February 23, 2015

Do these count as “known unknowns”? Searching for copies of the Magna Carta

Filed under: Britain,History,Law,Liberty — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

At the Magna Carta Project, Professor Nicholas Vincent recounts how he tracked down a previously unknown copy in Sandwich:

Now, I have often found that the most interesting original records of Magna Carta, as of much else, have gone unnoticed precisely because they are assumed either to be copies rather than originals or because they travel with other less famous documents. Cataloguers, assuming that Magna Carta is much too important to have been overlooked, have very frequently assumed that originals are copies, not from any physical evidence of the fact, but simply because the idea of possessing an unknown Magna Carta has appeared to the cataloguer to be as absurd as suddenly stumbling upon an unknown play by Shakespeare or a unknown canvas by Vermeer. The most famous documents are often the documents that, in their natural habitat, have been least studied. Edgar Allan Poe sums up this situation perfectly in his story “The Purloined Letter”. Poe’s plot here turns on the fact that, if you wish to hide something that everybody else assumes hidden, the best place to hide it is in plain view.

The Hereford Magna Carta of 1217

The Hereford Magna Carta of 1217

I can claim, long before last December, to have found at least three Magna Cartas. All were in plain view. None of them was ‘unknown’, in the sense that they had all previously been listed, albeit in obscure places, either as Magna Cartas or as ‘copies’ of Magna Carta. They were nonetheless ‘unknown’ in the sense that they were either assumed to be ‘copies’ or ‘duplicates’ rather than originals (one of the three 1217 Magna Cartas, and the 1225 Magna Carta in the Bodleian Library in Oxford), or were known locally but without any appreciation that local knowledge had not come to national or international attention (the 1300 Magna Carta preserved in the archives of the borough of Faversham). In one instance (the 1217 Magna Carta now in Hereford Cathedral), it had been catalogued as a royal charter of liberties, but without realizing that these liberties were those otherwise known as ‘Magna Carta’. I vividly remember phoning Hereford Cathedral, in 1989, and asking if I could go down there the following day to see their Magna Carta (for there could be little doubt from the catalogue entry that Hereford’s ‘Charter of liberties 1217′ was a 1217 Magna Carta). I received a very dusty answer. ‘We have no Magna Carta’, I was told, ‘You must be thinking of Mappa Mundi!’. Ignoring this, and ordering up the document by call number, I found myself, the following morning, greeted on Hereford railway station by the canon librarian and the delightful cathedral archivist, Meryl Jancey. Archivists and canon librarians do not generally go to the railway to greet visiting postgraduate students. Short of playing me up Hereford High Street with a brass band, they could not have expressed more joy. And inevitably, their first question was ‘How much is it worth?’.


The Forest Charter of 1225, British Library Add. Ch. 24712

The Forest Charter of 1225, British Library
Add. Ch. 24712

One other detail before we pass on. Magna Carta as issued in 1215 promised reform not only of the realm as a whole but of the King’s administration of those parts of England placed under ‘forest law’ (i.e. set aside for the King’s hunting, with severe consequences for land use and the preservation of game). In 1217, to answer this demand for reform, King Henry III not only issued a new version of Magna Carta but, as a companion piece, an entirely distinct and smaller charter known as the ‘Forest Charter’. From 1217 onwards, the Forest Charter travelled in the company of Magna Carta, rather as a pilot fish accompanies a shark. It was in order to distinguish between these two documents, bigger and smaller, that as early as 1217 Magna Carta was first named ‘Magna’ (‘the great’). Thereafter, on each successive reissue of Magna Carta, the Forest Charter was also reissued, in 1225, 1265, 1297 and 1300. The Record Commissioners, in their search for original documents, were much less thorough in their treatment of the Forest Charter than they were in their search for its more famous sibling. Blackstone had found only two original Forest Charters, both of them very late. The Record Commissioners knew of only three. By contrast, we now know that at least twelve survive. Some of these turned up fortuitously at the time of my own search for new manuscripts in 2007. Others had resurfaced even more recently.

So it was, that around 4.30am in the morning of 9 December 2014, I decided that a catalogue entry describing a Forest Charter of 1300, might well merit further investigation. Even in the seven years between 2007 (when I compiled my lists for Sotheby’s) and 2014, when I stumbled on the reference to the borough of Sandwich’s Forest Charter, I had found at least three further original Forest Charters previously misidentified or ignored. The earliest of these, of 1225, came to light amongst the muniments of Ely Cathedral, the most recent, of 1300, in the British Library. An original of 1300 at Oriel College seen by Blackstone, reported missing in 2007, had re-emerged safe and sound.

