Blind them with Science

The invalid assumption that correlation implies cause is probably among the two or three most serious and common errors of human reasoning.                                 ~ Stephen Jay Gould, evolutionary biologist and author, 1981

I have a background in science.  I was trained in the scientific method and have the conscience of Karl Popper on my shoulder much of the time. In recent years I have been able to unshackle myself a little from the constraints this can place on my tolerance, and been able to stay chilled a little more than I used to be able to when I see or hear people purport to use ‘science’ to make questionable and spurious claims.

However, every now and then I get mad.  Especially when the people behind the claims ought to know better. When people misuse ‘science’ to dupe the public and sway political and social debates.

This week was one of those weeks. Junior Doctors are currently in the middle of a dispute with the UK Government, which led to the first of three planned strikes. Now, I have no wish to make any party political points in this post, and my compulsion to write is not driven by any particular support for either side in the dispute.  Rather it is based on the oft quoted claim made by Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, that: “….at the moment we have an NHS where if you have a stroke at the weekends, you’re 20% more likely to die. That can’t be acceptable.”

Now if this bald fact were true it would clearly be quite alarming, and no doubt the public would be rightly supportive of action to do something about it.  Before digging into the accuracy or otherwise of the claim, it has clearly proved to be a pretty ‘sticky’ soundbite.

As well as Hunt himself Continue reading

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Hands up if you’re scared

Liberté, égalité, fraternité

Hands up if you are more scared this week than last?  Hands up if you believe you are more likely to be the victim of a terrorist atrocity than you were before the Russian airliner fell from the sky? Or the killings in Paris?  I see a fair few hands raised. I’m guessing that your hands are not raised having quickly calculated the complex statistical probability associated with being mixed up in such occurrences. More likely, it is coming from something in your gut, or in your heart. Somewhere far away from cognitive reason and rationality.

creative commons

creative commons

And, of course, that is what terror intends. To switch people off from reason, rationality, logic and constructive discourse, and switch on our more primal decision-making systems. “I feel it in my water. In my gut. I can smell it. My heart is ruling my head”. Believer v Non-Believer. Black v White. Love v Hate.  For v Against. Polarisation, simplification. No room for the grey. Choose your side.

Operating in a state of fear is commonplace. Workers fear for their jobs, their livelihoods, and being able to fend for their families. Patients fear the worst when waiting their medical results. City traders fear the flashing lights on the trading board when they glow red for what it might be about to signal. Could this be another crash in global markets?

Fear serves a useful evolutionary function. It kept our ancestors alive, and we have their fear to thank for us being here today. Unfortunately it is the enemy of progress. It stunts creativity, blocks new ways of thinking. Neuroscience shows quite clearly that, when the fear system in the brain is active, exploratory activity is turned off. In other words we stop looking for new ways to solve problems.  We resort to what we know worked in our evolutionary past. We either cower and hide and hope the danger passes, we flee and turn our backs on the problem, or we retaliate with force and hope to win with might. Continue reading

Why don’t we do what’s good for us?

I have toothache as I write. I am in pain.  My tooth needs to come out. I am
attached to it, but, it has done its job and we now need to part company. But don’t let me fool you into thinking that I have taken a completely quick and rational pliersdecision. I have had recurring problems with this particular tooth for some time. Each time the pain flares I know that it needs extracted. My dentist has confirmed this and told me to arrange an appointment whenever I feel it needs to happen. However, just before I make the call, the pain inevitably recedes.  Why is this? Does it really? Do I imagine it has? Do I fool myself that it has? Whatever the reason, I end up putting off thoughts of calling the dentist until the next time the pain returns.

So why is it that we avoid taking action that we know would alleviate our pain? Why is it so hard for people to do the things that are actually good for them?  A study published in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology (2014), Gilbert, McEwan, Catarino, Baiao and Palmeira, suggests that the fear of experiencing a positive outcome might be stronger than the desire to heal.

