My summer reading

June 25, 2017

So summer is upon us once again. In Madrid that means temperatures of around 40 degrees. But it is also a great time to catch up on reading. This will be my last post until early October, so I thought I would share some of the books I plan to read over the following months. I am a non-fiction guy and I think I am pretty clear about what I want to read. I have doubts about the fiction I have chosen. Many of the books on this list are not new, but I just haven’t got round to reading them yet.

To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death   Mark O’Connell

I have been meaning to blog about the subject of the Singularity for a while now. So this book should give me some ideas. Journalist Mark O’Connell meets some of the leading Silicon Valley types who think that they transcend human existence. I am drawn to the wacky characters that O’Connell visits, but it is an opportunity to reflect on the ethical dilemmas that this brave new world raises.  Having said that, I am sceptical about many of the claims made by figures such as Ray Kurzweil.

Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus Rick Perlstein

I have blogged about Goldwater before. He may have lost to LBJ in the 1964 election, but he was a pioneer of the Conservative revival, which would culminate in the election of Ronald Reagan. Goldwater was the target of the famous Daisy ad in that election.

Before the Fall Noah Hawley

I love Fargo, both the Coen brothers’ film and the TV series. The later was created by Hawley, so I couldn’t resist his foray into the world of suspense. I don’t know much about the story, only that it involves a private jet flying from Martha’s Vineyard to New York that plunges into the ocean.

Belichick and Brady: Two Men, the Patriots, and How They Revolutionized Football Michael Holley

I am not a big fan of Tom Brady’s lifestyle brand, as I pointed out in a post a few weeks ago, but what a quarterback the 199th overall pick in the 2000 NFL is. And Belichick is surely one of the greatest coaches in any sport. No head coach-quarterback pair has been more successful in NFL history than these two. I will be interested to discover the ins and outs of their relationship.

Flight Behavior Barbara Kingsolver

A number of colleagues have recommended this book to me. I have already read Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible and am looking forward to reading this tale of the causes and consequences of climate change. Dellarobia Turnbow is a 28-year-old housewife who lives with her family on a farm in rural Tennessee. She is going on a hike and is planning to meet a telephone repairman who she is going to begin an affair with. She discovers millions of monarch butterflies in a nearby valley. I have been told that it begins slowly, but that it’s worth sticking with.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Yuval Noah Harari

I love this kind of big sweep book which looks at our history from around 70,000 years ago with the appearance of modern cognition. How did these savannah-dwelling primates become the dominant force on the planet, beating out six other competing hominid species?  I also want to look at his second book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, which takes our story into the future.

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA Tim Weiner

I have read Weiner’s Enemies: A History of the FBI and now want to look at his book about the CIA, a controversial organisation if ever there was one.  Is it the last line of defence against America’s enemies, or an evil conspiracy to promote American imperialism? It is probably a bit of both with a lot of incompetence and delusional thinking added to the mix. Weiner’s is a critical account so perhaps I ought to look for amore favourable one too.

Summer House with Swimming Pool Herman Koch 

I have already read the Dutch author’s novel The Dinner, which was pretty macabre. This one seems to be in a similar vein. I’m not very sure about the plot about Dr. Marc Schlosser and a patient of his, actor Ralph Meier, who winds up dead. I do know that it will not be a feel-good book.

The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World Sharon Weinberger

Founded in 1958 amidst the American angst after the launch of Sputnik, DARPA’s original mission was to create “the unimagined weapons of the future”. The threat of nuclear Armageddon led to massive investment in computer networking and the creation of the Internet. They were also behind or had an influential role in GPS, Agent Orange, driverless cars, the first stealth prototype aircraft, drones and the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner. There is the wacky stuff such as building a planetary force field to protect America from nuclear weapons, draining the Great Lakes to power a missile-destroying particle beam and tens of millions of dollars spent on psychics to test ESP.

Have a great summer and I will be back in early October.


Misleading or what?

June 17, 2017

This week Fox News finally dropped its fair and balanced slogan, which was introduced by the US channel’s founder, the late Roger Ailes, when he set it up in 1996. For a channel whose presenters have included Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck this is stretching it a bit. Trump’s favourite news channel now has a replacement is “Most Watched. Most Trusted.”