Thanks to modern technology, from Belfast to Maidstone is a mere click of the mouse. At 4.39 Greenwich meantime on the morning of 9 December last year, I sent an email (I have it in front of me) to Dr Mark Bateson. I have known Mark for nearly twenty years, first as an archivist at Canterbury Cathedral (where he was one of those who devised the magnificent catalogue of Canterbury’s medieval charters), and more recently following his transfer to Maidstone. I told him that I had found the reference to a Forest Charter , and as I noted in my email: ‘If this really is the 1300 Sandwich copy of the forest charter, issued under the seal of Edward I, then it is a major find. There are only a handful of such exemplifications still surviving as originals. It would also fundamentally alter our understanding of the way in which the charters of liberties were distributed for the later reissues of Magna Carta. Is there any chance of your taking a sneak preview?’

February 20, 2015

The not-so-binary nature of sex

Filed under: Health,Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In Nature, Claire Ainsworth explains why it’s becoming more difficult to discuss sex as a binary:

Sex can be much more complicated than it at first seems. According to the simple scenario, the presence or absence of a Y chromosome is what counts: with it, you are male, and without it, you are female. But doctors have long known that some people straddle the boundary — their sex chromosomes say one thing, but their gonads (ovaries or testes) or sexual anatomy say another. Parents of children with these kinds of conditions — known as intersex conditions, or differences or disorders of sex development (DSDs) — often face difficult decisions about whether to bring up their child as a boy or a girl. Some researchers now say that as many as 1 person in 100 has some form of DSD.

When genetics is taken into consideration, the boundary between the sexes becomes even blurrier. Scientists have identified many of the genes involved in the main forms of DSD, and have uncovered variations in these genes that have subtle effects on a person’s anatomical or physiological sex. What’s more, new technologies in DNA sequencing and cell biology are revealing that almost everyone is, to varying degrees, a patchwork of genetically distinct cells, some with a sex that might not match that of the rest of their body. Some studies even suggest that the sex of each cell drives its behaviour, through a complicated network of molecular interactions. “I think there’s much greater diversity within male or female, and there is certainly an area of overlap where some people can’t easily define themselves within the binary structure,” says John Achermann, who studies sex development and endocrinology at University College London’s Institute of Child Health.

These discoveries do not sit well in a world in which sex is still defined in binary terms. Few legal systems allow for any ambiguity in biological sex, and a person’s legal rights and social status can be heavily influenced by whether their birth certificate says male or female.

“The main problem with a strong dichotomy is that there are intermediate cases that push the limits and ask us to figure out exactly where the dividing line is between males and females,” says Arthur Arnold at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies biological sex differences. “And that’s often a very difficult problem, because sex can be defined a number of ways.”

February 19, 2015

Epigenome: The symphony in your cells

Filed under: Health,Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Published on 18 Feb 2015

Almost every cell in your body has the same DNA sequence. So how come a heart cell is different from a brain cell? Cells use their DNA code in different ways, depending on their jobs. Just like orchestras can perform one piece of music in many different ways. A cell’s combined set of changes in gene expression is called its epigenome. This week Nature publishes a slew of new data on the epigenomic landscape in lots of different cells. Learn how epigenomics works in this video.

February 9, 2015

Paradoxically, rising cancer deaths are a form of good news

Filed under: Britain,Health,Science — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Last month, in his Times column, Matt Ridley explained why — until we discover a treatment for aging itself — rising cancer rates are a weird form of good news:

If we could prevent or cure all cancer, what would we die of? The new year has begun with a war of words over whether cancer is mostly bad luck, as suggested by a new study from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and over whether it’s a good way to die, compared with the alternatives, as suggested by Dr Richard Smith, a former editor of the BMJ.

It is certainly bad luck to be British and get cancer, relatively speaking. As The Sunday Times reported yesterday, survival rates after cancer diagnosis are lower here than in most developed and some developing countries, reflecting the National Health Service’s chronic problems with rationing treatment by delay. In Japan, survival rates for lung and liver cancer are three times higher than here.

Cancer is now the leading cause of death in Britain even though it is ever more survivable, with roughly half of people who contract it living long enough to die of something else. But what else? Often another cancer.

In the western world we’ve conquered most of the causes of premature death that used to kill our ancestors. War, smallpox, homicide, measles, scurvy, pneumonia, gangrene, tuberculosis, stroke, typhoid, heart disease and cholera are all much rarer, strike much later in life or are more survivable than they were fifty or a hundred years ago.

