‘There is no such thing as past or future’: physicist Carlo Rovelli on changing how we think about day

2 months, 5 days ago

Carlo Rovelli tells Charlotte Higgins about his days as a student revolutionary and how his quantum leap began with an acid trip

What do we are all familiar with hour? Language tells us that it ” passes”, it moves like a great river, inexorably dragging us with it, and, in the end, cleans us up on its shore while it continues, unstoppable. Day flows. It moves ever forwards. Or does it? Poets also tell us that time stumbles or sneaks or slackens or even, at times, seems to stop. They tell us that the past might be inescapable, immanent in objects or people or sceneries. When Juliet is waiting for Romeo, day passes sluggishly: she longs for Phaethon to take the reins of the Sun’s chariot, since he would whip up the horses and” bring in cloudy night immediately “. When we wake from a vivid dreaming we are dimly recognizing also that the feeling of day we have just experienced is illusory.

Carlo Rovelli is an Italian theoretical physicist who wants to make the uninitiated grasp the excitement of his field. His volume Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, with its concise, sparkling essays on topics such as black holes and quantum, has sold 1.3 m copies worldwide. Now arrives The Order of Time, a dizzying, poetic work in which I received myself abandoning everything I believed I knew about time- surely the idea that it “flows”, and even that it exists at all, in any profound sense.

We meet outside the church of San Petronio in Bologna, where Rovelli studied. (” I like to say that, just like Copernicus, I was an undergraduate at Bologna and a graduate at Padua ,” he jokes .) A cheery, compact fellow in his early 60 s, Rovelli is in nostalgic mood. He lives in Marseille, where, since 2010, he has run the quantum gravitation group at the Centre de physique theorique. Before that, he was in the US, at the University of Pittsburgh, for a decade.

Carlo Carlo Rovelli in Bologna. Photo: Roberto Serra/ Iguana Press/ G/ Iguana Press/ Getty Images

He rarely visits Bologna, and “hes having” been catching up with old friends. We wander towards the university area. Piazza Verdi is flocked with a lively mob of students. There are flags and graffiti and banners, too- anti-fascist slogans, something in support of the Kurds, a sign enjoining passers-by not to forget Giulio Regeni, the Cambridge PhD student killed in Egypt in 2016.

” In my day it was roadblocks and police ,” he tells. He was a passionate student activist, back then. What did he and his pals want?” Small things! We wanted a world without borders, without nation, without war, without religion, without family, without school, without private property .”

He was, he says now, too radical, and it was hard, trying to share possessions, trying to live without resentment. And then there was the LSD. He took it a few times. And it turned out to be the seed of his interest in physics generally, and in the question of day specifically.” It was an extraordinarily strong experience that touched me also intellectually ,” he recollects.” Among the strange phenomena was the sense of hour stopping. Things were happening in my intellect but the clock was not plan ahead; the flow of time was not passing any more. It was a total subversion of the structure of reality. He had hallucinations of misshapen objects, of bright and dazzling colours- but also remembers supposing during the experience, actually asking himself what was going on.

” And I supposed:’ Well, it’s a chemical that is changing things in my brain. But how do I know that the usual perception is right, and this is wrong? If these two ways of perceiving are so different, what does it mean that one is the correct one ?'” The way he talks about LSD is, in fact, quite similar to his description of reading Einstein as a student, on a sun-baked Calabrian beach, and appearing up from his volume imagining the world not as it appeared to him every day, but as the wild and undulating spacetime that the great physicist described. Reality, to quote the title of one of his volumes, is not what it seems.

He dedicated his conservative, Veronese parents a bit of a fright, he tells. His father , now in his 90 s, was surprised when young Carlo’s lecturers said he was actually doing all right, despite the long hair and revolutionary politics and the occasional brush with the police. It was after the optimistic sense of student revolution in Italy came to an abrupt end with the kidnapping and murder of the former prime minister, Aldo Moro, in 1978 that Rovelli began to take physics severely. But his route to his big academic career was circuitous and unconventional.” Nowadays everyone is worried because there is no work. When I was young, the problem was how to avoid work. I did not want to become part of the’ productive system ‘,” he says.

