Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Review of the Drunkard's walk by Mlodinow: To increase your number of successes you must simply increase your number of failures

This was a great book. It had just the right balance of anecdotes, mathematics, scientific studies and history to offer the reader a comprehensive and informative, yet thoroughly enjoyable introduction to the field of randomness. As the author rightly points out, again and again, people are blind when it comes to the role that chance or randomness plays in their lives, which is in fact very big. We tend construct our life narrative around situations where we made a decision that seemed to be crucial, which makes it seem as if we have been in the driving seat for much of our life. Still, most people can come up with seemingly random events that shaped the rest of their life. For example, I would never have met my wife had I not turned down a job one summer 10 years ago and I would not have ended up as a scientist had my grades been good enough to become a psychologist. If you would change just a few minor details in my history, and I might have lived a completely different life today. 

Mlodinow begins the book by discussing some real life examples where people often fail to see the underlying mathematical truths. When a company does well, a CEO is rewarded with sometimes ridiculous bonuses, only to be fired the next year because the company suddenly did fare so well. This is the case despite the fact that fluctuations in the market are inescapable. The same is true in the world of sports where managers are frequently fired following dips in form which necessarily occurs if luck is a factor which it always is in sports.

After this introduction Mlodinow goes through the history of probability theory. I was surprised to learn that the Greek really didn’t get probability. They were excellent when it came to mathematical axioms and deducting knowledge, however, they apparently thought uncertainty had no place in maths and therefore ignored the field entirely. More than a thousand years passed before a man began to investigate the rules of probability in the mid 16th century. His name was Cardano and he was, of course, a gambler. With some very elementary knowledge regarding uncertainty, Cardano won lots of money which he used to finance his studies in Medicine.

Mlodinow continuous to move through history, while also making sure that the reader understands the theories that are being developed. Among others one encounters Galileo, Pascal, Bernoulli and Laplace who all worked on probability in different ways. One learns about the normal curve, chaos theory and bayesian statistics. Again, everything is written in an engaging yet simple fashion and I personally felt I learnt a lot even though I have studied statistics at University.

This book also deserves credit for being the first to explain the Monty Hall problem in a way that made me feel I really get it. Imagine you are a contestant on TV show, there are three doors and behind one of them is a car, while the other two doors have goats behind them. You pick one door (that you don’t open), then the TV host open one of the other two doors behind which there is a goat. At this point you have to choose to open the door you picked initially, or switch to the other door. What do you do? Even though more than 90% in polls, as well as thousands of mathematicians, passionately believed that it did not matter whether or not you switched, the correct answer is in fact that you will double your chance of winning if you switch to the other door. As Mlodinow explains you really have to guess which of the following two scenarios you are in:

1. The door you initially picked was the correct one (chance one third). If you switch you will find a goat.

2. You initially picked the wrong door (chance two thirds). Since the host will always open a door with a goat the correct one is the one the host did not open and which you did not pick. If you switch you will win.

In other words, if you picked the wrong door initially you will win if you switch and since it is more likely to pick the wrong door than the right door your chances are better if you switch.

In the last part of the book, Mlodinow return to the role that randomness plays in our life. After he has convincingly demonstrated how great this role is he arrives to the question of how one should act in the face of such uncertainty. Given that our successes or failures to a large extent are a result of random events, should we just stop trying? No! Mlodinow eventually arrives at the quote that is the title of my review. If you want to increase your success rate, you should increase your failure rate. Those who succeed in the end tend to be those who try again and again and again i.e. those who throw the dice over and over again will, eventually, end up with a six. Having read this book, I am determined to go out in the world and start failing. Thank you Mlodinow for the inspiration and for this excellent book!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

How to create a detailed false memory

Courts today rely to a large extent on eyewitness testimony, both from the person who has been accused as well as from bystanders who happened to be there at the time of the crime. Indeed, if a person confesses to a crime then he is almost certain to be convicted. All this assumes that eyewitness testimonies are generally accurate descriptions of past events, however, there are by now many many studies showing that it is easy to make people believe in things that did not happen. One of my favorite (and funny) examples is a study where participants were led to believe that they had tea with Prince Charles. However, there are also a number of not so funny examples of false memories, such as the memories that led to conviction of many innocent people on charges of child sexual abuse or ritual satanic murders or both.

In a new study published in Psychological Science the authors wanted to create false memories that were more detailed and contained multisensory details, such as smells and feelings, than in previous studies. Most people tend to have more confidence in memories where if they remember how they felt or if they remember a certain smell, than in memories that lack such details.

To instill the false memories each of the 60 participants, aged 18-31, went through three different interviews. In the interviews the naive participants were told about two different events that occurred when they were between 11-14 years old. One of the events had actually happened while the other was made up. The aim of the study was to see if the participants could be led to believe that the false event had actually happened, and to compare the memory of these false events with the memory of the events that had really happened. The false memories were far from mundane and involved criminal acts such as assault. The interviewer used a number of techniques that are common practice for inducing false memories such as…
  • Using incontrovertible evidence (“In the questionnaire, your parents/caregivers said...”)
  • Social pressure (“Most people are able to retrieve lost memories if they try hard enough”
  • Building a good relationship by asking how the students semester, nodding and smiling a lot
  • Using long pauses or asking “what else” to encourage the student to provide additional details. 
The results in this study showed that even with a very conservative measure, 44 of the 60 students had acquired a false memory of their own, serious crime, after the three interviews (in the end they were of course told that the false event had not actually happened). The criteria for saying that they had adopted the false memory included that they said they believed that it had happened and that they had provided a number of details concerning the event beyond what the interviewer had told them. With less strict criteria (e.g. just saying that they had believed that the event had occurred), 54 of the 60 student had adopted the memory. In other words, of the 60 student, only 6 appeared to be at least somewhat immune to the false memory.

Those students who adopted the false memory could provide detailed descriptions of the events such as how anxious they felt. They were also able to describe people who “had been there”, and they reported that they thought about the event outside of the interview situation. In other words, these false memories were rich in details and courts would have had no reason to doubt the validity of these memories. An important lesson from this study is therefore that we cannot trust a memory just because we think we remember the context. As a family man I am also struck by how often it happens that peoples memory contradict each other. “But I told you that you should by xxx”, or “We agreed that xxx”. Clearly, false memories arise outside the laboratory

In conclusion, once again, a study has revealed how error-prone our memory really is. Personally I try to be extremely skeptical with regards to my own memory and I try to never make any certain assertions based on “what I remember”. I think that the court system should probably tune up their skepticism towards eyewitness testimonies a few steps, unless they want to keep sending innocent people to jail.