The mortality rate in men from coronary heart disease, for instance, has fallen by an amazing 80 per cent since 1968 — for all age groups. Mortality rates from stroke in both sexes have halved in 20 years. Cancer’s growing dominance of the mortality tables is not because it’s getting worse but because we are avoiding other causes of death and living longer.

It is worth remembering that some scientists and anti-pesticide campaigners in the 1960s were convinced that by now lifespans would be much shorter because of cancer caused by pesticides and other chemicals in the environment.

In the 1950s Wilhelm Hueper — a director of the US National Cancer Institute and mentor to Rachel Carson, the environmentalist author of Silent Spring — was so concerned that pesticides were causing cancer that he thought the theory that lung cancer was caused by smoking was a plot by the chemical industry to divert attention from its own culpability: “Cigarette smoking is not a major factor in the causation of lung cancer,” he insisted.

In fact it turns out that pollution causes very little cancer and cigarettes cause a lot. But aside from smoking, most cancers are indeed bad luck. The Johns Hopkins researchers found that tissues that replicate their stem cells most run the highest risk of cancer: basal skin cells do ten trillion cell divisions in a lifetime and have a million times more cancer risk than pelvic bone cells which do about a million cell divisions. Random DNA copying mistakes during cell division are “the major contributors to cancer overall, often more important than either hereditary or external environmental factors”, say the US researchers.

(Emphasis mine.)

To sum it up, until or unless medical research finds a way to stop the bodily effects of aging, cancer becomes the most likely way for all of us to die. Cancer is a generic rather than a specific term — it’s what we use to describe the inevitable breakdown of the cellular division process that happens millions or even trillions of times over our lifetime. As Ridley puts it, “even if everybody lived in the healthiest possible way, we would still get a lot of cancer.” I’m not a scientist and I don’t even play one on TV, but I suspect that the solution to cancers of all kinds are to boost our immune systems to more quickly identify aberrant cells in our bodies before they start reproducing beyond the capability of the immune system to handle. The short- to medium-term solution to cancer may be to make us all a little bit cyborg…

February 4, 2015

The theory of electromagnetism doesn’t look a day over 149

Filed under: History,Science,Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Robyn Arianrhod on the sesquicentential one of the most important discoveries that helped create the world we live in today:

It’s hard to imagine life without mobile phones, radio and television. Yet the discovery of the electromagnetic waves that underpin such technologies grew out of an abstract theory that’s 150 years old.

Our knowledge of the existence of such waves is a direct result of James Clerk Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism which was first published in January 1865.

Electromagnetism itself was discovered physically rather than theoretically. Some time around 1820, the Danish physicist Hans Oersted noticed that when you switch on an electric current, a nearby magnet – such as the needle of a compass – actually jumps, as if the changing electric current was itself a magnet.

Then, in 1831 (the year Maxwell was born in Edinburgh) the English physicist and chemist Michael Faraday discovered that if you move a magnet through a coil of wire, you create an electric current in the wire without the aid of batteries or other electricity supply.

Faraday was so intrigued by the surprising ability of moving magnets to create electricity that he created a tiny prototype of the electric generator. He also created a prototype of the electric motor, but it would take decades before engineers were able to develop working motors and generators.

Nevertheless, basic technologies had begun to flow almost immediately after the phenomenon of electromagnetism was discovered: in particular, the telegraph – the first high-speed global telecommunications system.

February 3, 2015

Senator Elizabeth Warren doesn’t really understand what “public goods” are

Filed under: Government,Science,USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Tim Worstall on what’s wrong with Senator Warren’s most recent proposal to claw back profits that are derived from government-sponsored research:

The answer being that finding out basic knowledge is something we call a public good. This has a specific economic meaning and it really means that private actors, whether people or companies, will do too little of this whatever it is. Because it’s just simply too difficult to make money out of having done this whatever it is. That’s really what “public good” means. It doesn’t mean goods supplied to the public nor even things that it is good for the public to have.

So, given that private actors won’t do these things but we also think that it would be just great for lots of these things to be done, well, we’ve got to do something about it then. And the answer to that is government. Even the most minarchist of us (although perhaps not the anarchists) would agree that some of the public goods provided by government are pretty good. A military to defend us from the ravening Canadian hordes, a criminal justice system to protect us from crime, a Constitution to protect us from politicians. All seem pretty good to me. The answer really is government in those cases.

The argument gets extended: that basic research is a public good. It’s very difficult to make a profit from it therefore not enough of it gets done in the private sector. So we should get government to go do it for us. Excellent, so, when we get that research being done then we’re getting what we pay our taxes to get government to do. We’ve got our public good.

