Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Purpose of Wealth

"Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, has told a conference his children will not be left billion-dollar trust funds, despite [his] having amassed a personal fortune of $76 billion (£46 billion). The Microsoft founder was speaking at a TED conference in Vancouver when he announced that most of his wealth will instead be left to the family's charitable organisation, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The charity works to improve health care, education and reduce extreme poverty around the world." (The Independent, 20 March 2014).

Interviewed at the same conference, Larry Page outlined an apparently different idea about the purpose of wealth. Asked about a sentiment that Page had apparently voiced before that rather than leave his fortune to a cause, that he might just give it to Elon Musk. Page agreed, calling Musk’s aspiration to send humans to Mars “to back up humanity” a worthy goal. “That’s a company, and that’s philanthropical,” he said (Wired, 19 March 2014). In Business Insider, this story is headlined as "I’d Rather Leave My Billions to Elon Musk Than to Charity" (Business Insider 19 March 2014, Slate 20 March 2014).

But surely Musk’s aspiration to send humans to Mars is a cause. And as Page understands the word, it is a "philanthropic" cause. He presumably doesn't want to give lots of money to Musk just so Musk can set up trust funds for his own children.

I have no idea whether Page actually believes what he says in public about charity. Obviously rich people like Gates and Page have an endless queue of optimistic people asking for money for this or that charity. One way of managing this queue is to set up a Foundation, and refer all requests to this Foundation. Another way is to put on a public show of disdain for charitable causes.

If Page wants to give his money to a company, the obvious choice would be Google itself, There are precedents for a company founder to give his shares back to the company and/or its employees in perpetual trust. Google could then invest the cash in a number of interesting and even "philanthropic" ways. Such as buying into Musk's company (Tesla Motors).

Indeed, Google's much mocked slogan, "don't be evil",  would imply that all Google's cash should be invested in missions that Page would regard as "philanthropic". But then I can hear the unmistakeable voice of the late Tony Benn asking Larry Page five questions:

What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Social Placebos

The theoretical psychologist Nicholas Humphrey argues that humans are genetically programmed for caution. As an example of this, he cites the curious effectiveness of placebos.

Consider what happens when the human immune system fights a disease. Suppose you have a disease that causes you to function at 90% of your usual capacity. You could struggle on for weeks at this level, feeling slightly run-down. Or your immune system could mobilize a full attack on the disease, during which you will feel terrible, you may have a raised temperature and other unpleasant symptoms, and you may be unable to carry out your normal activity for a few days. Most of the symptoms of disease are actually caused by the immune system trying to eliminate something or other.

In some situations, a full immune system response might be dangerous, as it makes you vulnerable to all sorts of environmental threats that you would be unable to protect yourself against. So instead of responding instantly to the first signs of a disease, it makes sense for the immune system to wait until the person is in a safe place to undergo this phase. For example, shelter, warmth, supply of food and water, someone else to keep the fire burning and watch out for wolves.

So what kind of signal triggers the immune system to start fighting? We can identify three possible signals. Firstly, when the person stops working hard and enters a period of relaxation. (This is why so many people get ill on holiday and at Christmas.) Secondly, when the person anticipates some future period of stressful hard work. (This is why so many people get ill before exams.) And thirdly, when the weather changes. (Which is why people get ill in the Autumn and Spring.)

According to Humphrey, the placebo acts as another signal of this kind. Especially when provided by a healthcare practitioner with the appropriate bedside manner, it indicates to the immune system that it is safe to mobilize a full response. It is as if the witch doctor is providing some level of "reassurance" to the body.


In a recent article, Humphrey extends this idea to social placebos, or what he calls Placebos at Large (New Scientist, August 2013, subscription required). He suggests that social symbols and rituals perform a similar reassuring function, allowing people (individually and collectively) to take bold action.

People love mocking "health-and-safety" regulations, promoted by the much-derided "nanny state", as if these regulations hold us back from being the enterprising, rebellious souls we would otherwise be. Humphrey quotes the sociologist Frank Furedi, who says, "in a world where safety has become an end in itself, society constantly promotes symbols and rituals to transmit the need for caution".

Humphrey offers a contrarian interpretation. He believes that in many areas of our lives we humans are, by nature, cowards. Left to follow our instincts we tend to be much more cautious than we need be – indeed, more cautious than is good for us.

So we are often presented with warnings that don't tell us anything - such as packets of peanuts that solemnly announce that they "may contain nuts". By laughing at these unnecessary warnings, we are able to project our real fears of alien food onto some bureaucratic Other, and feel (irrationally) reassured in the illusion that packaged food is safe for everyone except those with weird and antisocial food allergies.