Shaw J, & Porter S (2015). Constructing Rich False Memories of Committing Crime. Psychological science PMID: 25589599

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Review of The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

I can't remember how but when I was 16 I came across this book and it changed my life. The title of Dawkins biography is "An appetite for wonder", and this appetite is no where more apparent than in this book (I have read most of his books). It is a wonderful introduction to the theory of evolution by natural (and sexual) selection, behavioral ecology, and the wonders of nature. At the same time it serves as a terrific example of first rate scientific reasoning. The writing is clear and fluid and extremely elegant. In his autobiography Dawkins admits that every sentence has been rewritten multiple times. Those that have survived this selection process really deliver. Every sentence seem to fill a purpose and yet, rarely does one feel that information is in some way lacking. This book, when it came out in the late seventies, influenced the general public and academics alike. It changed how academics thought about genes and evolution, and it introduced the meme, which has subsequently entered our dictionaries.

As I have said elsewhere, this book really is a literary masterpiece. The fact that it also teaches science to the reader is an added benefit that makes this book one of the best and most important ever written.

The book has a very good structure. At no point does it feel as if new concepts are introduced inappropriately. Dawkins begins by slowly and carefully introducing the replicator concept. In the widest sense a replicator is, as the name implies, something that replicates itself. This can be a mineral shape, a computer virus or a molecule such as RNA or DNA. It is inevitable that a replicator that produce more copies or copies that are more durable will become more prominent in the population. And so it is with our genes. The genes that exist in humans that are alive today are descendents of a very long series of genes that outperformed other genes. To achieve this success the genes have used many different tricks. Primary among these is cooperation with other genes to construct vehicles such as a plant or an animal that can both protect the genes and pass them on. Humans are thus "merely" vehicles created by genes for the benefit of genes (though in another sense we are of course much more than that).

Dawkins carefully builds from this starting point and reaches startling conclusions about many different aspects of nature and evolution. Why did sex evolve and why do the different sexes differ to a greater or a lesser extent in different species? Why are males in general more aggressive? Why do we cooperate? Does altruism exist? How did sterile ants evolve? Whatever he is discussing, Dawkins always provides illustrative examples from nature and when he use metaphors he is (unlike many others) always careful to translate those metaphors back into the language of replicators. The Selfish Gene also derives some of its fame from the fact that it introduced the meme concept. A meme, Dawkins suggested is like a gene in that it can replicate itself, typically via language or imitation. Successful memes (think viral youtube clips) will spread throughout population of less successful memes in the same way that successful genes spread, however, for memes the sexual reproduction of its host matters little. Rather, the success of a meme is determined by its ability to make its host share the idea with others. The meme concept is now in most dictionaries.

Throughout the book Dawkins is careful to point out that even though we are products of evolution and as a result have many instincts that are not always very noble, that does not mean that it is in anyway good or moral to follow ones evolutionary inclinations. Indeed if we understand human instincts we may be better able to construct societies that combat our caveman instincts.

Friday, October 3, 2014

New research from our lab shows that individual neurons can produce timed responses

Previously, when I have blogged I have mostly written about other people's research. Yet sometimes our research group in Lund also publishes first class, revolutionary research. This monday (sep 29th 2014), Fredrik Johansson and colleagues (of which I am one), published a study that I believe will have a huge impact, not only within our own field of research (we study the cellular mechanisms underlying classical conditioning), but for neuroscience at large.

To understand the findings a little background is necessary. Since the 80s we have known that the cerebellum is required for the acquisition of conditioned eye-blink responses. If a subject repeatedly hears a tone and then, right after the tone, is hit with an air-puff on the eye, then eventually that subject will learn to blink in response to the tone. However, if one removes the cerebellum, subjects can no longer acquire these conditioned blink responses. Removing the cortex as well as the mid brain, on the other hand, has little effect on this type of learning.

An important feature of the conditioned blink response is that it is adaptively timed. This means that even if a very long tone precedes the air-puff, the subject will still blink just before the air-puff arrives. This may not seem particularly interesting however, no one know how the brain can produce such delayed responses. Neurons communicate with each other using action potentials which propagate at certain speeds, however, they never slow down anywhere near as much as would be necessary to achieve the type of delay seen during eyeblink conditioning (>100 milliseconds). This means that somewhere within the brain there must be a delay or a memory trace that essentially keeps track of time, thus allowing the subject to execute a certain action at the appropriate time. Such delays are not only seen following eyeblink conditioning, but in pretty much any type of behavior. If you move your lips 10-20 milliseconds too early or too late then your speech will no longer be comprehensible, and when Cristiano Ronaldo runs up to score a free kick, even minor timing errors will cause the ball to hit the stands instead of the net...

Recent research have shown that during eye-blink conditioning, Purkinje cells in the cerebellum acquire conditioned pause responses which are directly linked to the conditioned blink responses. These pauses are, just like the eye-blinks, delayed with respect to the tone, meaning that if we can understand how the delayed pause responses are generated then we may also be able to understand how delays in general appear. The long standing assumption has been that there are so called "delay lines" somewhere along the signal pathway that transmit information about the tone to the Purkinje cells. The tone activates sensory cells in the cochlea which activates cells in the brainstem which in turn passes the signal on to the cerebellum. If one cell type along this pathway maintain a change in its firing rate following this input, then this could explain how the delayed responses arise. However, Fredrik have now shown that this cannot be the case...

Fredrik, instead of using a tone (or equivalent), for conditioning, used stimulation of parallel fibers. These tiny fibers project directly to the Purkinje cell dendrites meaning that there is no possibility of any delay lines. We wanted to see whether the Purkinje cells would still have a delayed response when using parallel fiber stimulation. The results convincingly showed that this was the case. That is, even when stimulating the fibers right next to the Purkinje cells, we still got delayed responses. The implications of this finding are huge. The results show that individual neurons can produce delayed responses to a certain input. In neuroscience this is represents a paradigm shift because previously it has been assumed that we can understand the brain if map all connections between cells as well as the strength of those connections. This study shows that there is much more to the story than this. Unknown processes within the cells evidently play a key role in determining the firing pattern...

ResearchBlogging.org Johansson F, Jirenhed DA, Rasmussen A, Zucca R, & Hesslow G (2014). Memory trace and timing mechanism localized to cerebellar Purkinje cells. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID: 25267641http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1415371111

Friday, April 18, 2014

Being against vaccines is like being against seatbelts

I sometimes try to come up with analogies that can help people understand the benefit of vaccination. One that I believe ought to used more often is the seat belt analogy. Although most parents in Sweden do vaccinate their children according to the national program there are some who believe that the potential risks of vaccination outweigh the benefits.

Admittedly, un-vaccinated children usually do fine in Sweden, thanks to good compliance with the vaccination programs in the past. There are in essence not so many viruses left in Sweden and therefore it is unlikely that you get vaccine preventable disease even if you decide not to vaccinate. It does happen however, that children get for instance measles. (It is extra common in Järna where I grew up due to the widespread false and silly belief that it aids the childs mental development .) However, because our health care system is relatively good it is also very uncommon that children die or get permanent disabilities as a result of measles. Rather, most parents come away with a feeling that measles is really not that bad... Ok, so un-vaccinated children are unlikely to get sick and even if they do get sick it is unlikely that the disease will have any severe consequences. So why vaccinate at all?