What both Warren and Mazzucato are arguing is that government should then come back for a second bite of the cherry. They should get some of the profits from that basic research. But there aren’t any profits from that basic research: that’s why we’re getting government to do it because you can’t make a profit from having done the research. If we can make a profit from having done this research then government shouldn’t be doing it because it’s not a public good.

January 2, 2015

Works that didn’t enter public domain, thanks to copyright extension

Filed under: Law,Media,Science,USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

The Center for the Study of the Public Domain (at Duke Law), lists some of the better-known works that should have become public domain in the United States this year, except for the extension of copyright terms:

Works from 1958 that won't enter public domain

Current US law extends copyright for 70 years after the date of the author’s death, and corporate “works-for-hire” are copyrighted for 95 years after publication. But prior to the 1976 Copyright Act (which became effective in 1978), the maximum copyright term was 56 years — an initial term of 28 years, renewable for another 28 years. Under those laws, works published in 1958 would enter the public domain on January 1, 2015, where they would be “free as the air to common use.” Under current copyright law, we’ll have to wait until 2054. And no published works will enter our public domain until 2019. The laws in other countries are different — thousands of works are entering the public domain in Canada and the EU on January 1.

What books and plays would be entering the public domain if we had the pre-1978 copyright laws? You might recognize some of the titles below.

  • Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
  • Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
  • Isaac Asimov (writing as Paul French), Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn
  • Simone de Beauvoir, Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée (Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter)
  • Michael Bond, A Bear Called Paddington, with illustrations by Peggy Fortnum
  • Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, The Ugly American
  • Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s
  • Agatha Christie, Ordeal by Innocence
  • John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society
  • Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story
  • Claude Lévi-Strauss, Anthropologie Structurale (Structural Anthropology)
  • Mary Renault, The King Must Die
  • Dr. Seuss, Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories
  • T.H. White, The Once and Future King

What a trove of books — imagine these being freely available to students and educators around the world. You would be free to translate these books into other languages, create Braille or audio versions for visually impaired readers (if you think that publishers wouldn’t object to this, you would be wrong), or adapt them for theater or film. You could read them online or buy cheaper print editions, because others were free to republish them. (Empirical studies have shown that public domain books are less expensive, available in more editions and formats, and more likely to be in print — see here, here, and here.) Imagine a digital Library of Alexandria containing all of the world’s books from 1958 and earlier, where, thanks to technology, you can search, link, annotate, copy and paste. (Google Books has brought us closer to this reality, but for copyrighted books where there is no separate agreement with the copyright holder, it only shows three short snippets, not the whole book.) You could use these books in your own stories — The Once and Future King was free to draw upon Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (a compilation of King Arthur legends) because Malory’s work was in the public domain. One tale inspires another. That is how the public domain feeds creativity. Instead of seeing these literary works enter the public domain in 2015, we will have to wait until 2054.

December 5, 2014

For our next trick, we need to crack another genetic code

Filed under: Health,Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:03

Michael White says we need to follow up our success in reading our own genetic code by decoding a different one:

There are thousands of mutations that occur in the breast cancer-linked genes BRCA1 and BRCA2. Some of these cause breast or ovarian cancer, while others are harmless. When we design a genetic test for predisposition to breast cancer, we have to know which ones to test for. The same is true of almost any gene that plays a role in disease — you’ll find many mutations in that gene in the general population, only some of which cause health problems. So how do we know which mutations to worry about?

We start by using the genetic code. The genetic code, cracked by scientists in the 1960s, makes it surprisingly easy to “read” our DNA and understand how a particular mutation affects a gene. As genetic testing takes on a bigger role in predicting, diagnosing, and treating disease, we rely on this code to help us make sense of the data. Unfortunately, the genetic code applies to less than two percent of our DNA. In an effort to read the rest, researchers are trying to crack a new genetic code — and this next one is turning out to be much more difficult to solve than the first. In fact, scientists may have to give up the idea that we can use a “code” to “read” the rest of our DNA.

When scientists were working out the original genetic code in the 1950s and ’60s, all sorts of complicated schemes were proposed to explain how information is stored in our genes. The problem they were trying to solve was how a gene, made of DNA, codes the information to make a particular protein — an enzyme, a pump, a piece of cellular scaffolding, or some other critical component of the cell’s working machinery. They were looking for a code that would translate the four-letter DNA alphabet of genes into the 20-letter amino acid alphabet of proteins.


