April 19, 2014

Mammary mummery

Filed under: Media, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:19

Everyone knows that only poor, lower-class men prefer women with larger breasts, right? There are even “scientific” studies that “prove” it. Michael Siegel is not convinced:

Sigh. It seems I am condemned to writing endlessly about mammary glands. I don’t have an objection to the subject but I do wish someone else would approach these “studies” with any degree of skepticism.

This is yet another iteration of the breast size study I lambasted last year and it runs into the same problems: the use of CG figures instead of real women, the underlying inbuilt assumptions and, most importantly, ignoring the role that social convention plays in this kind of analysis. To put it simply: men may feel a social pressure to choose less busty CG images, a point I’ll get to in a moment. I don’t see that this study sheds any new light on the subject. Men of low socioeconomic status might still feel less pressure to conform to social expectations, something this study does not seem to address at all. Like most studies of human sexuality, it makes the fundamental mistake of assuming that what people say is necessary reflective of what they think or do and not what is expected of them.

The authors think that men’s preference for bustier women when they are hungry supports their thesis that the breast fetish is connected to feeding young (even though is zero evidence that large breasts nurse better than small ones). I actually think their result has no bearing on their assumption. Why would hungrier men want fatter women? Because they want to eat them? To nurse off them? I can think of good reasons why hungry men would feel less bound by social convention, invest a little less thought in a silly social experiment and just press the button for the biggest boobs. I think that hungry men are more likely to give you an honest opinion and not care that preferring the bustier woman is frowned upon. Hunger is known to significantly alter people’s behavior in many subtle ways but these authors narrow it to one dimension, a dimension that may not even exist.

And why not run a parallel test on women? If bigger breasts somehow provoke a primal hunger response, might that preference be built into anyone who nursed in the first few years of life?

No, this is another garbage study that amounts to saying that “low-class” men like big boobs while “high-class” men are more immune to the lure of the decolletage and so … something. I don’t find that to be useful or insightful or meaningful. I find that it simply reinforces an existing preconception.

There is a cultural bias in some of the upper echelons of society against large breasts and men’s attraction to them. That may sound crazy in a society that made Pamela Anderson a star. But large breasts and the breast fetish are often seen, by elites, as a “low class” thing. Busty women in high-end professions sometimes have problems being taken seriously. Many busty women, including my wife, wear minimizer bras so they’ll be taken more seriously (or look less matronly). I’ve noticed that in the teen shows my daughter sometimes watches, girls with curves are either ditzy or femme fatales. In adult comedies, busty women are frequently portrayed as ditzy airheads. Men who are attracted to buxom women are often depicted as low-class, unintelligent and uneducated. Think Al Bundy.

January 20, 2014

“Most psychologists are not capable of organising a quantitative study”

Filed under: Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:33

An interesting article by Andrew Anthony in the Guardian talks about an assault on the “mathematics of happiness”:

“Not many psychologists are very good at maths,” says Brown. “Not many psychologists are even good at the maths and statistics you have to do as a psychologist. Typically you’ll have a couple of people in the department who understand it. Most psychologists are not capable of organising a quantitative study. A lot of people can get a PhD in psychology without having those things at their fingertips. And that’s the stuff you’re meant to know. Losada’s maths were of the kind you’re not meant to encounter in psychology. The maths you need to understand the Losada system is hard but the maths you need to understand that this cannot possibly be true is relatively straightforward.”

Brown had studied maths to A-level and then took a degree in engineering and computer science at Cambridge. “But I actually gave up the engineering because the maths was too hard,” he says, laughing at the irony. “So I’m really not that good at maths. I can read simple calculus but I can’t solve differential equations. But then neither could Losada!”

He went back over Losada’s equations and he noticed that if he put in the numbers Fredrickson and Losada had then you could arrive at the appropriate figures. But he realised that it only worked on its own terms. “When you look at the equation, it doesn’t contain any data. It’s completely self-referential.”

You might even call it the “hockey stick model” of psychology.

