Copyright notice

December 10, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off
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Please note that all material on this site is copyright Kathleen Taylor 2014. Feel free to copy any of it, only please state clearly where it came from by including a link to http://www.neurotaylor.com. Thanks.

Of shrinking brains and modern anxieties

September 12, 2014 at 12:22 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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A recent piece in Discover magazine highlights research on changes in brain size over the last 20 000 years. Contrary to what you might expect, the findings seem to point to decreasing size up until very recently (the last century or so, when better nutrition and public health measures became available). The article doesn’t mention gender differences (men typically have bigger brains than women) or health issues (some big brains can be a sign of big problems), but it suggests various hypotheses about why the changes may have happened, making for an entertaining read.

(Not as entertaining, however, as Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Galapagos, one of my ten books every scientist should at least know about, in which one of the hypotheses is delightfully explored. Vonnegut takes the idea that we’re dumbing down, living through the rise of the ‘idiocracy’, and extrapolates it far into the future.)

Rumour has it that IQ measures, those sure and certain guides to human ability, are also not soaring like they used to. (That’s debatable; a recent meta-analysis confirms the Flynn effect.) Shrinking brains, diminishing smarts: that’s the assumption. One researcher in the Discover piece argued that, “As complex societies emerged, the brain became smaller because people did not have to be as smart to stay alive.” (In other words: blame welfare.)

Cro-Magnon folk didn’t take WAIS tests, so it’s hard to assess this claim. And — here’s an unscientific argument! — it doesn’t fit with what I’m hearing from people I’ve talked to about this. If they feel they’re getting stupider, it’s because the world around them is getting so much more complicated than it used to be. If people have less ‘grey matter’ (and white matter, without which the famous grey stuff would be a splodge of useless gloop), they’re definitely doing more with it. Especially if they’re reading, watching or listening to the media.

Our modern anxieties may not be as severe as our Cro-Magnon ancestors’, but I find it hard to believe that those early humans had nearly as many of them. A modern person may not worry as much about survival (although too many still have to — a point it may be easier to overlook when you hail from the upper echelons of academia). But we moderns have huge fears about getting on, doing the right thing, keeping up with the neighbours, etc. etc.

Here’s a list of just a few of the modern anxieties we’re expected to concern ourselves with these days.

  • Computers — are they safe and secure? Are they destroying your health? What are all those updates actually doing to them? What are they doing, under those smooth bland surfaces? Can you trust online sites?
  • Privacy — do you have any left? If not, why aren’t you panicking? Go and read Paul Bernal.
  • Cars — should you feel guilty about damaging the planet? Or yourself? Cars are bad for the health.
  • Health — don’t even start. Driving’s the least of it: the list of what you should be doing, eating, drinking — or not — is endless.
  • Energy — almost all of it seems to be obtained in harmful or ethically dubious ways, except possibly the stuff you can’t afford.
  • Food — ditto. Are you eating meat? Eat less. Is your fish responsibly sourced? Are you sure? Are you a milk drinker or soya eater? Feel the guilt: you’re helping to ruin goodness knows how many environments.
  • Other goods — probably ditto. Why aren’t you taking the time to research who’s nice and who’s nasty in the corporate world?
  • International finance — any civilisation that thinks it’s a good idea to hand over its monetary systems to a gang of smart young computer buffs with less empathy than your average potato is surely doomed. We tried it; they gave us the Great Recession. Have we sent them to their bedrooms (or to jail) and cut their pocket money? Have we changed the system so they can’t do it again?
  • Careers — there’s someone on Twitter or Facebook who’s half your age and is bragging about doing twice as much. The sensible thing would be to pity them for having been brought up to be such a shameless vulgar narcissist, but chances are you’ll feel the social pressure and worry that you ought to be working even harder. (In all the spare time you aren’t using up pandering to all the other anxieties.)
  • International politics — it is highly likely that there is nothing you can do that will make any difference whatsoever to the multifarious stupid, nasty, disgusting and cruel human behaviours currently disgracing the planet. (I wrote a whole book about cruelty and what to do about it, and that didn’t make a difference that I know of. Odd, eh?). But you’re expected to know about them, worry about them, and maybe sign a petition or two. (It’s quicker than writing a book.)
  • Animals — I watched a TV programme about conservationists in Costa Rica trying to save a baby sloth. They failed. It was terribly sad. It was also one on a very long list of critters I’ve been told about and/or begged for cash to support.
  • People — even in one of the wealthiest nations on the planet, there seems to be a superabundance of poor/abused/wronged/sick adults and children to care about. And don’t forget concerns about immigration, people-trafficking, slavery and the like; there’s plenty more which could be added to that list.

With all that on his mind, I suspect that even the most brilliant Cro-Magnon genius might just curl up in a ball and start whimpering.

 

The truth about Islamic State that no one wants to hear

August 25, 2014 at 12:57 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Today’s post is one of obligation rather than enjoyment. It needs saying, but it won’t be popular. It’s about Islamic State, ISIS, ISIL or however we’re currently translating what they call themselves: the repellent gang of criminals currently terrorising large swathes of the Middle East.

Not that the Western media would care half as much if that were all they were doing: but one of them, who has very publicly murdered an American journalist, has a British accent. He and a sizeable cohort of other alienated young men have gone off to fight for Islamic State; and we’re petrified that they’ll come back and start terrorising us.

It’s not the first time that young Brits have gone off to fight abroad. Many participated in the Spanish Civil War, for example, and we now see them as heroes; but that was different. For one thing, it didn’t involve the West’s long-time least favourite ideology: militant Islam.

Now, I’m a Western non-expert brought up in a still partly Christian culture and indoctrinated early on with the scientific belief system, so this is an outsider’s perspective, but as far as I can see the Islamic State ideology bears about as much relation to mainstream Islam as the Lord’s Resistance Army bears to mainstream Christianity. (An example of which is the quiet dignity under torment of James Foley’s family). In fact, to the untrained eye Islamic State looks rather a lot like the LRA, that deranged cult, especially in its members’ apparent conviction that they should kill anyone who doesn’t think like they do.