Academia, then, seemed like a way of avoiding the world of a conventional undertaking, and for some years he followed his curiosity without a sense of careerist aspiration. He went to Trento in northern Italy to join a research group he was interested in, sleeping in his auto for a few months (” I’d get a rain in government departments to be decent “). He went to London, because he was interested in the work of Chris Isham, and then to the US, to be near physicists such as Abhay Ashtekar and Lee Smolin.” My first paper was horrendously late compared to what a young person would have to do now. And this was a privilege- I knew more things, there was more day .”

Albert Albert Einstein ran at the Swiss patent office for seven years:’ That worldly cloister where I hatched my most wonderful ideas .’ Photograph: Keystone/ Getty Images

The popular volumes, too, have come relatively late, after his academic analyze of quantum gravitation, published in 2004. If Seven Brief Lessons was a lucid primer, The Order of Time takes things further; it deals with” what I really do in science, what I really think in depth, what is important for me “.

Rovelli’s work as a physicist, in crude terms, occupies the large space left by Einstein on the one hand, and the development of quantum theory on the other. If the theory of general relativity describes a world of curved spacetime where everything is continuous, quantum theory describes a world in which discrete quantities of energy interact. In Rovelli’s words,” quantum mechanics cannot deal with the curvature of spacetime, and general relativity cannot account for quantum “.

Both theories are successful; but their apparent incompatibility is an open problem, and one of the current tasks of theoretical physics is to attempt to construct a conceptual framework in which they both work. Rovelli’s field of loop hypothesi, or loop quantum gravitation, offers a possible answer to the problem, in which spacetime itself is understood to be granular, a fine structure woven from loops.

String theory offers another, different road towards is solved. When I ask him what he thinks about the possibility that his loop quantum gravitation work may be wrong, he gently explains that being wrong isn’t the phase; being part of the conversation is the purpose. And anyway,” If you ask who had the longest and most striking list of results it’s Einstein without any doubt. But if you ask who is the scientist who constructed most mistakes, it’s still Einstein .”

How does hour fit in to his work? Time, Einstein long ago depicted, is relative- hour passes more slowly for an object moving faster than another object, for example. In this relative world, an absolute “now” is more or less meaningless. Time, then, is not some separate quality that impassively flows around us. Time is, in Rovelli’s terms,” part of a complicated geometry woven together with the geometry of space “.

For Rovelli, there is more: according to his theorising, time itself disappears at the most fundamental level. His theories ask us to accept the notion that time is merely a function of our “blurred” human perception. We see the world only through a glass, darkly; we are watching Plato’s shadow-play in the cave. According to Rovelli, our undeniable experience of hour is inextricably linked to the way hot behaves. In The Order of Time, he asks why can we know merely the past, and not the future? The key, he suggests, is the one-directional flowing of heat from warmer objects to colder ones. An ice cube dropped into a hot cup of coffee cools the coffee. But the process is not reversible: it is a one-way street, as demonstrated by the second law of thermodynamics.

String String theory offers an alternative to Rovelli’s work in loop quantum gravity.

Time is also, as we experience it, a one-way street. He explains it in relation to the concept of entropy- the measure of the disordering of things. Entropy was lower in the past. Entropy is higher in the future- there is more ailment, there are more potentials. The pack of cards of the future is shuffled and uncertain, unlike the ordered and neatly arranged pack of cards of the past. But entropy, hot, past and future are qualities that belong not to the fundamental grammar of the world but to our superficial observation of it.” If I find the microscopic nation of things ,” writes Rovelli,” then the difference between past and future vanishes … in the elementary grammar of things, there is no distinction between’ cause’ and’ effect ‘.”