The simple answer is that not vaccinating is a huge risk compared to vaccinating which is associated with almost zero risk, and this is where the analogy comes in. Would you accept the argument that we should stop wearing seatbelts. After all, most people have tried this and nothing happened to them. It might even be that on rare occasions the seatbelt prevented a person from exiting a burning car or the metal thing at the end of the seat belt caused a burn on a child... I'm sure

Shouldn't we stop using seat belts? This argument is I believe almost perfectly analogous to the vaccination argument. Of course, as most people realize in the seat belt situation (but not in the vaccination situation), an anti-seat-belt policy would cause many thousands of deaths because even though most people manage fine without seatbelts. This is because the small proportion of people who actually would have been saved by vaccination, I mean seatbelts, adds up to hundreds of thousands of people.

Just to really drive home this message, think of the many people oppose the relatively new HPV vaccine. The HPV virus, which the vaccine protects against, is responsible for approximately 200.000 mortal cases (from twice as many cases), of cervical cancer per year. The vaccine meanwhile have been tested repeatedly with no adverse effects discovered to date. How many years should we keep on testing before we decide that the evidence is sufficient to go ahead and save 200.000 lives per year?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Review of Quiet by Susan Cain - A confidence booster for introverts and parents of introvert children.

I thought long about whether I should give this book 4 or 5 stars because there were certain aspect of the book that I did not like. Some central assertions were based almost entirely on anecdotes. I realize that it is a powerful way to drive home your message, but it can also be disingenuous - appealing to people’s emotion. I was also not very pleased with Cain’s description of the neuroscience. She made it seem as though the almond sized amygdala was all there was in the brain and that whether or not this part of the brain lit up under certain circumstances was all important. Yes, yes, I am a cerebellar scientist and am therefore probably overreacting here, but I would have preferred that the neuroscience was left out instead of receiving this very biased account.

Ok, enough of the bad stuff. I did after all give this book 5 stars (which is rare for me). The reason for this is that this book is one of few books I have read in my life that really made me see things, especially myself, in a new light. While I consider myself to be a rather social person who gets along with others I also have many introvert traits. During my time at University I really did not like the weekends because I felt that I had to go out and drink and dance not to be considered strange. I have also always been a little bit ashamed that I can be a “coward”. At least that is how I would have described it to myself before reading this book. Now I prefer to use the terms cautious. I am also a highly adaptable person and I can to some extent transform my behavior based on the circumstances. Again, before reading this book I saw this as being a disingenuous person. After all, you should be who you are and stand up for your ideals no matter what the circumstances, right? While I used to think this I do not anymore. It would be absolutely terrible if everyone spoke their mind all the time. The world needs people who can work in different circumstances, people like me. I guess what I am trying to say in this paragraph is that before I read this book I had consciously and unconsciously bought the extrovert ideal that is so prevalent in our society. I had seen all my introvert traits as weaknesses that I had to combat and conceal. This book made me see that these traits can work to my advantage and it helped me find the proper middle ground where I can better assess my own personality, my strengths and my weaknesses. If you are also an introvert or have introvert kids I really really think you should read this book!

Overall the book is well structures, easy to read and of a good length. Cain starts out by describing the extrovert ideal. To drive this message home (though I think it is a fairly obvious point) she describes a day at a Tony Robbins event where everyone is dancing, speaking with deep confident voices, doing high fives and walking on coal etc. Cain, who is an introvert feels awkward under these circumstances (as would I), and she is not ashamed of it. She states what should be obvious but strangely isn’t, that the world needs people with different qualities. Indeed, under certain circumstances it is better to be more quiet and less assertive. According to studies Cain describes bosses with highly skilled employees are better of if they are introverts, probably because being more quiet allows them to better harvest the qualities and ideas of the employees. Cain also talks about the power of working alone. As one illustrative example, take brainstorming which is normally done in small groups. Actually studies show that you get a better brainstorm if people are allowed to come up with ideas on their own which are later pooled. In certain situations, a group of people can be a constraint rather than a benefit. She also brings up several examples which have been founded by introverts such as Apple, Microsoft, and Google. Though these are huge companies it is hard to tell whether these examples are representative of the overall picture. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that qualities such as cautiousness, empathy and conscientiousness can be very good qualities to have in some companies. Cain suggests that in some cases introverts can even hold aggressive stances in negotiations because they are less likely to antagonize the other part the way an extrovert outspoken person might.

In the remainder of the book Cain writes about the nature nurture debate (it bothered me that she seems to presume that free will exists, but I forgive her), and about different examples where temperament mattered (ex Wall street crash). The last three chapters serve as a type of guide to introverts and to parents of introverts. What types of conflicts tend to happen between introverts and extroverts and how should these be solved? What strategies can introverts use to avoid falling off the earth altogether? To what extent do you push your introvert child to do extrovert things such as hold presentations? Cain suggest sensible answers to all of these questions and I think that many people would benefit from reading this, and they are genuinely encouraging to introverts and parents of introvert children. I found it encouraging for instance that introvert children are influenced by their parents more than extrovert children. Thus introvert children will benefit more from good parenting than extrovert children (which is nice to know if you are indeed a good parent).

Friday, February 28, 2014

Free will debate, Sam Harris vs Daniel Dennett

Skepticism is very different from religion. One way in which it is that there is basically just one thing everyone agrees on, which is that arguments should be based on reason and empirical data. If you adhere to this then it is ok to question everything else. Free will is one issue on which there are different opinion within the skeptical community and in the past few weeks Sam Harris, author of the book "Free will" have had a feisty written exchange with another heavy weight in the skeptical/atheist community, namely Daniel Dennett.

The exchange started with Sam Harris book where he basically argues that Free will is an illusion, and that when we feel as if we have done something freely it is really just the "conscious" parts of the brain that takes credit after the fact... Daniel Dennett do not agree with this view and eventually wrote a long response to Sam Harris which was supposed to put him straight. I have read this response and would love to tell you what Dennett says but unfortunately I must admit that I did not really understand the objections Dennett makes. Is there a Dennett for dummies book somewhere out there, cause I need one...

Anyway, the most recent development is that Sam Harris have written a response to Dennett's response. Again, I find Sam Harris writing to be much easier to understand, and perhaps for this reason I tend to agree with Sam Harris. I just see no way around the conclusions that he makes.

Anyway, I do recommend following the discussion. Everything can be found on Sam Harris blog: http://www.samharris.org/

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Review of All Hell Let Loose by Max Hastings

There are many alternatives if you are looking for books about WW2. I recently read the not so creatively named "second world war" by Anthony Beevor, a thousand page book that gives the reader a comprehensive account of the entire war.

All hell breaks loose is in many ways similar to Beevors book, however, it did not seem to put as much emphasis on covering all aspects of the war. Instead this book frequently quoted personal correspondence from people who were involved in the war. Indeed I think that this is the primary reason why someone should choose rather than some other book.