This got me thinking about misleading names and slogans. A quick search on the internet found the following:
• Flying lemurs are neither lemurs nor do they fly.
• Panama hats actually come from Ecuador, but came to be associated with the building of the Panama Canal.
• While dry cleaning may not involve water, it does require the use of liquid solvents.
• Chinese checkers isn’t a form of checkers, nor is it from China. The game, which was invented in Germany, was rebranded Chinese checkers isn’t a form of checkers, nor is it from China. It was invented in Germany in 1892; the name was changed to make the game more marketable in 1928, the year in which my father was born.

But it is in politics that these questions become interesting. We have joke names like the German Democratic Republic or Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, which is anything but. The National Bolshevik Party sounds Marxist, but is in reality a right-wing, anti-Semitic fringe party. Although I do seem to remember in my history class that Bolshevik is Russian for member of the majority faction. This was itself an example of a manipulative use of language as they weren’t really the majority.

Both Left and right use words as weapons. One successful example was the term dementia tax to describe the Conservative policy of counting people’s home as an asset when it comes to paying for the care. It was highly effective. I did hear one criticism that it was borrowing the right’s meme of taxes as something negative, as in expressions such as tax relief. By adding relief to tax you are implying that taxation is an affliction, and anybody against relieving this affliction is a villain. In a post I did about metaphors I mentioned the linguist George Lakoff, who wanted Democrats to talk about membership fees, what you pay to live in a civilized, democratic society. I really don’t see that one working, but I might be wrong. This is what Lakoff calls framing. He argues that successful political discourse is able to impose its metaphors over those of the opposition. You are implying that the earth is a big, huggable Gaia that can be befriended. Those for and against abortion like to frame the debate with pro-choice and pro-life. I haven’t read Unspeak, but I have seen these videos.

A different point of view is that of the Guardian’s Steven Poole, who coined the term Unspeak. In this sense Poole is an heir of George Orwell and his language of tyranny, newspeak. Wikipedia has a glossary of Newspeak:
doublethink the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct
goodsex intercourse between man and wife, for the sole purpose of begetting children and without physical pleasure
thoughtcrime – the criminal act of holding unspoken beliefs or doubts that oppose or question Ingsoc
Unperson – someone who has been “vaporized”—not only killed by the state, but erased from existence.

Unspeak is a term or phrase that contains an unstated political argument. In the book, which he published more than a decade ago he took eight words – community, nature, tragedy, operations, terror, abuse; freedom and extremism – to show how they can be used to frame the debate. He gives some examples. For example if you say Friends of the Earth, does that make your opponents enemies of the earth? Unlike Lakoff, Poole thinks that fighting unspeak with unspeak is a bad tactic. From what I have read about human psychology it is naïve to think you can win arguments based on pure rationality.


The Internet and quotations

June 11, 2017

The Internet is awash with quotes. You can find them on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. They may reveal profound truths or the bromides of positive psychology. In my blog I have used hundreds, or maybe even thousands. There is something deeply satisfying about a good quote. And they are powerful memes, which on internet can spread all over the world in seconds.  However, many have become the literary equivalent of fake news.

Recently the Republican Party was subject to a lot of mockery after they falsely attributed a quote to one of their great leaders from the past – Abraham Lincoln. The quote itself was rather banal; they tweeted a picture of the Lincoln Memorial along with a quote: In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years.” Lincoln never said this.

Luckily there is a man who investigates the origins of quotes. Garson O’Toole is the quotation sleuth. Fittingly, for someone who investigates fake quotes, this is actually a pseudonym. Gregory F. Sullivan, a former teacher and researcher in the Johns Hopkins computer science department is the man behind the blog Quote Investigator, and he now has a new book, Hemmingway Never Said That. Sullivan is good at providing a typography of how quotes can go wrong.  Sometimes they get streamlined over time. Churchill never said “I have nothing to offer but blood, sweat, and tears.” It was actually “blood, toil, tears, and sweat”. But this went against the rule of three. Gandhi did not say “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” According to The New York Times What he actually said was: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