To understand this properly, I can indicate merely that you read Rovelli’s books, and pass swiftly over this approximation by someone who gave up school physics lessons joyfully at the first possible possibility. However, it turns out that I am precisely Rovelli’s perfect reader, or one of them, and he seems quite delighted when I check my freshly acquired understanding of the concept of entropy with him. (” You passed the quiz ,” he tells .)

” I try to write at several levels ,” he explains.” I think about the person who not only doesn’t know anything about physics but is also not interested. So I guess I am talking to my grandmother, who was a housekeeper. I also think some young students of physics are reading it, and I also think some of my colleagues are reading it. So I try to talk at different levels, but I keep the person who knows nothing in my mind .”

His biggest fans are the blank slates, like me, and his colleagues at universities- he gets most criticism from people in the middle,” those who know a bit of physics “. He is also pretty down on school physics. (” Calculating the speed at which a ball falls- who cares? In another life, I’d like to write a school physics volume ,” he tells .) And he believes the division of the world into the” two cultures” of natural sciences and human sciences is” stupid. It’s like taking England and dividing the children into groups, and you tell one group about music, and one group about literature, and the one who gets music is not allowed to read novels and the one who does literature is not allowed to listen to music .”

The joy of his writing is its broad culture compass. Historicism dedicates an initial hand-hold on the material.( He teaches a course on history of science, where he likes to bring science and humanities students together .) And then there’s the fact that alongside Einstein, Ludwig Boltzmann and Roger Penrose appear figures such as Proust, Dante, Beethoven, and, especially, Horace– each chapter begins with an epigraph from the Roman poet- as if to ground us in human sentiment and feeling before departing for the vertiginous world of black holes and spinfoam and cloud of probabilities.

” He has a side that is intimate, lyrical and highly intense; and he is the great singer of the pas of hour ,” Rovelli says.” There’s a feeling of nostalgia – it’s not anguish, it’s not regret – it’s a feeling of’ Let’s live life intensely ‘. A good friend of mine, Ernesto, who died quite young, gave me a little volume of Horace, and I have carried it around with me all my life .”

Rovelli’s view is that there is no contradiction between a vision of the universe that builds human life seem small and irrelevant, and our everyday regrets and elations. Or indeed between” cold science” and our inner, spiritual lives.” We are part of nature, and so joy and sorrow are aspects of nature itself- nature is much richer than just decides of atoms ,” he tells me. There’s a moment in Seven Lessons when he compares physics and poetry: both try to describe the unseen. It might be added that physics, when departing from its native language of mathematical equations, relies strongly on metaphor and analogy. Rovelli has a gift for memorable comparings. He tells us, for example, when explaining that the smooth “flow” of day is an illusion, that” The events of the world do not form an orderly queue like the English, they crowd around chaotically like the Italians .” The conception of period, he tells,” has lost layers one after another, piece by piece “. We are left with” an empty windswept scenery virtually devoid of all trace of temporality … a world stripped to its essence, glittering with an arid and troubling beauty “.

More than anything else I’ve ever read, Rovelli reminds me of Lucretius, the first-century BCE Roman author of the epic-length poem, On the Nature of Things. Perhaps not so odd, since Rovelli is a fan. Lucretius correctly hypothesised the existence of atoms, a hypothesi that would remain unproven until Einstein demonstrated it in 1905, and even as late as the 1890 s was being written off as absurd.

What Rovelli shares with Lucretius is not only a magnificence of language, but also a sense of humankind’s place in nature- at once a part of the fabric of the universe, and in a specific position to marvel at its great beauty. It’s a rationalist opinion: one that holds that by better understanding the universe, by disposing false belief and superstition, one might be able to enjoy a kind of serenity. Though Rovelli the man also acknowledges that the stuff of humanity is love, and dread, and desire, and passion: all made meaningful by our brief lives; our tiny span of allotted time.

The Order of Time is published by Allen Lane. To order a copy for PS9. 75( RRP PS1 2.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p& p over PS10, online orders merely. Telephone orders min p& p of PS1. 99.

