US Plans to Ban Irish Coffee….

Echoing the prohibition that hung round the great depression, the current global economic crisis seems to be encouraging people to ban things, almost at random.

From New Scientist:

THE US Food and Drug Administration is unimpressed by the fad for drinks that contain a double hit – alcohol and caffeine. Unless makers supply the FDA with scientific evidence that the drinks are safe they could be banned within months.

Another wonderful, yet unthinking, bit of legislation is sure to follow. Gone are the days when people can enjoy a cup of coffee with a shot of whisky after their meal. [Please feel free to twitter away on this!]

Wealth Buys My Happiness

I am somewhat short of time and this is a topic that really needs some in-depth commentary to do it justice. While I fully intend to return to this over the next few days, please think of this as a mini-meme: If you read this post please have a think about blogging your opinions on the articles below. If you dont want to, that’s OK, as I said, I will address the fact that I pretty much disagree with every one of these… 🙂

Background: In light of the Credit Crisis and the environmental disaster we are bringing in on ourselves, New Scientist has put together a “Growth Issue” in which a variety of people argue we need a new social model in which economic growth is not the goal and we all adopt a fun-filled, relaxed, minimal work life.

First off the editorial: Always annoying but this sets the tone: Read it first then move on to the main feature.

The weirdest of the feature has to be the “Life in a land without growth” article. It is a hypothetical report from 2020 detailing how great life is now we have done away with economic growth. The report has a great start:

IT’S 2020, and we are a decade into a huge experiment in which we are trying to convert our country to a sustainable or “steady-state” economy. We have two guiding principles: we don’t use natural resources faster than they can be replenished by the planet, and we don’t deposit wastes faster than they can be absorbed.

but then goes massively down hill with:

In our society, scientists set the rules. They work out what levels of consumption and emission are sustainable – and if they’re not sure they work out a cautious estimate.

Hmm. Didn’t Lisa Simpson try this for Springfield? I am more than a little worried about the idea of a culture where “scientists set the rules.” From that point on, I began to disagree with most of the report and decided, if that was our society, I’d be a terrorist.

The next utopia-article that annoyed me was the “Nothing to fear from curbing growth” one. To be fair to Kate Soper, it is better written than the hypothetical report but she hits on a theme which gets my back up on a gigantic scale: The idea that the more money you have, the less happy you are.

This is monumental nonsense. As far as I can tell it was a tool used to keep the working poor in their place by convincing them that aspiring to great-wealth would be bad for them. It manifests itself in our obsession with the failings of the rich and famous – every time some one wealthy checks into rehab, or complains about being depressed etc., the nonsense about money not making you happy is dragged out. Interestingly, this is something asserted more often by well off people than poor people, which makes you wonder about their motives.

Kate Soper shows how there is a mistaken transposition of survey data to draw this conclusion:

For example, rates of occupational ill-health and depression have been shown to be linked to the number of hours we work, and once a certain level of income is reached further wealth does not correlate with increased happiness.

Hours worked does not equal wealth and we have an odd conflation here.

Working 20 hours a day does not make you happy. I can testify in the court of Odin that, having done a 36 hour shift I was not even close to being happy at the end of it. I would be much, much, happier if I didn’t have to work.

That part of her claim I agree with. Working long hours is depressing.

Working long hours, however is not the same as being wealthy. In fact it is often the inverse. Poor people have to work all the hours Zeus sends to make ends meet. This makes them depressed. They are depressed because they are poor.

There is a middle ground, but it is a middle ground I will never have sympathy for. Some people are at the very low end of being well-off and, as a result, have to work insane hours. These are not actually rich people though – recent examples are the merchant bankers in the city of London, working 18 hours day to get million pound a year bonuses. Sadly, their lifestyle demands those bonuses and therefore demands those hours. If they are living in the centre of London, where a toilet costs a million pounds to rent, they best work as hard as the cleaner (who admittedly lives in a cardboard box under tower bridge). They are “wealthy” but not happy. However, they are an odd group and far from representative.

Then we get the genuinely wealthy. I suspect Bill Gates is a pretty happy person and enjoys his life. I think it would be foolish to say he was less happy than someone who was working 12 hour shifts stacking shelves in the supermarket, followed by a six hour shift waiting tables to try and keep a roof over their families head.