What often happens is that famous people often get the credit for something that was said by somebody less famous. Some famous people, such as Mark Twain, Gandhi, and Albert Einstein are quote magnets. Mark Twain is often credited with saying “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”, but ironically he probably didn’t invent the phrase. Albert Einstein did not say: Two things are infinite: The universe and human stupidity.” The true source, as is often the case is unknown. And that famous Churchill quote, “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain”, may well have been said by Francois Guizot, a 19th century French historian, orator, and statesman, but this is not sure either. That classic Voltaire quote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, was actually a summary of his views by the author S.G. Tallentyre in the 1906 book “The Friends of Voltaire. Tallentyre was a pseudonym used by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, an English writer best known for her biography of Voltaire entitled The Life of Voltaire. Sometimes a quote is attributed to a historical figure because of what appears in a in a film, novel or other work of fiction. Houston, we have a problem.” Tom Hanks does say it in the film; this was never said by Jim Lovell on the Apollo 13.

Apart from misquotes the Internet is also replete with positive psychology quotes aka bullshit. A couple of years ago there was a study, On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bulls**t, by Gordon Pennycook, a cognitive psychologist, in the journal Judgement and Decision Making. This seems to have been misreported by the Daily Mail: “People who post inspirational quotes on Facebook and Twitter ‘have lower levels of intelligence.”   I do not think it is a question of intelligence, but it is necessary to have a healthy dose of scepticism. I hate bullshit but it can come from New Age gurus, the corporate sector or postmodern academics.  In a previous post I mentioned how physicist Alan Sokal was able to get an article, Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, published in an American cultural-studies discussion journal, Social Text. This, despite the fact that it was a nonsensical spoof based on mathematical absurdities and ideas and quotes borrowed from various postmodernist philosophers. What we all need is what Carl Sagan called a baloney detection kit.

My favourite example was cited by Sullivan. Samuel Johnson chided James Boswell for coming out with some fashionable platitude: My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. Now, however this has been reinvented as a positive thinking slogan, clear your mind of can’t. This is exactly the kind of cliché that Johnson was urging Boswell to avoid!

I admire the debunking work of people like Sullivan. With the exponential growth in the use of quotations, we need people like him. Does it matter when we get a quotation wrong? Maybe sometimes we can get at a greater truth. Sometimes the truth can get in the way of a good quote. As Mark Twain said: “What’s the point of life if you can’t make up a quotation from time to time.”

 


Language corner: drinking the Kool-Aid

June 4, 2017

Last week in my piece about the prevalence of pseudoscience in the world of professional sport I used the expression drinking the Kool-Aid. I was going to put an asterisk after the expression, but I forgot. This was probably a good thing as it has lot to unpack – this will be the subject of this week’s blog.

The Oxford Dictionary defines it as to “demonstrate unquestioning obedience or loyalty to someone or something.” They also furnish us real-world examples

…his real ire is directed at the news media for drinking the Kool-Aid and not being tougher on the president

In other words: everyone had drunk the New Economy Kool-Aid.

If you can’t see the bias in almost every news organization, then you’re probably drinking their Kool-Aid.

Kool-Aid is a brand of flavoured drink mix manufactured by Kraft Foods. Invented by Edwin Perkins in Hastings, Nebraska, it is usually sold in powder form, in either packets or small tubs. Working out of his mother’s kitchen, Perkins was able to remove the liquid from Fruit Smack, a liquid concentrate. The resulting powder was much cheaper to ship, and so Kool-Aid was born. This powder is generally mixed with sugar and water and served in a pitcher. Kool-Aid has other uses too – dyeing your hair and cleaning pots and pans, washing machines, silverware and toilets.

I have to say it doesn’t sound particularly appetising, but how did it become associated with following blindly? This is where the story takes a dark turn. It is to events to in a jungle in Guyana nearly four decades ago that we need to go. The terrible happenings are known as The Jonestown Massacre. I am currently reading The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn. The author also wrote an excellent biography of Charles Manson, which was the basis for the You Must Remember This podcast series about the cult leader. I am still on the early part of Jones’s life.

