SciBlogs

Archive September 2010

Treating statistics sensibly Ken Perrott Sep 30

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People love to quote statistical studies to support their claims. And often its just a matter of confirmation bias. The statistical studies may not provide the support required – or may suffer from all sorts of flaws.

We see a lot of this in discussions on health, diet and life style. But I have also noticed statistics being liberally thrown around when religion and religious attitudes are discussed. If there is any area ripe for confirmation bias this is certainly it.

Consider this little graphic below which appear at a dating site OKCupid (see The REAL ‘Stuff White People Like’). Just imagine what negative conclusions one could draw about religion from that. To be fair, most references I have seen to it (all atheist – strangely, no religious sites are quoting it) do advise taking it with a grain of salt. (If you are interested have at look at the source. It provides other statistics from the study which will help make sense of this graph).

On the other hand, I have had statistical studies quoted at me which claim to “prove’ the religious people are happier, more honest, more moral, etc. Typical those quoting the studies have never bothered to check out the details and always ignore studies which might have provided different conclusions. In other words the normal confirmation bias.

Religiosity and average income of countries

The Gallup polling organisation, though, has produced some interesting statistics relating to these issues. Recently they reported data showing there was a correlation between religiosity and per capita income (see Religiosity Highest in World’s Poorest Nations). Religiosity was measured by the self declared importance of religion to individuals. Charles Blow of the New York Times provided a helpful graphic of the Gallup data (See Religious Outlier):

When the median responses are plotted for different per-capita ranges we can see a strong relationship between religiosity and per-capita  income:

This is not new. Other researcher have found a similar relationship.

Religiosity and happiness

The Gallup organisation has also reported data indicating the relationship between religiosity and  factors related to the emotional quality of life (see Religion Provides Emotional Boost to World’s Poor).

It appears that the non-religious in countries with a low average annual income were more likely to experience negative emotions than the religious. (These tend to be countries with higher religiosity).

However, for countries with higher income average annual income religiosity did not seem to influence happiness.

Digging deeper

Confirmation bias tempts people to interpret statistics in a way favourable to existing prejudices. For example, the first figure will temp atheists to claim that Christianity is associated with poor writing proficiency. And the religious may claim, on the basis of the Gallup statistics, that religiosity is correlated with individual happiness.

Unfortunately, motivated people will quote such statistics without looking any deeper than the superficial numbers.

Proper interpretation of the first figure requires consideration of sampling bias, both in the general sample (registrants at a dating site) and in the self selection for the different religious classifications.

The Gallup organisation has provided more data allowing a more sensible interpretation of their statistics. Clearly one should not use this data to claim that religion makes people happier generally. A deeper look shows conclusions should be different for higher income countries than lower income ones.

My take on the Gallup data is that religion plays a more functional role in poorer countries. It is more important to the individual in terms of social support and contact and the everyday organisation of life. On the other hand the non-religious person in such an environment may feel less social support, involvement and acceptance. Not conducive to happiness.

In contrast religion has a less important role in more developed, more secular countries. Governments and non-religious organisations are more likely to provide social support (welfare). There are far more avenues open for social involvement in secular societies. Consequently the non-religious are less likely to suffer from social exclusions or opportunities for social involvement.

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Not about Einstein Ken Perrott Sep 29

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Book Review: Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit by Krista Tippett

Price: US$10.88; NZ$12.97
Paperback:
304 pages
Publisher:
Penguin (Non-Classics) (February 23, 2010)
Language:
English
ISBN-10:
0143116770
ISBN-13:
978-0143116776

The media reports of Stephen Hawking’s new book with co-author Leonard Mlodinow (The Grand Design) attracted hostile reaction from some theological quarters (see The Grand Design – neither God nor 42). This reminds me of similar treatment meted out to Albert Einstein in his time.