Thus the implicit message of these warnings is a paradoxical one - no need to worry, nanny will do all that nasty worrying for us. Nanny as witch-doctor.

And in the corporate world, there is a wealth of corporate signals and rituals that are used to enable corporate change, including the appeal to corporate witch-doctors, also known as consultants. People often complain that corporate placebos and platitudes don't work - but the point is that they actually do work, but in a mysterious way. Isn't this an example of what Margaret Heffernan calls Willful Blindness?

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Death or Dentist

@sciencenow (via @jchyip) claims that Fear of Death Makes People Into Believers (of Science) (June 2013)

The article reports on a British experiment in which researchers invited subjects EITHER to contemplate their own death OR to contemplate dental pain. But contemplating death is not the same as fear of death. As I have pointed out on this blog before (a) the contemplation of one's own death is a standard meditative practice, and (b) contemplating dental pain is probably a lot more realistic and unpleasant than contemplating one's death.

So why do researchers persist in constructing a dubious comparison between death and dental pain?


Mortality salience and the spreading activation of worldview-relevant constructs: exploring the cognitive architecture of terror management
J Exp Psychol Gen. 2002 Sep;131(3):307-24

From terror to joy: automatic tuning to positive affective information following mortality salience
Psychol Sci. 2007 Nov;18(11):984-90


Sex and Death (October 2011)
Wikipedia: Mortality Salience

Saturday, May 04, 2013

A life without pain?

@giles_fraser writes

I have no fondness for pain per se. And I can even imagine taking a draught of something myself one day, were some pain to become utterly intolerable. I do understand. And, yes, even understand that helping others to do it can sometimes be an act of mercy.

But it is also right to push back against the general assumption that pain reduction is unproblematic. For pain is so much a part of life that its suppression can also be a suppression of a great deal of that which is valuable. Constantly anaesthetising ourselves against pain is also a way to reduce our exposure to so much that is wonderful about life.

Yet too many of us make a Faustian pact with pharmacology, welcoming its obvious benefits, but ignoring the fact that drugs also can demand your soul. That's perhaps why we speak of the overly drugged-up as zombies.
 Giles Fraser, My Problem With Euthanasia (Guardian 3 May 2013)


I have written before on this blog about the biological function of pain. In Cycle of Pain Relief, I discussed how pain relief becomes the problem, illustrated by the last 48 hours of Kurt Cobain. And in Back Pain, while sympathizing with Scott (Dilbert) Adams, who had complained about his own back pain and suggested that his back was evil, I suggested that sometimes it was the painkillers that were evil - especially the casual use of painkillers - because they interfere with the natural communication between the mind and the body, and the natural balance of work, rest and play. See also my post on The Purpose of Labour Pains.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Unreliable Evidence (Alan Alda)

The actor Alan Alda has presented several science programmes on PBS. In one programme, he visited Professor Elizabeth Loftus, who has made a special study of false memory. According to the Guardian, Professor Loftus successfully gave him a false memory of having been sick as a child eating too many hard-boiled eggs.

"The researchers showed him round, and afterwards took him for a picnic in the park. By the time he came to leave, he had developed a dislike of hard-boiled eggs based on a memory of having made himself sick on them as a child - something that never happened." Laura Spinney 'We can implant entirely false memories' (Guardian December 2003)


Spinney's version of the story is repeated on several other websites. I have just watched the programme on the PBS website (Don't Forget, May 2004). Loftus certainly tries to implant this memory. She manages to slightly reduce Alda's confidence that the hard-boiled egg incident didn't happen from CERTAIN to ALMOST CERTAIN. But he still eats the eggs at the picnic.

So my memory of the programme is significantly different from Laura Spinney's memory. Given that the programme was about unreliable memory, that's an interesting twist.

However her article seems to have been published some months before the programme was first broadcast, so it is possible she saw an earlier edit or had some other source of information. It is also possible that the programme has been re-edited retrospectively. Who knows whether the facts she was given were more accurate than the ones in the version I saw?

A few years later, Alda made another programme about memory, also involving a picnic. Professor Daniel Schachter set a number of memory traps for him; he avoided many of these traps but not all of them.