The Reverend Jim Jones, a communist and an infrequent Methodist minister, who founded his own church in the late 1950s, the Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church, which was generally shortened to the “Peoples Temple.” He had a strange mix of Evangelical Christianity, Marxist dogma, racial integration and paranoia. The latter led him to preach about an impending nuclear apocalypse, for which a specified a date July 15, 1967, after which there would be a socialist paradise on Earth. This didn’t happen, but this is not usually a problem for cult leaders and their followers.

Concerned that the Peoples Temple might lose its tax-exempt religious status in the U.S. and paranoid about the U.S. intelligence community, Jones moved the Temple to the South American nation of Guyana. One of the reasons it was chosen was because its socialist policies. They had been building a settlement there since 1974. Jonestown, AKA the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project occupied nearly 4,000 acres. Many members of the Peoples Temple believed that Guyana would be a paradise or utopia. But, it was not a great place to establish a settlement. It was isolated, the soil was of poor quality and it had limited fresh water. By 1978 the population was around 900, many of whom were African-American.

In November of that year U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan, a Democrat, visited Jonestown to investigate alleged human rights abuses at the Temple. Accompanied by members of the media and concerned family members, Ryan met with a number of Temple members who sought to leave. Eventually the entire Ryan party and the Jonestown defectors drove to a nearby airstrip to board the planes that would get them out of this hell-hole. But Jim Jones had sent armed Temple members, known as the Red Brigade to prevent this. They opened fire killing Ryan three members of the media party, and one of the defectors. Eleven others were injured and fled into the jungle.

The murderers returned to Jonestown and reported their actions, Jones immediately called a meeting, of which there is a chilling audiotape. Jones suggested that the settlement would soon come under attack from U.S. intelligence agencies. He offered Temple members these choices:

  1. stay and fight the invaders,
  2. escape to the Guyana jungle or the USSR,
  3. commit “revolutionary suicide” (in other words, mass suicide as an act of political protest).

They had already tested the third option in the past. He had given members small cups of liquid, which supposedly contained poison. They followed the orders. Jones then revealed that there was no poison in the drink, but one day there would be. He has, indeed, been stockpiling cyanide and other drugs for years. Now the Temple members were creating a cocktail of chemicals including cyanide, diazepam (Valium), promethazine and chloral hydrate (both sedatives), and Flavour Aid — a grape-flavoured drink similar to Kool-Aid.

First mothers squirted poison into the mouths of their children using syringes. They were given their dose. Eventually 900 lay dead, including more than 300 children. Only a handful of survivors escaped Jonestown. These were residents who were away on errands or when playing basketball when the mass suicide/massacre took place. Jim Jones did not drink the poison, preferring to shoot himself. He would have seen the horrible deaths, which involve foaming at the mouth and convulsions. Jones, his wife, and various other members of the Temple left wills leaving their assets to the Communist Party of the USSR.

Curiously, it was Flavour-Aid and not Kool-Aid that was used to make the deadly cocktail. I suppose that it is the most famous brand.  Be that as it may many people object to the use of this expression. One such person is Jackie Speier, then a 28-year-old aide to Congressman Ryan. Having been shot five times, Speier lay bleeding for 24 hours before she was discovered by rescuers. She now holds Ryan’s seat in Congress. She is not a fan of this expression:

“There was nothing about it that was a suicide … They were killed, they were murdered, they were massacred. You can’t tell me that an infant or a two-year-old child that was injected with cyanide does so voluntarily. And that horrible phrase now that is part of our language ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’ is always one that sends me into orbit because I think people so misunderstand what took place there.”

 Last night in London we saw another example of murderous psychopaths who use religion as a justification for their perverted ideologies. Will we never learn?

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On the Mental Floss website they mention Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a non-fiction account of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters as they drive from California to New York in their party bus. The stoned hippies want to promote the use of LSD and they make a cocktail of acid with Kool-Aid.  This is the acid test of the title. The book’s description of one man’s bad acid trip is perhaps the first negative use of the expression:

… There was one man who became completely withdrawn … I want to say catatonic, because we tried to bring him out of it, and could not make contact at all … he was sort of a friend of mine, and I had some responsibility for getting him back to town … he had a previous history of mental hospitals, lack of contact with reality, etc., and when I realized what had happened, I begged him not to drink the Kool-Aid, but he did … and it was very bad.”


