Saturday, May 26, 2012

Weekend Post - Are you in control?

Here’s a test for you. With the index finger of the hand you write with, touch either your left ear or your right ear. It’s entirely up to you to decide which ear to touch.

Done that?

How did you decide which ear to touch? Did you think about it logically? Did you give it a lot of thought or just choose the nearest one?

The question is really about free will. Did you actually have a choice at all or was it predestined that you would choose that ear?

Theologians, philosophers and everyday people have wondered about this issue for centuries. Do we actually have control over our actions or is everything predestined? Can I really decide what I’m going to do or is it all written down somewhere? Frankly I’m not terribly interested in the metaphysical side of things. I want to know, and I think this matters a whole lot more than a bunch of mystical ponderings, what does the evidence say?

Luckily we have now have the technology to investigate the brain. We can measure activity in the brain with some accuracy, we can estimate fairly well when things happen. That’s proved to be fantastically useful to anyone studying the brain and it’s functions.

In the 1980s a neuropsychologist called Benjamin Libet and his team in California did an experiment that had disturbing results. They looked at the time it took for their subjects to take a decision to flex a muscle and then for the muscle to flex. In fact there were three separate events that they measured. Firstly the conscious decision itself, then the activity in the brain that sent the signals to the muscle and finally the muscle flexing. Mind, brain then muscle. That’s surely how it works? A conscious decision leads to brain activity and then the muscular action happens. It can’t be much simpler than that, can it?

Actually it IS more complicated than that and even a bit disturbing. It turns out that the conscious decision occurred, on average, about 200 milliseconds before the muscle flexed. So far so good. The surprising thing is that the brain activity that sent the signal to the muscle started even earlier, on average 500 milliseconds before the muscle flexed. Let me make that perfectly clear. The brain began preparing the signal to the muscle BEFORE the subject had consciously decided to do anything. The correct sequence appeared to be brain, mind and then muscle. Free will would seem to be an illusion if Libet’s findings are correct.

Libet’s work has been heavily criticized but mainly because of it’s implications, not the science. The experiment has been repeated and adjusted to explore the effect more closely and although the findings have been modified slightly, the essence remains the same. The brain is busy BEFORE the mind does anything.

So what role does the mind have in this situation? One role it might play is simply as a mechanism for giving us a “sense” of control, of what philosophers called “agency”, the sense that we exercise some control over ourselves. Another intriguing idea is that although “free will” might be an illusion, we still might have what researchers have jokingly called “free won’t”, a final veto on the actions we take. The role of the mind might be just to stop things happening rather than causing them to. So, male readers, this research does NOT give you that great excuse, “I’m sorry dear, I couldn’t help myself, it was an irresistible urge”.

However, even that idea is under attack. Other experiments have suggested that free will truly is no more than an illusion, an experience created by our brains to give us that sense of agency that we like, that allows us to explain our behavior to ourselves.

Those of a religious persuasion, and even those who are not, find this disturbing. People will say that this means we have no conscience, no sense of morality or ethics, no knowledge of right and wrong. That’s just rubbish, this is NOT what this research suggests. Nobody has suggested that we don’t learn things, that we don’t instinctively have a sense of right and wrong and that our parents and society can’t give us morality.

Of course that all happens. It’s just that the evidence suggests that we don’t consciously think about these things when we make specific decisions. But they’re still there, influencing our decisions, our personalities and our lives. There is no contradiction between having no free will and being a decent, caring person who makes the right decisions, who recognizes morality and who lives a decent life.

In fact I’d go one stage further. I think this places an emphasis on us, as individuals, to think more about right and wrong, to care even more about the morality we teach our children and how we live our lives. It’s just that we can now do this based on real knowledge, science and evidence, not superstition.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Weekend Post - Bad ideas stick around. Like astrology.

I find it amazing how certain ideas stick around, way beyond the end of their natural lifetimes. There are still people who believe in witches, evil spirits and mysterious forces controlling our destiny. There are still people who believe, fundamentally, in fairy tales. However, perhaps the longest running nonsensical and straightforwardly WRONG belief is in astrology.

Astrology is based on the belief that the planets have some sort of effect upon our daily lives. It suggests that the date and time of your birth and the position of the planets at that moment have an everlasting influence on your life and the events it includes.

Most astrologers also suggest that we can all be grouped according to the month of our birth into so-called star signs. These signs are named after a range of astronomical constellations like Cancer, Libra, Taurus and Sagittarius. Apparently people in each of these groups share similar personal characteristics and, if you believe the astrological predictions published in newspapers over the world, identical life experiences each week.

Where to begin on this one?

To begin with let's think carefully about each of the issues. Firstly that the planets have a direct influence on our lives. How do they do this? The only force we know of that might do this is gravity. Gravity can act at a huge distance, it holds the planets in orbit around the sun and the sun in it's place in the galaxy. There’s no point in going into the physics of this other than to point out that there’s a greater gravitational attraction between you and your husband or wife than you have with Jupiter. The moon has a much greater gravitational influence on our planet than all the planets combined so why do astrologers ignore it's influence?

So, given that the gravitational effect of the planets on us is insignificant isn't it also stretching our credibility a bit too far to believe that the effect they have on us is at the moment of our birth and not at any time later? Oh and why don’t astrologers consider the moment we were conceived rather than the moment of our birth? Surely that would be more logical? However logic is not something that astrologers seem to rate very highly.