You don’t need a religion to believe that it’s OK to kill people, of course. But in this case, religion – very narrowly defined, quite likely by a person or persons of doubtful mental health – seems to be the marker being used to separate the saved from the massacred.

And guess what, we’re busy applying markers of our own. Viz. Philip Hammond, UK defence secretary: “This is a poison, a cancer, what’s going on in Iraq and Syria, and it risks spreading”.

Well, yes. Cancers do that, unless you in turn do some pretty nasty things to them. Like blitzing them with – er – poisons, or cutting them out. Calling Islamic State a cancer begs the question: what form of surgery is the defence secretary contemplating and how many British soldiers will die during the operation?

So here’s the unpopular message. Islamic State, like that other revolting entity Soylent Green, is made out of people. People like us, with devices and desires like us, who have somehow come to believe that the best thing they can do in life is commit atrocities.

Except you can bet that very few of them will actually believe that. Instead, they’ll believe that what they’re doing is a way to prove themselves, or a vile necessity, or justified vengeance, or self-defence, or even the only way to save themselves from a situation much nastier than they’d expected. Quite possibly some of the young Brits who went out to Syria and Iraq went for the adventure, or because someone they admired – someone they felt cared for them – asked them to go and implied they’d be cowards if they didn’t. Young men are terribly vulnerable to that kind of pressure. But it’s also likely that some went because they wanted to help, and then found themselves trapped and coerced by leaders who could see the propaganda value of having these foreign fighters on their side.

If you think of these ‘Jihadi Johns’ as terrorists, the instinctive response is to try and eliminate them. But that’s not an option, for several reasons. Firstly, we can’t find them all. Secondly, if we just summarily dispatch them, their younger brothers, cousins, best mates etc will be so enraged that we’ll have effectively bred a whole new clutch of enemies. We’ve seen Israel and Hamas pursuing this policy for years. Has it solved the Israel-Palestine conflict? No. (Has either side shown much sign of learning the obvious lesson? Again, no.) Furthermore, indiscriminate killing’s against the rules – the same rules which make the UK a generally law-abiding (and therefore extremely desirable) place to live.

If on the other hand you think of the Islamic State fighters as people, some of whom at least may not have gone out intending to kill innocents, then you start to see possible ways of starting to defuse the threat they pose, by draining their support. (Some of these are already being advocated, or even done, despite their lack of appeal to the media, because, I hope, many of those set over us don’t actually believe the rhetoric they feed to the tabloids.) For example:

  • Stop blathering on about ‘terrorists’. UK politicians these days are cagey about using the term ‘evil’, if only because it brings them such scorn from many quarters. But they hardly need it, since ‘terrorist’ now fills the gap – and has inherited much of the glamour and excitement of the older term, among people still immature enough to find violence exciting. Far better to make it seem childish, cowardly and contemptible – which killing unarmed innocents is, after all.
  • Give them an escape route – make it easier for those who are out of their depth and want to get away from Islamic State to do so. Have we done this? Or are we threatening to put them all in prison, whether or not they’ve actually committed atrocities?
  • Stick religiously to the rule of law. Don’t call them terrorists; instead refer – if you can, with weary patience – to criminals. Murderous criminals, yes, but we’ve come across those before. Make it clear that you, unlike their masters, will treat everyone fairly, however severe their crimes. State the punishments clearly, and by all means make them harsh; but state too that they will not be arbitrarily handed out, and that families and friends will not be made to suffer. And keep your promises.
  • Work on deradicalisation. The key is, again, to offer a way back to a decent life, albeit with strict terms and conditions. Boxing people into a corner is not going to encourage them to stop supporting Islamic State.
  • Ask some serious questions about why young men, and especially some young Muslims, feel the need to do this. Is society really as unfair and disrespectful to them as they seem to believe, or are their expectations unrealistic? If the latter, where do those expectations come from, and can we change them? Is the UK as fair in its foreign policy as it likes to pretend, or is perfidious Albion still being somewhat hypocritical? Why don’t these people have a stake in the UK? If they want respect, can we give it to them – or at least to the vast majority of them who don’t go off on bloodthirsty rampages? If those who do are being inflamed by tales of our past misdeeds, can we do anything to show we’re publicly sorry for past brutality – and will come down hard on anyone who does it again?
  • When you have some answers, act accordingly, and put some serious political will into the effort.

Once you think of the enemy as human, strategies for dealing with him open up. They involve a lot of effort, some of it painful and much of it counter-intuitive. But they have two great advantages over blitzing him, his neighbours and his kids. (Or demonising him, which makes the blitzing more probable – whatever the government says about “no boots on the ground”.) These strategies are a lot less striking, from a media perspective, and they make our leaders look much less aggressively heroic; but they reduce the risk of British soldiers dying. And, unlike aggressive heroism, they might reduce the risk to civilians too.

 

If this post has resonated with you, and you would like to know more, my book Cruelty offers more information.

Junk food, kids, TV

July 4, 2014 at 4:09 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

 

I’m prompted to write by a piece I’ve seen today on the BBC news website. It’s about a study in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood (available in full here) which has found that children’s TV programmes – not the advertising, the programmes themselves – are as stuffed full of junk food as many of the kids who watch them.

As one of the researchers, Professor Clodagh O’Gorman, put it:Grasa-abdominal-cintura

“Programmes have teenagers after school going to a coffee shop or fast-food outlet, having lots of sugary or high-fat foods and they’re all thin and happy, and that’s not realistic.”