Following much negotiation, Brown, Sokal and Friedman had their paper accepted by American Psychologist and it was published online last July under the only slightly less provocative title of The Complex Dynamics of Wishful Thinking [PDF]. Referring to the bizarrely precise tipping point ratio of 2.9013 that Fredrickson and Losada trumpeted applied to all humans regardless of age, gender, race or culture, the authors — in fact Brown, in this sentence — wrote: “The idea that any aspect of human behaviour or experience should be universally and reproducibly constant to five significant digits would, if proven, constitute a unique moment in the history of the social sciences.”

The paper mounted a devastating case against the maths employed by Fredrickson and Losada, who were offered the chance to respond in the same online issue of American Psychologist. Losada declined and has thus far failed to defend his input in any public forum. But Fredrickson did write a reply, which, putting a positive spin on things, she titled Updated Thinking on Positivity Ratios [PDF].

She effectively accepted that Losada’s maths was wrong and admitted that she never really understood it anyway. But she refused to accept that the rest of the research was flawed. Indeed she claimed that, if anything, the empirical evidence was even stronger in support of her case. Fredrickson subsequently removed the critical chapter that outlines Losada’s input from further editions of Positivity. She has avoided speaking to much of the press but in an email exchange with me, she maintained that “on empirical grounds, yes, tipping points are highly probable” in relation to positive emotions and flourishing.

“She’s kind of hoping the Cheshire cat has disappeared but the grin is still there,” says Brown, who is dismissive of Fredrickson’s efforts at damage limitation. “She’s trying to throw Losada over the side without admitting that she got conned. All she can really show is that higher numbers are better than lower ones. What you do in science is you make a statement of what you think will happen and then run the experiment and see if it matches it. What you don’t do is pick up a bunch of data and start reading tea leaves. Because you can always find something. If you don’t have much data you shouldn’t go round theorising. Something orange is going to happen to you today, says the astrology chart. Sure enough, you’ll notice if an orange bicycle goes by you.”

January 7, 2014

Paul Hellyer – architect of Canada’s unified forces and certified loon

Filed under: Cancon, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:25

To be kind, I wasn’t a fan of Paul Hellyer even before he started talking about aliens:

Paul Hellyer was Canada’s Minister of Defense in the mid-1960s. He is now a critic of the United States’ willingness to trigger an interstellar war with aliens — aliens who might give us more advanced technology if only we were less belligerent.

“They’ve been visiting our planet for thousands of years,” Hellyer told RT’s Sophie Shevardnadze in a televised interview.

“There’s been a lot more activity in the last few decades, since we invented the atomic bomb. and they’re very concerned about that, and about the fact that we might use it again,” added Hellyer, who said that a cold-war era commission determined that at least four alien species had come to Earth. “The whole cosmos is a unity, and it affects not just us but other people in the cosmos, they’ve very much afraid that we might be stupid enough to start using atomic weapons again. This would be bad for us and bad for them too.”


“I have seen a UFO, about 120 miles north of Toronto, over Lake Muskoka,” Hellyer said. The UFO “just looked like a star … we watched it until our necks almost broke. It was definitely a UFO, because it could change position in the sky by 3 or 4 degrees in 3 or 4 seconds. … There was no other explanation for it except that it was the real thing.”

The Star of Bethlehem, he added, was one of God’s flying saucers.

Moreover, the number of known alien species has leapt from “between two and 12″ to as many as 80, said Hellyer, the senior cabinet minister from Pierre Trudeau’s 1968 cabinet. “They have different agendas. Maybe all of us on earth should have have the same agenda. … Nearly all of them are benign, but one or two are not, and that’s what I’m investigating now.”

December 19, 2013


Filed under: Media, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:26

Paul Rowan Brian explains where the suddenly omnipresent term “microaggressions” came from:

Microaggression is a term first coined by Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Chester Pierce in the 1970s that, at least in original meaning, describes situational, spoken or behavioural slights (especially unintentional) that convey ignorance, hostility or dismissal toward individuals belonging to minority or marginalized groups.

