


Tamara van der Does (31m 45s):

Alien drugs.


Michael Garfield (31m 50s):

Would they work?


Tamara van der Does (31m 54s):

Well, that's the thing. So also I just read Anthem. And so they're also the multiple worlds coming together, but the food doesn't transfer because at one point I was thinking that alien food would be great to taste and to see how it would be.


Caitlin McShea (32m 11s):

Right. But you can't presume that like you have the metabolic capacity to manifest energy from whatever this material is.


Tamara van der Does (32m 17s):

No, like exactly or how to understand alien art or so I, I went with, I actually put some thought into it, more thinking about Stalker and about roadside picnic, which in preparation I read and I was like, yeah, and looked at the list of artifacts. I was like, Oh, okay. And, but I, a little bit inspired. I actually still, but there's like a group of people in this book who the whole theory is that no idea is new. And so they spend their whole life just reading about all theories already done in the world, just to be able to say, no, this is not a new theory, obviously, because I know it all.


Tamara van der Does (32m 58s):

And there's an interesting question there of like, it will take your whole life to know all of these theories, which seems impossible. Also would knowing all these theories would lead you to have less imagination, less creativity. But at the same time, like when I was coming to the podcast, I was like, it would be nice if I could just remember everything I have ever read and everything I've ever studied. So I could answer smartly are these questions by these two excellent podcast stares. So I was like, I want a memory hat, a memory hat. This is what will be in this adding crash site where, and you can choose when you put it on or off, but you have access to all your memories.


Michael Garfield (33m 36s):

That's interesting. I wonder again how that kind of technology would even exist given that the entire history of human information technologies, several SFI people just last year put out that piece on information architecture and, and human civilization over time. We'll link to it in the show notes, but it seems like it's all about offloading memory to the environment. And so how would the path of technological development even result in something that could meaningfully restore a kind of identic memory to people given that it seems like the economies of scale of living more and more complex civilizations require us to actually shrink our brains.


Tamara van der Does (34m 18s):

Yeah. But yeah, the brain is so good at bringing up related topics, whereas your phone, it's not as fast, it's not as good. And maybe we need to try parental planet to have the brain capacity to take it down. But I don't know. I think it would just be nice to have a hat, but also to take it off, you don't want all these memories, but maybe sometimes you want access to all, to choose, to choose the chosen. 


Caitlin McShea

And so you're suggesting that the wearer of this hat can very quickly and easily navigate through the network of these ideas. So it's infinite memory of everything experience. Yes. But immediately navigable, I'm going to go one step further. It's probably not a hat, but you found it in the zone and you're human. And so you're like, ah, and you put it on, but it could be a habitat for a much smaller alien, which would address this scaling problem to some degree. 


Tamara van der Does (34m 59s):

Right. I was kind of imagining a bucket hat, but I think just because why not new radical style, but I think, yes, who knows? I mean, who knows what was living in there or how it's affecting our brain to make that possible? I mean, some kind of weird alien technology that was probably made for something completely different that just interacts with our brains as such that there you go.


Michael Garfield (35m 31s):

It wasn't even the original intention, right. To pull another thread, Michael Crichton's novel Sphere, Caitlin and I talked about this, how much it has in resonance with alien crash site scientists discover this object inside a crash spacecraft at the bottom of the ocean. And it's having strange effects on the researchers. They're trying to figure out what it was actually intended for. And there's this whole conversation about, well, say a bacterium finds its way into the fuel cell of a human satellite and is poisoned by that fuel cell and comes to the conclusion that this was a weapon to use against bacteria when in fact that it was never even considered by human beings.


Caitlin McShea (36m 11s):

Well, that's the mystery, right? And this is the risk that's associated with the zone. This is why there's a whole Institute of extra terrestrial culture dedicated to trying to understand whatever the heck gets pulled out of the zone. But really it's just us using our human brains to retrofit these very sophisticated technologies to address probably much less sophisticated problems like your memory had is almost like a personal internet hat. Right? Which I would love, I would absolutely love that. But if at any, if aliens passed by on their way home, and so I was utilizing this object and that way they'd be like, that's disappointing. I'm glad we didn't really stop there. 


Michael Garfield (36m 51s):

So to link this back into work that you're doing right now. You mentioned this, that you have a preprint out already integrating social and cognitive aspects of belief dynamics towards a unifying framework. And it seems like this question of figuring out the correlation causation thing, right? Pulling apart a originally dimensional phenomenon and teasing apart the relationships between its various components and understanding how they are actually acting on one another and having to keep ourselves in check about our assumptions about the way that those things relate. You know, there's a, there's a kind of a similar question about like, okay, what does this hat do to the actual proportion or character of the contributions of an individual disposition and a social environment in this respect?