Do alpha males even exist? | Dean Burnett

2 months, 27 days ago

Dean Burnett: Donald Trump has repeatedly been described as an alpha male, but theres no scientific proof that such a thing even exists in humans

We all know what an alpha male is. An alpha male is a man who takes charge, one who imposes his will on others , not the other way round. Other humen want to be him, girls want to be with him. An alpha male intimidates, hes unquestionably in charge , no matter what the situation. An alpha male is loud, brash, doesnt care what anybody else supposes. An alpha male says what he wants, does what he wants, wears what he wants, as long as those clothes are roomy enough in the trousers to accommodate his gargantuan gonads and dont dissolve in response to all the testosterone constantly leaking from his pores.

Thats members of the general notion, anyway. But the idea that human men can be alpha males is actually far from scientifically accepted. This may come as a surprise, dedicated how common and widespread the notion is. The latest example would be Donald Trump in his presidential debates. People have labelled him an alpha male, Nigel Farage even defended Trumps obscene commentaries about girls as alpha male boasting and compared him to a silverback gorilla, which for those very well known primate anatomy is actually quite an insult. So what, scientifically, is the case for alpha males among humans? As ever, its somewhat complicated.

Alpha males are supposed to be good with the dames. Photograph: Ron Cohn/ BBC

The origin of the human alpha male

New York Magazine has a very informative and detailed article about this, but the take-home message is that before the 1960 s there were scarcely any examples of humans being described as alpha males, the word was restricted to fields like primatology research. Species like chimps and gorillas do have social structure and hierarchies with a dominant individual at the top, typically a male who has achieved that positon via showings of strength and physical prowess. The fact that alpha males exist isnt disputed, its whether humen can actually be such a thing.

The term started being applied to humans with the publication of Frans de Waals Chimpanzee Politics, which constructed direct comparings between human and chimp behaviour, including the dominant the behavior of males. It became more mainstream when used in the context of Al Gores presidential campaign.

It truly became accepted as something humen should want to be with the success of Neil Strausss The Game, based on lessons he acquired from the Pick Up Artist community. This should trigger alarm bells for many; terms and methods acquired from Pick Up Artist should be treated with extreme scepticism at the very least. But, sex being the powerful motivator that it is, the idea that being an alpha male aimed at improving your life and attain you more successful with women demonstrated unbelievably beguiling, so acceptance and use of the term has now become the norm. But this doesnt mean its valid, just that its common.

Alpha males expect to get their own route at all times, and often do. Why that happens is another matter. Photo: Alvarez/ Getty Images

The case for the human alpha male

One reason that, despite a lack of concrete evidence, the idea of the human alpha male is so persuasive is that is makes a great deal of intuitive sense. The big, loud, brash guys who swagger and dominate and bully have been part of national societies for as long as its existed, so its nice to have a convenient label for them if nothing else.

Its hard to deny that humans are very susceptible to the process of social dominance; we exist in unequal hierarchies with inferior and superior individuals in almost every context, so its not far-fetched to assume that some humen rise to the top of these hierarchies due to a combination of physical and psychological qualities( such as height, a deep voice, and so on ).

Humans are, for better or worse, very easily influenced by displays of confidence, after all. And by acting confident, men could well find they get their route more often, and thus be compelled to continue. A self-fulfilling prophecy that indicates fake it til you make it is a valid approach to becoming an alpha male, and therefore propagate the idea. After all, girls love a bad boy( perhaps )~ ATAGEND.

Overall, human behaviour has many aspects that, taken together, suggest that alpha males are a real thing.

Displays of strength and prowess are common in the wild. They rarely involve oil and posing pouches, though … Photograph: Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/ AFP/ Getty Images

The lawsuit against the human alpha male

The conclusion in the previous section highlights the major problem with the arguments for human alpha males; it focuses on supporting evidence, and dismiss that which contradicts it. Because while human do share a number of features and behaviours with our primate cousins, we are invariably far more complex.

People can belong to different hierarchies, for example; a guy who is the most vocal, dominant person in his amateur football squad might be under the heel of an aggressive boss during his day chore. Is he an alpha male, or not? It depends on context, obviously. Humen have many different social groups and varying roles within them, because were more complex. A universal alpha seems unlikely.