Sport: Inside the world of diet gurus, faith healers, power bracelets and $100 pyjamas

May 28, 2017

On Saturday 24 May 2014 it was the Champions League final between Spanish sides Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid. In the ninth minute Atlético’s star player Diego Costa limped off the field. I am a Real Madrid supporter, and I wasn’t sorry to see the back of the Brazilian-born centre-forward. In particular as a sceptic, I was glad to see bullshit exposed. Because in the weeks before the final Costa, who had a thigh injury, had been seen by Marijana Kovacevic, the “miracle doctor”. She used horse placenta to miraculously cure Costa’s injury in record time. She did get him on the pitch, but it was a fleeting appearance. That ninth-minute substitution would have been really handy later in the final. Following a 93rd-minute header by Sergio Ramos, which cancelled out Diego Godín’s first-half goal, the match went into extra time. The Atlético men were mentally and physically exhausted. In extra time Real scored three more goals and a tenth European Cup was on its way to the Bernabeau trophy room.

Seven years ago Novak Djokovic was an elite tennis player. But he had never realised his full potential and was unable to really challenge Federer and Nadal. The Serbian nutritionist Igor Cetojevic tried a bizarre applied kinesiology experiment, asking Djokovic to put a slice of bread against his belly with his left hand while extending his right hand straight out and pushing up while he pressed on it from above. He discovered that with the bread against his stomach he felt noticeably weaker, unable to resist Cetojevic’s downward pressure. When the bread wasn’t there he felt no such loss of muscle strength in his arm.

Cetojevic concluded that Djokovic was sensitive to the gluten in the bread. Of course sceptics might say that how did the nutritionist know it had to be the gluten and not the yeast, salt or the other many chemicals, additives and ingredients typically found in a slice of bread? As a brief digression, what is happening with bread? We have been eating the stuff for millennia. For some reason the industrialised loaf does not seem to be doing us much good.

Djokovic decided to put his faith in this doctor, who would transform the Serb’s diet. The results were spectacular – Djokovic started to feel stronger, quicker, and fitter. He now has 12 Grand Slam victories, 11 of which have come after the change in his diet. In fact, much of the advice is actually quite good. He eats a lot of vegetables, pulses, fresh berries and nuts while eliminating biscuits, pizzas etc. from his diet. He also eats in a mindful way without looking at his mobile, watching TV or playing video games. I ought to do the same. In 2016 he opened a vegan restaurant in Monte Carlo, where he now lives. Maybe he really is gluten intolerant, but I don’t recommend putting a slice of bread on your as a diagnostic tool.

In the late 1990s faith healer Eileen Drewery had a controversial partnershipship with Glenn Hoddle. Although she had no sporting qualifications, he hired her as a consultant. Her remit was to cure the players of both physical and psychological ailments. Steve McManaman, compared Hoddle’s training camps to a “cult”, accusing him of favouring those players who choose didn’t drink the kool-aid.

The 1998 World Cup was on the horizon. Ray Parlour was in the squad, but he had had tweaked his calf in training that week with Arsenal. He was going for a scan, but Hoddle wanted him to go and see Drewery first. Unsure what to expect, Parlour entered the room. Drewery closed the curtains. Parlour wondered if he was in a strip joint – was Eileen about to take her clothes off? The player was feeling apprehensive. When Drewery put her hands on the back of his head, Parlour blurted out: “Short back and sides, please.”

Drewery was the subject of much ridicule. In one of the tabloids Parlour did one of those mocked-up pictures showing Drewery with her hands on his head. Hoddle did not see the funny side. Parlour was left out of the next England squad. Arsène Wenger, who had been Hoddle’s manager at Monaco, said he would get in touch with the England manager to try and find out what the problem was. Apparently Hoddle felt that Parlour had disrespected his faith and would not be playing for England while he remained manager.

I am a big fan of the NFL. I love the cocktail of strategy, power, speed and violence. And the greatest star is undoubtedly Tom Brady of the New England Patriots. A sixth-round draft pick Brady now has five Super bowl rings and is widely considered the GOAT – the greatest of all time. He is nearly 40 years old and fresh off winning his fifth ring after helping his side come back from what had been a 28-3 deficit halfway through the third quarter. What’s more he has talked of playing until he is 45 or even beyond. This would be unprecedented.