Thanks to its simplicity, the genetic code is a powerful tool in our hunt for mutations that cause disease. Unfortunately, it has also led to the genetic equivalent of a drunk looking for his lost keys under the lamppost. Researchers have put much of their effort into looking for disease mutations in those parts of our genomes that we can read with the genetic code — that is, parts that consist of canonical genes that code for proteins. But these genes make up less than two percent of our DNA; much more of our genetic function is outside of genes in the relatively uncharted “non-coding” portions. We have no idea how many disease-causing mutations are in that non-coding portion — for some types of mutations, it could be as high as 90 percent.

November 25, 2014

When was it exactly that “progress stopped”?

Filed under: Environment,Health,Media,Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:05

Scott Alexander wrote this back in July. I think it’s still relevant as a useful perspective-enhancer:

The year 1969 comes up to you and asks what sort of marvels you’ve got all the way in 2014.

You explain that cameras, which 1969 knows as bulky boxes full of film that takes several days to get developed in dark rooms, are now instant affairs of point-click-send-to-friend that are also much higher quality. Also they can take video.

Music used to be big expensive records, and now you can fit 3,000 songs on an iPod and get them all for free if you know how to pirate or scrape the audio off of YouTube.

Television not only has gone HDTV and plasma-screen, but your choices have gone from “whatever’s on now” and “whatever is in theaters” all the way to “nearly every show or movie that has ever been filmed, whenever you want it”.

Computers have gone from structures filling entire rooms with a few Kb memory and a punchcard-based interface, to small enough to carry in one hand with a few Tb memory and a touchscreen-based interface. And they now have peripherals like printers, mice, scanners, and flash drives.

Lasers have gone from only working in special cryogenic chambers to working at room temperature to fitting in your pocket to being ubiquitious in things as basic as supermarket checkout counters.

Telephones have gone from rotary-dial wire-connected phones that still sometimes connected to switchboards, to cell phones that fit in a pocket. But even better is bypassing them entirely and making video calls with anyone anywhere in the world for free.

Robots now vacuum houses, mow lawns, clean office buildings, perform surgery, participate in disaster relief efforts, and drive cars better than humans. Occasionally if you are a bad person a robot will swoop down out of the sky and kill you.

For better or worse, video games now exist.

Medicine has gained CAT scans, PET scans, MRIs, lithotripsy, liposuction, laser surgery, robot surgery, and telesurgery. Vaccines for pneumonia, meningitis, hepatitis, HPV, and chickenpox. Ceftriaxone, furosemide, clozapine, risperidone, fluoxetine, ondansetron, omeprazole, naloxone, suboxone, mefloquine, – and for that matter Viagra. Artificial hearts, artificial livers, artificial cochleae, and artificial legs so good that their users can compete in the Olympics. People with artificial eyes can only identify vague shapes at best, but they’re getting better every year.

World population has tripled, in large part due to new agricultural advantages. Catastrophic disasters have become much rarer, in large part due to architectural advances and satellites that can watch the weather from space.

We have a box which you can type something into and it will tell you everything anyone has ever written relevant to your query.

We have a place where you can log into from anywhere in the world and get access to approximately all human knowledge, from the scores of every game in the 1956 Roller Hockey World Cup to 85 different side effects of an obsolete antipsychotic medication. It is all searchable instantaneously. Its main problem is that people try to add so much information to it that its (volunteer) staff are constantly busy deleting information that might be extraneous.

We have the ability to translate nearly major human language to any other major human language instantaneously at no cost with relatively high accuracy.

We have navigation technology that over fifty years has gone from “map and compass” to “you can say the name of your destination and a small box will tell you step by step which way you should be going”.

We have the aforementioned camera, TV, music, videophone, video games, search engine, encyclopedia, universal translator, and navigation system all bundled together into a small black rectangle that fits in your pockets, responds to your spoken natural-language commands, and costs so little that Ethiopian subsistence farmers routinely use them to sell their cows.

But, you tell 1969, we have something more astonishing still. Something even more unimaginable.

“We have,” you say, “people who believe technology has stalled over the past forty-five years.”

1969’s head explodes.

November 21, 2014

Elon Musk’s constant nagging worry

Filed under: Business,Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 07:14

In the Washington Post, Justin Moyer talks about Elon Musk’s concern about runaway artificial intelligence:

Elon Musk — the futurist behind PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX — has been caught criticizing artificial intelligence again.

“The risk of something seriously dangerous happening is in the five year timeframe,” Musk wrote in a comment since deleted from the Web site Edge.org, but confirmed to Re/Code by his representatives. “10 years at most.”

The very future of Earth, Musk said, was at risk.

“The leading AI companies have taken great steps to ensure safety,” he wrote. “The recognize the danger, but believe that they can shape and control the digital superintelligences and prevent bad ones from escaping into the Internet. That remains to be seen.”