Now, I don’t think the good professor is suggesting that every shot of a skinny teenager shovelling down a hamburger should be balanced by an image of some poor soul with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, dementia or cancer – but she has a point. (For more information, try these pieces from Scientific American.) Junk food is so named for a reason. It’s bad for you.

Especially in the quantities shown on television. The researchers basically watched kids’ TV for 5 days on the BBC and the Irish broadcaster RTE. They found one food cue on average every 4.2 minutes. Nearly half (47.5%) of all mentions of food were for unhealthy stuff, like sweets, and a quarter of drinks-mentions were for sugar-sweetened beverages.

Clever, clever food industry.

What particularly struck me was the comment by that most faceless of entities, a BBC spokesperson:

“We broadcast lots of programmes to promote healthy eating to children and to help them understand where food comes from, with series like I Can Cook, Incredible Edibles and Blue Peter.”

Now, this is either disingenuous or it shows a startling lack of understanding of basic psychology. Since the BBC knows enough psychology to put its comment at the end (thereby increasing its impact) … well, anyway, let’s give this respected media organisation the benefit of the doubt, and explain.

Cover of BrainwashingIn my book Brainwashing, I talk about two kinds of ‘thought control’. Brainwashing by force is, if you like, the classic form: psychological torture, breaking someone’s resistance. Then there’s brainwashing by stealth, in which the persuader tries to slip ideas into someone’s mind without them noticing.

Take advertising, for instance. An ad for a car gives you an explicit message about how brilliant the car is; but you’re also getting unspoken messages about the kinds of people who own cars like this. You don’t see many car ads where the vehicle’s driven by elderly, ugly, sick or obviously poor people. There might be a buggy in the back, but a wheelchair?

Consumers may well not buy that specific car. But they’ll absorb the implicit messages about what society thinks is good and desirable, and all the better for not having the messages spelled out.

This study of child-specific TV programming found that food cues were much more likely to be linked to social rewards and good outcomes than to punishments and negative consequences. Unhealthy cues were presented for a shorter time, on average, than healthy ones. And overweight characters were much rarer than in real life. All of which sends the message – without saying so – that eating junk food is fine. More than fine: socially desirable and rewarding.

And so it may be, except that these childhood pleasures come with a hefty adult price tag (just ask the NHS).

If the BBC thinks that explicit messages about food health, presented in special programmes, are an effective way of balancing the stealthy persuasion uncovered by this research study, I’m afraid the BBC is wrong.

 

Do you have IDS?

June 19, 2014 at 2:22 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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For information about IDS, UK politician Iain Duncan Smith, click here.

For information about IBS, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, click here.

What is IDS?

IDS (Irritating Doggerel Syndrome) is a common and hugely under-diagnosed phenomenon. It afflicts all ages, though it may be more common in older people. The causes of IDS are not well understood and there is currently no treatment. However, recent research has opened up some promising avenues for future therapy (see Treatment, below).

Symptoms

IDS is characterised by obtrusive automatic thoughts in response to the perception of certain words or phrases (‘triggers’). These ‘autoresponses’ are similar to those which occur in depression, but they are not necessarily either self-related or negative in content. They are however often linked to negative emotionality, social anxiety and externalising behaviours, though the latter tend to be context-dependent.

The content of autoresponses typically incorporates cultural references such as lines from songs, advertising slogans, political soundbites or poems. (Note that the term ‘doggerel’ should be interpreted not as a judgement of cultural value, but as a reflection of the persistent, involuntary, and often unwanted nature of the thoughts.)

Example (Patient A, male, 52): “My IDS is weather-related. Whenever there’s a thunderstorm, my head’s full of the chorus from that song Knock on Wood that Amii Stewart sang. “It’s like thunder, lightning, the way you love me is frightening.” I don’t even like the wretched song! Lightning sets me off with Queen’s music for Flash Gordon <Patient sings> “Flash! Ah-ah!” When the sun comes out, it’s, “The sun has got his hat on“. When it rains: “The rain it raineth on the just …”

“The trouble is, once it starts, the whole lot goes through my head, as much as I know of it anyhow. Sometimes I find myself saying the words aloud, which is embarrassing. Especially the second verse of “The sun has got his hat on” – it’s terribly incorrect. Thank God I only know that one line from the Amii Stewart song.”

Example (Patient B, female, 45): “I’ve had IDS for years but never knew what it was. It’s such a relief to know it’s a recognised syndrome, even if they can’t cure it yet. Mine’s triggered by all sorts of things. For birds, I get, “Toity poiple boids, a-sitting on da koib, a-choiping, an’ a-boiping, an’ eating doity woims”. For buses, “What is it that roareth thus? Can it be a motor bus?” It does get in the way, because it’s hard to stop until you’ve said the thing through. And you have to be careful not to say it out loud.”

Example (Patient C, male, 33): “I’ve had severe IDS as long as I can remember. I was exposed to a lot of T.S. Eliot as a child, my dad loved his stuff. Not that Eliot wrote doggerel, but you can get a bit cheesed off with anything if it won’t stop. My friends are used to me suggesting we do things with, “Let us go then, you and I,” but it can be awkward with strangers – I’ve been known to greet random women with, “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree!” My worst trigger is April. “April is the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land …” The Waste Land>.

Causes

There is little research into IDS, but some studies have suggested that it is associated with education, cultural consumption, and with having wider social and cultural networks. Individual factors linked to IDS include the personality factor ‘Openness to Experience’, working in a language-related profession such as academia, and higher-than-average scores on tests of verbal intelligence and fluency. Some IDS patients are also particularly susceptible to ‘ear-worms’ – catchy tunes – but not all. Exposure to bad poetry, especially in youth and young adulthood, is a well-established risk factor. Parental occupation has also been linked to IDS, with children of writers, teachers and academics particularly at risk.