Michael Garfield (37m 40s):

Am I making any sense here? But I mean, so it's like, how do you go about in a way, you know, if you're, if you're trying to, to write a review in which you outline a unifying framework, bringing different belief, dynamical models into harmony with one another, you're talking about statistical physics, cognitive science, social theory. In some sense, these are communities that are alien to one another. And so the issue of translation becomes key here and of being able to verify accurate translation between these different domains. And so like, how has that actually done in your work as a scientist? How do you ground that in rigor?


Tamara Van Der Does (38m 22s):

You put the magical bucket hat that gives you knowledge of also, I think first you have to, I think accept that you cannot bring it all together. Some of us have an instinct of like, let's really bring in every single thing, discuss related to this topic into one mega framework and all will fit. The thing is not all well fit. I think people are approaching it in such different ways that sometimes you cannot summarize it all. Or maybe once we will be able to, then we can predict all human humanities futures socially. But I mean really here, the it's really just having a team of people who really know about different things. I mean, there's no way around it. And so I think as long as you and the team we worked with this, Dan Stein was part of it who he's a physicist, I guess I represent sociology then a psychology cognitive scientist.


Tamara van der Does (39m 19s):

So it was, it was quite actually easy for all of us to represent our fields as best as possible and put them in conversation with each other. I think when you do reviews, it's not as hard as when you actually try to do a more empirical paper, because then you run into bigger issues of like what constitute a valid argument, what constitute a valid proof? What does even, we had debates on like, what does mechanism or prediction mean? Which really varies across fields. And that's when things get quite difficult.


Caitlin McShea (39m 56s):

That was exactly my question, but now you don't have to answer it. I wondered if, either in the work that you do or in 72 hours, you came upon some total misunderstandings that were absolutely semantic in nature because I've been encountering that over and over. And it's an artifact of what a meaning. Like it's, it's like a distillation of a meaning in the word, but if the word is approached from a variety of different angles and then use in conversation between two people who are not sharing the foundation yeah. Are you progressing at all? It would seem like you're not, but you guys managed.


Tamara van der Does (40m 25s):

Yeah. It's very hard. And I think it's those words also that seem to have such an important role for humans yet are so hard to define and so causes, you know, the number one and then, but also yeah. Predict or mechanism or explain. And you're like, Oh, these are all words that we use all the time though. We all have an idea, but then scientifically it seems like it really means different things to different fields. And so, yeah. So do you say this caused this, this explains this, and we show a mechanism between this so we can predict, and everybody has different views, but I think once you realize that it's really just about lack of definitions for vague terms.


Tamara van der Does (41m 9s):

I think you can still move past that and have some kind of good. Oh yeah, for sure. I've witnessed it. They did a good work that comes out of it, but yeah. 


Michael Garfield

So what's next? 


Tamara Van Der Does

What's next? Well with my infinite memory, Oh, write a book. Well, one next is really looking as I, as I mentioned, I have a few project looking at these large texts and looking how categories are defined with them, them and used. And I think that's the big next project. And I'm going to start small, just looking really, just describe what is happening in this context.


Tamara van der Does (41m 53s):

But I would really like to have some kind of better way to model how people with different agency or different goals, try to push these categories to be different over time and how do they find an equilibrium? And so with Vicky and Henrik, it was really much a model that was simulated at a very individual level, but kind of more culturally how with individuals, with agencies and goals, how do you model that?


Caitlin McShea (42m 21s):

But I have a more broad question for Tamara about like her work in discipline with other like, so just allow me completely unrelated, but something I meant to ask earlier. Something that I really like as someone who's outside of science is a narrative, a proposal of what's at stake in scientific research and understanding things in a more qualitative sense than a quantitative sense. I find that I can get the theory in broad strokes and I get very confused once the actual, like physical laws and mathematics are introduced just because that's the type of person that I am, but they seem to me somewhat entangled Yet I know that the type of work that you're doing is what one might call it, qualitative data collection, which I think is maybe even for me more capacious and it's expression.


Caitlin McShea (43m 3s):

Does that make sense? My question, like, have you found any like criticism as a social scientist collecting "qualitative" data in your research, or do you find that it's more capable of expressing like a much more complete rounded piece of data?


Tamara van der Does (43m 20s):

Yeah, I think that's where kind of my background comes into play is that there's such a strong, such a strong history, I think in sociology, in qualitative research. And there's actually a very strong belief in sociology that the best theories, which there is verbal theories that they mean the best theories come out only of qualitative research and that you cannot actually find anything new about humans by just doing a quantitative stuff. And I think it's a mix of the two. And I will also say that I'm not sure what I am doing to qualitative researcher is not qualitative, but it's a new area, which is a bit exciting, which people call computational social science.