Musk seemed to sense that these comments might seem a little weird coming from a Fortune 1000 chief executive officer.

“This is not a case of crying wolf about something I don’t understand,” he wrote. “I am not alone in thinking we should be worried.”

Unfortunately, Musk didn’t explain how humanity might be compromised by “digital superintelligences,” “Terminator”-style.

He never does. Yet Musk has been holding forth on-and-off about the apocalypse artificial intelligence might bring for much of the past year.

November 18, 2014

QotD: Everyone knows that stereotypes are inaccurate

Filed under: Health,Politics,Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Except stereotypes are not inaccurate. There are many different ways to test for the accuracy of stereotypes, because there are many different types or aspects of accuracy. However, one type is quite simple — the correspondence of stereotype beliefs with criteria. If I believe 60% of adult women are over 5′ 4″ tall, and 56% voted for the Democrat in the last Presidential election, and that 35% of all adult women have college degrees, how well do my beliefs correspond to the actual probabilities? One can do this sort of thing for many different types of groups.

And lots of scientists have. And you know what they found? That stereotype accuracy — the correspondence of stereotype beliefs with criteria — is one of the largest relationships in all of social psychology. The correlations of stereotypes with criteria range from .4 to over .9, and average almost .8 for cultural stereotypes (the correlation of beliefs that are widely shared with criteria) and.5 for personal stereotypes (the correlation of one individual’s stereotypes with criteria, averaged over lots of individuals). The average effect in social psychology is about .20. Stereotypes are more valid than most social psychological hypotheses.

Which raises a question: Why do so many psychologists emphasize stereotype inaccuracy when the evidence so clearly provides evidence of such high accuracy? Why is there this Extraordinary Scientific Delusion?

There may be many explanations, but one that fits well is the leftward lean of most psychologists. If we can self-righteously rail against other people’s inaccurate stereotypes, we cast ourselves as good, decent egalitarians fighting the good fight, siding with the oppressed against their oppressors. Furthermore, as Jon Haidt has repeatedly shown, ideology blinds people to facts that are right under their noses. Liberal social scientists often have assumed stereotypes were inaccurate without bothering to test for inaccuracy, and, when the evidence has been right under their noses, they have avoided looking at it. And when something happens where they can’t avoid looking at it, they have denigrated its importance. Which is, in some ways, very amusing — if, after 100 years of proclaiming the inaccuracy of stereotypes to the world, can we really just say “Never mind, it’s not that important” after the evidence comes in showing that stereotype accuracy is one of the largest relationships in all of social psychology?

Lee Jussim, “Stereotype Inaccuracy? Extraordinary Scientific Delusions and the Blindness of Psychologists”, Psychology Today, 2012-10-25.

November 14, 2014

Either kink is now pretty much mainstream … or Quebec is a hotbed of kinksters

Filed under: Cancon,Health — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 07:24

In Reason, Elizabeth Nolan Brown reviews the findings of a recent survey on what kind of kinks are no longer considered weird or unusual (because so many people fantasize about ‘em or are actively partaking of ‘em):

Being sexually dominated. Having sex with multiple people at once. Watching someone undress without their knowledge. These are just a few of the totally normal sexual fantasies uncovered by recent research published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. The overarching takeaway from this survey of about 1,500 Canadian adults is that sexual kink is incredibly common.

While plenty of research has been conducted on sexual fetishes, less is known about the prevalence of particular sexual desires that don’t rise to the level of pathological (i.e., don’t harm others or interfere with normal life functioning and aren’t a requisite for getting off). “Our main objective was to specify norms in sexual fantasies,” said lead study author Christian Joyal. “We suspected there are a lot more common fantasies than atypical fantasies.”

Joyal’s team surveyed about 717 Québécois men and 799 women, with a mean age of 30. Participants ranked 55 different sexual fantasies, as well as wrote in their own. Each fantasy was then rated as statistically rare, unusual, common, or typical.

Of course, the statistics also show where men and women differ in some areas:

Notably, men were more likely than women to say they wanted their sexual fantasies to become sexual realities. “Approximately half of women with descriptions of submissive fantasies specified that they would not want the fantasy to materialize in real life,” the researchers note. “This result confirms the important distinction between sexual fantasies and sexual wishes, which is usually stronger among women than among men.”

The researchers also found a number of write-in “favorite” sexual fantasies that were common among men had no equivalent in women’s fantasies. These included having sex with a trans woman (included in 4.2 percent of write-in fantasies), being on the receiving end of strap-on/non-homosexual anal sex (6.1 percent), and watching a partner have sex with another man (8.4 percent).