Rather than relying on aggressive dominance, humans are actually far more cooperative and social. Some evidence suggests that our friendliness and sociability is what built us so smart embarking upon, so rather than being the top humen, you could argue that alpha males are something of an evolutionary throwback, the civilizational equivalent of an appendix; no longer employed, simply hangs around and occasionally fills everything with poison.

Supposed human alpha male behaviour also often doesnt match alpha male behaviour in other species. Many non-human alpha males also have a corresponding alpha female who exerts similar high levels of predominance and control, whereas human alpha males invariably have a less respectful attitude towards women, shall we say. Also, the fact that many communities of men( particularly online) are apparently remain convinced that they can all be alpha males is a contradiction in terms; there should only be one alpha male per community, thats sort of the whole phase. The remainder should try and depose him as and when the opportunity presents itself, but until then the objective is, at best, beta males, a word often used as an insult by members of said community with no sense of irony.

Its as if the idea of being an alpha male is very reassuring to those who lack confidence and are frightened by the wider world and people in it, so want to turn the tables.

This may be key. Supposed alpha males may always get their route not because of to some evolved tendency in humen to respect and obey men who showing a specific situated of characteristics, as if people were video games that respond to certain defraud codes, but simply because theyre scary. If a large, shouty man starts bellowing in your face, thats very unsettling, so people may do what he says to stop him from becoming violent, or simply to stimulate him go away. Said man would patently perceive this as evidence for his own superiority.

Maybe the supposed human alpha male is a combination of disgruntled male wish fulfilment and borderline-pseudoscientific justification for resorting to bully, intimidation and generally all-round unpleasant behaviour by humen hoping to impose their will on a world they find too complex and unnerving so revert to their baser instincts to get what they want, despite knowing deep down they dont deserve it and shouldnt have it?

In fairness, alpha male is a lot more succinct.

Dean Burnetts debut volume The Idiot Brain is available now in the UK , USA and Canada .

Read more: www.theguardian.com

Can self-control truly get used up?

3 months, 13 days ago

Image: Blend Images/ AP

Does willpower have a limit?

For more than 15 years, psychologists believed the answer to that topic was clearly yes. Indeed, a whole line of research, based on a seminal study published in 1998, suggested that not only is human willpower a depletable resource, but it’s also drawn from a singular source in the brain. Hold back from scarfing down a chocolate chip cookie, and you’ll be less persistent at logic puzzles. Refrain from expressing your emotions, and math problems will seem much better painful.

Lately, though, this theory has taken a hit several, in fact. Many psychologists now think this phenomenon, dubbed “ego depletion, ” doesn’t exist at all.

“The foundations of the hypothesi and the mechanisms behind the hypothesi are so shaky” that it may be day for researchers to “stop and let that[ idea] run, ” said Magda Osman, a psychologist at Queen Mary University of London.

Other experts have said that people do run out of will power, but the theory of ego depletion is more complicated than has been outlined so far.

Self-control is an important construct within psychology, ” said Martin Hagger, a psychologist at Curtin University in Australia. “I just think the style in which it’s been tested, and this paradigm we’ve been using, is somewhat limited and therefore causes problems.”

A brief history of ego depletion

Hagger was one of the leaders of a major attempt to replicate the ego-depletion effect in multiple lab, using the same experimental protocol as the original analyse. These kinds of replication attempts are becoming more widespread as psychology deals with what’s been dubbed the “replication crisis.” If an effect seen in one analyse is real, the findings should be replicated over and over again in multiple experiments. In the last few years, however, researchers have discovered that a number of major psychology examines aren’t replicable.

Hagger and his colleagues’ replication attempt added the ego-depletion effect to that group. The researchers’ paper, published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science in July 2016, determined no evidence that ego depletion exists.