Mechanisms

It is thought that IDS involves over-activation of the brain’s semantic networks. Neuroimaging studies show activation of parietal and temporal brain areas involved in processing language and emotion. There are two major hypotheses of how IDS develops. Some researchers have suggested that the link between trigger and autoresponse is abnormally strengthened by, for example, concurrent strong emotion (the ‘Single Hit’ hypothesis). Others propose a more gradual formation, with weaker positive reinforcement repeatedly serving to strengthen the link (the ‘Slow Burn’ hypothesis). Most studies agree that positive, rather than negative, reinforcement is more likely to be involved in IDS.

Treatment

There is no current treatment for IDS. Studies are underway into whether methods developed to treat post-traumatic stress disorder may be effective. These involve altering intrusive memories, either with drugs, repetitive brain stimulation, or – as a last resort – deep brain stimulation. Anecdotally, some patients have found hypnosis helpful.

In the 1960s it was thought that IDS could be treated with aversion therapy: associating the trigger word with an alternative, highly unpleasant experience such as electric shock. However, this line of research was discontinued, on ethical grounds after some patients suffered serious side-effects, such as anxiety and psychosis.

In short, insufficient evidence currently exists to recommend any of these treatments.

Guidelines

Much clinical attention has therefore focused on prevention, rather than cure. Current guidelines for IDS patients, and for parents wishing to reduce the risk of IDS in their children, are as follows:

  • Parents should refrain from teaching their children poetry, or rewarding them if they recite it. Access to poetry books should be restricted. In many households this will already be the case, but Internet access should also be monitored.
  • Access to pre-2000 popular music should be restricted. (Much of the more recent music in this genre is entirely concerned with dance and rhythm, so the words tend to be inaudible or unmemorable, posing less of a risk for IDS.)
  • Listening to classical music should be encouraged, as any words are often foreign, or complicated, and are thus less easily remembered.
  • Media channels which carry advertising should be avoided. Any temporary discomfort will be offset by the increase in viewing quality.
  • People with severe IDS should be quarantined where possible, as the condition can be highly contagious.
  • If avoidance is not possible, at least try not to smile when someone with IDS says something bizarre. It only makes them worse.

Dsm-5-released-big-changes-dsm5

In which I fail to break a habit …

May 29, 2014 at 2:03 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Old computer

Alas, no interweb!

Owing to a technical fault, I have only just got back online. Yes, from Sunday to this morning I had no Internet access. No email, no Twitter, no Skype. No BBC news website, no science news updates. No iPlayer to download programmes I then forget, or don’t have time, to watch. No instant fact-check or query-satisfaction or just another look at the inbox.

I couldn’t even find out whether my niece’s hamster, boarded out while the family go on a proper holiday, can be safely left alone with a piece of cucumber, or should be restricted to carrot.

I exaggerate somewhat, because on Tuesday morning — Monday was a Bank Holiday here — a friend went back to work with a list of things to check. Of course, a good person shouldn’t be using work time to look up hamster diets. Then again, in my book a good person shouldn’t be using weekends, evenings, and national holidays for work, yet I’ve never heard the friend’s employers complaining. So they can put up with a little extramural research. (With such small steps is the path to corruption taken, but until my friend’s employers stop expecting apparently endless working hours, I’ll stay corrupt.)

I work at home. And BT take their bank holidays seriously, so they couldn’t possibly do anything about the problem for almost a whole working week. Or so they said. They sent me an email. I know this because the friend checked — another thing you’re not supposed to do. The email told me that they were investigating the problem. That’d be the same problem which stopped me checking email … at least, officially.

<sigh>

To be fair, they sent a “We know you’ve got a problem” text on Sunday. Then an engineer turned up, completely unannounced, this morning, just as I was about to brave the local library in a desperate hunt for internet facilities. Hey ho. They did fix the problem. We’ve stuck with BT for the reason Churchill recommended democracy: other telecoms firms have always looked worse. I’ll stay with that judgement for now.

There’s been one glorious upside to all this. I’m doing background research for a new book, and it hasn’t taken long to discover that the literature I ought to know about is catastrophically massive. Every week far more new articles come out than I can possibly read, and I’d already built up a to-do list of over 500 which I really ought to do something about. There’s no way this is going to happen, but at least this week I’ve started catching up on some of the backlog: ruthless weeding’s got it down to around 460.

People who don’t run internet providers or telecoms companies often say cutting down on internet use makes you more productive, happier — all the things you’re supposed to be when you’re not consuming news, being bullied by capitalism, chasing links across the web, and being distracted by cybertrivia. In four days, I can only hint at increased productivity, but maybe I should look into voluntarily restricting my internet access. Anyone know a good freeware programme that does this?

Meanwhile, once this blog post’s up, I’m disconnecting once again. Honest.

So, enormous heap of biochemistry papers, it’s just you and me now.

<pause>

A link, a link, my kingdom for a link …

 

Passion? Commitment? High drama? I’m a scientist; give me a break

April 15, 2014 at 4:43 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Love_ScienceEnthusiasm and its close friend excitement are the topic for this post.

<sigh>

There’s a lot of both about these days. The news is full of people being praised for their passion and commitment, from volunteers to athletes to science communicators. The media seethes with thrilling stories of ‘high drama’, from Ukraine to South Africa. Public discourse, it seems, is all about excitement; yet however much we have, we’re constantly being told we ought to have more. And that’s a problem, because excitement is not an unqualified Good Thing.

I knew this already, but if I hadn’t, writing a book on cruelty would have made it clear. Passion, after all, originally had to do with suffering. As for commitment, suicide bombers, war criminals, religious maniacs and other fanatics have tons of it. (Some cruelty is about thoughtlessness and lack of empathy, but not all.) Commitment to their beliefs can drive people to commit horrific atrocities. In the worst crimes, excitement — rather than sadism — is often an additional motive. Being cruel can really get the adrenaline going, and adrenaline’s a powerful drug.

