Fringe thinking fruit-loops or just misunderstood?

I am often bemused at the way some people seem to think. Particularly those who advocate what we might call ‘fringe’ theories.

I took this photo of the Moeraki boulders in 2007. They fact that they are not perfect spheres is evident.

Moeraki boulders, north of Dunedin. It’s been argued that they are weights used by Chinese sailors to raise sail. As I know the natural geological origin of them, that’s not a theory I believe myself, but hey…

These are often portrayed in pseudo-scientific terms; there is a hypothesis. Then comes the apparent basis for the hypothesis, frequently explicitly titled ‘the evidence’ or ‘the facts’. And finally, the fringe thinker tells us that this evidence therefore proves the proposal. QED.

All of which sounds suitably watertight, except that – every time – the connection between the hypothesis and the evidence offered to support it is non-existent by actual scientific measure. Or the evidence is presented without proper context.

Some years ago I was asked to review a book which hypothesised that a Chinese civilisation had existed in New Zealand before what they called ‘Maori’ arrived. (I think they mean ‘Polynesians’, but hey…)

This Chinese hypothesis stood against orthodox archaeology which discredited the notion of a ‘pre-Maori’ settlement as early as 1923, and has since shown that New Zealand was settled by Polynesians around 1280 AD. They were the first humans to ever walk this land. Their Polynesian settler culture, later, developed into a distinct form whose people called themselves Maori. In other words, the Maori never ‘arrived’ – they were indigenous to New Zealand.

This picture has been built from a multi-disciplinary approach; archaeology, linguistics, genetic analysis, and available oral record. Data from all these different forms of scholarship fits together. It is also consistent with the wider picture of how the South Pacific was settled, including the places the Polynesian settlers came from.

Nonetheless, that didn’t stop someone touring the South Island looking for ‘facts’ to ‘prove’ that a Chinese civilisation had been thriving here before they were (inevitably) conquered by arriving Maori. This ‘evidence’ was packed off to the Rafter Radiation Laboratory in Gracefield, Lower Hutt, for carbon dating. And sure enough, it was of suitable age. Proof, of course, that the hypothesis had been ‘scientifically’ proven. Aha! QED.

Except, of course, it wasn’t proof at all. Like any good journalist I rang the head of the lab and discovered that they’d been given some bagged samples of debris, which they were asked to test. They did, and provided the answer without comment. The problem was that the material had been provided without context. This meant the results were scientifically meaningless.

I’m contemplating writing a book myself on the pseudo-science phenomenon with its hilarious syllogisms and wonderful exploration of every logical fallacy so far discovered. How do these crazy ideas get such traction? Why do they seem to appeal more than the obvious science?

Would anybody be interested if I wrote something on this whole intriguing phenomenon?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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The paradox of Europe’s high-fat, low heart-disease diets

I am always fascinated by the way science occasionally comes up with ‘insoluble questions’ or ‘paradoxes’. After a while, these tricky queries go away because, it turns out, everybody was barking up a tree to which they had been led by an expert whose ideas had captured peer and public attention.

The Rue de Lafayette one night in 2004

Photo I took of the Rue de Lafayette in central Paris. I scoffed as much high-fat French cuisine as I could get down this boulevard. And it was delicious.

The big one, these days, is the link between high cholesterol and heart disease.  This has been dogma for decades. After the Second World War, US scientists theorised that saturated fats contributed to high cholesterol, hence clogged arteries, and therefore caused heart disease. The idea was enshrined in a US Department of Agriculture guideline in 1980.

Low fat, it seemed, was the way ahead – and it was embraced by the food industry in the US, followed by large parts of the rest of the western world.

Except Europe. They didn’t much change – and traditional French, German and Italian cuisine is awash with saturated fats and high-cholesterol foods. Yet they suffer less heart disease and are less obese than Americans. What’s more, since 1980 obesity has become a major issue in the United States and other countries that have followed the US low-fat lead, such as New Zealand.

A paradox! Something science can’t explain. Or is it?

The problem is that research often tests only what can be funded, something often framed by commercial priorities. This framework is further shaped by one of the philosophical flaws of western rational thinking; the notion that complex questions can be eventually reduced to single-cause questions and answers.

Reality is far less co-operative. The real world isn’t black-and-white. It’s not even shades of grey. It’s filled with mathematically complex systems that can sometimes settle into states of meta-stability, or which appear to present superficial patterns to initial human observation. An observation framed by the innate human tendency to see patterns in the first instance.