You often read or hear about wars and the number of fatalities and how many starved etc etc, however, it is very hard to take the perspective of the individuals involved. The letters and diaries in this book takes you one step closer. Upon reading such material you can easily feel a bit ill (unless you are a complete psychopath), but at least for me the stronger feeling is one of gratitude that you have not been caught up in a war...

Reviewing my notes on this book I realized that it also contained quite a bit of information that was new to me, things that I had not considered important before. For example, the author convincingly argues that had Germany not attacked England with their airforce, England would not have been able to maintain the moral of their army and the political climate would probably have swayed towards peace with Hitler.

Another slightly comical story relates to Italy's inability to do, well, anything at all. As a part of a propaganda stunt meant to demonstrate the superiority of the Italians, a boxing fight was arranged between a famous boxer and an African man woo had never boxed before. Much to Mussolini dismay, the African man knocked the professional Italian boxer unconscious...

All in all, this book is kind of average if you are looking to get an overview of the war, however if you want to understand better what it was like for the soldiers and civilians who were actually involved in the war, this book is a sound choice.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The problem of evil

I know that the problem of evil is not new. Indeed the question "why is there evil?" is one that religious people who believe in a God who is supposed to be on our side, has been asked since as long as anyone can remember. Why has the question stuck around for so long? Because the only answer religious people can come up with is because "God works in mysterious ways".

Indeed they want us to believe that when good things happen to us it is because of divine intervention, but when natural disasters hit and children die God is being coy. No wonder the problem of evil is still around when that is the proposed solution...

I was reminded of the problem of evil when I watched a short youtube video from Sam Harris. Rarely is the problem of evil depicted with such power...

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Review of Drinking Water: A history by James Salzman

We all depend on water. Without water we die. Unclean water kills about 3.4 million people per year and is among the leading causes of death in humans today. This book accomplishes the rather impressive feat of giving the reader a broad introduction to various issues associated with drinking water. In one book he manages to cover the history and myths associated with water, justice and economic issues (who gets to drink and can you charge for water), safety and health issues, terrorist issues, and last but not least, how you can help bring water to those who do not have it today.

This tendency to associate powers with water is as strong as ever in our modern society, which is partly why it is extremely profitable for companies to sell bottled water. These companies rarely shy away from shouting out grandiose claims about the properties of their water. The fact is that, with some exceptions, tap water is as good or better than bottled water which may come from contaminated springs.

In chapter 2 and chapter 7 Salzman discusses the often forgotten but extremely important issue of whether water should be considered to be an essential human right or whether it should be considered a commodity, or perhaps rather a little bit of both. Humans who don’t get water die is one very good argument for why water should be a human right. However, should we say therefore that it is not ok to sell water. It is after all not free to transport water from those who have it in excess to those who have too little. If people are allowed to earn money on water they might even work hard to build systems that allow them to transfer their commodity to their potential customers. Salzman, even if he may not say so explicitly seem to argue that a combination of these two approaches is best. The romans developed a very efficient system for delivering water to all their people, but that would not have been possible was it not for the money they earned by selling privileges (e.g. water directly into your house), to the rich. There are few things that motivate people and businesses as much as money and often the best products are achieved if people are allowed to earn money when they do deliver.

Another thing that become evident when reading this book is that there is really no such thing as clean water, only water that is clean enough. Water taste different depending on where it originates from. Almost all water, including tap water in western nations, also contain certain small concentrations of poisons such as arsenic and lead. As if that was not enough there are many kinds of bacteria that also live in our water sources. To eradicate every kind of contaminant completely from the water we drink would be excruciatingly expensive, and it would really not be worthwhile given that the human body is generally quite good at handling small amounts of contaminants (this why I am rarely convinced by alarm report saying potential carcinogen found in x - it is often (not always) negligible amounts). I guess the lesson that should be learned is that our tap water is clean (again there are exceptions), but that does not mean that it is devoid of any microbes

Apart from being a good book, it also made me realize the importance of providing clean water to those who do not have it (in comparison with other types of charity). The benefits go very far, because not only does unclean water kill people and make them sick, it also uses up people’s time when they have to walk, sometimes several miles to get water (dirty water). Often girls in Africa have to quit school at an early age in order to spend their days fetching water. Indeed in Africa alone people spend 40 billion hours per year, fetching water. This book has inspired me to create a profile on http://www.charitywater.org/ where you donate money or even start your own fundraiser that helps build wells and bring water to those who need it. How about for your next birthday, wish for a donation in dollars equivalent to how many years you become.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

You cannot tell if someone is lying from their eye movements

Proponents of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) claim that you can tell if someone is lying based on how they move their eyes. This claim has also become popular in the public. For example, according to this web page, Bandler and Grinder, in their book on NLP say that right handed persons tend to look up to the left when they construct visual images such as when they are asked to imagine a purple buffalo. Since lying often involves construction of visual images (as opposed to things that have actually been witnessed), one should be able to tell if another person is lying by observing eye movements.

However, no experimental tests of this claim had been done until Richard Wiseman (who by the way have an excellent blog and youtube channel) and colleagues at the University of Edinburgh did a series of experiments on the topic. In the first part of the study (read the entire study here), they instructed participants to take a mobile phone, go into an office and then either put it in their pocket or put it in a specified drawer in the office. 

Participants were then interviewed about their behavior. Everyone were told to say that they put the mobile phone in the drawer (which of course means that 50% would be lying). The interviewer did not know who was lying and who was telling the truth. Participants were filmed during the interview and subsequently two persons who were also blind to the different conditions estimated eye movements of the participants. If lying involves a specific pattern of eye movements, it should have been detected here. As it happened, there were no significant effects to be found anywhere. That is, there was no difference between the eye movements of participants who were lying and those who were telling the truth. 

The study included two more experiments. In one subjects were told about the cues for detecting lies as taught by NLP proponents and were then asked to rate if the people from the first part of the study were lying or telling the truth. Their assessments were compared to those of subjects who had not learned about NLP rules. Again there was no difference in the accuracy of participants to determine whether someone was lying or telling the truth. 

All in all, this study (I think), shows quite convincingly, that there is no truth to the idea that you can tell if someone is lying by observing their eye-movements. 


Wiseman R, Watt C, ten Brinke L, Porter S, Couper SL, & Rankin C (2012). The eyes don't have it: lie detection and Neuro-Linguistic Programming. PloS one, 7 (7) PMID: 22808128


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Frontiers for young minds

I just stumbled upon a nice new initiative called frontiers for young minds. There is by now a relatively large collection of frontier journals that cover most fields of science. All their journals are open access which means that they are available to everyone for free when published and the authors maintain copyright. Their peer review system is also different in that the identity of the reviewers is revealed when a paper has been published. This probably reduces ad hominim attacks and instead encourages a respectful tone, which is unfortunately not something that can be taken for granted.

The frontiers for young minds is a new journal where children, together with scientists, review the articles. This has the benefit that it forces scientists to write in such a way that children can understand it. I think that having such a journal could really help children and also adults who find it hard to read traditional science journal, get into science in the first place. I am not arguing that traditional journals only contain unessecary jargon, but rather that this type of journal is probably needed. I will keep checking the page and probably read some of the articles as well.