Going back to the article, it jumps from working long hours = depressing to saying that beyond a certain level of wealth the increase in happiness is not proportional. This left me with a huge so what.

If I am X happy with £100million, does it matter that I am only (X*2)-Y happy with £200million? Not to me. I am more happy, and that is enough. The rest of her article continues the conflation of work and wealth so I will leave it for now.

Now, as a final point, and going back to the title, I will again assert it is largely incorrect to say that money doesn’t buy happiness. For the screaming pedant it is correct because happiness is an emotion and unless the very existence of lots of (positive) numbers on your bank balance makes you happy the money isn’t doing that bit.

However, what money gives you is the ability to become happy. If you are wealthy enough to not have to go to work, you can spend quality time with your family; you can spend more time doing hobbies; you can learn new things; you can read new books; you can travel the world. There are more things that I want to do than I will ever have time to do so it is a constant battle with the clock. Money buys that wonderful thing called time. The problem is we have to give up time to work so the key for most people is finding the best balance between lots of work, and lots of time.

Being slightly scientifically oriented, I am open to having my mind changed on this topic – but I suspect any arguments will just go back and forth on issues of pedantry. What I propose instead is a simple experiment.

If you feel, like so many others, that money does not make you happy then send me £50,000. With this we can see if having less money makes you happy and if having more money makes me happy.

As this is a fixed amount and may well be below the threshold that Kate Soper was referring to there is a second experiment: I will make a note of my current happiness using any criteria you choose. Then I am given £1million and my happiness is re-assessed. Next this is increased to £10million (with another assessment) and finally a sum of £20million and a final assessment. From this we can see if the increasing sums of money show a corresponding increase in happiness.

Does that sound like a good idea? I am more than willing to take part in the experiment at a moments notice.

On the other hand, if you aren’t willing to give me all your money, don’t claim being rich doesn’t make you happy.

Footnote: I used “you” and “your” a lot, these are just generic terms. I didn’t mean you unless you are Bill Gates [or similar] and fancy the experiment. Do you?

Bad Science and Elections

Now, I am sure every one knows that New Scientist is “pop science” – scientific news processed for laymen. In general this is great as is gives people an insight into the wonders of science without the tedium of years studying. Peer review is great, but only in its place. New Scientist is not the place.

Sometimes, this causes problems.

In this weeks issue, there is an article titled “Read my lips… and my voice, and my face” (online version titled “Software spots the spin in political speeches“) which is (at best) bad science being used for electioneering purposes. On the surface this is nothing more than the old idea that you can tell when people are lying by their gestures and use of language. This is a subject close to my heart and generally falls foul of the greatest of problems – it is sort of true. Body language, eye access, word selection and the like can give you an indicator of lies (for example) but only in the broader context of the persons behaviour.

Take the often cited example of people rubbing their nose when they lie. Yes, some people do this. But most of the time it means the person has an itchy nose and nothing else. The same with eye-access (as highlighted in The Negotiator), but the problem is people are different – not everyone looks the exact same way. Language choice is possibly the worst indicator as this is dictated by your background, education and the like. Simply put, there is no easy way you can use this information as a reliable indicator of deception or misdirection. You need to study the person in a variety of controlled circumstances and build up a pattern of their behaviour.

With this in mind, we can return to the New Scientist article. It seems someone has come up with an automated way of monitoring the terminology used, the voice and the facial expressions of politicians to measure how much “spin” there is in their speeches. Amazingly this has not resulted in 100% returns each time. This is how it is described:

The algorithm counts usage of first person nouns – “I” tends to indicate less spin than “we”, for example. It also searches out phrases that offer qualifications or clarifications of more general statements, since speeches that contain few such amendments tend to be high on spin. Finally, increased rates of action verbs such as “go” and “going”, and negatively charged words, such as “hate” and “enemy”, also indicate greater levels of spin. Skillicorn had his software tackle a database of 150 speeches from politicians involved in the 2008 US election race (see diagram).

Now, this strikes me as inherently flawed given that politicians have their speeches written for them by teams of “experts” (who are more than capable of concluding which words mean which things), and are nearly always well coached in delivering them in a manner to “stir” the audience. It strikes me that adding an arbitrary judgement as to what is, or is not, spin gives nothing that even resembles science. In an attempt to dismiss this, Skillicorn (the systems creator) says:

Additionally, [Skillicorn] says, little details count: pronouns such as “we” and “I” are often substituted subconsciously, no matter what is written in the script.