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On the Edge of Control

“…Fear is what keeps us from going over the edge……I don’t think what makes a good race car driver is a fearless person. I think it’s somebody that is comfortable being behind the wheel of something that’s somewhat out of control”.                Jeff Gordon

Imagine yourself riding a motorcycle in a high-speed race. You are at full throttle going round the final bend. Only a delicate balance between gravity and centrifugal forces are preventing you from flying off the track. At that moment, are you in control of your bike, or are you out of control? The answer is you are ‘right on the edge’. Too much ‘in control’ and you probably aren’t taking enough risk, and are unlikely to win the race. Too much ‘out of control’ and the likelihood is you are in for a very painful crash.

In 2013, at age 20, Marc Márquez of Spain became the youngest ever World Champion of MotoGP in the final race of the season in Valencia.  For anyone who hasn’t witnessed MotoGP, it is truly breath-taking. Riders appear to defy gravity on the bends, with their knees and elbows scraping the surface of the track at speeds in excess of 300km/hour. marquezExperts have commented on the young Márquez’s style saying, “….he drags his elbow on every corner and leans his body and bike closer to the ground than any of his rivals.”  In this sport, being daring and aggressive is a requirement if you hope to succeed. It would look as though an ability to shut out thoughts of fear, and consequences of getting it wrong, are a necessity in this sport. Yet, at the same time, knowing, in that instant, just what would be too much, too fast, too risky is clearly also a vital (and life-preserving) requirement. As is resilience, perseverance and the ability to learn from (and not be put off by) misjudgements.

During the course of the season, Marquez also set the record for the highest-speed crash in motorcycle racing. While practising his gravity-defying turns, he lost control at 320km/hour. He managed to throw himself from his bike just before it crashed against a concrete wall. He was catapulted into a gravel safety trap at 280km/hour, walked away, and competed in the race the next day.  He is very clear about the fact that he must keep learning and improving.  In the final race of the season, he needed to finish no worse than fourth to secure the title.  He worked out that keeping his two main rivals in front of him, where he could watch their every move, was a better strategy than having them plot and scheme their moves from behind him. He rode a sensible, calculating race, taking less risks, staying out of trouble, and safely securing third place, sufficient to win the World Championship.
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The Danger of Conviction

What do you do if you can no longer live with the doubt…? You try to cure yourself. And the best cure for doubt is over-conviction. ~ Richard Holloway (2013)

As a Scot, I have been intrigued by the developing rhetoric of the politicians on either side of the upcoming referendum question. They hone their arguments in an attempt to win over voters to one or other side of the debate. Should Scotland be an independent country? Simple enough question, but it sits atop a mountain of uncertainty, doubt and fear.

source: with thanks to Marf (Martha Richler)

source: with thanks to Marf (Martha Richler)

Many people have already made up their minds, and nothing the politicians do during the campaign will sway them from their conviction. They are people who are clear on the question, they are certain what the answer is, and they are in no doubt. But, ultimately, the people who will determine the outcome, are the currently undecided people of Scotland. They remain uncertain, they have doubts, they have no clear conviction.

And what is it that people want to hear from their politicians and leaders when they are unsure? What engages people who are having doubts and uncertainties about the future? Personally, I want to hear leaders tell me that they understand my concerns, that they too have those feelings of uncertainty, that doubt and fear have entered their head too. I am unlikely to respond or relate to yet another ‘conviction’ speech. The sort of argument that suggests that there is no room for doubt. And, yet, what I am hearing, from both sides of the referendum campaign, are entrenched arguments, conviction statements, and a total absence of humility.

Both sides appear to have forgotten Continue reading

Two Father’s Days in the Year? – wildthoughts

Australia’s Father’s Day was on 2nd Sep this year. The UK Father’s Day was earlier in the year, but I jibed my kids relentlessly about the fact that I should really benefit from a) being their father and b) being in Australia on that country’s Father’s Day. I was told in no uncertain terms to stop pushing my luck…..but when the day came I was delighted to receive a book as a gift (genuinely unexpected despite all the hints I had dropped). It was the classic “Feel the fear and do it anyway” by Susan Jeffers. A great little book which I would recommend to anyone. We can all benefit from the inspiring messages and exercises it describes. A great addition to my collection of little gems.