Next up, the researchers plan to map subgroups of sexual fantasies that often go together (for instance, those who reported submissive fantasies were also more likely to report domination fantasies, and both were associated with higher levels of overall sexual satisfaction). For now, they caution that “care should be taken before labeling (a sexual fantasy) as unusual, let alone deviant.”

It would be interesting to see the results of this study replicated in other areas — Quebec may or may not be representative of the rest of western society.

Update, 28 November: Maggie McNeill is not impressed by the study at all.

But there’s a bigger problem, which as it turns out I’ve written on before when the titillation du jour was the claim that fewer men were paying for sex:

    … the General Social Survey … has one huge, massive flaw that was mentioned by my psychology professors way back in the Dark Ages of the 1980s, yet seems not to trouble those who rely upon it so heavily these days: it is conducted in person, face to face with the respondents. And that means that on sensitive topics carrying criminal penalties or heavy social stigma, the results are less than solid; negative opinions of its dependability on such matters range from “unreliable” to “useless”. The fact of the matter is that human beings want to look good to authority figures (like sociologists in white lab coats) even when they don’t know them from Adam, so they tend to deviate from strict veracity toward whatever answer they think the interviewer wants to hear…

So, what does this study say constitutes an “abnormal” fantasy?

    “Clinically, we know what pathological sexual fantasies are: they involve non-consenting partners, they induce pain, or they are absolutely necessary in deriving satisfaction,” Christian Joyal, the lead author of the study, said…The researchers found that only two sexual fantasies were…rare: Sexual activities with a child or an animal…only nine sexual fantasies were considered unusual…[including] “golden showers,” cross-dressing, [and] sex with a prostitute…

Joyal’s claim that sadistic and rape fantasies are innately “pathological” is both insulting and totally wrong; we “know” no such thing. And did you think it was a coincidence that pedophilia and bestiality were the only two fantasies to fall into the “rare” category during a time when those are the two most vilified kinks in the catalog, kinks which will result in permanent consignment to pariah status if discovered? Guess again; as recently as the 1980s it was acceptable to at least talk about both of these, and neither is as rare as this “study” pretends. But Man is a social animal, and even if someone is absolutely certain of his anonymity (which in the post-Snowden era would be a much rarer thing than either of those fantasies), few are willing to risk the disapproval of a lab-coated authority figure even if he isn’t sitting directly in front of them. What this study shows is not how common these fantasies actually are, but rather how safe people feel admitting to them. And while that’s an interesting thing in itself, it isn’t what everyone from researchers to reporters to readers is pretending the study measured.

November 7, 2014

Good topic for a psychology paper – does the field of psychology suffer from political bias?

Filed under: Politics,Randomness — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:02

In The Atlantic, Maria Konnikova discusses the idea of pre-existing political bias in the field of psychology:

On January 27, 2011, from a stage in the middle of the San Antonio Convention Center, Jonathan Haidt addressed the participants of the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. The topic was an ambitious one: a vision for social psychology in the year 2020. Haidt began by reviewing the field that he is best known for, moral psychology. Then he threw a curveball. He would, he told the gathering of about a thousand social-psychology professors, students, and post-docs, like some audience participation. By a show of hands, how would those present describe their political orientation? First came the liberals: a “sea of hands,” comprising about eighty per cent of the room, Haidt later recalled. Next, the centrists or moderates. Twenty hands. Next, the libertarians. Twelve hands. And last, the conservatives. Three hands.

Social psychology, Haidt went on, had an obvious problem: a lack of political diversity that was every bit as dangerous as a lack of, say, racial or religious or gender diversity. It discouraged conservative students from joining the field, and it discouraged conservative members from pursuing certain lines of argument. It also introduced bias into research questions, methodology, and, ultimately, publications. The topics that social psychologists chose to study and how they chose to study them, he argued, suffered from homogeneity. The effect was limited, Haidt was quick to point out, to areas that concerned political ideology and politicized notions, like race, gender, stereotyping, and power and inequality. “It’s not like the whole field is undercut, but when it comes to research on controversial topics, the effect is most pronounced,” he later told me. (Haidt has now put his remarks in more formal terms, complete with data, in a paper forthcoming this winter in Behavioral and Brain Sciences.)

Haidt was far from the first to voice concern over the liberal slant in academia, broadly speaking, and in social psychology in particular. He was, however, the first to do it quite so visibly — and the reactions were vocal. At first, Haidt was pleased. “People responded very constructively,” he said. “They listened carefully, took it seriously. That speaks very well for the field. I’ve never felt as if raising this issue has made me into a pariah or damaged me in any way.” For the most part, his colleagues have continued to support his claims — or, at least, the need to investigate them further. Some, however, reacted with indignation.

