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

______

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.

 


Jason Brennan and the case for epistocracy

May 7, 2017

On his blog, Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Jason Brennan says that the case for epistocracy does not depend on Plato’s philosopher kings or guardian class. There are many other possible forms of epistocracy:

  1. Restricted Suffrage: Citizens may acquire the legal right to vote and run for office only if they are deemed (through some sort of process) competent and/or sufficiently well-informed. This system has representative government and institutions similar to modern democracies, but does not imbue everyone with voting power. Nevertheless, voting rights are widespread, if not as widespread as in a democracy.
  2. Plural Voting: As in a democracy, every citizen has a vote. However, some citizens, those who are deemed (through some legal process) to be more competent or better informed, have additional votes. So, for instance, John Stuart Mill advocated a plural voting regime. As we discussed above, he though getting everyone involved in politics would tend to ennoble them. However, he remained worried that too many citizens would be incompetent and insufficiently educated to make smart choices at the polls. Thus, he advocated giving better educated people more votes.
  3. The Enfranchisement Lottery: Electoral cycles proceed as normal, except that by default no citizen has any right to vote. Immediately before the election, thousands of citizens are selected, via a random lottery, to become pre-voters. These pre-voters may then earn the right to vote, but only if they participate in certain competence-building exercises, such as deliberative fora with their fellow citizens.
  4. Epistocratic Veto: All laws must be passed through democratic procedures via a democratic body. However, an epistocratic body with restricted membership retains the right to veto rules passed by the democratic body.
  5. Weighted Voting/Government by Simulated Oracle: Every citizen may vote, but must take a quiz concerning basic political knowledge at the same time. Their votes are weighted based on their objective political knowledge, perhaps while statistically controlling for the influence of race, income, sex, and/or other demographic factors.