Pierce is also quoted as saying that all children of five-years-old entering school are mentally ill. The reason they’re mentally ill, according to Pierce, is the children’s loyalty to their parents, the Founding Fathers, and belief in God or a Supernatural Being. The education system must seek to correct these mental illnesses, Pierce argues. Which is all to say that Pierce is certainly not one to overstate matters or let his rhetoric get away on him. (Not that anyone was worried about that, right)?

To look at how subtly microaggression may manifest, let’s take an example.

A middle-aged, white male in a city with a white majority offers his seat to a kindly-looking black lady of an older age on a crowded subway train; nobody looks twice, perhaps the lady even smiles as she accepts the offer.

But did you know that the male individual may well have committed microaggression?

Well anyway, he likely wouldn’t know if he had, by definition.

In offering his seat to the kindly-looking older black woman (or even, God forbid, thinking of her in those stereotypical terms), the white man has made hurtful assumptions about her needing the seat more than him including her identity as a woman, older individual and member of a minority. Even if none of these thoughts or impressions crossed the man’s mind or the woman’s, they have subtly-imbued the interaction with a harmful aspect, potentially causing or contributing to long-term feelings of marginalization, ‘otherness’ and psychological damage for the woman.

A number of other variables including the woman’s sexual orientation, socio-economic status and religion could make the seemingly-harmless and chivalrous interaction a double, triple or even quadruple microaggressive whammy.

December 3, 2013

Some owls are more (politically) valuable than others

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Environment, Government, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:26

In his weekly NFL column, Gregg Easterbrook discusses the once-hot owl preservation efforts which have recently turned into owl execution efforts:

Those who can remember the dim mists of history — say, a couple decades ago — recall that preservation of the northern spotted owl was a major American political issue during the 1980s, then played a role in the 1992 presidential election campaign, then was among the high-profile matters of the Bill Clinton administration. Decisions during the 1990s by the Fish and Wildlife Service, coupled to judge’s orders, effectively ended much of the logging in the Pacific Northwest. This pleased affluent landowners, cost jobs for average people and shifted timber production to Malaysia, where there are almost no environmental regulations.

There are three other birds quite similar to the northern spotted, whose numbers continue to decline. The California spotted owl has a stable population. The Mexican spotted owl probably is in decline: about five years ago, a federal judge placed land-use restrictions on areas of Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico to protect the Mexican spotted. The barred owl, the third bird similar to northern spotted, doesn’t need special protection as it is population is expanding, based on natural competition.

So the plan is to start shooting barred owls. Excuse me, “culling” them. The Fish and Wildlife Service wants to kill at least 3,000 barred owls, which are so similar to spotted owls that a trained eye is needed to distinguish the types. Spotted owls are federally protected, by the Endangered Species Act. Barred owls are not protected. So let’s kill the disfavored owls in order to help the politically correct owls!

As recently as two generations ago, barred owls mainly were found east of the Mississippi, where they are commonly called hoot owls, for their whoot-woo-who territorial marking sound. The recovery of forests across the United States — total forested acres have been increasing for a quarter century — created a migratory pathway for barred owls to spread west. This development was unexpected; the literature of owl protection depicts such birds as so habitat-dependent they are vulnerable to any change. It turns out the barred owl is not fragile, able to adapt to many habitats. Barred owls are also more aggressive than spotted owls; the worry among defenders of the latter is that barred owls will out-compete spotted owls and take their territory in the Pacific Northwest.


Underneath this issue is a fallacy in human understanding of nature: the assumption that the environment and its creatures are brittle things whom the slightest disturbance will render extinct. The environment has survived ice ages, comet impacts and climate change far more dramatic than any that artificial greenhouse gas may cause. Inconveniently for Pacific Northwest environmental lobbyists, birds extremely similar to spotted owls are doing just fine on their own. So get rid of the evidence.

November 27, 2013

OMG! There are scary-sounding chemicals in your Thanksgiving Dinner!