October 19, 2014

Developing salt-tolerant vegetables

Filed under: Environment,Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 12:22

Tracy McVeigh on a Dutch experiment to develop food crops that can be irrigated with salt water:

Here, on one of the Netherlands’ northernmost islands, windswept Texel (pronounced Tessel) surrounded by encroaching ocean and salt marshes that seep sea water under its dykes and into ditches and canals, an enterprising farmer has taken the radical step of embracing salt water instead of fighting to keep it out. And now he thinks he might just help feed the world.

Inspired by sea cabbage, 59-year-old Marc van Rijsselberghe set up Salt Farm Texel and teamed up with the Free University in Amsterdam, which sent him [researcher Dr Arjen] de Vos to look at the possibility of growing food using non-fresh water. Their non-GM, non-laboratory-based experiments had help from an elderly Dutch farmer who has a geekish knowledge of thousands of different potato varieties.

“The world’s water is 89% salinated, 50% of agricultural land is threatened by salt water, and there are millions of people living in salt-contaminated areas. So it’s not hard to see we have a slight problem,” said van Rijsselberghe. “Up until now everyone has been concentrating on how to turn the salt water into fresh water; we are looking at what nature has already provided us with.”

October 12, 2014

The unique challenges to UAVs in the Canadian Arctic

Filed under: Cancon,Environment,Science,Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

Ben Makuch looks at the severe environment of Canada’s Arctic and how UAV design is constrained by those conditions:

The rotary-wing UAV tested, and its view from the sky. Image: DRDC

The rotary-wing UAV tested, and its view from the sky. Image: DRDC

“A lot of these systems — UAVs particularly, and rotor-wing (that is to say helicopters or quadrotors) — are even more sensitive. They require a good understanding of what they’re heading in. And by heading, that’s kind of the direction you’re facing,” said Monckton.

And because of those difficulties, finding headings for aerial drones in the Arctic requires stronger GPS systems to establish a “line segment” of locational data, ripped, according to Monckton, from a “crown” of satellites hovering on top of Earth.

In terms of weather conditions, the extreme sub-zero temperatures is devastating on a UAV when you mix in fog or clouds. While crisp cool air with clear skies provides excellent flying conditions, once you mix in ice fog, it becomes a major risk to small UAVs.

“The biggest risk in the Arctic is structural icing,” said Monckton who explained that water in the clouds is so cool that when “you strike it, it actually crystallizes on contact.”

At CFS Alert, the Multi-Agent Tactical Sentry (MATS) UGV travels through rough Arctic terrain during an autonomous path-following test without the use of GPS. The Canadian Armed Forces Joint Arctic Experiment (CAFJAE) 2014 tests autonomous technology for Arctic conditions and explores its potential for future concepts of military operations through experiments carried out August 2014 at Canadian Forces Station Alert, Nunavut.  CAF and Defence Research and Development Canada's (DRDC) JAE work will benefit multiple government partners and centers around a fictitious satellite crash with hazard identification, telecommunication and other search and rescue tasks.

At CFS Alert, the Multi-Agent Tactical Sentry (MATS) UGV travels through rough Arctic terrain during an autonomous path-following test without the use of GPS. The Canadian Armed Forces Joint Arctic Experiment (CAFJAE) 2014 tests autonomous technology for Arctic conditions and explores its potential for future concepts of military operations through experiments carried out August 2014 at Canadian Forces Station Alert, Nunavut. CAF and Defence Research and Development Canada’s (DRDC) JAE work will benefit multiple government partners and centers around a fictitious satellite crash with hazard identification, telecommunication and other search and rescue tasks. Image: DRDC

Unsurprisingly, the wings of a drone being enveloped in ice presents “a major impediment to general unmanned air operations,” Monckton said. In part, because “UAVs are too small to carry standard deicing equipment [as used] on a commercial aircraft. So that’s a major problem.”

For the project, DRDC took a previously manned helicopter and modified it into an unmanned vehicle. They had help from Calgary-based Meggit Canada for the project, a defence and security contractor also responsible for this armed training hexicopter.

As for ground drones, or unmanned ground vehicles, Monckton said weather and temperature were an afterthought. The real challenge, was the actual terrain.

“The arctic has a really peculiar surface,” said Monckton, adding that the high Arctic offers mostly marshlands, rocky outcrops, or elevated permafrost that produces spiky formations. “So the UGV was kind of going between easy riding on sloppy stuff and then getting pounded to pieces on the rough frost boils.”

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