Prior to that finding, ego depletion seemed on relatively steady ground. The original examine, led by psychologist Roy Baumeister, who was then a researcher at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, tackled the question in multiple ways. First, participants had to do a task involving willpower( eating radishes instead of cookies, making a persuasive speech that ran counter to their own faiths or suppressing their emotions during a clip of the movie “Terms of Endearment” ). Then, participants had to do an unrelated but also challenging task, like working on unsolvable puzzles or unscrambling words.

Again and again, Baumeister and colleagues found that exerting willpower in one domain seemed to exhaust it, leaving no willpower available for tasks in other domains.

Other researchers took the idea further. For instance, one line of work suggested that the limited resource being depleted was glucose, the brain’s fuel. A 2012 examine, headed up by Hagger, found that even simply swishing a sugary drinking around in one’s mouth seemed to give people more willpower to perform feats of physical strength or tedious chores. The sugary savor, it seemed, was fooling the brain into thinking it had more fuel.

Cracks in the edifice

There were challenges to the ego-depletion hypothesi, but the first to cause great alarm was a 2015 newspaper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. The paper was a meta-analysis, or a statistical reanalysis of data from multiple studies. Previous meta-analyses of the ego-depletion consequence indicated the effect was real, but the 2015 paper blew all that out of the water.

The researchers employed a statistical technique to adjust for small studies that showed very large effects for willpower depletion. Examines with small sample sizes have a lot of variability, Hagger told Live Science. Thirty or so people aren’t very representative of all of humanity, after all. Thus, in surveys with small samples, researchers expect to get some false positives, experimentations that suggest that the effect you’re looking for is real, when it in fact doesn’t exist. As sample sizes get larger and thus more like the real population, the false-positive problem should decrease.

The 2015 meta-analysis, though, found that the research literature on ego depletion was chock-full of studies that had small sample sizes with big effects and virtually zero small sample sizes indicating no effect. It was a red flag for publication bias: Publications don’t typically want to publish analyzes that find that two things aren’t associated. Thus, studies that do find relationships, even by chance, are more likely to be published.

The meta-analysis worried Hagger and his colleagues, so they launched their multinational replication attempt. They used simple computer-based tasks that could easily transfer from lab to lab without speech or cultural differences causing problems.

“We found that the ego-depletion consequence was roughly zero, ” Hagger said.

The tide is turning against the notion of willpower as depletable in other routes, too. A meta-analysis published in July in the journal Psychological Science examined the question of whether glucose limits willpower. Queen Mary University of London’s Osman and her colleagues utilized a new statistical method called p-curve analysis to re-examine examines in the field. In statistics, a p-value is the likelihood that a finding resulted by chance. Most of the time, psychologists consider findings to be significant if the p-value is less than 0.05, meaning there’s a 95 percent opportunity the finding is real and a 5 percentage chance it’s a fluke.

Osman and her squad plotted out the p-values of several previous analyses of glucose and willpower, and found that the distribution of these values was flat, rather than skewed toward smaller p-values, as they would be if the effect was real. In other words, the published findings connecting glucose to strength of will were likely merely showing things that happened by chance.

What comes next?

The crumbling of the social sciences of willpower doesn’t mean that psychologists have been dishonest or unscrupulous, Hagger said. Rather, a lot of small problems in the way research is conducted and published can add up to piles of data that don’t entail much, he said.

For example, because of funding and convenience, analyzes are often conducted on small sample sizes, where opportunity results are more likely. Researchers tinker with their experimental methods as they conduct experimentations, supposing they’re honing in on the “right” way to determine the effects they’re interested in, when in fact they’re just upping the odds that they’ll find a statistically significant effect by chance.

“Scientists have to ask themselves, how long do you have to go testing this impact until you realise it might not be there at all? ” Hager said.

“There’s a huge momentum around what seems like a very intuitive, clever and neat idea.”

Journals prefer to publish significant findings, while “null” reports languish in file drawers. Tenure decisions in universities depend on publication, and competitiveness becomes part of the culture, Hagger said, with scientists working their whole careers to defend a pet hypothesi. And because psychology, including with regard to, is so relevant to everyday life, flashy findings like ego depletion become the subject of media coverage, pop-psychology books and public lectures.