But you have no idea which ones are added by the script writers, which ones are subconcious and you certainly still haven’t proven that using “we” means there is a lot of “spin” in the speech. We still don’t really know what “spin” is – is it a good or bad thing?

The “Headline” results of this study are that Obama’s campaign has more spin than any of the other politicians (+6.7, where 0 is average for a politician) while McCain’s campaign had the lowest (-7.58). It states this supports McCain’s claim to being a “straight talker” (*cough*) and on the surface looks like it is a Republican Political Campaign masquerading as Science. In the articles defence, there is some balance:

So the analysis appears to back up McCain’s claim that he is a “straight talker”. However, for the purposes of political speech-making this may not be an entirely good thing for him. “Obama uses spin in his speeches very well,” says Skillicorn. For example, Obama’s spin level skyrockets when facing problems in the press, such as when Jeremiah Wright, the reverend of his former church, made controversial comments to the press.

Great from a science point of view. We would like to think that the readers of New Scientist are able to accept the idea that spin is a positive force for a politican.

However (and this is supported by a quick scan of the printed media that have picked up on this), the general population are not. We have been indoctrinated by decades of thinking politicians spin is an inherently bad thing. This article has generated several headlines in the free media about Obama being full of spin and McCain being straight talking. Both can translate into political capital. Shame on the New Scientist.

One funny bit which never quite made it into the free-papers is this nugget:

“The voice analysis profile for McCain looks very much like someone who is clinically depressed,” says Pollermann, a psychologist who uses voice analysis software in her work with patients. Previous research on mirror neurons has shown that listening to depressed voices can make others feel depressed themselves, she says.

Well, that pretty much summed up the effect his speeches have on me.

It is during the US Presidential elections that I thank Loki I live in the UK….

Reasonable doubt

New Scientist presents what it calls a debate about reason. Fond as I am of New Scientist, this debate is just silly.

It’s not a “debate” in any usual sense of the word. i.e. There isn’t a premise that is discussed by contributors. NS just seems to have assembled a set of articles that randomly touch on the topic of “reason” at any point. And define the word as meaning whatever suits their argument.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” (Wikipedia: quote from Alice through the Looking Glass)

How do you define reason? With great difficulty. And the articles in this special project issue don’t really start by overtly defining reason at all. This makes it very difficult to agree or disagree with the criticisms as you can’t really be sure at any given point what form of reason they are objecting to.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has a good stab at proving wrong all those of his critics who think he’ s too intellectual to be a church leader. (Toutatis forbid that we even try to imagine how unintellectual his critics must be, if they think that he’s too much of a deep thinker.) His article is entitled “Reason stands against morals and values” but he doesn’t actually put forward that viewpoint, it being too patently silly even for the NS special issue. He meanders through history, cherry-picking definitions as he goes, presents an unsourced redefinition of classical ideas of rationality then blames the nastier aspects of the French revolution on the role of reason, following an argument that boils down to “shaping a moral and humane world requires more than reason” (NS’s summary.)

Well, duh. Unarguable conclusion, but bearing only a passing relationship to the arguments that he presented. A bit like saying that water is not enough to sustain life. It’s not that it’s not true but it can’t be considered a valid attack on drinking water.

In similar, “No shit Sherlock” vein, a neuroscientist (Chris Firth) also points out that there are lots of mental processes that don’t involve the use of reason. “If we had to think logically about everything we did, we’d never do anything at all” Well, yes. And your point is?

His article is entitled “No one actually uses reason” which is, yet again, not borne out by the content and is blatantly falsified by the fact that he is employed as a bloody neuroscientist. If he himself isn’t using reason to earn his wages, then who else could possibly be using it?

What about

I hear “reason”, I see lies
Science is routinely co-opted by governments and corporations to subvert people’s ability to make their own decisions, say sociologist David Miller and linguist Noam Chomsky.

Chomsky’s couple of paragraphs seem to have been co-opted onto the page from a completely different context and say pretty well nothing nothing about alleged flaws in “reason” – indeed he seems to be challenging the triumph of unreason.

Miller is basically talking tosh here. To recognise that science can be distorted and misused is surely not the same as arguing that scientific rationality is inherently easier to misuse than any other area of thinking. If so, the products of reason would be uniquely more dangerous than the products of bigotry or fantasy.