Filed under: Environment, Health, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:23

Our American friends are about to celebrate their (weirdly late) Thanksgiving this week, so junk science food scares are also making another annual appearance. Angela Logomasini explains why you can safely ignore most of the advice you may receive about food safety this Thanksgiving:

Toxic chemicals lurk in the “typical” Thanksgiving meal, warns a green activist website. Eat organic, avoid canned food, and you might be okay, according to their advice. Fortunately, there’s no need to buy this line. In fact, the trace levels of man-made chemicals found in these foods warrant no concern and are no different from trace chemicals that appear in food naturally.

The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) illustrates this reality best with their Holiday Dinner Menu, which outlines all the “toxic” chemicals found naturally in food. The point is, at such low levels, both the man-made and naturally occurring chemicals pose little risk. This year the ACSH puts the issue in perspective explaining:

    Toxicologists have confirmed that food naturally contains a myriad of chemicals traditionally thought of as “poisons.” Potatoes contain solanine, arsenic, and chaconine. Lima beans contain hydrogen cyanide, a classic suicide substance. Carrots contain carototoxin, a nerve poison. And nutmeg, black pepper, and carrots all contain the hallucinogenic compound myristicin. Moreover, all chemicals, whether natural or synthetic, are potential toxicants at high doses but are perfectly safe when consumed in low doses.”

Typically, these kinds of food safety scares depend on using unfamiliar scientific names of various chemicals, knowing that most peoples’ memories of high school science have long since faded away. Anything “safe” has an ordinary name, while anything “toxic” goes by a tongue-twisting science-y name that conceals far more than it reveals to non-scientists. Remember how many times the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO) have been used to whip up support for petitions to ban the stuff (see the Material Safety Data Sheet (pdf) for it). Dihydrogen monoxide is a science-y way of describing a molecule with two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom … it’s another name for water, but it sounds so much more ominous that way, doesn’t it?

November 23, 2013

QotD: The evocative power of smell

Filed under: Humour, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:35

I’ve read that it’s smells that humans remember the longest, or are the most likely to jog memories. After positing that, the pseudoscientists often talk about Grandma’s cookies. Let me tell you about smells.

It smells like exotic bread is baking near the dust collector when you put pine through the drum sander. You know the fine dust is giving you nose cancer and lung trouble so you’re almost immune to its charms. Almost. There was this smell once, when I had to renovate an apartment a guy died in. He was in there a good long time, too. It’s the smell of the mass grave. That was fun. But nothing can compare to the smell of the abrasive cutoff saw going through steel. It makes brimstone smell like French pastry.

You see, to cut metal like that you don’t often use a saw with teeth. It’s just an abrasive disc, and you send a shower of sparks and an acrid, burning blast of stink up your nose. It’s like snorting sand from the outdoor ashtray next to the door at the place they hold Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. I’ll never forget it.

“Strange Adventures In The Fall And Rise Of Sippican Cottage”, Sippican Cottage, 2013-09-04

November 6, 2013

Your website needs more Infographics!

Filed under: Humour, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:15

Click image to see full-size infographic at SMBC

Click image to see full-size infographic at SMBC

October 12, 2013

Not news: people under-report calorie intake, invalidating 40 years of federal research

Filed under: Health, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:47

Any study that depends on self-reporting, especially self-reporting on things like how much food they eat, can’t be assumed to be accurate:

Four decades of nutrition research funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be invalid because the method used to collect the data was seriously flawed, according to a new study by the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina.

The study, led by Arnold School exercise scientist and epidemiologist Edward Archer, has demonstrated significant limitations in the measurement protocols used in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). The findings, published in PLOS ONE (The Public Library of Science), reveal that a majority of the nutrition data collected by the NHANES are not “physiologically credible,” Archer said.


The study examined data from 28,993 men and 34,369 women, 20 to 74 years old, from NHANES I (1971 — 1974) through NHANES (2009 — 2010), and looked at the caloric intake of the participants and their energy expenditure, predicted by height, weight, age and sex. The results show that — based on the self-reported recall of food and beverages — the vast majority of the NHANES data “are physiologically implausible, and therefore invalid,” Archer said.