For me, from my philosophical perspective, it’s intriguing that recent research suggests that the link between saturated fat and ischemic (blood-flow related) heart disease is more tenuous than thought. Certainly it’s been well accepted – and was, even fifty years ago when the low-fat message was being developed – that types of cholesterol are utterly vital. If you had none at all in your system, you’d die, because it plays a crucial role in human biochemistry on a number of levels. Cholesterol even makes it possible for you to synthesise Vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. It’s one of the things humans can produce – your liver actually makes it, for these reasons.

As I understand it, recent studies suggest that the effort to diagnose and fix the problem of ‘heart attacks’ based on a simplistic mid-twentieth century premise – something picked up by much of western society as dogma – has been one of the factors implicated in a new epidemic of health problems. There is evidence that the current epidemic of diabetes (especially Type 2) and other diseases is one symptom of the way carbohydrates were substituted for fatty foods a generation ago, and of the way food manufacturers also compensated for a reduction in saturated fats by adding sugar or artificial sweeteners. Use of corn syrup in the US, for example, is up by 198 percent on 1970 figures.

I’m not a medical doctor. And from the scientific perspective all this demands testing. But the intellectual mechanisms behind this picture seem obvious to me from the principles of logic and philosophy – I learned the latter, incidentally, at post-grad level from Peter Munz, one of only two students of both Karl Popper (the inventor of modern scientific method) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (who theorised that language distorts understanding). I am in no doubt that language alone cannot convey pure concept; and I think the onus is on us to extend our understanding through careful reason – which includes being reasonable.

What am I getting at? Start with a premise and an if-then chain of reasoning, and you can build a compelling argument that is watertight of itself – but it doesn’t mean the answer is right. Data may be incomplete; or the interplay of possibilities may not be fully considered.

What follows? A human failing – self-evident smugness, pride in the ‘discovery’, followed by over-compensation that reverses the old thinking without properly considering the lateral issues. Why? Because very few people are equipped to think ‘sideways’, and scientists aren’t exceptions.

Which would be fine if it was confined to academic papers. But it isn’t. Is it.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Another counterblast to tobacco

As I enter Grumpy Old Man territory (a tad over 30, and I’m sticking to that) I find myself less and less tolerant of people who smoke around me.

James I of England, portrait by Daniel Myrtens, 1621. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

James I of England, portrait by Daniel Myrtens, 1621. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

I’ve never smoked. it’s a horrible habit. What’s more, it inflicts itself on other people whether they like it or not, and I don’t see why I need to put up with it. If people want to succumb to their nicotine addiction and kill themselves slowly with some really nasty carcinogens, that’s up to them – but I’d rather they didn’t spew those carcinogens out around me.

I’m not alone. Back in the early 1600s, King James I of England penned a tirade about the latest import from the Americas – tobacco. Smoking had become all the rage in his court, and he hated it. Smoking, he insisted, was a ‘stinking suffumigation’. And this, what’s more, came at a time when attitudes to personal hygiene were split. Everybody said you needed baths. King James said you didn’t. The real question in his court was who might be suffumigated first. But he was King. His ‘Counterblaste to Tobacco’ was one of the first anti-smoking tracts. And it wasn’t the last.

The New Zealand government passed laws forbidding smoking in public places in 2003. A lot of offices have followed suit, with the result that central city shop doorways are usually filled with people loitering in choking clouds of cigarette smoke. Or they light up and wander off down the street, leaving non-smokers behind them to choke in the trail. Certainly in central Wellington, the foot traffic is dense enough to make it very difficult to get past them.

It’s pretty inconsiderate as far as I am concerned. I don’t spit in their faces. Why are they spitting smoke into mine? Grrrr…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Behold the mighty power of rapatronics

Rapatronics. Sounds like science fiction, doesn’t it – or maybe a berserk new music style. Except it isn’t.

In fact, rapatronics – ‘Rapid Action Electronics’ – was a technology for taking ultra-high speed photographs, invented by Harold Edgerton in the 1940s. That’s right – around 70 years ago. The system used oscillating magnetic fields to polarise and then depolarise a Faraday cell made typically of flint glass, turning it briefly transparent and acting as a shutter with exposure times down to 4 millionths of a second.

Rapatronic picture of an atomic explosion. Spikes are extensions of the fireball into the guy ropes stabilising the testing tower. Mottling effect is caused by the bomb casing, already vapourised and reflecting off the shock front of the fireball.

Rapatronic picture of an atomic explosion, milliseconds after detonation. Spikes are extensions of the fireball into the guy ropes stabilising the testing tower. Mottling effect is caused by the bomb casing, already vapourised and reflecting off the shock front of the fireball. Public domain, via Wikimedia.

Pretty cool tech even by today’s standards, and what’s even cooler is that the principle of using magnetic fields to polarise material was discovered by Michael Faraday in 1845.