Einstein had many religious critics for an article of his on the philosophy of religion in 1940. An Episcopalian responded ’to give up the doctrine of a personal God . . . .  shows the good Doctor, when it comes to the practicalities of life, is full of jellybeans’. He was accused of providing fuel for the fanatical antisemitism of religious bigots and told that he should ’stick to his science’ and stop delving into philosophy (sound familiar). And this from the founder of the Calvary tabernacle Association in Oklahoma City ’Professor Einstein, every Christian in America will immediately reply to you, ‘Take your crazy, fallacious theory of evolution and go back to Germany where you came from.’

Perhaps some of today’s scientists who hesitate to respond to their theological critics could learn from Einstein’s reaction. While criticising atheist reaction he described his theological critics as ’numerous dogs who are earning their food guarding ignorance and superstition for the benefit of those who profit from it.’

However, the religious usually in the past interpreted some of Hawking’s previous comments as favourable to religion and god beliefs. Similarly many of Einstein’s comments on religion have been interpreted favourably. In fact, nowadays, the favourable (to religion) interpretations prevail. How often do we hear of Einstein’s negative comments about religion today? More commonly believers claim Einstein, wrongly, as ’on their side.’

Spiritual conversations

Tippet’s book ’Einstein’s God’ is promoting this line. Even when accepting Einstein’s rejection of a personal god it still manages to encompass him in a loose, fluffy, embrace of ’spiritualism.’

However, Tippett doesn’t attempt a factual account of Einstein’s attitudes towards religion and god beliefs. For that Max Jammer’s Einstein and Religion: Physics and Theology is much more reliable. In fact ’Einstein’s God’ is not about Einstein at all. The subtitle ’Conversations about Science and the Human Spirit’ is far more accurate.

Krista Tippett is the host of the public radio programme Speaking of Faith, distributed and produced by American Public Media. (This programme was recently renamed Being.) And this book is a collection of conversations between Tippett and scientific personalities from the radio programme.

The personalities are: Freeman Dyson (theoretical physicist); Paul Davies (astrophysicist); Sherwin Nuland (surgeon); Mehmet Oz (cardiovascular surgeon); James Moor (biographer of Charles Darwin); V. V. Raman (theoretical physicist), Janna Levin physicist); Michael McCullough (psychologist); Esther Sternberg (immunologist); Andrew Solomon (novelist); Parker Palmer (Quaker and educator); Anita Barrows (psychologist); and John Polkinghorne (Anglican priest and former physicist).

The science-religion conflict denied

Of course Tippett’s agenda in this book is to promote the idea that religion and science are compatible, almost two sides of the same coin. Even when recognising the epistemological conflict she still believes they are complementary.

Tippett argues that in ’the plain light of day . . . . the suggestion that science and religion are incompatible makes no sense at all.’ And in a manoeuvre often used by those who wish to justify the ridiculous she resorts to quantum mechanics. ’Images from the world of science enliven my understanding of God, and of religion.’ She uses wave/particle duality as ’a template for understanding how contradictory explanations of reality can simultaneously be true.’

And, of course, there are the tired old arguments. While accepting the power of science she claims: ’But science cannot mobilise human consciousness and human passion. We need the simultaneous resources of story, ritual, relationships and service that spiritual traditions have the capacity to nurture at their core.’ The old argument by default.

Or: ’But here again I’d insist that religion at its best is clear-eyed and reality based.’ Yeah, right!

And she refers to Einstein’s wish to understand the order ’deeply hidden behind everything’ as ’his longing to understand what God was thinking.’

So Einstein’s use of metaphor get’s tied in with the apologist ’proof’ of their god in scientific laws.

Agenda driven conversations

Of course many of the participants in these discussions are happy to engage in vague talk on spiritual issues, but I couldn’t help feeling that at times Tippett was working hard to put words in mouths. She specifically asked Davies to comment on the suggestion ’that there might be room for an involved God within the laws of physics themselves.’ (Davies response is that ’you could insert the hand of God’ into the ’interstices having to do with quantum uncertainty,’ ’if you want.’)