As an example, see this article: Do you feel lonely? You are not alone: lessons from social neuroscience.


Saturday, November 2, 2013

Review of The Universe Within by Neil Shubin

From my list of book reviews it will be blatantly obvious that I like non-fiction, especially non-fiction science books. I therefore naturally thought that The universe within by Neil Shubin would be a perfect match. A little bit of geology mixed with astronomy and evolution combined with reportedly good writing. It felt like a safe bet for me. I was wrong.

Shubin starts out by describing a geological expedition to Greenland. It was indeed interesting to learn about the hardships associated with finding stones that were formed during the time you are interested in. Shubin quickly moves on (it is a rather short book) to state that all living creatures on earth are related to one another and then he also takes it one step further, saying that we are also related to distant stars because had it not been for supernovas of massive stars the elements on which life depends, would not have formed. This, I suppose, is a profound fact, but I guess that a few paragraphs is not sufficient to convey a feeling of awe.

The book proceeds on a wild journey through space and evolution. Shubin writes about the origin of life and about the formation of stars as well as the entire universe. He frequently diverts from the main story (if there is one) and discusses other things such as the circadian rhythm. The part I personally found most interesting was the one about earth’s climate on a geological timescale. Did you know that before the Himalayas formed 40 million years ago (due to the collision of the Indian and Chinese landmasses), earth was considerably larger than it has been since then. At some points there were not even any ice caps over Antarctica. The Himalayas, Shubin explains, drained carbon dioxide from the atmosphere which was flushed into the oceans which in turn reduced the greenhouse effect of our atmosphere which cooled earth. We should expect more such drastic changes of the earth’s climate in the future and we better hope that we humans are able to adapt to such changes.

This is not a bad book but I feel that if suffers from trying to cover too broad an area in too few pages. It reminds me of when my supervisor was going to give a talk about “cognition and evolution”, which he felt was already stretching what you could cram into one talk. The arrangers however felt that this was too modest, can’t we change the title to cognition, evolution, and the cosmos to raise interest? I don’t know how that episode ended but I can imagine that, like this book, the result would lack focus.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Writing pace, normal keyboard vs Swype

I frequently use my smartphone for typing emails as well as notes when I am listening to audiobooks. In the past I used the keyboard swiftkey but since about a year back I switched to swype which is much faster, especially when using only one hand, which I am frequently forced to do. Swyping seem hard at first but as you learn the benefits are quite noticeable. I was curious to see how fast my Swyping was compared to my writing pace on a normal keyboard. To do this I tried writing three paragraphs (see below) with a keyboard and my swype keyboard, measuring the time with an online stopwatch. 

As expected, writing on a keyboard is faster, but by how much? In my not very professional study it took 104s, 105s and 106s to write on keyboard and 156s, 135s and 145s on Swype for the three paragraphs respectively. Since the paragraphs were about the same length (and since this is not being sent for peer review), we simply take an average which is 145 seconds for Swype and 105 seconds for the normal keyboard. This means that for me it was approximately 40 percent faster to write on the normal keyboard. Keep in mind though that I have been writing on a keyboard almost since I was a baby = lots more training.

In sum I think that even though swyping is 40% slower than the very fast keyboard, it is a great tool and I will continue to use it. I wonder how swype would do against an old school pencil. I see a tournament in the brewing... =)

Paragraphs (taken from my own blog) and times

Was there to be any end to the gradual improvement in the techniques and artifices used by the replicators to ensure their own continuation in the world? There would be plenty of time for improvement. What weird engines of self preservation would the millennia bring forth? Four thousand million years on, what was to be the fate of the ancient replicators?

Swype: 2.36 = 156s
Keyboard 1.44 = 104s

The bottom line is that vaccinations save lives, many many lives. Still people in Sweden are now raging over the suggested link between the swine flu vaccine and narcolepsy in which less than a hundred extra cases may have occurred due to vaccination. Of course, I sincerely sympathize but no sane human being should question the value of vaccination in general because of this potential misfortune

Keyboard 1.45= 105s
Swype 2.15 =135s

In the end I guess it all comes down to what your values are. Is it worth it to sacrifice laboratory animals in order to develop medicines that can cure us as well as animals. My answer is yes, but I don't think it is entirely obvious, so think for yourself. Perhaps we should be content with just living 48 years instead of around 75 years, and perhaps we should just accept that some diseases will kill us (I am not being sarcastic here).

Keyboard. 1.46 = 106s
Swype 2.25 = 145s

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Review of An Appetite for Wonder by Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is an amazing scientist. I have always thought so and this first part in his autobiography trilogy do reinforce my favorable view on Dawkins. His greatness, in my opinion, primarily lies in his unequaled ability to convey science to the general public using a language which should make him eligible for the Nobel prize in literature (seriously!). His book, the selfish gene is probably the book that have meant the most to me personally, all categories, and reading excerpts from it in this book made me remember what a great book it was, and still is. In fact, reading “An appetite for wonder”, made me decide to re-read Dawkins original best-seller (which I am now doing).


Yes, Dawkins is a fantastic writer and scientist, but this book, on the whole, did not live up to my admittedly high expectations. Perhaps others will disagree with me but I am not personally very interested in great people’s childhood, unless it is truly extraordinary. Yes Dawkins grew up in Africa and that was probably interesting, however, I would personally have preferred if this section was significantly shorter or left out.

The book gets more interesting when Richard gets into Balliol college, Oxford. As a University teacher one of my favorite sections of the book was Dawkins description of the education system in Oxford. Their system in which students each week study a new topic by reading up on the scientific literature and try to form hypotheses, and then discuss what they have learnt with tutors who are also leading scientists made me, well… jealous. He claims that students at oxford never asked the question, “will this be on the exam?”, which is a question I get all too frequently…

Following his description of the education system in Oxford a semi-interesting description of his early years in academia follows. The book, in my opinion reaches its climax towards the end when Dawkins discusses and reads excerpts from the Selfish Gene. I realize it may sound nerdy but just hearing a few lines from that book can increase my pulse significantly, and it was interesting to get to understand how the book came about. I was also pleased to find out that, like myself, the great writer Richard Dawkins does not write his book in one go. Rather, every sentence that he writes have been written and re-written many times. Like the natural selection of biological organisms, this way of writing should lead to evolution of better sentences and in the end a better book. This is certainly the case with the Selfish Gene.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Quote from the Selfish Gene

I am currently re-reading the Selfish Gene which is a book I think everyone should read. Few books are simultaneously beautifully written, clear in thought, and dense with information at the same time, but the Selfish Gene is certainly all this. As a teaser, take this often cited quote from the end of chapter two. Dawkins is talking about ancient molecules capable of making copies of themselves (replicators). These replicators are the rulers of the world, whereas we humans are just their machines that they build to benefit their own survival. Take it away Dr. Dawkins...