Away from the terrible darkness of cruelty, however, there are more mundane reasons for wishing we could just all calm down a bit when it comes to this societal thirst for continual excitement. One is that, here in the West, we have ageing populations, and older people tend to prefer life to be less of an emotional roller-coaster. (Which adult, honestly, would go back to the agonies of childhood and adolescence, when everything mattered so intensely?) Another is that life’s too full of stuff already; we deal with far more, daily, than our grandparents had to think about.

Both those reasons, of course, may actually be driving the emphasis on excitement, as people long to stay young, or the competition for their attention gets fiercer. It’s also possible that the demand for thrills is a response to our increasingly safe and managed world, and perhaps to the feeling, well expressed by Paul Bernal, that much of that management rather dehumanises the managed.

Whatever the cause, there seems to be a prevalent expectation that excitement is, if not a human right, at least an ideal to which we should all aspire. Information by itself is not enough; it must be garlanded with gimmicks to catch the wandering consumer’s eye.

In my home territory of science, and in the news I sample every day, this is a potentially catastrophic problem. At its heart is a conflict between two domains: factual knowledge, and the media. It’s made worse by private ownership and the profit-motive, but even public sector organisations like the BBC are vulnerable to financial pressures for accountability, value-for-money and ratings. As indeed, increasingly, are public sector scientists.

The problem is simple. Media reporting is about what sells, or what boosts ratings. That constrains what is reported towards short, simple, highly salient (attention-grabbing) material. Since only unusual things are salient, the media is silent about most of everyday experience, and greatly distorts much of the rest. Yet the same media outlets are also presumed to reflect, in some way, how society is, and many people take their views about many things not from direct experience but from what they see on the telly, or read in the papers or online. The result: false beliefs all over the place.

This may seem old-fashioned, but news — including science news — shouldn’t be kow-towing to the impact agenda. It marches, or it should march, under a different flag, because what matters is not impact, but accuracy. Scientific findings aren’t true in the absolute sense in which ‘truth’ is often used; they’re not religious revelations or political convictions. But in the more ordinary sense of carefully trying to reflect reality, they’re far more true than a lot of media output.

For example, it’s irksome to see people talking, enthusiastically, about how exciting science is. Sure, once in a while. The rest of the time they could be hauled up before the Advertising Standards Authority for misdescription. I love science because it’s interesting, but interesting is not the same as constantly exciting (and my tastes are somewhat specialised). Not all science even manages to be interesting even to the scientists doing it, let alone the general public. Why should it? It’s not there to entertain, it’s there to figure out how the world works and help us work better in it.

Passion and commitment, so praised elsewhere, are an active danger for scientists. If your beloved theory is too beloved, you may not be able to see its flaws, and if it’s disproved, your commitment to it needs to stop. As for excitement, it’s often the most exciting papers that get the most publicity — and are then retracted. (Scientific misconduct is a problem that rarely makes the mainstream news.) Meanwhile, the boring stuff goes on quietly making progress.

As for the ability to communicate science, to bring out its interest for people who don’t know much about it, IMHO it has less to do with being exciting, and more with the ability to see the world from their point of view and make the topic relevant to them.

Excitement is over-rated. When it comes to science, and to news in general, it may be actively damaging. At the very least, we shouldn’t be letting it take priority over accuracy. Leave entertainment to the entertainers, drama to the dramatists, and commitment to anyone harmless. Science isn’t a cult. It doesn’t need more passion and excitement; if anything it’s got too much already. Passionate believers can lead a field astray and waste vast amounts of funding; thrilling tales can become distorting myths; high drama can distract from accurate research. (The same goes for news.) Better to treat our sciences the way we should be treating other areas of knowledge: with care, doubt, and in-depth investigation. And if that doesn’t sound totally thrilling … well, so what?

Work? What a silly idea

March 26, 2014 at 9:40 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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A study making headlines today in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology suggests that having a mentally demanding job before you retire is associated (in about 4000 Americans) with “higher levels of cognitive functioning before retirement, and a slower rate of cognitive decline after retirement”. Use it or lose it, in short.

And who wants to lose it? A retirement spent blowing the kids’ inheritance on having fun is one thing; a retirement blighted by stroke or dementia is quite another.

A letter to my local paper last week, meanwhile, remarked on the way we insist on people ‘finding jobs’, even as companies increasingly use technology to replace them. Or to shift the work elsewhere: the forms which would once have been filled by a secretary are often now completed by customers, online.

Which got me thinking — as I and many before me have thought — about work and the way we organise it.

Frankly, it’s rather silly. The timing’s inept, the concept old-fashioned, and the execution often cruel. For much of history this hasn’t mattered, as there’s been plenty of work to go around; also many people didn’t live long enough to worry about retirement. But things are changing, as the available labour shrinks. And not only shrinks, but shifts towards two extremes: the much-puffed ‘knowledge economy’, and the rest.

  • ‘high-end’ jobs pay relatively well and demand a lot of skills and brainpower (e.g. university teachers and researchers). They also have high workloads and long hours;
  • more manual jobs, which we can’t yet replace with technology, are typically much lower-paid, despite the fact that it’s hard to see how caring for the sick and elderly is less important than teaching kids why Hamlet, or quantum mechanics, matters. Of course, you don’t need extensive training to be a carer.

(We might infer that high pay is perhaps a reward for time invested in previous study? — except that investment bankers can earn far, far more than university lecturers. Is it then a reward for effort, or physical labour? Tell that to a farmer. For danger? Ask a fireman. For being brilliant and/or irreplaceable? That’s what the most highly-paid often seem to be saying, but there’s very little evidence that they’re right.)

There’s less work to go round, especially for those without the best qualifications. And what work there is doesn’t always pay enough to live on. The private sector is on a win-win here. They can get away with paying low wages because the state will fill the gap. They can hike rents, or drive up house prices, because that’s ‘the free market’. They can make profits by pushing their costs onto others, and still whinge about the tax they have to pay — when much of that tax goes on payments that wouldn’t be needed if they weren’t so utterly focused on making money.

