Five Things #8

Skinner Box is a short story by Carole Johnstone in which a seemingly routine scientific mission to Jupiter is threatened by the interpersonal relationships of its crew.

Over at London Reconnections, John Bull looks at the many ways in which the Harrow & Wealdstone train disaster helped shape modern Britain.

“When adults are challenged to behave like adults, by a child, they can go in one of two directions.” A psychotherapist explains why some adults are reacting badly to young climate strikers.

“If you can visualise the map of Great Britain as a wild-haired angry monster shouting at Ireland, then Essex rests above its rectum.” Tim Burrows explores the invention of Essex and how a county became a caricature.

The Register runs a regular column in which readers confess their darkest professional failings. This week we have the tale of a bug that led to management by random numbers.

Five Things

This is a bit of an experiment and, as such, I am not making any promises about whether it becomes a regular (or even an irregular) feature on this blog. The motivation comes from the fact that, as I trawl various corners of the internet, I often encounter articles that are interesting but about which I have little or nothing to add.

I don’t want to descend into writing endless posts that say no more than Look At This, so I plan on pulling them together so that I can say Look At These. We shall see how, or if, this works.

First up is the short story that started me thinking about this type of post. Compost Traumatic Stress by Brian Koukol explores a once-sterile alien world seeded by the blood and guts of battle and follows the traumatized veteran tasked with keeping this alien fauna under control. It’s an effective and often moving exploration of the aftermath of war and well worth a read.

Taking a quick look at the ongoing disaster that is British politics these days, Jonathan Calder is exasperated with Heidi Allen and Nick Cohen is horrified at the way in which party politics have been allowed to undermine representative democracy. Personally, I think Parliament should insist on a vote of confidence for whoever the Tories select as the next Prim Minister. Regardless of how a party picks their leader, if that leader can’t demonstrate that they have the confidence of Parliament then they shouldn’t be able to form a government.

If Asian cinema has ever appealed to you (and it should) Paul Bramhall has a fascinating article on The General’s Son trilogy and the birth of the modern Korean gangster movie. I really need to carve out some time in my week to start making a dent in my DVD pile.

And finally, Susan Biali Haas suggests that working with your hands does wonders for your brain, which is all the excuse I need to spend more time pulling up nettles.

The psychology of snap elections

Raj Persaud and Adrian Furnham point to a 2003 study which argues that the timing of an election tells the electorate how confident the government feels about the future. Both the article and the paper are worth a read, but the short version is this:

  • We all know that the government knows more than we know about how things are likely to pan out.
  • So we tend to assume that a competent and confident (or even a strong and stable) government is not going to feel the need to dash to the polls. This is borne out by looking at past election timings.
  • So when a government does call a snap election, it’s because the Prime Minister thinks that things are going to start going very badly in the near future. This is also borne out by past election timings.
  • And deep down, regardless of the ratings when the election is called, we realise this

When Theresa May called the election in April, it was widely assumed that she would win a landslide. What has happened instead is that the electorate called her bluff.

Manipulating System 1

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman looks at the mental shortcuts we take and the ways in which these shortcuts mislead us. In doing so, he describes two systems that drive the way we think. System 1 is quick, intuitive and emotional while System 2 is slower, more deliberative and more logical. Both systems have their place, but System one tends to dominate and is relatively easy to manipulate.

AC Grayling argues that this has happened, both in the Brexit referendum and the Trump election.

What Kahneman and other researchers have empirically confirmed in their work is that the majority of people are ‘System One’ or ‘quick’ thinkers in that they make decisions on impulse, feeling, emotion, and first impressions, rather than ‘System Two’ or ‘slow’ thinkers who seek information, analyse it, and weigh arguments in order to come to decisions. System One thinkers can be captured by slogans, statements dramatised to the point of falsehood, and even downright lies, because they will not check the validity of what is said, but instead will mistrust System Two thinkers whose lengthier arguments and appeals to data are often regarded as efforts to bamboozle and mislead.