“Was there to be any end to the gradual improvement in the techniques and artifices used by the replicators to ensure their own continuation in the world? There would be plenty of time for improvement. What weird engines of self-preservation would the millennia bring forth? Four thousand million years on, what was to be the fate of the ancient replicators?

They did not die out, for they are past masters of the survival arts. But do not look for them floating loose in the sea; they gave up that cavalier freedom long ago. Now they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control.

They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.”

Friday, October 11, 2013

Review of the world until yesterday by Jared Diamond

Up until a few tens of thousands years ago all humans lived in bands consisting of up to a few dussin people. Thus during almost our entire evolutionary past we lived in an environment very different from the one we live in today. To understand the evolutionary pressures that have shaped our behavior and our cognition we need to look at the way our ancestors lived. This is of course more or less impossible because written history did not appear until very recently. However, there are people alive today, who live in a manner we think is very similar to the way all humans used to live. This book is about these peoples. How do they live and think, what are the similarities and differences between us and them? What can we learn from the way they live?

This book shows that the life of our ancestors was not, as some people (especially Disney employees) like to think, all romantic and in harmony with nature etc. Personally I would never switch my life in a civilized western nation for a life in the jungles of New Guinea, and I think that any informed person would be inclined to make the same choice. The life expectancy is about half of what I have now. They are also much more likely to be murdered because crime rates in such societies is extremely high compared to any state nation. Also they have no Wi-Fi, and that would suck too.

In short, life was not better before, it is better now, much better. With that said, there are many lessons to learn from traditional societies and lifestyles. Jared Diamond in “The world until yesterday” goes through many aspects of life, including but not limited to health, crime, diet, child rearing and care for the elderly. Consistently, there are things that we do better in modern western societies and to his credit Diamond points this out. However, there are also lessons to be learned from people living in traditional societies.

The justice system is good example. Crimes in traditional societies are dealt with by the community. There are no absolute laws. For example, murder is sometimes seen as justified and therefore not punished. If someone accidentally causes the death of another person then it may be sufficient for the perpetrator to pay sorrow money to the victims family. Western societies on the other hand see crimes as committed against the community and a perpetrator cannot walk away even if the victim forgives him (yes it is usually “hims”). What lessons can we derive from this. It is probably the case that we can learn things from traditional societies about finding common ground between perpetrator and victim. Grudges are usually resolved one way or another. However, in traditional societies it is also much more common that people take justice into their own hands, which can and do have fatal outcomes.

In some areas the conclusion that progress have been made is inescapable. One perhaps unexpected example of this is wars. The first time I heard about the relative casualty rates in traditional and modern “total” wars I was rather surprised. I had always thought that the second world war was the worst war in the history of mankind, however, if one compares the casualty rate in the second world war with the casualties in wars between traditional tribes it is actually much higher in the latter. In some traditional wars the casualty rate reaches one percent of the population annually whereas Germany and Russia (the two worst hit nations) saw casualty rates of about 0.16 percent annually during the second world war. In other words, you would be much more likely to die in a “traditional war” than in WW2… One factor here is also the fact that whereas children in western societies are taught that killing is wrong and often feel bad after having killed another person (even in wars), children in traditional societies are sometimes taught to feel pride upon killing an enemy. Taking into account wars as well as violence that occurs between wars, it is crystal clear that we are much better off in our modern world. As Jeff Niehaus, who was teaching developmental psychology at UCSB once said, downtown Chicago is actually really peaceful if you compare it to traditional societies.


guess that it is clear to the reader that I feel quite fortunate that I live in a modern society and not in the jungles of New Guinea. In a few respects however the sometimes cannibalistic tribes outperform us. One obvious example is language. An average New Guinean knows five languages, which is rather impressive. I personally know only three and I think that is probably better than the average person in modern societies. Diamond argues that we should try and preserve languages which are otherwise bound to go extinct. I was not entirely convinced by his arguments. I accept that bilingualism is associated with performance on other types of tasks, delayed dementia etc, however, I also think that it would be desirable if communication between different peoples of the world was easier. Maybe there is a compromise between extinction of all languages except english (or chinese), and the ability of people to talk to each other (I’ll have to return to that topic).

In one of the last chapters Jared Diamond compares the health of people in modern and traditional societies, with mixed conclusions. Once again it is absolutely clear that we live longer in western societies. This ought to be problematic to explain for those who like to claim that a “natural” lifestyle is preferable and more healthy in general. Even though we are using more and more “chemicals” (everythings is chemicals really), we also live longer and longer. If chemicals kill us, then why do we live longer? In some respects our modern lifestyle is not so good however. We do consume too much salt and sugar. Diabetes is pretty much unheard of in some traditional societies, and high blood pressure (which occur if we eat too much salt), is also extremely uncommon. So one lesson we can learn is to eat less sugar and salt.

There are many more interesting topics in this book. One that I found particularly interesting was child rearing practices where people in traditional societies spend much more time which their kids and have much more skin to skin contact, an approach I personally do believe in to a certain extent. I also liked the discussion about treatment of the elderly which ranges from leaving them to die when they go dement (this was the practice of Swedish natives), or killing them when they are no longer of any use, to chewing their food for them when they have no teeth (yuk).

Overall I liked this book. It was 20 hours well spent although I think Diamond could have excluded certain parts that were personal and not so interesting if you are not extremely interested in Diamonds personal life. However, I did learn a lot that I did not know before and it gave me some new perspectives and it even made me want to change a few things in my own life. Above all however, the book reminded me of the privileged life I live. I live in peace. I have a family that I love (and I am under the impression that they like me too). I have a stimulating job that I like, and I am able to explore the world in a way that would be completely unimaginable to 99.99% of all humans that have existed on this planet. I really did win the lottery in the most important sense. Lucky me =)

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Flynn effect, explained

The flynn effect refers to the substantial increase in average IQ seen in western societies since Binet started testing IQ scores in the 19th century. An average person living one hundred years ago would score about 70 on a modern IQ test, which happens to also be the cutoff score for mental retardation. Were our ancestors really retards?

How can this be the case given that we know that IQ is highly heritable (60 to 80 percent of the variance is explained by genes)? I believe (and I believe others believe this), that IQ is highly heritable given a relatively modern environment. What distinguishes our modern society from the society a hundred years ago is that today we deal with abstractions and categorizations all the time. Computers and the internet is based on interactions with representations of things i.e., abstractions.

Similarly, according to James Flynn (see video), there has been a notable shift in tasks that children encounter in school. A hundred years ago, tasks and examples were almost entirely based on concrete examples about things the students would encounter. Today, almost all tasks are abstract, requiring imagination of things you may or may not have seen.

The shift is also evidenced by the fact that many people living in traditional societies, whose lifestyles are more similar to that of our ancestors, are unwilling or incapable of thinking about abstract things. In the video, James Flynn talk about a conversation between an anthropologist and a native of some traditional society (cannot remember which). The anthropologist asks the man to imagine that in a country where there is always snow, bears will be white. If there is always snow in Greenland then what color will the bears be? Despite this relativeThe native insisted that to know this he would have to go and take a look or send a trusted associate to have a look. Thinking in what if terms was not a possibility...