In Britain, we hark back to the days when great companies built houses for their workers, or gave their kids schools. That kind of philanthropy may still go on, but we don’t hear much about it. Instead we hear a lot about companies who seem to live by the ancient Roman principle: “homo homini lupus” (“Man is a wolf to man.”) And they have the cheek to complain about government ‘red tape’! Guys, if you behaved better we wouldn’t need to impose the regulation on you — and on everyone else.

As work becomes scarcer, the rhetoric of its desirability intensifies. You’d think humans lived entirely and only to work. The unemployed are stigmatised, their benefits decried (yet the far more expensive pensions of the elderly are OK, because they earned their rewards). Kids are so indoctrinated with the need to find a job that they spend much of their childhood cramming, agonising over exams, struggling with homework, knowing they have to achieve — at a time when they’re dealing with the massive social pressures of growing up. Small wonder some drop out. People who can’t work feel dreadful guilt. Some who lose their jobs are driven to suicide.

There’s something pitiful about a first-year university English Literature student distraught because she’s “wasted time” reading Wuthering Heights when it wasn’t on her course. Or a seventeen-year-old whose only idea about all the cultural riches available to them is how to get work that will pay them enough to buy lots of stuff. Come to that, there’s something pitiful about a middle-aged adult lying awake at night worrying about how they’ll cope with both a sick parent and the demands of running their own household, while working all the hours their job demands. And there’s certainly much to be pitied in the lonely senior, deprived by retirement of company and stimulation, or the hard-working tax-payer who, as they reach retirement, is diagnosed with some appalling illness, like dementia.

Why do we do it this way? It’s bad for our brains, our health and our happiness. At the time of life when we are most able to enjoy ourselves, some of us are working ridiculous hours while others face empty days. Women lose out if they have kids, especially if they choose not to deposit the sprogs in childcare. Some people aren’t paid enough to live on; others earn far more than any human being could reasonably need. Then we reach retirement age, and suddenly that’s it: we’re pensioned off, our productive days over. Yet creativity doesn’t cut out at sixty-five, nor intelligence shrivel at seventy. A man who turns 65 in the UK can expect to live a further 17.8 years, a woman 20.4 years, according to the Office for National Statistics. That’s a lot of years to write off, especially with an ageing population.

There are many ways in which we could change this mess. Most of them are extremely unlikely to happen, not least because the mess didn’t come about by accident. It suits the people in charge, insofar as anyone’s in charge. Yet it may be worth stating some options anyway, if only because they’re far too radical for serious politics and so aren’t often heard. (I’m not a politician, so I don’t need to be serious.)

  • Make the private sector pay its way. Rent caps (why should taxpayers spend masses on housing benefits so that landlords can get rich?). Tackling tax evasion and business subsidies. Redistribution: in the UK this year, a few lucky bankers collected over £5 million each from Barclays Bank. Why are they worth 50 times what we pay our most senior nursing directors, let alone frontline nurses?
  • Encourage job-sharing, volunteering, hobbies and part-time work. Make it acceptable for people of both sexes to take career breaks in midlife. Pay parents better: bringing up kids is hard work. Defusing the social pressures around work and worklessness with clear financial incentives would do wonders for the nation’s health bill, apart from its other benefits.
  • Rethink education. Currently it’s mostly stuffed into our youngest years, and some of it’s pretty irrelevant to most adults. It should be lifelong, as much a part of our routine as running a bank account. That old canard about brain development ceasing around 18 is nonsense.
  • A living wage and/or minimum income guarantee (discussed here in the US context). Many people who’d like to volunteer can’t afford to; many who can afford to can’t spare the time. Making sure that everyone has a minimum guaranteed income to live on would help with at least the first of these problems, as well as reducing the devastating costs of stress-induced mental illnesses. It would also save on the gigantic benefits bill, not least because it would be a good deal simpler to administer than current systems.
  • High-end jobs like running a university, company or bank may be extremely hard and stressful, but the work itself is not intrinsically unpleasant or dangerous (except insofar as the sedentary lifestyle brings health risks). Jobs which are unpleasant and dangerous should be paid more, or workers given a tax break, to express the nation’s gratitude that we don’t have to do this stuff. And if that study I mentioned is correct, perhaps we should be targeting the financial rewards towards encouraging workers to continue their education.
  • Abolish retirement except on health grounds. If work — in moderation — is so good for us, we shouldn’t be driving people away from it. If there’s less work to go round, we need to be more creative in how we organise it — because there’s plenty to do; it’s just that much of it isn’t currently paid work. Making high-end jobs less demanding and low-end work more interesting, and giving people more life space to do unpaid work, would make retirement look less attractive, as well as providing benefits for workers and society.

Work is bound up with many half-acknowledged ideas: about fairness and reciprocity, status and identity. While there was plenty of it, there wasn’t much need to examine its rationales, and how deep-seated feelings and ways of thinking affect them. But work is changing, and we need to change our ideas about work.

 

The Brokeback effect: homophobia and premature mortality

February 17, 2014 at 12:03 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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This morning I was late starting work, so I was still doing housework when my attention was hauled back to the final few minutes of the BBC’s Today Programme. For those of you whose lives have so far been free of this 3-hour matutinal ritual, it’s the UK’s daily fix of politics and ‘opinion-forming’, famed for its sometimes aggressive style, and carrying huge clout among the governing classes (though there are plenty of Brits who’ve never heard of it).

A woman described as ‘Commentator Ann Leslie’ (she writes for the Daily Mail) was attacking another woman, who’d been complaining about some men’s magazine putting a child’s doll on the front cover. Or something; I wasn’t really listening. What did make me listen was when they got onto the topic of stereotyping kids’ toys, and one of Today’s presenters, Evan Davis, said quietly, “I like pink”. Leslie remarked, “You would.” The other presenter said, “Steady on!”, and at that point the programme ended.