SAF- True or False with Dan Schacter (2010) via Emily Vukson


So if we watch enough programmes involving Alan Alda and picnics, will our memories get confused too? "Through early morning fog I see visions of the things to be." Bulletin Board (1975)

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Unreliable Evidence (Tom Cruise)

The LA Weekly has found a new way of (a) speculating about Tom Cruise's sexuality and (b) driving traffic to its website. (I wonder which of these two goals is uppermost.) 5 signs that Tom Cruise is Gay (June 2012).

5. Gay men fancy him. But then so do a lot of straight women. Perhaps straight women sometimes fancy men who turn out to be gay, perhaps gay men sometimes fancy men who turn out to be straight. The LA Weekly describes a scene in which Cruise dances in his underpants as "homoerotic", presumably because gay men find this scene erotic. (I should not like to speculate whether the journalist is speaking from personal experience.) But if straight women also find this scene erotic, wouldn't this scene also count as "heteroerotic" or "metroerotic"?

The LA Weekly provides a helpful link to the scene, for those readers who want to test their own erotic response to it.  Will it conclude that those readers who click on this link are probably gay?

4. He is fit. Oh dear.

3. Sexuality might be one possible explanation for joining the Church of Scientology.

2. An ex-wife made some caustic comments about his sexuality. Ex-wives often try to maintain a dignified silence about their ex-husbands, but the occasional barb may still slip out.

1. Family Guy jokes about Tom Cruise's sexuality. Actually, lots of people joke about it.


Like many other successful celebrities, Tom Cruise has a well-constructed image, which brings him a great deal of publicity and admiration from both sexes. This image is co-created by Cruise himself and his agents on the one hand, and by the media on the other hand. An ambiguous sexuality is probably an asset, and his publicity agents might advise him to be careful not to provide convincing evidence one way or the other. The signs produced by the LA Weekly may tell us something about the Tom Cruise image and the public reaction to it. Only an obsessive fan would believe or care whether this image is a truthful reflection of the true Tom Cruise.

Celebrities often lose the ability to distinguish themselves from their own public image. We know this only because some of them recover from this state, and are able to talk about it in later life.

What I'm interested in here is the nature of the argument produced by the LA Weekly, and what it implies about the LA Weekly worldview. The alleged signs are not only inconclusive but reflect a backwards causality - confusing cause and effect.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Wardrobe Malfunction

Minor celebrities, especially female, dress to impress. Specifically, they hope that some unusual and daring costume, possibly with an apparently inadvertent flash of body parts, will get them covered in the media, which refer to these flashes as "wardrobe malfunctions". This term was coined after a Superbowl appearance by Janet Jackson in 2004.

Before her marriage to Prince Charles, Lady Diana Spencer was photographed in a long skirt with the sun behind her, so that her legs were visible through the fabric. She was not thought to have planned this. But if a celebrity poses for a similar photo today in the thinnest of materials, we may assume she knows what she is doing. (Later in her career, the Princess of Wales was thought to have become much more conscious of her image.)

Women, however famous, have a perfect right to go about their normal business without some nosy journalist commenting on the visibility or lack of underwear or their physical condition (weight, cellulite, pregnancy, etc.). But when they attend a publicity event in the hope and expectation of being photographed, and then pose glamorously for the cameras, then surely their appearance is self-consciously planned, and they (or their publicists) are colluding with the salacity of the gutter press. This must be especially true for those women whose celebrity is based on image rather than substance.

If the function of the dress is to titillate the public, then a true malfunction only occurs when the dress fails to achieves its proper function - in other words, when the body parts remain decently concealed. (Even when the dress actually comes apart at the seams, some observers may imagine this to have been engineered, and the flustered embarrassment to have been rehearsed.)

Meanwhile, with characteristic hypocrisy, the tabloid press pretends to be shocked by the more gratuitous flashes, and refers prudishly to the person's "modesty". As if.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Explaining bodies

@xwaldie (Katy Waldman) advises us to beware of evolutionary explanations that rest on what men find attractive. In Another Dingbat Sexual Selection Theory (Slate Feb 2013), she comments on a theory that explains the evolution of small breasts in East Asian women.

Women may well be insulted by the suggestion that the reproductive success of East Asian women depends on the mammary preferences of East Asian men. Waldman argues that women's choices are at least as important as men's - indeed, women may have more reason to be choosy in their sexual partners than men - and notes that in most species it is the male that invests in display (e.g. fancy plumage), while healthy females can get laid without needing to develop unwieldy protruberances.

Meanwhile, men may be insulted by two contradictory propositions - either that they will have sex with anything that moves, or that they will only have sex with women whose chest fits some predefined norm.