IQ tests are to a large extent a measure of our ability to think about abstract things. This ability is undoubtedly a product of both nature and nurture. I would predict that if we could send a modern baby back a hundred years and be raised in that environment, that child would not get a great IQ score. Still this does not mean that IQ is not heritable. The variance in a population where all individuals encounter abstractions frequently (this is definitely the case in modern western nations), is likely to depend on genes. It is simply easier for some individuals.

I often hear that IQ is just "one type of intelligence" and it is often suggested that IQ doesn't matter. While IQ is not all that matters, there is a lot of evidence showing that IQ scores correlate with performance on a number of tasks and work. Your score on an IQ test is also one of the best predictors of life happiness. Our improved ability to think in abstract terms is likely to be have many positive effects. James Flynn takes about an older relative of his, who was incapable of thinking about hypothetical situations that people could encounter in other parts of the world. Our ability to reason abstractly allows us to take the perspective of other people in other parts of the world. I believe that this is a crucial ingredient in the improving global society we are seeing.

Were our ancestors retarded? Probably the answer is yes and no. If they had grown up in our society they would have become as good as us at reasoning abstractly, but since this was not the case they were probably somewhat retarded, at least in certain areas

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Review of Naked Statistics by Charles Wheelan

"Statistics is like a high caliber gun, very useful in the right hands but potentially disastrous if misused."

This book will not teach you the mathematics behind statistics. This book is about making you understand what you are doing when you are doing statistics. Thus it is a great complement to a university course where you might learn how to plug in numbers in SPSS or MATLAB and get a p-value but don't really understand the assumptions involved and the potential pitfalls that must be considered.

Though I have studied some statistics at university level this book still provided a fresh valuable perspective on many statistical issues. It also gives examples of many, often costly mistakes scientists made in the past using statistics.

The analogy I used in the title (taken from this book), really captures an important aspect of statistics. If used properly statistics can tell us if a medication, or a certain policy is effective. If used improperly, it can lead to erroneous medical advice with fatal consequences, in the literal sense.

I would recommend this book if you are taking statistics but often don’t know what you are really doing or how what you are doing relates to real life issues. Alternatively, this book can also be read by people who don’t know any statistics but want to understand what it is all about without having to learn to do the actual math. If you are already an advanced student in statistics and know what you are doing (and know what not to do), then this book might not be for you.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Removing Pdf/A protection in adobe acrobat

Are you also annoyed with the fact that you cannot highlight text or insert comments in certain pdf files i.e., pdf/a? The following two steps will allow you to get rid of this protection.

1. Export the pdf A file as a Postscript
2. Open the Postscript file and print it as a pdf file

And there you go, open the new pdf file and make all the highlights/comments you like.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Benefits from playing action video games

I just finished reading a recent review by Dapne Bavelier about the benefits of playing action video games. This review does not address the controversial issue of whether video games cause people to become more violent or not (I am personally on the fence on that one).

Rather, this review focus on the effects on more basic perceptual processes, and how playing video games affects these abilities. All this is put within a "learning to learn" framework. That is, will playing action video games help you find patterns or gain knowledge when you are not playing video games as well.

The pattern is very clear here. Video games will help you in a number of different ways. People who play action video games (sim city or civilization won't do), are faster at identifying objects, without making more errors, there are not as easily distracted by irrelevant stimuli, and they have greater contrast sensitivity. It seems as though video games enhances eyesight in general.

There are also substantial benefits in certain cognitive functions. People who play action video games enhance their ability to perform mental rotations (ex determining which 3D shape matches another 3D shape). Mental rotation in turn correlates with improved mathematical skills. Multi-tasking is another cognitive function that is improved in video game players.

Significant improvements have also been seen in decision making and reaction times. These factors may determine whether you brake in time to prevent a traffic accident or whether you die.

Thus in general, playing action video games improve a broad range of perceptual/cognitive abilities which probably helps the individual find relevant information in the environment, even though that environment does not involve war.

The objection which I am sure that some of you have thought of already is the classic "correlation does not equal causation". Maybe people who are good at all of these perceptual/cognitive tasks to begin with like video games more and therefore play more. Indeed, it you are slow, you get killed a lot in many of these games which can be very discouraging (I have played a little bit online and it sucks when you get shot 30 times over by a ten year old).

Researchers of course anticipate this objection and therefore conduct controlled studies. For instance you can take a random group of student with equivalent video game experience and then pay them to play either call of duty or civilization (a turn based game) for a few hours per day for a week or so. Differences between these groups after the intervention are probably due to the different treatments. Such controlled studies support the conclusions above, video games really do improve perceptual/cognitive functions.

So depending on whether you think action video games will increase aggression (like I said, I think the jury is still out on that one), if your child is playing violent video games and still not missing out of school etc, then you might even want to encourage this.

Bavelier D, Green CS, Pouget A, & Schrater P (2012). Brain plasticity through the life span: learning to learn and action video games. Annual review of neuroscience, 35, 391-416 PMID: 22715883

Monday, August 19, 2013

How fast are audible books read?

Since my life involves many tasks that are very tedious, but can be done in an incognizant state of mind I tend to listen to many podcasts and audiobooks. That tedious work such as cleaning, washing up or walking the dog becomes an opportunity to learn instead of just a waste of time. I recommend this approach to every dad who feels under-stimulated when at home (not a prerequisite to be a dad of course).

Anyway, I was curious to know how many pages one hour of listening corresponds to and therefore I decided to do a small study on the books that I have listened to the past year. You can find the complete list of books that I have listened to below. The first column gives you the title of the book, the second gives you how many pages the book is (gathered this data from amazon.com). The third column gives you the reading pace for that particular book i.e., pages per hour.

I will give the most important statistics here. In total I have listened to audiobooks for a total of 284 hours this past year. This amounts to 5.5h per week or 0.8h per day. These 284h were spent listening to a total of 24 books, totalling 8469 pages. This amounts to 163 pages per week or 23 pages per day.

So what about the reading pace? To get the average number of pages you get through in an hour one can merely divide the total number of pages with the total listening time, 8469/284 = 30. That is, the average reading speed of audible readers is about 30 pages per hour, with a range from 22,2 (The 2nd world war by Anthony Beevor), to 54 (The science of evil by Simon Baron Cohen). The standard deviation was 7.79 pages per hour.