“There’s a huge momentum around what seems like a very intuitive, clever and neat notion, ” Osman said.

Hagger said he believes there is some truth to the idea of ego depletion. He and his colleagues have done is currently working on ego depletion in field studies, looking at dieters and smokers resisting real-world temptations, and those results hold up to the kind of statistical scrutiny that has brought down the more experimental analyses, done with college student in labs, he said.

Ironically, the whole story of ego depletion been shown that the gold standard of experimental psychology running repeatable experimentations in which variables can be carefully controlled might not be the best way to test willpower, Hagger said. Motivation, for example, is very artificial in a laboratory environment, where participants might be hungover college students just trying to get extra credit for Psych 101.

Osman said she isn’t “sure hes got one”. “Yeah, it’s bad, ” she told Live Science.

“I would say let’s move on from[ ego depletion ], ” she said, “and try to look at other less sexy kinds of ideas, like mental fatigue and cognitive resources and executive function, because I think that complements a lot of work in other areas of psychology that is less attractive but has more serious foundations.”

Baumeister, the originator of the ego-depletion theory, is now a prof of psychology at the University of Queensland in Australia, and declined to comment for this article. In a rebuttal to Hagger’s replication that Baumeister published July 2016 in the publication Perspectives on Psychological Science, however, he called the computer tasks used in the replication “foolish.” Baumeister also announced plans for his own multilab replication experiment.

Both Hagger and Osman told Live Science that real-world analyzes and more replication endeavors will be the key to making sure the next generation of psychology research is on sturdier ground than the last. Researchers are already realizing that they need larger sample sizes and greater collaboration to make sure their results are solid, Hagger said.

“We’ve got to the stage where people are truly standing up and taking notice, ” he said. “Changes are happening.”

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Trump discussed a commission on vaccines and autism with a prominent anti-vaxxer

3 months, 22 days ago

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. talks with reporters in the hall of Trump Tower in New York, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017.
Image: AP Photo/ Evan Vucci

UPDATE: Jan. 10, 2017, 5:59 p.m. EST The Trump transition team walked back Robert F. Kennedy’s assertion that a vaccine commission is being formed, instead stating he is “exploring the possibility of forming a committee on Autism.”

President-elect Donald J. Trump has asked anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to chair the regional commissions on vaccine security, Kennedy said after meeting with Trump Tuesday.

This appointment is certain to rattle the scientific community, since Kennedy is a well-known anti-vaccine proponent who falsely believes that vaccine ingredients cause autism. This is a claim that scientists have debunked time and time again.

“President-elect Trump has some doubts about the present vaccine policies and he has the issue of it, ” Kennedy said after the meeting, according to a pool report.

For his part, Trump has publicly expressed his own concerns about vaccines and their link to autism, despite the absence of proof to support such a link.

A history of anti-vaccine rhetoric

Trump has a history of anti-vaccine rhetoric.

During the Republican primaries in 2015, for example, Trump said that he was in favor of inoculations but still expressed concerns about how they’re administered.

“I am totally in favor of vaccines, ” Trump said during a Sept. 16 debate. “But I want smaller doses over longer periods. Because you take a newborn in and I’ve insured it and I’ve insured it, and I had my children taken care of over a longer period, over a two or three year period of time.”

The idea that vaccines should be spaced out over years would actually render many of life-saving vaccinations ineffective, scientists have said.

In 2014, Trump tweeted about his autism and inoculation beliefs.

Trump’s relationship with the anti-vaccine motion doesn’t end with Kennedy, either.

Just before the election, Trump also met with Andrew Wakefield, whose now-debunked and recanted 1998 examine connecting vaccines to autism effectively sparked the anti-vaccine movement.

After meeting with Trump, Wakefield said that he found him “extremely interested, genuinely interested, and open-minded on this issue, so that was enormously refreshing, ” according to STAT News.