As I see it, one of the main problems of evolutionary biology is that for any plausible hypothesis, one can invent any number of equally plausible alternatives.

For example, let's start with the idea that a male seeks to produce as many viable offspring as possible. The survival prospects of his genetic line are surely improved if his offspring are as genetically varied as possible, which means that the male should try to maximize the variety of his sexual partners. Thus if the majority of the available women have one characteristic - say small breasts - then the pursuit of genetic variety might attract him to woman with the opposite characteristic - namely large breasts. But this pursuit of variety might equally be satisfied by variation in other physical characteristics, or even non-physical characteristics such as personality and intelligence.

Of course females also benefit from having genetically varied children, but there are other factors that may lead to a preference for having all her children with the same man. For that matter, there are many reasons why a man may prefer to have all his children with the same woman rather than casually impregnating many different women.

So even if sexual attractiveness is based on some genetic programme, we cannot infer the logic of the programme either from observing actual and attempted couplings, or from asking subjects to rate photographs of the opposite sex.  Such evidence may lead us to dismiss some hypotheses as unlikely, but do not help us choose between equally likely alternatives.

It may be fun for scientists to speculate why a particular characteristic developed in a particular group of humans at a particular point in prehistory, and it may help the scientists get noticed by journalists, but theories based on sexual attractiveness are highly unreliable. After all, sexual desire is so polymorphous.


Thursday, February 21, 2013

Who sets the education agenda?

@RSAMatthew provides a summary of last night’s Moral Maze on private education in today's blogpost For goodness sake, just be selfish ! (Feb 2013). He expands upon a point he mentioned briefly on the programme, which is the way in which private schools and their supporters damage society by distorting public perceptions of education.

What wasn't mentioned on the programme was the inflationary effect of private schools. If state schools offer four A-levels as standard, then private schools will push their pupils to take five A-levels, plus Duke of Edinburgh Award, plus Grade 8 bassoon, creating the illusion that their pupils are (a) better qualified than state school pupils and (b) have received a better education. (Meanwhile some middle class comprehensives have reintroduced Latin GCSE, simply in an effort to keep up with parents' demands.) The idea is presumably to trick Oxbridge into accepting these kids, and obviously it sometimes works. Marginal differences in educational outcomes are thus converted into significant differentiators.

In other words, the defacto standards of "good education" are being set by the private sector and the middle classes. I'm not saying that any Government would do it any better. One person on the programme pointed out the undervaluing of creative subjects like dance, and I've heard Sir Ken Robinson talking eloquently about this. Next time the Moral Maze discusses education, I hope they get him to articulate an alternative view of what counts as a "good education".




Boris Johnson, At last, an Oxbridge for those who can’t get into Oxbridge (Telegraph June 2011)

Ken Robinson, Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity (TED Talks 2006)

Asking Stupid Questions

A judge has criticized a jury for asking stupid questions. I am not a lawyer, but I've always understood that the jury is an essential component of our legal system, and I'm sure the judge will have been careful not to express his criticism in a form that could be interpreted as contempt.

But what counts as a stupid question?

1. Some say there are no stupid questions, only stupid answers. When Bill Gates asks "What is a network?", this could either be interpreted to mean that Bill Gates is stupid or alternatively that he is very clever. (Smart money goes with the second of these two possibilities.) See my post What's the difference between judges and geeks? (April 2010).

2. A common purpose of a stupid question is to prompt a useful answer or insight. Socrates used to ask dumb questions to make his pupils think more deeply about some subject - this technique is known as maieutic (from the Greek word for midwife).

3. Where a group is required to come to some judgement, such as a jury trial, a member of the group may request clarification on some point, not because she is personally unclear about this point, but because she believes some other member of the group may be unclear. (So for example, if one jury member kept talking about religious belief, another member might pose a question to the judge to confirm that religious belief was not relevant to the case.)

4. This particular case raises challenging legal questions that have not been tested in court for a very long time. Where the defence of marital coercion relies on a private and unrecorded exchange between husband and wife, the interpretation of such common phrases as "reasonable doubt" may become problematic, as does the fine line between inference and speculation. A stupid jury might not have been troubled by such ambiguities, and the judge clearly expected them not to be troubled. @davidallengreen (Jack of Kent) affirms that "we should not be shocked that a jury dares to ask basic questions; we should be concerned that juries do not ask basic questions more often."

5. If the judge offers an opinion about the jury's competence without being aware of the discussion and group dynamics that may have given rise to the jury's questions, this appears to be based on speculation rather than inference. It's a fine line, of course.