Thing is, with a shutter speed of 1/4,000,000 of a second you need a pretty bright flash to properly expose the film. An atomic flash, in fact.  In 1947, Edgerton and two friends set up a company, EG&G, to make rapatronic cameras capable of photographing the first microseconds of nuclear test blasts. Each camera was good for one shot – there was no way of transporting roll film fast enough, so Edgerton typically ganged up a rack of them to take a series of shots at millisecond intervals. They were in operation by 1950 and used, for the last time, in 1962. By then the US, Britain and Soviet Union were already talking about a nuclear test ban treaty; and it was signed the following year – ending all nuclear tests except those held underground.

Edgington was also able to use his shutters to photograph hummingbirds in flight for the first time, at much slower shutter speeds, photographed bullets passing through playing cards, and was still working on camera systems in the 1980s – notably a strobe system that could take motion pictures of creatures that normally moved too slowly to be detected.

But his ghostly monochrome images of those atomic weapons tests remain perhaps the iconic demonstration of his inventiveness – and a sobering reminder of the wider mind-set of that age. The mid-twentieth century was still the age when humanity believed nature could be conquered. The atomic weapons and cameras used to photograph them ran to the edges of the laws of physics. It was an age when all things ‘atomic’ symbolised high-tech, superiority and power. When bigger was better – including, for a while, atomic bombs.

I still wonder how we got away with the twentieth century – why the world didn’t dissolve into armageddon, probably by accident. But we did get away with it. The dangerous stand-off was defused. Sanity prevailed.

Next time, of course, we may not be so lucky.

Copyright © Matthew Wright

History never repeats, except a bit…

Apple were reportedly subject last week to an employee lawsuit.

Detail from an engraving of a factory in Soho, Birmingham, c1820. Matthew Wright coll., public domain.

Detail from an engraving of a factory in Soho, Birmingham, c1820. Matthew Wright coll., public domain.

Apparently, workers at their store are searched on leaving the workplace to make sure they haven’t pocketed product.

The action by two former employees is, reportedly, not because this is demeaning and assumes employees are thieves by default. Oh no. It’s because the workers apparently haven’t been paid while waiting to prove their innocence.

Doubtless truth will out, but on the face of the media reports - doesn’t this reverse the principle of innocent-until-proven-guilty that the western justice system rests on? As a friend of mine pointed out, if an employee is asked to submit to search – meaning their integrity is being questioned – surely the accused can reasonably request the police are called to properly investigate what is, by any measure, a very serious allegation?

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic there’s a report in the UK over ‘zero hour’ employment – a normal exclusive arrangement (no secondary job), except the employer picks and chooses the hours the employee works and is paid for. According to the Guardian, Buckingham Palace uses the system, apparently, among others.

To me, that one harks back 200+ years to the early industrial revolution when workers lined up outside factories in the hope of being selected for a day’s work.

I suppose someone will invent work-houses next, places to humiliate and starve those whose misfortune is not of their making, but who can be conveniently blamed for it anyway. ‘More, Mr Twist? You want MORE?’

History never repeats in the specific; cultures change over time, ideals and values move with it.  Still, in the long game of history, it is possible to see patterns – to see swings, usually between extremes, punctuated by periods of reason. But underlying human nature doesn’t change, and if we look back we can see the same patterns of power, of injustice, of have and have not emerging time and again. A common human pattern, irrespective of how they are intellectualised and couched in the moment.

Which makes me wonder. In this age of buzz-words such as ‘solution’, will there be a moment when some wonk around the world, without the slightest trace of irony – and in profound ignorance of what they are actually saying – comes up with a ‘final’ solution to some problem or other.

I think I’d laugh. And then…then I think I’d get very scared.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Anyone for a PINT? What I dislike about psychometrics

There is a scream here in New Zealand at the moment about the way psychometric testing is being used to select public servants and others for redundancy. And quite rightly, too. One aggrieved victim has already obtained a $15,000 settlement in the employment court over it.

As far as I am concerned psychometrics are pseudoscience. Some stranger gives you questions based on a pop-theory about human behaviours and characteristics. None of them fit how you think, but you fumble through anyhow.

Then this stranger, who has never met you before and is ignorant of you as a rounded person, informs you what sort of person you Really Are. You’re classified, pigeon-holed and put into your box. Or is that ‘place’?

1206563615670858090johnny_automatic_soldiers_heads_svg_medI recall, years ago, being told what sort of person I was after such a test. When I objected, I was told this was because I was the sort of person who would object. Quite. There are words to describe people who follow this particular tautology.

What I object to is the arbitrariness. Most of these systems are based on how some psychologists imagine people should be. Yes, it  fits some broad character archetypes. And people can usually see aspects of themselves in the results, once they’ve heard them (think about what that actually means).