So perhaps there is some other force that has this effect. Some force that we don't know about yet? If astrology is actually a good predictor of life's events maybe that would be good enough proof? If astrologers could show us that their predictions were accurate that would be a good thing wouldn't it?

Unfortunately it's simply not the case. Every truly scientific analysis of astrological predictions has shown that astrological predictions are nonsense. They predict nothing. If they did why didn't astrologers tell us about 9-11, the banking crisis or who was going to win Big Brother? And why aren’t they all multi-millionaires having predicted lottery results?

Experiments that looked at couples who got married and analysed their star signs showed that there was absolutely no relationship between the so called compatibility of their signs and whether their marriages lasted or not. The same thing happened when researchers examined people in various professions and found that their astrological signs were in no way related to their professional success.

However my favourite experiment has been undertaken several times, notably by the French researcher and astrologer Michel Gauquelin. He gave a large group of people a horoscope and asked them to rate how accurately it described their personality. Ninety-four percent of the people said it accurately described them. The bad news though is that they had all been given the very same horoscope, that of Marcel Petiot, one of France’s most vicious psychopathic serial killers.

This is an example of the so-called "Forer effect", the tendency people have to consider general statements about them as correct, particularly when they're flattering. It's our nature to believe this sort of garbage when we hear it. But that doesn't mean we have to give in to idiotic temptation.

So why do so many people read their horoscopes and feel that they actually mean something? Why do they genuinely seem to believe they predict what will happen and give guidance on what they should do?

I think it's quite simple. We all want certainty. We want to be able to understand our lives and astrologers give us this. They give us simple, amazingly broad generalisations that can apply to pretty much anyone. A horoscope in a newspaper here recently stated that any Capricorn should"
"Use your time as productively as possible. Individual achievements are possible within a working team structure. A game of one-upmanship might ultimately benefit everyone."
What utter rubbish. What on earth does this mean? What sort of a prediction is that? Notice how deliberately vague that all is? Couldn't it apply to anyone at any time?

People believe astrology because they seek simple explanations for a complex life. Fortunately life is much more complex and interesting than this and astrology is utter nonsense.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Weekend Post - Two types of thinking?

It’s been said that there are two types of people: those that divide humanity into two types and those that don’t.

Crudely dividing humanity into “types” is always a very dangerous pastime. Despite what some will say you can’t divide humanity into black and white, straight or gay or even male or female. In all cases there are people in between. One of the most ridiculous books in recent years was entitled “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” by “Dr” John Gray. To my shame I have a copy of this fatuous book beside me as I write this. No, I didn’t pay for it. Nor did I steal it.

I put the “Dr” in quotes for the simple reason that he doesn’t have a real doctorate. His obtained his PhD from Colombia Pacific University, a now closed diploma mill. I know I risk being accused of an “ad hominem” attack but can you trust the work of a person who buys a fake degree and who got his first two degrees from that fabulous old fraud, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi?

Whether you can or not you can certainly reject his ridiculously simplistic, crude and wholly unscientific idea that men are basically cavemen and women are conversationalists and that the way they communicate is radically different. Some may argue that I’m also being simplistic but too bad. Simplistic ideas can only be described simplistically.

Of course I’m not going to deny that there are differences between women and men, between girls and boys, of course there are. No matter how strong our liberal convictions may be, anyone who’s had kids knows that at least part of the nature of girls and boys is biological. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give them all equal opportunities and expose them to the same experiences and influences, but it genuinely helps to understand the differences that affect them.

I suggest that instead of reading fake, pseudoscientific claptrap like Gray’s book you read instead a book by Steven Pinker called The Blank Slate (available in all good book shops or online). My favourite quote from the book (also beside me as I write and this one I DID pay for) discusses the differences between men and woman and goes like this:
“So men are not from Mars, nor are women from Venus. Men and women are from Africa, the cradle of our evolution, where they evolved together as a single species.”
The evidence is that the differences between the minds of men and women are trivial at most and are only based on averages. Although men tend to be slightly better at three-dimensional reasoning than women this is only on average. There are plenty of women who can easily reverse a car, just slightly more men. There are plenty of men who demonstrate empathy, just more empathetic women. The most interesting difference is that on many measures men are more varied than women and are more often found at the extremes. Male mathematical geniuses outnumber their female counterparts but there are also many more men and boys with autism than girls.

A recent study, published in Science, and conducted by the University of British Columbia in Canada looked at the two types of thinking that humans demonstrate. The first is intuitive, the other analytical. The intuitive process makes snap judgments based on “mental shortcuts”, the analytical process is the one that takes longer to consider things in a more “reasoned” manner. The Los Angeles Times gave one of the questions the study had used as an example. See how you answer it.
“A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?”
Most people intuitively respond by saying the ball costs 10 cents but it’s only when they think analytically that they realize their mistake. The answer is 5 cents. Go back and think about it again if you doubt this.

We all have both of these thought processes and each of them has their role to play. When our distant ancestors were in the bush and they heard a rustling sound from behind the grass they had to act intuitively. They didn’t have the time to think analytically, it could be a lion, they had to act intuitively. Analytical thinking in those circumstances only benefits the hungry lion. Analytical thinking is good when you have the time to indulge in it.

The focus of this study was controversial to some. It looked at religious belief and found that people who think more analytically were less likely to be religious. Religious belief was much more often found in people who thought more intuitively.

What this means for religious belief I’ll leave up to you. It doesn’t mean religion is right or wrong, it just helps us to understand where beliefs based on faith come from. It’s clear that they certainly don’t come from reason.