In other words, the “calories in” reported by participants and the “calories out,” don’t add up and it would be impossible to survive on most of the reported energy intakes. This misreporting of energy intake varied among participants, and was greatest in obese men and women who underreported their intake by an average 25 percent and 41 percent (i.e., 716 and 856 Calories per-day respectively).

September 18, 2013

Elizabeth Loftus on false memories

Filed under: Health, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:19

The more we discover about the process of memory formation and recall, the more we discover that our memories are more fallible and plastic than we believed. Elizabeth Loftus talks to Alison George about the problem of false memories:

AG: How does this happen? What exactly is going on when we retrieve a memory?
EL: When we remember something, we’re taking bits and pieces of experience — sometimes from different times and places — and bringing it all together to construct what might feel like a recollection but is actually a construction. The process of calling it into conscious awareness can change it, and now you’re storing something that’s different. We all do this, for example, by inadvertently adopting a story we’ve heard — like Romney did.

AG: How did you end up studying false memories?
EL: Early in my career, I had done some very theoretical studies of memory, and after that I wanted to [do] work that had more obvious practical uses. The memory of witnesses to crimes and accidents was a natural place to go. In particular I looked at what happens when people are questioned about their experiences. I would ultimately see those questions as a means by which the memories got contaminated.

AG: You’re known for debunking the idea of repressed memories. Why focus on them?
EL: In the 1990s we began to see these recovered-memory cases. In the first big one, a man called George Franklin was on trial. His daughter claimed she had witnessed her father kill her best friend when she was 8 years old — but had only remembered this 20 years later. And that she had been raped by him and repressed that memory too. Franklin was convicted of the murder, and that started this repressed-memory ball rolling through the legal system. We began to see hundreds of cases where people were accusing others based on claims of repressed memory. That’s what first got me interested.

AG: How did you study the process of creating false memories?
EL: We needed a different paradigm for studying these types of recollections. I developed a method for creating “rich false memories” by using strong suggestion. The first such memory was about getting lost in a shopping mall as a child.

AG: How susceptible are people to having these types of memories implanted?
EL: Depending on the study, you might get as many as 50 percent of people falling for the suggestion and developing a complete or partial false memory.

As I’ve mentioned before, the more we learn about memory, the less comfortable I am with the belief that eyewitness testimony in criminal cases is as dependable as our legal system assumes. There are definitely large numbers of people in prison based on eyewitness accounts … some of which are almost certainly false memories (but believed by the witness to be accurate).

AG: Is there any way to distinguish a false memory from a real one?
EL: Without independent corroboration, little can be done to tell a false memory from a true one.

AG: Could brain imaging one day be used to do this?
EL: I collaborated on a brain imaging study in 2010, and the overwhelming conclusion we reached is that the neural patterns were very similar for true and false memories. We are a long way away from being able to look at somebody’s brain activity and reliably classify an authentic memory versus one that arose through some other process.

AG: Do you think it’s important for people to realize how malleable their memory is?
EL: My work has made me tolerant of memory mistakes by family and friends. You don’t have to call them lies. I think we could be generous and say maybe this is a false memory.

September 12, 2013

This is rather sinister

Filed under: Health, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:46

At Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok talks about a statistical study which concluded that being left-handed had serious impact on your lifespan:

In 1991 Halpern and Coren published a famous study in the New England Journal of Medicine which appears to show that left handed people die at much younger ages than right-handed people. Halpern and Coren had obtained records on 987 deaths in Southern California — we can stipulate that this was a random sample of deaths in that time period — and had then asked family members whether the deceased was right or left-handed. What they found was stunning, left handers in their sample had died at an average age of 66 compared to 75 for right handers. If true, left handedness would be on the same order of deadliness as a lifetime of smoking. Halpern and Coren argued that this was due mostly to unnatural deaths such as industrial and driving accidents caused by left-handers living in a right-handed world. The study was widely reported at the time and continues to be regularly cited in popular accounts of left handedness (e.g. Buzzfeed, Cracked).

