A Troublemaker’s fringe

Photo by Flickr user e-magic. Click for sourceNext week the World Conference of Science Journalists will be coming to London. A few of us felt they might not adequately address some of the key problems in their profession, which has deteriorated to the point where they present a serious danger to public health, fail to keep geeks well nourished, and actively undermine the publics’ understanding of what it means for there to be evidence for a claim.

More importantly we fancied some troublemaking and a night in the pub.

As a result, you have the opportunity to come and see three angry nerds explain how and why mainstream media’s science coverage is broken, misleading, dangerous, lazy, venal, and silly. Join our angry rabble, and tell the world of science journalists exactly what you think about their work. All are welcome, admission is free. They may not come.

After the presentations (with powerpoint and everything, in a pub) we will attempt to collaboratively and drunkenly derive some best practise guidelines for health and science journalists, with your kind assistance.

Ben Goldacre has written the Guardian’s Bad Science column for 6 years, where he exposes misleading science journalism, health scare hoaxes, pill-pushing quacks and the crimes of the evil multinational pharmaceutical industry. He will talk about how the media promote the publics’ misunderstanding of evidence, focusing on health scares, journalists’ hoaxes, and their consequences, as well as cases where scientists have had their work misrepresented and failed to get satisfaction from newspapers.

Vaughan Bell is a neuropsychology researcher and clinician in the NHS, where he deals with disorders of the mind and brain, and is a writer for MindHacks.com, where he deals with disorders of the media. His talk will be called “Don’t touch that dial! Technology scares and the media” and will discuss how the media loves to tell us that new technology will give us brain damage and mental illness but is strangely adverse to discussing the research even when the science says there’s not a lot to be worried about.

Petra Boynton is a Social Psychologist and Lecturer in International Health Services Research. She specialises in researching sex and relationships health. For the past 7 years Petra has worked as as an Agony Aunt in print, online and broadcast media. She actively campaigns for free and accurate sexual health advice within the media both in the UK and Internationally. Petra will talk about the consequences of PR companies misusing surveys and formulas as a form of cheap advertising, the problem of unethical or untrained people posing as ‘media experts’, and what happens when journalists fail to fact check science and health stories.


Of note, attending the WCSJ will cost you £200 a day. You are welcome to come to our event entirely for free, beer/shrapnel in a bucket gratefully received. Journalists, corporate event organisers: welcome to the shits and giggles economy. Special thanks to Sid the Skeptic from Viz for booking the room at short notice.


World Conference of Science Journalists 2009 – Troublemakers Fringe


Penderel’s Oak Pub, 286-288 High Holborn, London WC1V 7HJ, Holborn Tube.

Google Maps here


1st July 7pm for 8pm – Midnight

Advance of the seven veils

Photo by Flickr user ff137. Click for sourceI’ve discovered there is a small scientific literature on the cognitive science of belly dancing. Yes, I know I should be doing something else with my time, but it’s too late now and it’s too good not to share.

A group of movement researchers studied which fundamental action abilities were the best predictors of belly dancing skills in 1st-4th grade students and, in another study, in 5th and 6th grade students. Rhythmic coordination seems to be a key skill across most age groups.

Belly dancer’s myclonus is a condition where damage to the parts of the nervous system that control muscle coordination cause an involuntary stomach rippling effect that belly dancers strive to achieve. It is thought to be a problem with neural systems called ‘central pattern generators’ (CPGs) that create rhythmic pulses.

Jimmy Or is a robotics researcher who used what we know about the neuroscience of central pattern generators to create a belly dancing humanoid robot with a flexible spine. You can see it in action on his website.

Mass hysteria and dancing manias

The July edition of the The Psychologist has an absolutely fantastic article on the ‘dancing manias’ that swept through Europe in the middle ages and triggered an exhausting compulsion to dance.

The piece looks at the history of these manias and discusses them in terms of dissociation, the ‘unconscious compartmentalisation of normally integrated mental functions’, which is something we discussed the other day with respect to modern day possession and trance rituals.

Dissociation is usually discussed as something individual, whether the person induces it deliberately through ritual, lets themselves be affected through hypnosis, or is affected involuntarily, as in the case of ‘conversion disorder‘.

However, there are hundreds if not thousands of cases of ‘mass hysteria’ or ‘mass psychogenic illness’ that have been documented and are that are thought to involve a similar mental process.

Unfortunately, these ‘mass hysterias’ tend to be widespread but fleeting affairs, meaning they’re hard for researchers to study.

One of the commonest findings, however, is that they often occur where people find themselves in an intolerable situation that they’re not able to influence or otherwise complain about.

If you’re interested in learning more, I really recommend a 2002 article from the British Journal of Psychiatry by sociologist Robert Batholomew and psychiatrist Simon Wessely as an excellent introduction to the field.

Otherwise, Batholomew’s books are excellent. My favourite is his 2001 book Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-Hunting Panics: A Study of Mass Psychogenic Illnesses and Social Delusion (ISBN 0786409975).

Anyway, The Psychologist article is a great place to start and one of the most enjoyable articles I’ve read on the topic for a while.

Link to The Psychologist on ‘Dancing plagues and mass hysteria’.
Link to article from the British Journal of Psychiatry.

Full disclosure: I’m an occasional columnist and unpaid associate editor of The Psychologist. I also love dancing manias.

Like tears in the rain

Forbes magazine has an excellent special issue that is rammed full of diverse and interesting articles on artificial intelligence.

It’s a large collection of short articles that covers everything from the mathematics of free will to the likelihood of there being a robot war in the future (see, it’s not just me).

There are a fair few speculative pieces, so those who like their transhumanists with a pinch of salt may have to be ready with the seasoning, but wide variety of articles means there should be something for everyone.