Brady is driven, ultra professional and articulate. A brilliant decision maker on the field he is in danger of becoming professional sport’s answer to Gwynneth Paltrow off it. He’s building a lifestyle brand based on pseudoscience and magic pyjamas. In 2014, Brady opened his TB12 Sports Therapy Center at Patriot Place in Foxboro, Massachusetts, home of the Patriots. TB12 sports is Brady’s joint venture with business partner Alex Guerrero. The fitness guru has a chequered career. He fell foul of the Federal Trade Commission for marketing a miracle cancer-curing supplement he falsely claimed he studied in 200 terminally ill patients. They also called him out and for not really being a doctor and he had to pay a $65,000 fine and was barred from referring to himself as a doctor again. He also had to stop selling Neurosafe, a concussion-protection water.

Last year the quarterback and Guerrero launched his TB12 website, with an online store where you can buy nutritional supplements, fitness gear, vegan snack bags and the $200 TB12 Nutritional Manual, featuring “89 seasonally-inspired recipes. There is also the UA Athlete Recovery Sleepwear, which has “a bio-ceramic print that harnesses infrared energy to reduce inflammation.” Brady’s eats 80% vegetables and avoids dairy products, sugar and white flour. This sounds a pretty good idea. However, he has also cut out olive oil, tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms and eggplants. This is because they cause inflammation. Like Djokovic’s, Tom Brady’s diet does seem quite healthy and I’m sure many English football players could learn a lot from the utter dedication of the quarterback. Much of what Guerrero does is probably but you cannot overlook the cancer scam, Neurosafe and the overpriced pyjamas.

I haven’t mentioned the energy bracelet yet. These were supposed to improve athletic performance: “Ever since I started wearing (a Power Balance band) I noticed I was falling less,” claimed ex-NBA star Lamar Odom, a member of the 2010 champions the Los Angeles Lakers. Be on the lookout for terms like negative ions, quantum, natural, energy frequencies and the like. Why is the world of sport full of pseudoscience, bogus claims and dodgy products? I think there are a number of factors. Athletes operate in a world of small margins and are trying to eke out any possible competitive advantage. They are in an activity where luck also plays a part and they may well seek what psychologists call the illusion of control. And one should not underestimate the power of the placebo effect. The sad thing is that with the influence these stars exert on society they may promote a lot of magical thinking. Sceptics are going to be needed for the foreseeable future.


What Google search tells us about ourselves

May 21, 2017

Discovering what people really think has often proved elusive. Just ask those pollsters who assured us that Donald J. Trump had no chance of becoming the 45th president of the USA. I am fascinated by the gap between what people say and what they really think or do. Sometimes we lie to ourselves – we really do have good intentions, but we do lack self-awareness. Other times we hide what are socially unacceptable views. What social scientists need are ways to get around these biases. I have already blogged about big data and its potential. One key area is Google search. The omniscient Google is our friend, confidante and confessor. We have all googled something that we wouldn’t dream of asking somebody in the flesh. Such search queries are anonymous, or at least that’s how we feel. Every time we type in a search we reveal something about ourselves. It is like a societal x-ray of our collective hopes fears and desires. In particular, Google’s anonymous, aggregate data can also tell us about the dark sides of our thoughts and behaviours. This tool is the subject of a new book by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz created a map of racism based on searches with racial slurs and racist jokes. He then studied how this affected voting across the United States. He used it to analyse how it affected voting in the 2012 presidential election. What he discovered was that in those areas of the country with the highest number of racist searches Obama’s results were markedly worse than those of John Kerry, the unsuccessful white Democratic candidate in 2004. This variable was far more relevant than education levels, age, church attendance, or gun ownership was. Although Obama won, the effect was important. Obama lost roughly 4 percentage points nationwide just from explicit racism. He was, however, able to get back 1% or 2% from higher African-American turnout. In 2012 the conditions were favourable the the Democrats. But this data is also germane to what happened in 2016 and the rise of Trump. According to Nate Cohn, the biggest predictor of Trump support in the Republican primaries was the racist searches. We need to be careful – correlation is not causation. Nevertheless it does provide a partial explanation of the Trump phenomenon.

