Thursday, April 26, 2012


Everybody has stories of strange things which have happened to them which seem to be too unlikely to be mere coincidence (in my case going on holiday to Torremolinos and finding myself sitting in a bar next to an old friend). The human brain seems hardwired to remember strange coincidences (and read paranormal explanations into them). Proponents of the supernatural and pseudoscience take advantage (often, but perhaps not always, maliciously) of the fact that most of us are ready to read more into strange events, rather than just accept them as coincidences. I've previously posted about how psychics, especially, play on this.

I often think that in a city of 23 million people, like the one in which I'm living at the moment, you could say that a "chance in a million" occurrence happens to 23 people every day. You only remember the bars in Torremolinos where you end up sitting next to a friend, and remain blissfully ignorant of all of those bars where they just left before you walked in. We are also unaware of factors which increase the likelihood of a coincidental occurrence (perhaps there was an offer on at my local travel agency on trips to Torremolinos that particular weekend), and we don't recognise those things we perceive unconsciously which make particular thoughts pop into our heads.

There are some nice examples of strange coincidences here.

I read an interesting article on the BBC website by a statistician, offering a more mathematical explanation of coincidence.


Monday, April 23, 2012

How Do You Kill a Human Humanely?

The debate over the application of the death penalty is certainly one that polarises opinion. However, I think one of the less well debated issues is not whether its use is ethically correct, but whether current methods are truly humane. Of course, many people feel that in applying capital punishment, it is not necessary for the State to have such concerns - and that this, in itself, should form part of the punishment. However, others might argue that in order to distance themselves from the accusation of state-sponsored murder, governments have to at least try to make sure that the death penalty is administered as painlessly as possible.

In 2008, former British member of parliament Michael Portillo made a documentary for the BBC's Horizon programme in which he set out to discover the most humane way to kill a prisoner. I was quite shocked by how many recent executions in the US seem to have been botched and how little appears to be known about how much pain a prisoner being executed may feel before they die. Both the English Bill of Rights of 1689 and the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution of 1791 state that a prisoner has the right not to be subjected to "cruel and unusual punishment", while Article 5 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights has similar wording. Uncertainty about whether current methods constitute this (among other legal arguments) have resulted in somewhat of a crisis in some US states. Capital punishment is currently suspended for prisoners on death row in California and, since 2007, three states have repealed it (New Jersey, New Mexico and Illinois).

Saturday, April 21, 2012

In Defense of Sesquipedalians

In this (very short) podcast, author Will Self sets out his point of view that falling standards and expectations in arts and humanities education, together with our increasing desire to gain knowledge without intellectual rigour or effort are leading to the slow death of western culture. He feels we should embrace the intellectual challenge of 'difficult' books and art, and value works which are more taxing than our increasingly low-brow popular culture. On the way, he also has a few choice words to say about the work of Damien Hirst.

Incidentally, I was interested to see that the word 'sesquipedalian', as used by Self, is not recognised by the spell-checker either in Blogger or Microsoft Word.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Laughter Therapy and the James-Lange Theory

William James (1842-1910) and Carl Lange (1834-1900) were academics who studied the relationship between emotion and physical changes in the body. In about 1885, they independently proposed that emotion is dependent on two things: physical changes in our bodies and our interpretation of them. They felt that physical changes occur first and subsequently their interpretation. Together, they create the emotion. James is quoted as saying "the perception of bodily changes, as they occur, is the emotion ...we feel sad because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble, and neither we cry, strike, nor tremble because we are sorry, angry, or fearful, as the case may be." (W. James. 1884. "What Is an Emotion?" Mind. 9, 34, 188-205).

The James-Lange Theory has fallen out of favour with psychologists in recent years, but there is some evidence that emotion in some aspects occurs as part of a bodily feedback mechanism in the way the James-Lange theory suggests. Proponents of this idea include so-called 'laughter therapists'. Among these are practitioners of a form of yoga known as Hasyayoga, who believe that fake laughter can trigger intense joy and therefore have beneficial physiological and psychological effects. When I watch the video below, I'm not sure if I'm laughing with him or at him - but in terms of the theory, I don't think that matters.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Milgram Experiment

Stanley Milgram (1933-1984) was a Yale professor of psychology who is most famous for his controversial study into how far people will follow the instructions of authority figures without question. This became known as 'The Milgram Experiment'. I have posted details of this previously in 'The Top 10 Unethical Psychology Experiments' (although I personally would argue that Milgram wasn't intentionally acting unethically, and his subjects were not prevented from refusing to continue with the experiment once they had concerns).

In 2006 British illusionist Derren Brown produced a TV programme named 'The Heist'. In this he attempted to persuade a group of thirteen members of the public to partake in what they thought was a real armed bank robbery. In order to choose his victims, Brown reproduced the Milgram Experiment, and found results startling similar to those of Milgram. This is shown in the clip below:

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Psychological Experiments

During the 20th Century a number of psychologists (the behaviourists and cognitive psychologists) tried to introduce greater scientific thinking into the subject. Greater emphasis was placed on the collection of empirical evidence through detailed observation, researchers made more of an effort to remain objective, and attempts were made to control variables, reduce the observer effect and repeat experiments where possible. Psychology effectively moved towards the inductivism of the natural sciences (or rather the hypothetico-deductive model of Karl Popper, 1935).

A number of experiments based on this thinking later became notorious. Some investigators were less than honest with their research subjects (often in an effort to lessen the observer effect or reduce the effect of extraneous variables). In other cases the long-term psychological effects of the experiments on human or animal subjects were not considered. Sometimes ethics were abandoned because the researcher placed their own work and reputation above all other considerations.