Commenting on James Moore’s ideas she claims: ’There is much in Darwin’s thought that would ennoble as well as ground a religious view of life and of God.’ And then she finishes that chapter quoting from the famous  last paragraph of Darwin’s ’The Origin of Species:’

’There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the creator into a few forms or into one;’

No mention that a ’creator’ was absent from the first edition, which reads:

’There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one;’

Insertion of a ’creator’ into later editions seems to have been an attempt to soothe religious opinion which Darwin later regretted (suggested by comments he made in a letter to his friend Joseph Hooker in 1863).

Conclusions

So this is not a book about Einstein or his understanding of religion. It’s a collection of conversations guided by Tippett to elucidate thoughts on spirituality and religion. While scientists can reach an amazing amount of agreement about reality they are as diverse as any other social group on the issues discussed.

Their differing views may interest some readers. However, this is a limited sample and no one should see the views expressed as in any way representative of scientists as a whole.

Even with these limits the different experiences, specialities and lives could have produced some interesting insights.

Personally, I would have preferred discussions driven more by the scientist involved rather than the programme host with her own agenda. But I guess this inevitably results from the format of this radio programme.

However, the science-religion conflict is as active today as it has ever been. In fact it is a prominent feature of the current ’culture wars.’ Thus attempts to deny this or explain it away are fashionable in theological circles. ’Einstein’s God’ will appeal to those in denial. But the book doesn’t provide a suitable outline of the diverse attitudes of scientists towards religions and god beliefs. And the agenda of the ’Speaking of Faith’ radio programme doesn’t enable elucidation of their different approaches to human spiritually in any depth.

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Check out your ancestors Ken Perrott Sep 27

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Here’s a handy little resource of anyone interested in evolutionary science – The Timetree of life.  It enables you to find the last common ancestor of two species. Or, as the website describes it:

“TimeTree is a public knowledge-base for information on the evolutionary timescale of life. A search utility allows exploration of the thousands of divergence times among organisms in the published literature. A tree-based (hierarchical) system is used to identify all published molecular time estimates bearing on the divergence of two chosen taxa, such as species, compute summary statistics, and present the results. Names of two taxa to be compared are entered in the search window and the results are presented on a separate page.”

You can try it out at the search page. Just enter two names and click on search. This is the summary of what I got for humans and onions. Yes, we diverged 1408 million years ago.

Summary Information

Query Taxa: Homo sapiens/Allium cepa
Result Comparison Fungi/Metazoa group/Viridiplantae
Study Weighted Average (#genes) Simple Average
All (14) 1407.8 Mya 1457.8 Mya
Nuclear (14) 1407.8 Mya 1457.8 Mya
TimeTree Expert Result
Time Publication Year PDF Link
1628.0 2009 Bhattacharya et al.

Mobile application

An iPhone application of Timetree was also  recently launched (see TimeTree for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad).Very handy for those with and iPod or iPhone (or iPad) who wish to check out common ancestors while on a bus or in a cafe. Here are a couple of the screenshots from the app.

There is even a short video demonstrating the application

youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CxmshZQciwo&fs=1&hl=en_US

But wait, there’s more. The information is available as a book The Timetree of Life, edited by S. Blair Hedges and Sudhir Kumar and with Foreword by James D. Watson.

And a lot of the information can be downloaded as pdf documents from the Timetree website.

See also: The great tree of life

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Trust the experts — if they say what we want Ken Perrott Sep 23

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Scientific American has a short podcast on confirmation bias.  (Download the podcast) It especially relates to trusting experts in areas like climate change.

Christie Nicholson points out (see We Only Trust Experts If They Agree With Us):

We think we trust experts. But a new study finds that what really influences our opinions, more than listening to any expert, is our own beliefs.

Researchers told study subjects about a scientific expert who accepted climate change as real. Subjects who thought that commerce can be environmentally damaging were ready to accept the scientist as an expert. But those who came into the study believing that economic activity could not hurt the environment were 70 percent less likely to accept that the scientist really was an expert.