Grayling goes on to say:

A senior BBC news editor told me that there was fierce debate among his colleagues about how they were reporting the Brexit referendum campaigns. They were conscious that that the Leave campaign, in particular, was putting out highly doubtful if not downright dishonest statements either very late or very early in the day in order to have them reported in morning news programmes, knowing that fact checking and the need to modify or retract misleading statements would only come later in the day, by which time the statements would have done their work with System One audiences.

And the media often compounds this problem by seeking a balance that (unintentionally) results in false equivalence.

I’m not sure what the solution to all of this is – or even if there is one – but surely it starts with more teaching and use of critical thinking and a better use of journalistic resources so that untrue and misleading claims can be quickly and effectively debunked.

Critical Mass

Critical Mass Following on from Thursday, I was reminded of the last book I read on the subject of economics. That said, Critical Mass by Philip Ball goes beyond just economics and takes in a whole range of social sciences and delves into why these areas of study so often get things wrong.

Ball, a physicist by training and a former editor for Nature, makes the case that these subjects should focus on the behaviour of systems, rather than trying to extrapolate from individual behaviour as is so often the case. He starts by laying the groundwork and then works through a series of examples in which his approach has been successfully used.

It’s been a fair few years since I read this (my copy has a printing date of 2007) but the core point – that people are random and unpredictable individually, but highly predictable in groups – is one that has stayed with me and still appears to hold true.

I’d recommend it and I’m highly tempted to go back and read it again.

Technical middle class

The BBC has carried out a survey and found that we can all be slotted into one of seven social classes.

It says the traditional categories of working, middle and upper class are outdated, fitting 39% of people.

It found a new model of seven social classes ranging from the elite at the top to a “precariat” – the poor, precarious proletariat – at the bottom.

I’m always a bit wary of these attempts to categorise everyone but the survey’s attempt to measure people’s economic, cultural and social capital did strike me as interesting. Also, I can never resist a quiz.

Not surprisingly, the quiz identifies me as being part of the all new Technical Middle Class.

This is a small, distinctive and prosperous new class group:

  • People in this group tend to mix socially with people similar to themselves
  • They prefer emerging culture, such as using social media, to highbrow culture such as listening to classical music
  • Many people in this group work in research, science and technical occupations
  • They tend to live in suburban locations, often in the south east of England
  • They come from largely middle class backgrounds

Apart from the fact that I don’t live in the south east of England, it is a reasonably accurate description of me. On the other hand, of course, when a quiz asks you if you listen to indie music and use social media, it’s not much of a jump to tell you that you prefer emerging culture and use social media.

Quote of the day: Feelgood failure

The underlying assumption of brainstorming is that if people are scared of saying the wrong thing, they’ll end up saying nothing at all. The appeal of this idea is obvious: it’s always nice to be saturated in positive feedback. Typically, participants leave a brainstorming session proud of their contribution. The whiteboard has been filled with free associations. Brainstorming seems like an ideal technique, a feel-good way to boost productivity. But there is a problem with brainstorming. It doesn’t work.

– From The New Yorker via Tobias Buckell

And, from the same article, this:

According to Nemeth, dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints. “There’s this Pollyannaish notion that the most important thing to do when working together is stay positive and get along, to not hurt anyone’s feelings,” she says. “Well, that’s just wrong. Maybe debate is going to be less pleasant, but it will always be more productive. True creativity requires some trade-offs.”

There’s a lot more in there, all of which is well worth a read

The pseudoscience of Blue Monday

Every year, it seems, some fool in the press reprints a story about the third Monday of January being the most depressing day of the year. I’ve seen a couple of stories referencing this today but, more hearteningly, I also saw Dr Dean Burnett’s blistering response in The Guardian.

This silly claim comes from a ludicrous equation that calculates “debt”, “motivation”, “weather”, “need to take action” and other arbitrary variables that are impossible to quantify and largely incompatible.

The equation, which was dreamt up by Dr Cliff Arnall (not a Cardiff University psychologist) for a travel firm is meaningless. Fine, if it was just a bit of harmless fun – or an excuse to post a YouTube video – but Dr Burnett does raise a good point:

I believe strongly that pseudoscience (like this equation) regularly presented as genuine science in the mainstream media harms the public understanding of science and psychology.

The rest of the article is well worth a read but first… Here’s a video.