What can Google tell us about Sex lies and videos? One revealing fact is that in 2015 2.5 billion hours of porn were seen on Pornhub, the largest pornography site on the Internet. To put this number in perspective, it is more than the entire history of our species on Planet Earth. And in surveys 2.5% of men say they are gay. But Google tells another story; 5% of male porn searches are for gay porn. There are more gay searches in tolerant areas, such as California, than in places like Mississippi. But the difference is not that high 5.2% compared to 4.8%

We parents do tend to want to project things onto our kids. In fact, of all Google searches starting “Is my 2-year-old…” the most common next word is “gifted.” We like to think that as parents we have equivalent expectations and dreams for our sons and daughters. But the abovementioned question is not asked equally about young boys and young girls. Parents are two and a half times more likely to ask “Is my son gifted?” than “Is my daughter gifted?” They show similar biases when using other phrases related to intelligence. Stephens-Davidowitz asks if the parents are simply picking up on legitimate differences between young girls and boys. In fact, at this age girls tend to have larger vocabularies and use more complex sentences. In American schools, girls are 11% more likely than boys to be in gifted programs. Nevertheless, parents seem to find that their male progeny are the gifted ones. With their daughters their concerns are more about appearance. “Is my daughter overweight?” is googled approximately twice as much as is “Is my son overweight?” this is despite the fact that whereas 30% of girls are overweight the corresponding figure for boys is a little higher- 33%.

A team of researchers from Columbia University and Microsoft analysed data from tens of thousands of anonymous users of Bing, Microsoft’s search engine. They coded a user as having recently been given a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer based on unmistakable searches, such as “just diagnosed with pancreatic cancer” or “I was told I have pancreatic cancer, what to expect.” The researchers wanted to discover what symptoms were strong predictors of a diagnosis. They examined the searches that had been made before the actual diagnosis, comparing the few who were finally diagnosed with the cancer to those who weren’t. Here’s how Stephens-Davidowitz explains what were remarkable results:
“Searching for back pain and then yellowing skin turned out to be a sign of pancreatic cancer; searching for just back pain alone made it unlikely someone had pancreatic cancer. Similarly, searching for indigestion and then abdominal pain was evidence of pancreatic cancer, while searching for just indigestion without abdominal pain meant a person was unlikely to have it. The researchers could identify 5 to 15 percent of cases with almost no false positives. Now, this may not sound like a great rate; but if you have pancreatic cancer, even a 10 percent chance of possibly doubling your chances of survival would feel like a windfall.”

In Everybody Lies Stephens-Davidowitz talks about the digital truth serum. The truth about what we think is so hard to find that we need every tool at our disposal. As a sceptic of opinion polls and surveys I like the idea of using proxies. However, as I pointed out in my post about big data there is a danger of finding spurious correlations, with cherry picking on an industrial scale. Nevertheless, I do feel that this book has hit on something.


Hobbits, hooligans, and Vulcans: why democracy may not be the best system

May 7, 2017

The Secretary of the Authors’ Union

Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee

Which said that the people

Had forfeited the government’s confidence

And could only win it back

By redoubled labour. Wouldn’t it

Be simpler in that case if the government

Dissolved the people and

Elected another?

Die Lösung (The Solution) by Bertolt Brecht

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Brecht was writing about the Volksaufstand, the People’s Uprising in East Germany, which began with a strike by East Berlin construction workers on 16 June 1953. It turned into a popular revolt against the communist regime. The Volkspolizei and Soviet tanks were needed to put it down. It was obviously satirical, but after recent events maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to sack the electorate. Democracy seems to be in crisis. The current incumbent of the White House seems to have little appreciation for democratic niceties and seems to be a fan of the authoritarianism of Vladimir Putin. After the Brexit vote there was a surge of basic questions on Google about what the European Union was and what the implications of leaving were. I know what the polls say, but I still have a sense of foreboding; Marine Le Pen may become the president of France. What the hell is going on?