Each intends to introduce an idea rather than explore it in detail. I liked the pieces on whether AI can help fight terrorism and another on how the use of AI to explore theories of the mind has declined, and I’m still reading through the rest.

The only slight annoyance is that the series starts with the clich√© question “Can machines think?”

Perhaps the single most sensible response I ever read to this was a quote from a speech but the much missed Dutch computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra:

“The question of whether machines can think… is about as relevant as the question of whether submarines can swim.”

Link to Forbes ‘AI Report’.

Stalkers and assassins of the US President

I’ve just found this fascinating 2006 article by a consultant psychiatrist to the US Secret Service that classifies the types of stalkers and assassins that have troubled the President of the United States.

The piece, by psychiatry professor Robert Phillips, reviews past classifications of presidential harassers and cases from the literature to produce a list of main types.

In my work as consultant to the U.S. Secret Service on protective intelligence cases, it is my clinical assessment that aids in their ultimate determination of who poses a potential risk to a protectee.

In performing evaluations of persons who have either threatened or attacked presidents, pursued them without nefarious intent, or appeared at the White House without invitation, I have searched for a framework that would allow me to integrate my diagnostic opinion of an individual subject with a conceptualization of what is known about others who have acted similarly.

Phillips’ classification includes:

* The Resentful Presidential Stalker or Assassin
* The Pathologically Obsessed Presidential Stalker or Assassin
* The Presidential Infamy Seeker
* The Presidential Nuisance or Presidential Attention Seeker

But perhaps most interesting is the part where he illustrates each type with examples from past cases.

These include famous cases, such as John Hinckley – the man who shot President Reagan but was apparently also a stalker of Carter, to less well known cases such as one woman referred to only as ‘Ms Doe’ who “possessed a delusional love interest” in Clinton.

It’s interesting to compare this classification with the independently created typology of stalkers of the British royal family drawn from the Metropolitan Police’s Royalty Protection Unit files.

Link to full text of article.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

Tooling up the body

Photo by Flickr user Darren Hester. Click for sourceNot Exactly Rocket Science covers an intriguing study that provides further evidence for the theory that the brain treats tools as temporary body parts.

Using tools has lots of interesting effects on our perception. In one of my favourite studies, psychologist Dennis Proffitt found that we perceive distances as shorter when we have a tool in our hand, but only when we intend to use it.

This latest study found that using a tool for only a few minutes modified the body’s action settings. In the experiment, participants were asked to repeatedly pick up a block that had been placed in the middle of the table.

Then, they had to repeat the same actions with a grabber – a long, mechanical lever tipped with a two-fingered “hand” – and then a third time, with their own hand again.

Small LEDs on the volunteers’ hands allowed Cardinali to track their movements and calculate the speed and acceleration of their arms. She found that they reached for the block differently after they had been accustomed to the grabber, taking longer to accelerate their hands more slowly and to seize the block (although once they actually touched the blocks, they grasped them in just the same way as before). The delays even affected the speed at which they pointed at the block, a behaviour that wasn’t “trained” by the grabber.

To Cardinali, these results suggested that after using the grabber, the volunteers’ had included it into their mental representation of their own arms. Because of that, they felt that their arms were longer than they actually were and reached for the block more slowly.

Link to Not Exactly Rocket Science on tools as body extensions.

Into the ancient mind

Newsweek has an interesting critique of evolutionary psychology that tackles some of the main areas of contention.

The article claims to question the whole field of evolutionary psychology but really only deals with specific studies, largely because has quite a limited view of the approach and is strangely wed to biological determinism.

From the biological determinism angle, contrary to what the article implies, even if specific antisocial traits have evolved this doesn’t excuse the behaviour or suggest that it is inevitable, as the history of violence tells us.

The article is clearly influenced by the work of philosopher David Buller, who has been a long-time critic of the field.

But what the article also doesn’t mention is that it is largely addressing a certain form of thinking on evolutionary psychology – namely an approach chiefly promoted by Buss, Tooby and Cosmides, sometimes called the ‘Santa Barbara’ approach.

This view is characterised by the idea that we have evolved specific mental modules (like individual ‘units’ of behaviour or thought) that have been shaped by selection pressures to address problems most important for survival over the time span of human existence – typically characterised as the ‘stone age’.

This is only one form of thinking however. In its weaker form, evolutionary psychology is much less controversial in that we know that genetics, and even single genes, can influence cognition and behaviour, and that selection pressures are equally likely to have been exerted on these genes.

The difficulty is deciding in what cases selection pressure is working through mind and behaviour and at what psychological level the selection pressure manifests itself.

For example, is it best to think of selection pressure as operating on low level cognitive mechanisms such as speed of processing, visual perception and working memory, or on more complex processes such as perception of beauty, relationship style or emotional range.

The critics of evolutionary psychology usually focus on the latter. David Buller clearly specifies this in a recent and recommended article that he wrote for Scientific American but this is not clear in the Newsweek piece.

Buller himself has his critics and there is an excellent page with rebuttals of his claims from the Center for Evolutionary Psychology, many of which focus on his use of evidence to support his arguments.

Recently, a new twist in the tale has come from a study just published in Science that used computational modelling to suggest that major changes in human behaviour during the stone age could be entirely accounted for by cultural changes and there is no need to suggest a fundamental change in the structure of our minds.

The Newsweek article is definitely worth reading, but it’s not the whole story and is best supplemented with responses from some of Buller’s critics.

Link to Newsweek article ‘Don’t blame the caveman’.
Link to Buller’s article for SciAm.
Link to Buller rebuttals.
Link to Science paper on culture and cognitive changes.
Link to PubMed entry for same.