This seems like a chap in dire need of a crash course in Social Theory 101. Power includes the power to define the parameters of our understanding. This has nothing to do with any inherent defect in reason or scientific thought. If Miller is indeed a sociologist, he should be aware that the use/misuse of science is a social and political issue and should be looking for social explanations, in relations of production, the operation of power structures and so on.

(More charitably, this article has the scent of an article written on another altogether different topic, drafted in and slightly reworded to fit into an non-existent debate.)

The next few pieces are just longer-winded ways of saying reason isn’t everything. Or, at least, of appearing to say that truism while actually saying nothing.

The pointlessness crown goes to Mary Midgely, though. She starts with a 1950 quote from Nehru, who said that science would be the key to India’s survival. “The future belongs to science.”

She ignores or skates over the obvious points that: this was a pretty universal idea in the 1950s; that it was a political speech, so can be assumed to have been mainly rhetorical; that it was spoken by the leader of a post-colonial country desperate to modernise; and the words were, in any case, uttered more than half a century ago. She notably ignores the fact that – as it turns out – Nehru was right. The intervening 58 years have indeed been dominated by science.

Instead, she follows this obscure speech (well, previously unknown to me, so I’m treating that as being obscure) with a load of nonsense about reason being the new religion. What? The woman is famous and respected philosopher. I.e, yet another one who gets paid to use reason. But is so poor at it that she can’t put together a remotely coherent argument.

Maybe that is too harsh. At least Midgely is consistent in her use of “reason” to refer to one thing only – scientific rationality – which puts her several steps ahead of some of the other contributors (hang your head in shame, Archbishop.) But, at that point, I have to stop giving her props. Because, the whole worship of reason thing is a complete invention.

Nobody worships reason. If you can find me a church of reason or a pope of rational thought or even a prayer for intercession by the spirit of rationality, then fair enough. Midgeley speaks disparagingly of “scientism.”

It is this exclusiveness that is the trademark of scientism: the belief in the unconditional supremacy of physical science – or of Science with a capital “S” – over all other forms of knowledge

OK then, let’s pretend there is some recognisable science-worship system. What do you call a believer in Scientism? The obvious answer is a Scientist. But, Midgely must have a dictionary, which will tell her that “scientist” means something quite different. There isn’t a word for a believer in scientism, is there? I think you could take that as prima facie evidence that there aren’t any such believers. I can’t say there are none. People will believe anything, after all. Some people believe they will be bodily ascended to heaven while non-believers get cast into hell, ffs. It’s not impossible that there are people who pray to rational thought. Just very, very unlikely.

Newsline

I dont have a huge amount of online time at the moment so I cant do these two news items justice. However, I still think people should read them (both from New Scientist)

The first link is a depressing indictment of a society that has allowed itself to be tricked into thinking there is an even argument betwen Evolution and Creationism. This is madness of the highest order. The concept that “teaching both sides” is a good thing only seems to apply against evolution, but still no one notices the weirdness. Shame on the nation that allows this sort of thing.

The second is worrying. Not so much that Archaeologists seem willing to allow world heritage sites to be hit during an attack but the implicit assumption there will be an attack.

Not a good day.

How religions spread

Religion is a product of evolution, software suggests. (New Scientist article about research by James Dow.)

Now who could argue with software? It’s not as if software can only give out results in the way it’s been programmed to or anything….

By distilling religious belief into a genetic predisposition to pass along unverifiable information, the program predicts that religion will flourish

Theories on the evolution of religion tend toward two camps. One argues that religion is a mental artefact, co-opted from brain functions that evolved for other tasks.
Another contends that religion benefited our ancestors. Rather than being a by-product of other brain functions, it is an adaptation in its own right. In this explanation, natural selection slowly purged human populations of the non-religious. (From the New Scientist article)

I am basing my opinion on a cursory reading of a pop-science version of real research that I have only skimmed (and I expect some more careful reader will comment to challenge my surface arguments with facts.) But, I take this to mean that the algorithm seems to indicate that telling convincing lies has evolutionary advantages. No surprise there. Otherwise politicians would have long been extinct.

But, are lies about gods in some other even-more-genetically-advantageous category than just regular lies? This experiment appears to favour the religious only when others help them:

Under most scenarios, “believers in the unreal” went extinct. But when Dow included the assumption that non-believers would be attracted to religious people because of some clear, but arbitrary, signal, religion flourished

So, this research actually implied that belief in lies was not a successful survival strategy? Unless the goalposts were moved to make it one?