What is less well known is that the conclusions of the Halpern-Coren study are almost certainly wrong, left-handedness is not a major cause of death. Rather than dramatically lower life expectancy, a more plausible explanation of the HC findings is a subtle and interesting statistical artifact. The problem was pointed out as early as the letters to the editor in the next issue of the NEJM (see Strang letter) and was also recently pointed out in an article by Hannah Barnes in the BBC News (kudos to the BBC!) but is much less well known.

The statistical issue is that at a given moment in time a random sample of deaths is not necessarily a random sample of people. I will explain.

August 31, 2013

Enabling the “nudgers”

Filed under: Government, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:44

Coyote Blog links to a Daily Mail article on the woman who wants to run your life (and Obama wants to help her):

I am a bit late on this, but like most libertarians I was horrified by this article in the Mail Online about Obama Administration efforts to nudge us all into “good” behavior. This is the person, Maya Shankar, who wants to substitute her decision-making priorities for your own [...]

If the notion — that a 20-something person who has apparently never held a job in the productive economy is telling you she knows better what is good for you — is not absurd on its face, here are a few other reasons to distrust this plan.

  • Proponents first, second, and third argument for doing this kind of thing is that it is all based on “science”. But a lot of the so-called science is total crap. Medical literature is filled with false panics that are eventually retracted. And most social science findings are frankly garbage. If you have some behavior you want to nudge, and you give a university a nice grant, I can guarantee you that you can get a study supporting whatever behavior you want to foster or curtail. Just look at the number of public universities in corn-growing states that manage to find justifications for ethanol subsidies. Recycling is a great example, mentioned several times in the article. Research supports the sensibility of recycling aluminum and steel, but says that recycling glass and plastic and paper are either worthless or cost more in resources than they save. But nudgers never-the-less push for recycling of all this stuff. Nudging quickly starts looking more like religion than science.
  • The 300 million people in this country have 300 million different sets of priorities and personal circumstances. It is the worst hubris to think that one can make one decision that is correct for everyone. Name any supposedly short-sighted behavior — say, not getting health insurance when one is young — and I can name numerous circumstances where this is a perfectly valid choice and risk to take.

July 17, 2013

Keep calm, and don’t panic about bee-pocalypse now

Filed under: Environment, Media, Science — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:17

You’ve heard about the mysterious colony collapse disorder (CCD) that has been devastating bee colonies across the world, right? This is serious, as bees are a very important part of the pollenization of many crops. As you’ll know from many media reports, this is a food disaster unfolding before us and we’re all going to starve! Or, looking at the facts, perhaps not:

In a rush to identify the culprit of the disorder, many journalists have made exaggerated claims about the impacts of CCD. Most have uncritically accepted that continued bee losses would be a disaster for America’s food supply. Others speculate about the coming of a second “silent spring.” Worse yet, many depict beekeepers as passive, unimaginative onlookers that stand idly by as their colonies vanish.

This sensational reporting has confused rather than informed discussions over CCD. Yes, honey bees are dying in above average numbers, and it is important to uncover what’s causing the losses, but it hardly spells disaster for bees or America’s food supply.

Consider the following facts about honey bees and CCD.

For starters, US honey bee colony numbers are stable, and they have been since before CCD hit the scene in 2006. In fact, colony numbers were higher in 2010 than any year since 1999. How can this be? Commercial beekeepers, far from being passive victims, have actively rebuilt their colonies in response to increased mortality from CCD. Although average winter mortality rates have increased from around 15% before 2006 to more than 30%, beekeepers have been able to adapt to these changes and maintain colony numbers.


“The state of the honey bee population—numbers, vitality, and economic output — are the products of not just the impact of disease but also the economic decisions made by beekeepers and farmers,” economists Randal Rucker and Walter Thurman write in a summary of their working paper on the impacts of CCD. Searching through a number of economic measures, the researchers came to a surprising conclusion: CCD has had almost no discernible economic impact.

But you don’t need to rely on their study to see that CCD has had little economic effect. Data on colonies and honey production are publicly available from the USDA. Like honey bee numbers, US honey production has shown no pattern of decline since CCD was first detected. In 2010, honey production was 14% greater than it was in 2006. (To be clear, US honey production and colony numbers are lower today than they were 30 years ago, but as Rucker and Thurman explain, this gradual decline happened prior to 2006 and cannot be attributed to CCD).