Then the researchers flipped the situation. They told different subjects that the same hypothetical scientist, with the same accreditation, was skeptical of climate change. Now those who thought that economic activity cannot harm the environment accepted the expert, and the other group was 50 percent less likely to believe in his expertise. The study was published in the Journal of Risk Research.

The investigators found similar results for various other issues, from nuclear waste disposal to gun control. Said one of the authors, ’People tend to keep a biased score of what experts believe, counting a scientist as an ‘expert’ only when that scientist agrees with the position they find culturally congenial.”

So true. And I believe perfectly natural. Confirmation bias is a human trait that has to be overcome in science. Fortunately the requirement for validating ideas against reality and the social nature of scientific research helps this.

Why the beliefs?

The questions is – why do we have these beliefs? Perhaps we can understand their origins in areas like politics, religion and support for sport teams – often these beliefs are hereditary. But climate change is a different issue.

I think that a lot of the resistance to scientific knowledge on climate change come out of the nature of the problems and our psychological response to such situations. The problems seem so immense and long term it is tempting to adopt avoidance techniques.  Out psychological reactions to the problems caused by human influences on climate change seem to parallel our psychological handling of grief. We have reactions of anger, denial, selection of evidence, etc. Hopefully humanity as a who can reach the stages of acceptance and action before it is too late.

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A scientific consensus on human morality Ken Perrott Sep 21

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There has been some local discussion of the scientific approach to morality. Unfortunately some of this has concentrated on only one source (a TED talk by Sam Harris – see Can science answer moral questions?). I believe Sam makes some interesting points and am eager to read his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values which will be published next month. (I am planning to review it then). However, he is just one person, has tended to concentrate only on the problem presented by advocates of moral relativism, and has not actually done any significant research in this area.

I posted previously about the Edge Seminar last July on the science of morality (see The new science of morality and Is and ought). This brought together eight researchers, including Same Harris. (Well nine actually, but Marc Hauser’s contributions have been removed – that is another story; unfortunate but significant). The videos and transcripts of the conference are available at the Edge site and are well worth viewing.

Below I have reproduced the Consensus Statement made by the scientists at the seminar. It’s a useful summary of where the science of morality currently stands – at least in the minds of eight significant scientists working in the area. Its taken from Edge 327.


CONSENSUS STATEMENT

1) Morality is a natural phenomenon and a cultural phenomenon
Like language, sexuality, or music, morality emerges from the interaction of multiple psychological building blocks within each person, and from the interactions of many people within a society. These building blocks are the products of evolution, with natural selection playing a critical role. They are assembled into coherent moralities as individuals mature within a cultural context. The scientific study of morality therefore requires the combined efforts of the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities.

2) Many of the psychological building blocks of morality are innate
The word “innate,” as we use it in the context of moral cognition, does not mean immutable, operational at birth, or visible in every known culture. It means “organized in advance of experience,” although experience can revise that organization to produce variation within and across cultures.

Many of the building blocks of morality can be found, in some form,  in other primates, including sympathy, friendship, hierarchical relationships, and coalition-building. Many of the building blocks of morality are visible in all human culture, including sympathy, friendship, reciprocity, and the ability to represent others’ beliefs and intentions.

Some of the building blocks of morality become operational quite early in childhood, such as the capacity to respond with empathy to human suffering, to act altruistically, and to punish those who harm others.

3) Moral judgments are often made intuitively, with little deliberation or conscious weighing of evidence and alternatives
Like judgments about the grammaticality of sentences, moral judgments are often experienced as occurring rapidly, effortlessly, and automatically. They occur even when a person cannot articulate reasons for them.

4) Conscious moral reasoning plays multiple roles in our moral lives
People often apply moral principles and engage in moral reasoning. For example, people use reasoning to detect moral inconsistencies in others and in themselves, or when moral intuitions conflict, or are absent. Moral reasoning often serves an argumentative function; it is often a preparation for social interaction and persuasion, rather than an open-minded search for the truth. In line with its persuasive function, moral reasoning can have important causal effects interpersonally. Reasons and arguments can establish new principles (e.g.,  racial equality, animal rights) and produce moral change in a society.