Here is the entire list of books I have listened to the past year, as well as the number of pages, the duration of the audibook and the average reading pace of that book:

Blood and thunder 499 21 23,76
Energy for future presidents 305 9,5 32,11
The Universe within 191 6,5 29,38
How pleasure works 223 7 31,86
Thinking fast and slow 483 20 24,15
We are anonymous 428 14 30,57
Half the sky 259 10,5 24,67
Bad astronomy 259 9,5 27,26
Naked statistics 257 11 23,36
Drinking water 320 8 40,00
Genghis Khan 352 14,5 24,28
The Moral Lanscape 320 7 45,71
At home 592 16,5 35,88
Radiation 288 7,5 38,40
The world until yesterday 512 18,5 27,68
Complications 269 8 33,63
The undercover economist 265 8,5 31,18
The willpower instinct 272 8,5 32,00
The science of evil 272 5 54,40
A history of the world in 6 glasses 311 7,5 41,47
God is not great 336 9 37,33
Incognito 304 9 33,78
The Second world war 880 39,5 22,28
Who's in charge 272 8 34,00

ps: An assumption of this analysis is that the number of words per page is approximately the same for different books - an assumption that is likely to be false for some books and may therefore bias the results.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Review of Energy for future presidents by Richard Muller

I will start by admitting that I am a fan of Richard Muller. Before I even went to university I watched every lecture in his "Physics for future presidents" course at UC Berkeley, which was one of the first courses to become available online as a free webcast. I would describe Muller as an honest and rigorous scientist who is not afraid to speak his mind even when his views are controversial. He is also very critical of the way that different energy issues are portrayed in the media, something which you will realize if you read this book.


One good example of what can only be called overblown media reporting is what followed the BP oil spill in the Mexican gulf. When it happened the media was reporting on little else and many high standing politicians described it as one of the worst (sometimes the worst) environmental disasters in the history of mankind. What happened next? Suddenly the media moved on and I was surprised to learn (from this book) that though the initial explosion killed 11 workers, the subsequent oil spill only caused 6000-30.000 bird deaths. "Only" is indeed the appropriate term here, considering that glass windows kill 100.000.000 birds annually and power lines kill many million more. The BP oil spill was unfortunate, and it cost human lives, some birds and a lot of money to fix it, but it is clear that the media and the politicians got a bit carried away with this one.

Another so called " disaster" which got an unfair treatment in the media was the Fukushima power plant accident. To date not a single person have died from the radiation released and the prognosis is that a few hundred extra cancers, some of which could have a fatal outcome, will be the result of this “disaster”. My Fukushima headline would have read: “No deaths from breakdown of old nuclear power plant even though it was hit with an 8.0 earthquake and a tsunami”... (also see my pre-fukushima post on the irrational fear of nuclear power as well as my Review of the book “Radiation”).

Richard Muller spends a good deal of this book discussing the ever controversial topic of Global Warming. He was at a point very critical of the methodology used by climate researchers when they calculated the rate of global warming. For example it is not appropriate to use weather stations in populated areas because as population grows so does temperature. He also found some of the mathematics used... funky...

For this reason he did his own study, and unlike IPCC researchers this study was/is completely transparent with all data freely available for anyone who desires to make their own calculations. What did Muller find? Basically he says that the IPCC, despite their sometimes flawed methods, are correct. In other words, according to Muller the globe has warmed, and this warming has been due to human caused increases in atmospheric CO2 levels. While backing their overall conclusions about the temperature increase on earth Muller does not seem to share many peoples sense of pending disaster due to this warming. Models that predict the future climate of earth tends to have a lot of uncertainty associated with them, and it is almost impossible to know if we are able to come up with technologies that will significantly alter the future climate.

He also says that if we really want to prevent increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere we should turn our efforts to China. For quite a long time they have been building one coal plant per week spewing out not only CO2, but also huge amounts of other pollutants such as lead and arsenic. Convincing them to use clean energy sources such as solar or nuclear power (by paying them if necessary), makes a lot more sense than going for expensive alternatives in the west. That is, if you aim to achieve the maximal reduction of CO2 release per dollar, that dollar should be invested in China. Muller also reiterates several times throughout the book that energy conservation will be a huge part of the future. Proper isolation of houses, driving efficient cars etc can drastically reduce energy expenditure.

I have really only touched upon some of the issues that are discussed in this book. Muller offers a perspective on many other energy related issues such as Shale gas/oil, electric cars, fusion, wind/solar/water energy, etc etc. All in all this book is both very educational and at the same time a page turner (keep in mind though that I am kind of a nerd). If you are even just a little interested in the technologies and politics related to energy issues this book is a terrific buy!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Review of The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

In one of the most memorable examples in The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris reflects on his own thoughts after his wife told him that another man had openly flirted with her in the gym, even though she had said she was a happily married woman. Sam Harris imagines how men in certain cultures would have reacted to this information. The first thing a man should do if he want to keep his pride is to beat the rivaling male, perhaps kill him too. In some cases it would also have been culturally appropriate to punish the wife for.... well I don’t know... sub consciously tempting the man to approach her? In extreme cases it would have been appropriate to also kill the wife, just to emphasise the way in which your property is not to be meddled with!

Sam Harris admits that he initially did feel hostility towards the other male (something which I think men world wide will sympathise with). He felt that his behavior was wrong. However, having been brought up in a western society he did not follow through on these feelings. He realized that killing the other person would not lead to positive outcomes for anybody, and he realized that it was certainly not his wife’s fault. In addition, he also thinks that his wife is attractive and can understand that another man finds her attractive too.

The main thesis of Sam Harris book is that just like statements about the world can be right or wrong (for example, it is wrong to say earth is flat), moral statements can also be right or wrong. What makes an act/policy/moral guideline right or wrong? Well according to Harris this is determined by the degree to which it increases/decreased the well being of humans. For those who remember their philosophy, this is in essence a utilitarian argument. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill argued that there are no categorical imperatives (as Kant said). Whether something is good or evil depends on the consequences. Thus it can be good to lie if it prevents sadness in a lot of people. To calculate the effect of a certain act on the well being of the rest of the world is of course more or less impossible. For example, frequent lying can ruin relationships leading to divorce, leading to depressions etc etc...

Harris acknowledges that there is large gray area where it is hard to say if a certain action or moral guideline aids general well being or not. This does not mean however, that anything goes. However, some acts, such as killing another man and your wife because of minor flirtation is really unlikely to lead to greater well being. It is comparable to arguing that the earth I'd merely 6000 years old - not entirely impossible but really really unlikely.

Simply put, some moral guidelines or cultural norms are more conducive towards human well being than others.

Still many people (perhaps mainly academics living comfortable lives), would argue that cultural norms are merely cultural and that we should not criticize other cultures for holding certain values, because values are subjective etc. However, even among cultural relativists there are few people who argue this way when discussing terrible acts. Can people who consider themselves to be cultural relativists abstain from judgement and condemnation when they hear about say Josef Fritzl or the genocide in Rwanda. Would they be indifferent to whether their children were raised in Josef Fritzl's basement, or in a Tutsi family experiencing mutilation from Hutu militia. Are these alternatives merely an interesting cultural alternative? What sane parent would not prefer their child to grow up in a western society with individual rights and a police force that protects their citizens?

Can we not say that the genocide in Rwanda was wrong? Can we not deplore the ethical code of the catholic church when they excommunicate a doctor for performing an abortion on a girl raped by her father and pregnant with twins, while not excommunicating a single Nazi? If we can it follows that we can say something about which norms are good and bad.