Into the fray has come Georgetown professor Jason Brennan with a shocking critique of universal suffrage. In Against Democracy Brennan argues for epistocracy, a knowledge-based voting system. This is how the philosopher defines the concept:

In an epistocracy, political power is to some degree apportioned according to knowledge. An epistocracy might retain the major institutions we see in republican democracy, such as parties, mass elections, constitutional review, and the like. But in an epistocracy, not everyone has equal basic political power. An epistocracy might grant some people additional voting power, or might restrict the right to vote only to those that could pass a very basic test of political knowledge. Any such system will be subject to abuse, and will suffer from significant government failures. But that’s true of democracy too. The interesting question is whether epistocracy, warts and all, would perform better than democracy, warts and all.”

After Words: Hobbits, Vulcans, and the flaws of democracy:

This kind of criticism is not new; voter ignorance has worried political philosophers since Plato. Brennan posits that citizens do a pretty bad job of evaluating political issues. His taxonomy of voters, who he divides into hobbits, hooligans, and Vulcans, is certainly provocative. Hobbits are those who are uninterested in and with little knowledge of politics. Hooligans, on the other hand, tend to know more than hobbits do. However, they will only listen to arguments which support their worldview; opposing arguments are ignored. They also lack any kind of social scientific sophistication. Finally we have the Vulcans who combine extensive knowledge and analytical sophistication with open-mindedness. As the name suggests, Vulcans do not allow their emotions and biases to impair their judgement. Alas, few of us can ever aspire to Vulcanhood. Luckily, I am one of them. However, the vast majority of voters are a mix of hobbit and hooligan. Surveys show that they lack even the most basic notions. And what little knowledge they do have is analysed in a highly biased way.They are like football fans. Brennan is a libertarian. At the heart of the problem is rational ignorance:

Each individual vote has so little impact on the final outcome, voters have little incentive to either acquire relevant knowledge or rein in their biases. They are therefore easily hoodwinked by unscrupulous demagogues. We spend far more time researching when we are going to buy a flat-screen TV or a car. Than we do on voting. This is logical in that if we make a mistake, it will be our sole responsibility and we will have to live with it. Responsibility is spread among millions.

In general we only allow people to make important decisions if they possess a certain degree of competence. We wouldn’t dream of allowing quacks to make medical decisions. Imagine you are facing an operation. You are told that rather than being operated on by a professional doctor your fate will be determined by a hundred randomly-picked laymen, who will democratically decide on how to operate on you, voting on each step of the medical procedure. We assume that people should not be allowed to make important decisions for others unless they have sufficient knowledge to do so. Even if you survive, you have suffered a violation of your rights. You should never have been exposed to the incompetence of these laymen. Brennan calls this idea the “Competence Principle.”

I find this critique of democracy thought-provoking. It does make some interesting points, but it is ultimately flawed. I think the analogy with medicine doesn’t stack up. Politics is not susceptible to this kind of analysis. If you have two candidates in an election, you cannot vote on the basis of each candidate’s IQ. Mr. Brennan thinks he is more qualified to vote than a plumber, but I’m not so sure. I don’t want to do a Michael “We’ve had enough of experts” Gove, but I am sceptical about non-partisan technocratic solutions. Smart people can easily do dumb things. As George Orwell said – there are some ideas so wrong that only a very intelligent person could believe in them. Smarter people are not immune from biases they are just more eloquent and are able to justify their prejudices. These elites may be on the left or right. Brennan and Caplan, the author of The Myth of the Rational Voter, come from a libertarian perspective. Many libertarians think that many in the general public are economically illiterate. They would like to see more influence of the marketplace. On the other hand, in his 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, Thomas Frank took a more left-wing perspective, looking at the rise of populist anti-elitist conservatism in the United States. Why do relatively poor people vote against their own self-interest?

I am also sceptical about the voting tests which will limit universal suffrage. Can we really trust governments to implement epistocracy in any kind of unbiased way? I mentioned gerrymandering in a previous post. In the political process these tests will surely be manipulated to favour likely voters of the party in power and exclude those who would against. What would the voter eligibility test include? What would be the pass mark? Some of Brennan solutions would be a logistical nightmare. In the end it is hard to get away from the Churchillian dictum that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.