5) Moral judgments and values are often at odds with actual behavior
People often fail to live up to their consciously-endorsed values. One of the many reasons for the disconnect is that moral action often depends on self-control, which is a fluctuating and limited resource. Doing what is morally right, especially when contrary to selfish desires, often depends on an effortful inner struggle with an uncertain outcome.

6) Many areas of the brain are recruited for moral cognition, yet there is no “moral center” in the brain
Moral judgments depend on the operation of multiple neural systems that are distinct but that interact with one another, sometimes in a competitive fashion. Many of these systems play comparable roles in non-moral contexts.  For example, there are systems that support the implementation of cognitive control, the representation of mental states, and the affective representation of value in both moral and non-moral contexts.

7) Morality varies across individuals and cultures
People within each culture vary in their moral judgments and behaviors. Some of this variation is due to heritable differences in temperament (for example, agreeableness or conscientiousness) or in morally-relevant capacities (such as one’s ability to take the perspective of others). Some of this difference is due to variations in childhood experiences; some is due to the roles and contexts influencing a person at the moment of judgment or action.

Morality varies across cultures in many ways, including the overall moral domain (what kinds of things get regulated), as well as specific moral norms, practices, values, and institutions. Moral virtues and values are strongly influenced by local and historical circumstances, such as the nature of economic activity, form of government, frequency of warfare, and strength of institutions for dispute resolution.

8)` Moral systems support human flourishing, to varying degrees
The emergence of morality allowed much larger groups of people to live together and reap the benefits of trust, trade, shared security, long term planning, and a variety of other non-zero-sum interactions. Some moral systems do this better than others, and therefore it is possible to make some comparative judgments.

The existence of moral diversity as an empirical fact does not support an “anything-goes” version of moral relativism in which all moral systems must be judged to be equally good. We note, however, that moral evaluations across cultures must be made cautiously because there are multiple justifiable visions of flourishing and wellbeing, even within Western societies. Furthermore, because of the power of  moral intuitions to influence reasoning, social scientists studying morality are at risk of being biased by their own culturally shaped values and desires.

Signed by:

Roy Baumeister,  Florida State University
Paul Bloom, Yale University
Joshua Greene, Harvard University
Jonathan Haidt, University of Virginia
Sam Harris, Project Reason
Joshua Knobe, Yale University
David Pizarro, Cornell University

____

Footnote: I liked the wired.com comment on this consensus statement: “I dunno why these big-brain ’EDGE’ guys are making such a fuss here about ’morality.’ Everybody knows that morality is whatever God says. And God says, whatever me, my best friends, and my hierarchical coalition say that God says.”

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Human Evolution and the Organ of Mind Ken Perrott Sep 17

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Book Review: The Lives of the Brain: Human Evolution and the Organ of Mind by John S. Allen


Price: US$32.04; Jaak Panksepp in Episode 65 of the Brain science Podcast commented ’In order to understand the mind–especially the emotional mind, there’s no alternative but to take an evolutionary perspective. The only organ we have in the body that is clearly evolutionarily layered is the brain.’ I guess we could also say that an evolutionary perspective makes it easier to understand the brain itself. And this is the perspective taken by John S. Allen in this book. As he says: ’a thorough understanding of human brain biology requires an appreciation of it evolutionary history.’

However, Allen doesn’t present this evolutionary history as a simple account. Instead he explores evolution of the human brain using recent research in palaeoanthropology,  brain anatomy and neuroimaging, molecular genetics, life history theory, and other related fields. This provides a rewarding resource for the reader. Chapters include, Brain size, The plastic Brain, Molecular evolution of the Brain, Evolution of Feeding Behaviour, The Ageing Brain, Language and Brain evolution, and Optimism and evolution of the Brain.

The result is an extensive and balanced coverage. This provides a picture of the current status of understanding. There is no tidy story; rather he presents competing hypotheses with some evaluation of their standings. Original papers are referenced and there are 45 pages of references included.