But these tests are  framed by the mind-set of those who create them – something defined by time and culture. A lot of psychometrics harks back to thinking of the early-mid twentieth century, with its mechanistic ways of deconstructing and classifying complex systems, notions of uniformity, and its arbitrary way of handling shades of grey.

Early twentieth century psychology was relentlessly guided by the period need to reduce and systematise humanity, just as the wider world was being systematised. Hence Jung’s work on psychological types and classifications which eventually fed into the Myers-Briggs reduction of complex human reality to just sixteen slots.

Psychometric testing is also culture-centric. The classic example is the IQ test posed in the 1920s to European migrants hoping to enter the US. They were stopped at Ellis Island and tested. One of the questions was a drawing of a house without a chimney; add the missing item. To those brought up in Eastern Europe the missing item was a cross over the door. But that wasn’t the right answer, and they missed other culturally-framed questions the same way – ergo, they were morons, and sent away again. Some were killed by the Nazis, a few years later.

But the limits of psychometric testing hasn’t stopped adoption by corporates. Why? Because these tests classify people in ways that can be enumerated, like accounts. And it’s attracted a lot of pseudo-science – even from people with qualifications in psychology – who have filled the market with ingenious, glib and corporate-friendly systems for fitting people into trendy theory. ‘Hey, here’s a test for reducing the human condition to twenty questions and four character types arrayed in a polyhedron.’

I have put much of my adult life into trying to understand the human condition – how it has framed history, how it frames us now; and I think one of our faults is our ability to over-rationalise and lead ourselves down fantasy paths.

Psychometrics. Useful tool – or arbitrary systems for pigeon-holing people that we’ve inherited from an early-mid twentieth century that also brought us eugenics? Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

What’s wrong with progress? Nothing, except the way we think about it.

I am always bemused about the way we frame everything, often unconsciously, around the notion of ‘progress’.

Progress, nineteenth century style; bigger, faster, heavier... more Mordor.

Progress – bigger, faster, heavier… more. This sucker is four times the size of the trucks I used to deal with when I was working for a trucking company and can take 100 tonnes of spoil in one hit. That’s me on the right.

The concept of progress has been part of our lives ever since the Age of Reason burst upon the western world and we started down the path of that led from rationality to industry to nuclear weapons and climate change. Progress.

Not every society has that view – but western society does. We see ‘progress’ in a lot of things. It’s how the world, supposedly, works.

Things ‘progress’ from primitive to sophisticated; it is often used to explain or justify human constructs – ‘you can’t stop progress’, usually uttered as a wrecking ball slams through the last piece of rain-forest.

The implicit meaning is ‘directional change for the better through time’. It suffuses the way we think, and is so much an automatic assumption that often we don’t think about it.

Karl Marx used the concept of ‘progress’ as a pivot for his theories about social change – the notion that society changes directionally towards an ultimate final point. He’d taken that in turn from his inspiration, Georg Hegel. As Barbara Tuchman points out, one outcome was that Marx became the butt of one of history’s greatest jokes. His concepts of verelendung and zussamenbruch simply didn’t work. History is not determinist. Yet, as far as I can tell, this same principle of progress to a final end point also framed the thinking of Francis Fukuyama when he declared, in 1992, that history was over with the fall of the Soviet Union. Democracy and capitalism had won, we’d hit the final ideological nirvana and there would be no further change.

The problem, I think, is that we misunderstand the concept of ‘progress’. We mix up two different ideas.

Progress describes the process of human learning and invention – the way we discover things, and the way we apply those discoveries. Look at computers. In 1995 I bought a computer running Windows 98 with a 266mHz PII CPU. In 2006 I bought a hand-held iPAQ (not an Apple product) whose ARM processor outspecced it. That’s progress, and very good progress too.

As I write this, I still have the iPAQ.

Earth. An image I made with my Celestia installation (cool, free, science package).

Earth. An image I made with my Celestia installation (cool, free, science package).

But this concept of progress doesn’t describe everything humans do. Still less the way the universe works. The wider universe doesn’t automatically change in a direction at all, still less in a better one. We might define some of those changes as an improvement from our perspective. But not all.

Take the climate. It’s always changed naturally. Did it ever change in an ‘improved’ direction? Not really. It just changed. The state – ice age, dry, wet, and so forth – was  always transient. Of course now it’s changing in a specific direction, thanks to us, which is certainly not an improvement. Not for us, anyway.

It seems to me that the supposition that things change directionally has skewed our view of the way things work and – paradoxically – held up our understanding. We mask the deeper secrets of the universe from ourselves by viewing it through an obscured lens. And if we’re not careful, it’ll play jokes on us, the way history played jokes on Marx.

What’s your take on this one?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013