H/T to Tyler Cowen for the link.

July 11, 2013

Inane new “measurement” claims 1978 was the “best year ever”

Filed under: Economics, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:39

An editorial in New Scientist (which I can’t quote from due to copyright concerns) claims that using a new “measurement” called the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), human progress peaked in 1978 and it’s all been downhill since then. Anyone who actually lived through 1978 might struggle to recall just what — if anything — was better about 1978 than following years, but the NS editors do point out that the GDP measurement generally used to compare national economies doesn’t capture all the relevant details, while GPI includes what they refer to as social factors and economic costs, making it a better measuring tool for certain comparisons.

I can only assume that most of the economists who believe that 1978 was a peak year for the environment hadn’t been born at that time: pollution was a much more visible issue in North America and western Europe than at almost any time afterwards (and eastern Europe was far worse). Industry and government were taking steps to cut back some of the worst pollutants, but that process was really only just in its early stages: it took several years for the effects to start to show.

In the late 1970s, the world was a much dirtier, poorer, less egalitarian place than even a decade later: China and India were both much more authoritarian and had still not mastered the art of ensuring that there was enough food to feed everyone. Behind the Iron Curtain, Soviets and citizens of their client states in Europe were falling further and further behind the material well-being of westerners (and becoming much more aware of the deficit).

No matter how much emphasis you put on nebulous “social factors”, the fact that the world poverty rate — regardless of how you measure it — has been cut in half over the last twenty years, lifting literally billions of people out of near-starvation makes an incredibly strong case that the world is doing better now than at any time since 1978. You can prattle on all you like about “rising inequality”, but for my money it’s a better world where the risk of people literally starving to death is that much closer to being eliminated. Give me an “unequal” world where even the poorest have enough food and clean water over an egalitarian world where billions starve, thanks very much.

July 8, 2013

The return of the fickle finger of fate (non-humour category)

Filed under: Media, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:54

In sp!ked, Brendan O’Neill discusses the unlikely comeback of “fate”:

Fate is making a comeback. The idea that a human being’s fortunes are shaped by forces beyond his control is returning, zombie-like, from the graveyard of bad historical ideas. The notion that a man’s character and destiny are determined for him rather than by him is back in fashion, after 500-odd years of having been criticised and ridiculed by humanist thinkers.

Of course, we’re far too sophisticated these days actually to use the f-word, fate. We don’t talk about a god called Fortuna, as the Romans did, believing that this blind, mysterious creature decided people’s fates with the spin of a wheel. Unlike long-gone Norse communities we don’t believe in goddesses called Norns, who would attend the birth of every child to determine his or her future. No, today we use scientific terms to argue that people’s fortunes are determined by higher powers than their little, insignificant selves.

We use and abuse neuroscience to claim certain people are ‘born this way’. We claim evolutionary psychology explains why people behave and think the way they do. We use phrases like ‘weather of mass destruction’, in place of ‘gods’, to push the idea that mankind is a little thing battered by awesome, destiny-determining forces. Fate has been brought back from the dead and she’s been dolled up in pseudoscientific rags.

[. . .]

It’s hard to overstate what a radical idea this was at the tailend of the Dark Ages. It’s this idea that gives rise to the concept of free will, to the concept of personality even. And it was an idea carried through to the Enlightenment and on to the humanist liberalism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the words of the greatest liberal, John Stuart Mill, it is incumbent upon the individual to never ‘let the world, or his portion of it, choose his plan of life for him’.

But today, in our downbeat era that bears a bit of a passing resemblance to the Dark Ages, we’re turning the clock back on this idea. We’re rewinding the historic breakthroughs of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and we’re breathing life back into the fantasy of fate. Ours is an era jampacked with deterministic theories, claims that human beings are like amoeba in a Petri dish being prodded and shaped by various forces. But the new determinism isn’t religious or supernatural, as it was in the pre-Enlightened era — it’s scientific determinism, or rather pseudo-scientific determinism.

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