This more direct linking to current research and some of the terminology used may provide difficulties for the lay person. However, most readers will find chapters which are closer to their interests. I found some chapters easier to follow than others — purely because of different levels of familiarity with the different fields.

For the student and the professional

The book begins with an outline — The Human Brain in Brief — which is ideal for the newcomer to this field. It’s basically anatomical but provides a foundation for later chapters covering the separate aspects.

So I wouldn’t recommend this book for someone with only a passing interest in the subject. But even the layperson will find this useful if they wish to extend their knowledge in the overall subject or one of the specific fields covered.

I was intrigued to read how evidence for the evolutionary history of our brain is gained from diverse fields. Not just the fossil records, with all the problems it presents for soft tissues, but also molecular biology, feeding behaviour, aging and language. And the evidence is related. Allen says: ’The expansion of neuroscience over the last twenty years really has seen the beginnings of the development of a truly holistic, synthetic approach to mental phenomena.’ And this approach extends into related fields.

Summarising the subject, Allen says: ’The cause for optimism in the study of the evolution of the human brain is not due to the fact that we have obtained a hardened, certain view of the past, but that there are so many fronts on which progress is being made.’

Sounds like an exciting time to be doing this sort of research.

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Mind change — a moral choice? Ken Perrott Sep 16

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The human brain
Image via Wikipedia

Ian Sample wrote yesterday in the Guardian about Lady Greenfield’s appeal for an investigation into the effects of computer games, the internet and social networking sites such as Twitter on the human brain (see Oxford scientist calls for research on brain change).

Lady Greenfield has coined the term “mind change” to describe differences that arise in the brain as a result of spending long periods of time on a computer. Many scientists believe it is too early to know whether these changes are a cause for concern.

“We need to recognise this is an issue rather than sweeping it under the carpet,” Greenfield said. “We should acknowledge that it is bringing an unprecedented change in our lives and we have to work out whether it is for good or bad.”

Everything we do causes changes in the brain and the things we do a lot are most likely to cause long term changes. What is unclear is how modern technology influences the brain and the consequences this has.

“For me, this is almost as important as climate change,” said Greenfield. “Whilst of course it doesn’t threaten the existence of the planet like climate change, I think the quality of our existence is threatened and the kind of people we might be in the future.”

Lady Greenfield was talking at the British Science Festival in Birmingham before a speech at the Tory party conference next month. She said possible benefits of modern technology included higher IQ and faster processing of information, but using internet search engines to find facts may affect people’s ability to learn. Computer games in which characters get multiple lives might even foster recklessness, she said.

Is this alarmist?

I have heard her talk before about the influence of new technology on the human brain. This was on Car Pool (see Baroness Greenfield on CarPool). At the time she seemed to be denying any charges that she was being alarmist. Rather she was just pointing out the fact that our environment and activity has an inevitable influence on brain development and changes.

Now, however, I think she is being alarmist. Her claim that there is a problem “almost as important as climate change” is extremely one-sided. And, unfortunately, it will be accepted uncritically by many, including parents and educators, who are technophobic or consider computers, social media and electronic games are “bad” because they are differ from their own experience as children.

Of course our technology will influence our brain development. That’s normal during human development and even the mature human’s brain has a degree of plasticity. On the whole, that is just as well. It enables us to adapt so that our lives are more comfortable and of greater quality as technology changes.

Obsession changes mind and body

And yes obsessive use of any technology could change one’s mind in a way that makes interaction with the rest of society problematic. This is also true for obsessive use of pornography, politics, sport and religion, for example. Just consider how problematic many politicians and bible-bashers are in there interactions with society.

One could also ask the question how desirable it is to range one’s children to excel at a particular sport or even an intellectual pursuit. If this is done obsessively it will change the mind and body. And this could influence how the child interacts with society now and in future.

However many in society consider this acceptable, even desirable. Others may not.