Tamara van der Does (44m 2s):

I think there's something interesting now is that for the longest time, the only people who would analyze books and who would analyze news article were qualitative researchers and they would read it all in like manually code and deeply understand the text and analyze it that way. And now we have these methods that really enable an analysis of like a huge corporate. And so now you're bringing together, there's a very qualitative history of research together, this computer science methods and, you know, machine learning methods, mostly in trying to do science out of it. And it's still very clunky. I think a lot of people are trying to figure out how can we actually test different models that came out of qualitative research with this?


Tamara van der Does (44m 49s):

And is it meaningful? Is any of this, what we find, you know, it's topic modeling anything actually real, or just kind of correlations thrown out and then you interpret it, however the hell you want. And so I think that's very exciting. I think it was very exciting to be able, and for me, very excited for a person who actually did not want to manually code books or like spend a year with a group of people observing forever. That actually likes being in front of my computer is very exciting. Then now I can actually do in a way more in depth work, looking at how culture is created. Really.


Caitlin McShea (45m 25s):

Yeah. It seems a really effective tool towards navigating this very rich field of qualitative information. Now that you've explained it, it sounds a lot like your hat. It seems like, it seems like the manual coding of everything that one has encountered over a history of like pre computational social science is like the foundations of the hat. And then the computational level almost allows one to navigate it effectively for future work. So that's good.


Tamara van der Does (45m 53s):

We're all working towards creating this hat.


Michael Garfield (45m 58s):

And I guess that would be the summer's foundations and applications of humanities analytics program at SFI that you'd like the digital humanities that we're we're, we're, we're going to build a hat.


Caitlin McShea (46m 11s):

We'll let David Kenny, now that they're actually, they're due to construct this alien crash site hat.


Tamara van der Does (46m 17s):

That makes sense. Does that relate to your earlier question, Michael? Now I'm kind of seeing more of a connection and I'm like, Oh, maybe this was what you were hinting at beforehand. Yeah. I think is creating the hat thing is definitely creating the hat for analysis. Why not? And I mean, the opportunity is for...One thing I would like to like is also just organizational level stuff. And so how do different organization working like politically involved organizations write about how, you know the, about sections in the website, how do they identify themselves and all like, we are fighting for the rights of this group and this group in this group, but we're all unified because of this.


Tamara van der Does (47m 0s):

So, you know, you can think of differently immigrant organizations that try to bring different groups from different national origins together to fight for a common goal or even some like LGTBQA organization that try to bring really a very different group of people are together for a common goal. And so how do these kinds of missile level places create this idea is of identities of who's in who's out for again with a certain agency for change politics, change the world. 


Michael Garfield (47m 30s):

Tamara, that was really fun. Thanks for joining us both on our shows.


Tamara van der Does (47m 37s):

That's great. Yeah. Yes. Very courageous. The first one, Joan I'm honored. I'm honored. I was very nervous because both of you are like, I mean, I know that's why also the hat. I was like, man, Michael Garfield and Caitlin they're so cultured the know so much about everything. I wish I just had a hat, so it could be at their level. 


Caitlin McShea

Also, you know, that I judged harshly fashion. So it would have to be some sort of an artifact that can be worn. 


Tamara Van Der Does

I, I think food, I mean alien drugs. I mean that if they could affect us, you could sell for like a lot of money probably.


Michael Garfield (48m 16s):

Yeah. There's actually a whole strain in that in dark horse comics, adaptation of the alien movies and Kegers alien where it turns out that the jelly produced by the Korean alien is this deeply addictive psychoactive chemical that creates like a kind of religious epiphany and superhuman performance abilities in human beings. And so it becomes like the hottest black market thing and it ends up having a more devastating effect on human society then there's this, you know, morphs themselves. We managed to keep them out of our world to some extent, but the chemicals that they secrete end up transforming human society,


Tamara van der Does (48m 55s):

We're always essentially undoing ourselves. Right?


Michael Garfield (48m 59s):

Anyway, indeed we are. And so we may not have come to it like, like the three body problem would have suggested. We may not have come to any solutions during this, but we definitely traced an interesting and kind of somewhat erratic path around the, the attractor.


Tamara van der Does (49m 13s):

Very, I like that. I like that. Well, thank you Caitlin for having me and thank you, Michael, for having me.


Michael Garfield (49m 23s):

Thanks to you both together. We have managed to contribute our intellectual DNA to a rather charming monster of an episode here.


Tamara van der Does (49m 32s):

Yes, exactly. The tripartite braiding of our information materials building. Thank you so much.


Michael Garfield (49m 42s):

Thank you for listening. Complexities produced by the Santa Fe Institute, a nonprofit hub for complex systems science located in the high desert of New Mexico. For more information, including transcripts research links and educational resources, or to support our science and communication efforts. Visit Santa //