Evan Davis, you see, is gay.

A few minutes later, I’m logging on and going through the email, among which are tables of journal contents and notifications of interesting new developments in the science world, and I come across this article:

“Structural stigma and all-cause mortality in sexual minority populations”

This is a big US study, linking data from a social survey about levels of anti-gay prejudice to the country’s ‘National Death Index’. And here’s what it found (so says the abstract):

  • Sexual minorities living in communities with high levels of anti-gay prejudice experienced a higher hazard of mortality than those living in low-prejudice communities
  • This result translates into a shorter life expectancy of approximately 12 years (95% C.I.: 4–20 years) for sexual minorities living in high-prejudice communities.
  • Analysis of specific causes of death revealed that suicide, homicide/violence, and cardiovascular diseases were substantially elevated among sexual minorities in high-prejudice communities.
  • Strikingly, there was an 18-year difference in average age of completed suicide between sexual minorities in the high-prejudice (age 37.5) and low-prejudice (age 55.7) communities.

In other words, living in a community full of people who hate and/or despise you, and are happy to let you know it, is really, really bad for your health, if you’re a member of a sexual minority (or, I’d guess, some other equally controversial outgroup).

In terms of life expectancy, being gay among homophobes is comparable with being poor in a nation of rich people (and one whose citizens are taught to revere money and see poverty as self-inflicted).

When people who express prejudices are challenged, they often play the humour card: “Oh, it was just a joke!” They know that we tend to like someone who makes us laugh, and that we don’t like the sense of exclusion implicit in the statement: “You can’t take a joke.” It’s an old ploy, and often effective; no one wants to be seen as humourless.

But as research is increasingly showing (and this study is one of many), anti-gay prejudice is no joke. It’s also silly, in that whether you’re gay or straight or bisexual is irrelevant to most social situations (like how well you do your job, or even whether you have a sense of humour). So why should we care about a person’s sexuality, unless we’re planning a sexual relationship with them?

Libertarians might argue that free speech is a crucial freedom, but these ‘jokes’ aren’t funny. They’re dangerous. For gay people, poor people, and other minorities too, the cumulative social pressure can be lethal.

Twenty years ago, a young member of the UK Labour Party, Neil Kinnock, made a remarkable speech about what he foresaw if the Conservatives took power.

“I warn you that you will have pain – when healing and relief depend on payment.

“I warn you that you will have ignorance – when talents are untended and wits are wasted, when learning is a privilege and not a right.

“I warn you that you will have poverty – when pensions slip and benefits are whittled away by a Government that won’t pay, in an economy that can’t pay.”

The speech ends:

“I warn you not to be ordinary.
I warn you not to be young.
I warn you not to fall ill.
I warn you not to get old.”

Judging by recent research (two decades of social progress later), you’d still better not be poor or non-heterosexual either.

Forgotten sins: of fashion and morality

January 28, 2014 at 12:37 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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We tend to think of morality as long-lasting. Think of the Ten Commandments, carved in stone, or the claims of evolutionary psychologists that moral sentiments have ancient origins. Morality is associated with permanence, certainty, and truth. So it’s odd how rapidly our moral opinions can change.

Each of us could plot our own moral profile, a graph showing how much we care about a range of topics, from the environment to immigration. Concern, however, doesn’t necessarily imply understanding of an issue. You can see why: there’s so much to know about nowadays that we have to outsource most of the knowing to others. Yet expressing moral judgements is a common form of social bonding, and there are many situations in which we’re expected to have an opinion about a topic – often by people as ignorant of it as we are.

In part, this might explain why morality can change so fast: as people learn more, they may revise their judgments. However, many moral opinions are driven by fashion and the media, the sources from whom we learn about stuff we can’t be bothered to learn about. These sources don’t exist to impart information, but to sell things – and moral outrage sells; so it is in their interests to foster judgmental fervour. The result is a lot of strong opinions with a shaky factual basis. New facts alone may not suffice to modify these beliefs, but a wider cultural shift, with its changing social, legal and financial incentives, can.

In the UK a few decades ago, many women – and even young teenage girls – ran a gauntlet of sexual comments and touches by men. It was part of life, however unwelcome. Now the culture has changed so much that ageing celebrities are being hauled through the courts, and the media, for acts committed years ago. Current stars, and the public, know it’s no longer acceptable to fondle fourteen-year-olds or force yourself on an unwilling female. They know they may lose their job or even go to prison. This doesn’t mean such acts no longer happen, but they now carry more social risk.

We’ve certainly noticed the moral change in this case; there’s been so much public comment on sexual abuse. Yet there are some features of morality which have slipped out of our culture almost unnoticed. These forgotten sins (and their opposites, since every vice has its complementary virtue) used to be common, but no more. Is it that we simply don’t have the mental capacity to think about the older sins because our heads are so full of new ones, in this world of cyberbullying and online grooming? Or is it that older sins have become unfashionable – partly through their link with previous generations, and partly because they’re too uncomfortable for us complacent moderns to think about?

If so, might it be worth taking another look at them? It’s very hard for someone immersed in a particular social situation – i.e. living as most humans do – to see that situation’s problems. This is why outsiders, though often unwelcome, are so useful. They add new perspectives, whether you’re an organisation thinking of employing more diverse staff or a nation debating some hot-button moral issue.

If you haven’t a helpful outsider handy, another approach is to look at what isn’t in the public conversation. Silences can sometimes speak louder than words, and if no one’s talking about certain kinds of bad behaviour, that may be because it suits today’s society to encourage that behaviour.

As an example, how about vanity? It’s generally considered a form of pride, and we think of it as pride especially concerned with physical appearance. A quick check with Google Books shows that, at least in written words, discussion of vanity is declining, and has been since early in the nineteenth century, as this graph from Google ngrams shows.