By all means lets have more research on the effects of new technology on our brains and minds. Let’s also include the effects of other things we do obsessively. But we shouldn’t consider these effects will be bad just because they are new.

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Mind change — a moral choice? Ken Perrott Sep 16

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The human brain

Ian Sample wrote yesterday in the Guardian about Lady Greenfield’s appeal for an investigation into the effects of computer games, the internet and social networking sites such as Twitter on the human brain (see Oxford scientist calls for research on brain change).

Lady Greenfield has coined the term ’mind change’ to describe differences that arise in the brain as a result of spending long periods of time on a computer. Many scientists believe it is too early to know whether these changes are a cause for concern.

’We need to recognise this is an issue rather than sweeping it under the carpet,’ Greenfield said. ’We should acknowledge that it is bringing an unprecedented change in our lives and we have to work out whether it is for good or bad.’

Everything we do causes changes in the brain and the things we do a lot are most likely to cause long term changes. What is unclear is how modern technology influences the brain and the consequences this has.

’For me, this is almost as important as climate change,’ said Greenfield. ’Whilst of course it doesn’t threaten the existence of the planet like climate change, I think the quality of our existence is threatened and the kind of people we might be in the future.’

Lady Greenfield was talking at the British Science Festival in Birmingham before a speech at the Tory party conference next month. She said possible benefits of modern technology included higher IQ and faster processing of information, but using internet search engines to find facts may affect people’s ability to learn. Computer games in which characters get multiple lives might even foster recklessness, she said.

Is this alarmist?

I have heard her talk before about the influence of new technology on the human brain. This was on Car Pool (see Baroness Greenfield on CarPool). At the time she seemed to be denying any charges that she was being alarmist. Rather she was just pointing out the fact that our environment and activity has an inevitable influence on brain development and changes.

Now, however, I think she is being alarmist. Her claim that there is a problem ’almost as important as climate change’ is extremely one-sided. And, unfortunately, it will be accepted uncritically by many, including parents and educators, who are technophobic or consider computers, social media and electronic games are ’bad’ because they are differ from their own experience as children.

Of course our technology will influence our brain development. That’s normal during human development and even the mature human’s brain has a degree of plasticity. On the whole, that is just as well. It enables us to adapt so that our lives are more comfortable and of greater quality as technology changes.

Obsession changes mind and body

And yes obsessive use of any technology could change one’s mind in a way that makes interaction with the rest of society problematic. This is also true for obsessive use of pornography, politics, sport and religion, for example. Just consider how problematic many politicians and bible-bashers are in there interactions with society.

One could also ask the question how desirable it is to range one’s children to excel at a particular sport or even an intellectual pursuit. If this is done obsessively it will change the mind and body. And this could influence how the child interacts with society now and in future.

However many in society consider this acceptable, even desirable. Others may not.

By all means lets have more research on the effects of new technology on our brains and minds. Let’s also include the effects of other things we do obsessively. But we shouldn’t consider these effects will be bad just because they are new.

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Putting the IPCC in its place? Ken Perrott Sep 14

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My PhotoThe blog The Climate Scum is worth keeping an eye on. It’s satirical, of course, but it’s content is not too far from what we often find on the internet. By the way it’s written by Baron von Monckhofen (right).

Here’s an extract from a recent post Reforming the IPCC: how to do it properly!

“The following measures are intended to turn the IPCC and its future assessment reports into vehicles for Truth and Reason instead of vehicles for Eco-Fascist Fraud and Deception, as they have been so far.

