Monday, February 27, 2012

The Power of the Media

In an age where we take the ubiquity of the media for granted (and also at a time when communication and social media is undergoing a revolution), it is easy to forget how powerful it actually is and how easily it can shape people's beliefs and understanding. This is not necessarily a new phenomenon. Famously, in 1938, Orson Welles broadcast his radio version of H.G. Wells' 'War of the Worlds'. Due to the way Welles framed his story in the form of a real-time news programme, a large proportion of his audience believed that the Earth was under attack from Martians and mass panic broke out (perhaps also related to escalating worries of the political situation in Europe prior to the outbreak of war). Here is the original broadcast split into 6 parts:

part 1
part 2
part 3
part 4
part 5
part 6

I have summarised what happened during the broadcast below and how it made Orson Welles into a Hollywood star.

War of the Worlds

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Misunderstandings of science lead to pseudoscience

In this article for the Wall Street Journal blog, Professor Brian Cox of the University of Manchester explains how people who adhere to pseudoscientific beliefs often do so because of a fundamental misunderstanding of scientific results. It reminds me of a quote from Ben Goldacre (applicable to all the areas of knowledge): "You can't reason people out of positions they didn't reason themselves into". (Bad Science, Harper Collins, London, 2009).

Brian Cox - Why Quantum Theory is Misunderstood

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Why do Morals exist?

In his book The God Delusion (Mariner, New York, 2008), Richard Dawkins devotes a chapter to morality (chapter 6 - The roots of morality: why are we good?). His premise is that morality is essentially something that evolved from pre-existing instincts. He states that a somewhat diluted form of morality (altruism) exists in animals for 4 reasons:
  • Genetic kinship and the unconscious desire for one's genes to pass to the next generation
  • Reciprocation: the expectation or anticipation that favours given will be repaid later
  • The benefit of acquiring a 'reputation' for generosity
  • The benefit of being able to identify oneself as dominant due to the ability to give favours without necessarily expecting payback

He gives examples to show that these desires exist in animals today. For example, cleaner wrasse earn the right to pick parasites and dead tissue from their larger fishy clients by acquiring a reputation for being good cleaners. Cheaters have been observed to lose their cleaning rights and hence their client base.

Actions of animals which seem to be pure acts of kindness with no apparent expectation of payback are somewhat difficult to explain, but Dawkins cites the example of the babbler birds of Australia and the Pacific Islands. Some individuals have been observed to assert their dominance by feeding subordinates, reacting violently if the subordinate bird tries to reverse these roles. Similarly, dominant birds will also actively compete for the dangerous role of sentinel - the right to sit on the highest branches to look out for predators.

He goes on to look at the reactions of humans when faced with moral dilemmas and discusses the question of whether morals are universal. I've added this part of the chapter below:

Dawkins - A Case Study in the Roots of Morality

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Friday, February 17, 2012

Original Pronuncation

I never thought much before about how accents evolve and change. This clip looks at how the modern interpretation of Shakespeare is sometimes incorrect since it does not generally take into account the fact that pronunciation of many words (and the accent of Shakespeare himself) was very different 400 years ago.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Wild Children

Feral or "wild" children are those who have been abandoned or lost in the wild for all or a considerable part of their formative years. Such children have generally lived without any direct human contact and very may not even develop rudimentary language. Though there are many legends of feral children, only a few cases have been documented and verified. Perhaps the most famous was Victor, a child of about twelve years of age, who was found living alone and naked in the woods of Aveyron just after the French Revolution (French film director Francois Truffaut directed and stared in the film about Victor, L'enfant Sauvage, which was released in 1970).

Studies of feral children have led to new methods for teaching children with learning disabilities, and indirectly to the development of Braille and sign language. They have also led to new understanding of how children develop language and how human development is affected by a lack of physical and emotional contact.

Fortunately examples of extreme neglect of children are rare, but horrific cases emerge from time to time.  The most famous case of recent years was that of Austrian Josef Fritzl who, in 2008, was discovered to have kept his daughter Elisabeth confined in his house for 24 years, together with the children he fathered with her. In 1970, a similar case was discovered in Los Angeles. "Genie" Wiley was imprisoned in her bedroom by her father for all of her young life and not permitted any human contact.When she was discovered she was unable to speak or show normal emotion, presumably because she was beaten when she made any sort of sound. The documentary and article below give some details about the attempt of psychologists to integrate Genie back into society and teach her to speak. Her case also gave researchers some valuable insights into how language develops in children.