I've reproduced a list of the 'top 10 unethical psychology experiments' from the website (last accessed 16/4/12). Its an interesting list, but I would argue that not all of the experiments could really be called unethical. The Stanford Prison Experiment, for example, more than anything was badly planned, with the subjects influenced by the observer effect into thinking they were expected to play a role. The list and the order in which the experiments are placed reflect the author's own thoughts on the subject.

Top 10 Unethical Psychology Experiments

Thursday, April 12, 2012


The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (2008) defines a taboo as "a social or religious custom placing prohibition or restriction on a particular thing or person". Taboos come into existence as a means to help a society to persist or improve the general health of its members. Since societies change, so do taboos (although perhaps rather slowly, and without the acceptance of all).

According to French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009), incest (marriage and/or sexual partnership between closely related individuals) is the 'universal taboo' (The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1947), trans. James Harle Bell, John Richard von Sturmer, and Rodney Needham. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969). He believed this was a driving force in human social development since it forced people to look outside their family for mates and therefore brought disparate and even warring groups together.

The origins of this taboo seem to lie in the increased likelihood that children of an incestuous partnership will be born with abnormalities, and hence have a possible deleterious effect on a society. There appears to be more to it than this, though, as it does appear to elicit particular disgust and revulsion. Also there are other behaviours which increase the likelihood of a couple having children born with disabilities (for example becoming pregnant later in life) which are not held in the same disregard. In addition, it is not perhaps the universal taboo that Lévi-Strauss made out. For instance, European monarchies (together with those in other societies such as the Incas and Ancient Egyptians) encouraged marriage between closely related members of the nobility for centuries to keep blood lines pure. (With this in mind, it is interesting that Henry VIII chose to accuse Anne Boleyn of an incestuous affair with her brother to ensure he was granted his divorce - and her execution).

Given that incest has gained this reputation as perhaps the ultimate taboo, it is surprising that there is no true consensus between different nations with regard to its legality (or illegality). In some countries, the law has tried to take into account the risks while legalising it in certain circumstances. In Brazil, an uncle and niece may have a relationship provided they undergo health checks. In some states of the US, first cousins may marry if they are at reproductive age or ability. France dropped incest from the penal code under Napoleon, but reinstated it in 2010. Children born to incestuous relationships in France are removed and put into care. In the Netherlands, where consensual incest is no longer prosecuted, the legal status of a child born of such a relationship is ambiguous. Sweden is the only country in Europe which allows marriage between siblings who share a parent, although I believe Switzerland is currently debating whether it should be decriminalised.

There is an interesting academic paper on the subject here.

A story appeared in the news recently of two German siblings who met after growing up separately and started a relationship together (in the knowledge they were brother and sister). They lost their appeal at the European Court of Human Rights this week after being convicted in Germany. Here's how the BBC reported the story:

German Incest Couple

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was one of those rare people who could truly be called a 'polymath' (a person equally skilled in many different fields of study). Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galiliei and Francis Bacon are often also considered to be polymaths.

As well as being one of the Founding Fathers of the United States he was a printer, journalist, newspaper owner, physicist, politician, musician, composer and prolific inventor.

In this podcast his life and work are discussed by a number of academics:

Incidentally, I can across a rather amusing story about Franklin recently. In 1781 the Royal Academy of Brussels ran a competition asking for clever scientific suggestions. Here is his entry:

Permit me then humbly to propose one of that sort for your consideration, and through you, if you approve it, for the serious Enquiry of learned Physicians, Chemists, &c. of this enlightened Age. 
It is universally well known, that in digesting our common Food, there is created or produced in the Bowels of human Creatures, a great Quantity of Wind.
That the permitting this Air to escape and mix with the Atmosphere, is usually offensive to the Company, from the fetid Smell that accompanies it.
That all well-bred People therefore, to avoid giving such Offence, forcibly restrain the Efforts of Nature to discharge that Wind.
That so retain’d contrary to Nature, it not only gives frequently great present Pain, but occasions future Diseases, such as habitual Cholics, Ruptures, Tympanies, &c. often destructive of the Constitution, & sometimes of Life itself.
Were it not for the odiously offensive Smell accompanying such Escapes, polite People would probably be under no more Restraint in discharging such Wind in Company, than they are in spitting, or in blowing their Noses.
My Prize Question therefore should be, To discover some Drug wholesome & not disagreable, to be mix’d with our common Food, or Sauces, that shall render the natural Discharges of Wind from our Bodies, not only inoffensive, but agreable as Perfumes.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Is Autism on the Increase?

There has been considerable concern recently that autism in children appears to be on the increase. Fears that this is related to childhood vaccination (spread initially by the claims of British physician Andrew Wakefield)  have now been widely discredited. However, there is still speculation that we are being increasingly subjected to environmental risk factors, including pollutants, increased parental age, poor diet and depression and mental disorders in pregnant women, which may manifest themselves in newborn babies.

An often overlooked point is that it is possible that the rate of autism itself may not be increasing, but rather the rate of detection or diagnosis. This seems very plausible, given that schools seem to be more ready nowadays to look to diagnose autism or Asperger Syndrome in children rather than simply labeling them as having behavioural issues (in some cases, perhaps too ready?). This is suggestive that we (and in particular the mass media) often take scientific findings at face value and do not question issues with how data is collected and how the methodology of its collection may change over time.

In this article for the James Randi Educational Foundation, Dr. Steven Novella investigates the claim that we are in the midst of an autism epidemic:
Is There an Autism Epidemic

Tuesday, April 3, 2012