  1. No communists like Hansen and Mann should be allowed to participate. Only politically independent and objective people should be allowed. Thus, alls participants must have read and memorized ’Atlas Shrugged’.
  2. No people who receive grants for doing climate science should be allowed to participate. Such people will just make up scary things so they can get even more grants. Only economically independent people should be allowed.
  3. Likewise, no people who publish climate science articles in peer-reviewed journals should be allowed. They just want to cite their own papers and those of their tribe.
  4. No Chinese or Indians, who just want to weaken the competiveness of the West. Tricky bastards!
  5. No previous IPCC participant can participate in the new IPCC (in particular not Pachauri)! . As everybody who has any experience with management knows, if you want to change an organization the first thing you must do is to get rid of all members/employees.
  6. All previous IPCC participants must release all the email correspondence they have ever had. Releasing email correspondence is vital for the auditing of science and to guarantee repeatability and transparency.
  7. All IPCC prisoners must be released and all weapons of mass destructions must be disarmed.
  8. Any IPCC participant that claims that CO2 can affect the climate must, in order to be credible, abstain from travelling in airplanes and in cars, living indoors, eating warmed food and breathing.
  9. No use of models. Good science is based on empirical observations, and not models. In particular, any ’predictions’ and ’projections’ about the future must be entirely based on observations, and not models. If Galileo and Newton and Maxwell and Einstein had bee diddling with models, science would never have progressed.
  10. No use of temperature data. Temperature data, whether from thermometers on the ground or those mounted on satellites, are notoriously unreliable and affected by the urban heat island effect.
  11. Likewise, sea level data, carbon dioxide data, precipitation data, arctic ice volume data and climate proxies must be avoided, as they are inherently unreliable and unscientific.
  12. Climate data from other planets must be included, so we can compare the warming on Earth, the Moon, Mars, Jupiter, Haley’s comet and the iron-core Sun. No theory that cannot explain all these warming incidents should be taken seriously.
  13. Anecdotal evidence, such as medieval Chinese fleets navigating around the North Pole, should not be dismissed unless proven wrong beyond the shadow of a doubt. To rely more on instruments than on human observers and chroniclers is elitistic and in its essence anti-human.
  14. No references should be allowed to any shady grey literature, like WWF reports. Only shiningly white NGOs working for the benefit of mankind, like the Heartland Institute, should be referenced. White humans are more important than grey frogs!
  15. No references should be allowed to journals like Nature and Science, which have been participating in the suppression of AGW-skeptical papers. Only truly openminded and unbiased journals like Energy & Environment should be referenced.
  16. For each unbalanced alarmist reference, there must be at least one skeptical reference in order to assure fairness and balance.
  17. Uncertainty should be specified according to the scale ’Uncertain’, ’Highly uncertain’, ’Extremely uncertain’ and ’Completely wrong’.
  18. The best science nowadays is done on blogs, were new ideas easily can be proposed and peer review is instant. Hence, the focus of the assessment reports should be moved from reviewing what is published in the ivory-tower journals to what is published on the blog science blogs. The blogs belonging to journals like Science and Nature do not count — they are just ivory tower blogs masquerading as blog science blogs.
  19. The assessment reports should not exceed 20 pages, and all information should be presented as comic strips. In that way, even illiterate people with a limited attention span will be able to comprehend it. (Like Al Gore, he he!)
  20. In order to ensure its independence, the IPCC should not receive any funding from governments. Instead, it has find its own financing, for instance by selling advertisements in the assessment reports. The taxpayer money that is saved can be used for more important things, like eradicating malaria and giving tax cuts for productive citizens.”
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Mapping modern science Ken Perrott Sep 13

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Crispian Jago at the  Science, reason and critical thinking blog has produced an interesting map of the last 500 years of modern science. As he says by “gross over-simplification, dodgy demarcation, glaring omission and a very tiny font” (see Map of Modern Science). With a subject this complex compromises are inevitable. Nevertheless the map is quite an achievement. Click on the image to see it full size.


Based on the London Underground design each science has its own line and stops are for named scientists. The stations link to information about the scientist.

The author acknowledges “the result is too crude for serious science historians.” However Crispian hopes “the output retains enough honesty to make it a useful starting point for the exploration of the history of science to the interested layperson or intermediate geek.”

The history and procedure for constructing the map is described in On the Origin of the Modern Science Map.

Certainly looks interesting enough to browse for useful leads.

See also Crispian Jago’s Periodic Table of Irrational Nonsense.

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