Decline in 'vanity' and 'vain', 1800-2000

Decline in usage of ‘vanity’ and ‘vain’, 1800-2000, in Google’s books database

Meanwhile, industries concerned with personal appearance are worth billions, and forecast to grow still further. Data from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery show that in the decade-and-a-half between 1997 and 2012, surgical cosmetic procedures in the US grew by 75%, to nearly 1.7 million. Procedures not requiring the beautified to be cut open grew by 920%, to over 7.5 million. Apparently, in 2010 Americans spent $33.3 billion on ‘personal care’, which would be enough to reduce world poverty by half … if it had been spent on reducing world poverty.

It’s as if being ugly is now a worse moral flaw than being conceited. Which is peculiar, because we know from celebrities that where beauty leads, good behaviour doesn’t always follow. Nor are people with facial disfigurement incapable of the highest human virtues, whereas being conceited is associated with bad behaviour. Yet the beauty-is-good stereotype is so prevalent, it’s even featured in an fMRI experiment.

Perhaps that’s why we don’t talk so much about vanity these days. Maybe the moral principles which used to condemn it came up against the market’s demand for profit. Plus, technologies have turned what was once a matter of fate – personal appearance – into a matter of personal choice. (Providing you have the money, of course, but that takes us into yet another minefield, the morality of poverty, and this post has touched enough sore spots for the time being.)

The constant demand for economic growth, the new powers to change our appearance, and the earning potential of playing on human vanities – and anxieties – together make up a powerful set of forces to set against an elderly moral principle. With respect to vanity (and the vain demand a lot of respect), it seems that the clash between market and morals has been won by the market, at least in the West and for now.

Of course, vanity isn’t the only unfashionable vice. I wonder if the market’s winning on the others too.

In praise of coming second

December 9, 2013 at 2:04 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Heresy though it may be to admit it in our competitive culture, there’s a lot to be said for being runner-up. Winners may increasingly take it all in financial terms (in the US, income inequality has been rising for decades), but as Christmas should remind us, there’s more to life.

I live near England’s second city, Birmingham, and recently went there for a concert in its fabulous Symphony Hall (see my previous post). Whenever I visit Brum, I’m always conscious of being deliberately unsurprised by how pleasant it is these days. Stereotypes linger, and when I was growing up the place had a pretty poor image. For many people it still does. Besides, it’s the second city – i.e. not the first. Loser!

The prejudice is unfair. Yes, there are parts of Brum where I wouldn’t walk alone in daylight, never mind after dark. But that’s cities for you, and Birmingham’s council has done wonders in recent years to make it an attractive and enjoyable place. Even the oppressive ugliness of New Street rail station is being transformed. Another big project, the splendid new library, was publicly-funded (fat chance of that these days) and, astonishingly, came in under budget, unlike many projects, public and private. Centenary Square, where you’ll find the library and Symphony Hall, is as handsome a space as anything you’ll see in London. And no, I’m not on commission.

Yet Birmingham is widely despised. It’s often ignorance; the national media and government, largely based in London, seem rarely to notice Brum unless someone’s been killed in it (to be fair, this is true of much else outside London). Yet the place has much to offer:

  • concert venues which attract top artists (from Andreas Scholl to Rihanna)
  • excellent sporting, arts, shopping and conference venues
  • fantastic architecture and public spaces
  • fine universities doing world-leading research. Every UK institution is now expected to do this; fewer actually manage it
  • plenty of history, science and technology

Birmingham is, after all, not only an industrial city; it was home to major artists like the pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones, great Quaker families like the Cadburys, scientists like Joseph Priestley, poets like Louis MacNeice, etc. (there’s a longer list on Wikipedia).

But it’s not London. Birmingham always comes second (if not fourth, behind London, Oxford and Cambridge, the so-called Golden Triangle).

Yet being second has its advantages. House prices, for one. They’ve rocketed in recent decades, but they’re still nowhere near the extortionate levels of the Triangle. The countryside’s easier to reach and the city easier to drive through than London – and nicer; my route into Brum soars through the spectacular Spaghetti Junction. The people seem better-humoured and less self-important, the pace less ruthlessly frenetic, and the London attitude of charging you for every possible thing hasn’t altogether permeated the Midlands. London’s a superlative city and a great place to visit, but I’m glad I don’t have to live there.

As for cities, so I suspect for people. Second-raters tend to be better balanced, pleasanter, less wearing to interact with, less highly-strung.

When I was at university, there seemed to be – at every stage, in every subject – one person singled out for special favour. We called them BMGs (‘brightest mind of their generation’). Some of them, I hope, have lived long and prospered, but many failed to develop the predicted stellar careers. Why? Because, I suspect, of the weight of confidence placed in them. Either they writhed with anxiety at having such great expectations to live up to, or they became insufferably lazy and complacent.

Some BMGs dropped out. Others now have academic jobs, and make their colleagues’ lives hell by not pulling their weight. They’re the nuisances every department suffers, the ones who wriggle out of any work they can (except research), who exploit good will until everyone longs to get rid of them. Less flashy candidates are much more useful in real-life institutions, where too many putative geniuses can be a nightmare for actually getting things done.

Real life doesn’t need a world filled with winners. Society isn’t built for it, whatever the ‘all can have prizes’ brigade would have you believe. And not everyone who doesn’t win is a loser. Some simply opt out of the game. Others, too smart to chase the fantasies of money, status and fame, value longer-term goals, like being useful and having friendships with people. In the long run, a wealth of research now suggests that chasing these goals is far better for human well-being. Winners, in other words, win at a nasty cost.

At Christmas and New Year people tend to review goals and values. Perhaps we should think about whether the constant emphasis on coming first is really as fine a thing as it’s made out to be.

Happy Christmas!

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