I assume that the arbitrary attractors could arise from activities such as like embedding lies in interesting stories. Some myths are somehow compelling. Narrative is attractive. (The attractiveness of narrative is itself something of an evolutionary mystery.) All the same, I am largely unconvinced by the explanatory power of the arguments, the choice of variables and the specific values assigned to them

However, science being science – i.e. developed through experiment and debate rather than through accepting erroneous beliefs because they come with clear but arbitrary attractive signals – I can test it out. The software can be downloaded under the GNU public licence. This is so admirable a way to conduct and spread research that I have to tip an oversized conceptual hat to James Dow.

A war on peace…

Oh how times have changed since the halcyon days of the first and second world wars (as well as the wonderful Cold War period). Following on from a line of thinking in my previous post, it seems there are some other generalisations you can make about societies that have experienced the horrors of war, and those that haven’t1.

It seems to me that in our current, peace-addled, societies if a month goes by without a government body declaring war on something the world will stop rotating. This week, New Scientist reports2 “Plans drawn up for a war on drink.” Wow. A real war on drink. Amazing. Will people get medals? When will the US invade the ocean? Comically, the online version tempers its headline somewhat, choosing to use the less comical “WHO considers global war on alcohol abuse.” I find the print version more honest though. (I will attack this at a later date)

Even ignoring the sheer comedy of a “war on drink” there are some telling aspects of modern, western, culture here. It seems every time there is a societal “problem” that a government (or international) organisation want to diminish, the only way it can get public attention is by declaring a war against it. In recent years we have mounted a war on poverty, obesity, hunger, want, crime, drugs and the ever comical war on terror. Are any of these real wars? Of course not. They are just victims of the increasing need to over-dramatise everything to get public attention.

Are they “winnable” wars? Again, no. Can they ever end? Still no.

And herein lies the problem I have with all this word-nonsense.

Westerners (at least English speakers) have a strange association with the term “war.” While it has become the norm for a war to be declared on everything and anything, we still have a lingering memory of what war really entails. This creates a strange situation where people will sacrifice their rights and liberties because “we are at war” without realising the term has simply been misused. Giving up an essential liberty for the “duration” of one of these insane wars is foolhardy – the war will never end so the liberty will never return. Even the War on Terror, which at least involves military action, is not a war the traditional sense of the word.

Compare our peace-loving present with the past of a mere 30 years ago. In the mid-1970s most people in the West could remember the War, lots had served in smaller wars (Korea, Vietnam, Borneo, Aden etc) and there was the ever present threat of a REAL BIG WAR with the USSR. Scary times. Genuinely scary.

Into this mix, we throw in a wide set of terrorist organisations who are bombing, shooting and kidnapping all over the place. Planes were regularly hijacked, visitors to the middle east had a 50:50 chance of being kidnapped each day and the IRA were doing their level best to turn the UK into one big fireball. Even Africa was in at least as much chaos as it is today – only instead of the locals killing each other it was mostly lunatics trying to be mercenary kings.

Throughout this crazy time did we have a war on Smoking? Drink? Obesity? Crime? Violence? Drugs? Nope. We didn’t even have a war on terror; western governments understood that declaring “war” on the terrorists gave them a status they didn’t deserve and changed how the state had to interact with them. One of the things the IRA/INLA hunger strikers were campaigning for was recognition of their struggle as being a war. Instead of starving to death, all they had to do was convert to Islam apparently.

What has changed over the world? So far, the Islamic terrorist threat has killed less British people than the IRA did in 1970 but we are a thousand times more frightened. Does this explain why we declare war on anything and everything?

It strikes me, that in the same manner people who have never experienced war sometimes long for it, a culture which has forgotten the horrors of war may start to long for it.

Worryingly, does this imply western society will, out of fear of the bogeyman, keep going to “war” on things until a real big war reminds everyone what they were trying to avoid? Crucially, when can we declare war on declaring war?

1: I am fully aware that these are generalisations. I am seeking to do no more, and no less, than discuss a trend. There will always be examples which flow counter to this and I wont lose any sleep over them.

2: Unfortunately you need to be a NS subscriber to get full access to this. Buy the magazine or trust me…