Wakefield’s license to practice medicine was rescinded by the General Medical Council in the United Kingdom in 2010 after it was found that he conducted unethical research.

Scientific consensus

According to the scientific community, inoculations do not cause autism.

A 2011 Institute of Medicine study looking at eight vaccines “found that with rare exceptions, these vaccines are very safe, ” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention( CDC ).

“A 2013 CDC examine added to the research showing that vaccines do not cause ASD[ autism spectrum disorder ], ” the CDC states on its website.

“The study looked at the number of antigens( substances in vaccines that cause the bodys immune system to render disease-fighting antibodies) from inoculations during the first two years of life. The outcomes showed that the total amount of antigen from vaccines received was the same between children with ASD and those that did not have ASD.”

At the moment, recommendations on inoculations and day are made by the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, a group of scientists select through a “rigorous nomination process, ” according to STAT News. The committee’s vacancies are also staggered, STAT added, means that Trump cannot simply appoint a large number of anti-vaccine activists to the committee in one go.

Trump’s move to create a vaccine commission that may review federal inoculation guidelines and research is in keeping with other highly questionable scientific opinions he holds, such as falsely claiming that human-caused global warming is a hoax.

BONUS: Trump and Carson on Vaccines

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The high-stakes online future of open-access science

4 months, 22 days ago

The Internet turned academic publishing on its head. With it researchers and journals began opting to publish open access to improve visibilitypaywalls be damned. But science can be strangely steadfast in its habits and most research articlesare still not free and open to all.

Some argue that may be agood thingwhile otherssuch as PLOS One andBioMed Centralthink open access is theway of the future.

To that objective it’s the eighth-annual Open Access Weekone to celebrate all things open access in the world of academia. Open access is a new tendency in academic publishing where more periodicals and scientists are opting to make their data free and available to all. Some periodicals, like PLOS One, are altogether open access, whereas others publish open access on an article-by-article basis.

Generally speaking, publishing open access is meant for the benefit of science overall. It means that researchers looking to deepen their understanding of a particular subject can easily read the literature without having to go through obscenely expensive subscriptions to certain publications. Because open-access articles are published under creative commons licenses, it also means that researchers can create tools to aggregate articles under common themes.

For the layperson, open access also means the average non-scientists can immediately interact with the scientific literaturesomething the U.S. taxpayer may want to do since many studies are government money. Open access also allows researchers to better their knowledge and understanding: It means doctors have more access to new research.

The history of open access

To understand open access, we need to understand how research is traditionally distributedphysically and at great expense. Academic journals would take papers from researchers, send them off to experts in the field for peer review, and then choose to accept or reject the paper based on those reviews. Then they would publish the article with figures and tables and circulate it to libraries, academic institutions, and whoever paid for a subscription. According to this video published by the slice-of-life-in-academia webcomic, PhD Comics, subscriptions to particular periodicals can cost a library thousands of dollars per year.

That means institutions have to pick and choose which journals and publishing houses they are in favour of. If youre a researcher or graduate student at a particular university that doesnt subscribe to a specific publication, that means you hit a paywall when you try to access the full text of a journal article. Often you can read the abstract for free, but as weve written about before, abstracts are chiefly teasers.

If youre a layperson who doesnt work on colleges and universities, your access is even more limited to the point of not having access to science at all.

Why isnt everything open access ?

In addition to sciences general sluggishness to change, some lob decent criticisms of open science. Most of the debates centre around the idea of oversaturating the scientific community with a deluge of information. For researchers, this can make it difficult to parse out data and information that is and is not relevant to their own research. For laypeople, it is unable to lead to a misunderstanding of the dataintentional or notthat could lead people to develop misinformed beliefs.

Theres also the defense of maintaining at the least some science closed to prevent its misuse. In 2011 scientists made a particularly virulent strain of the H5N1 flu virus, inciting an ethical quandary of whether or not to publish the dataand how much of the data should be available to those who wish to access the paper.

Theres also the issue of cost. Open-access articles mean that institutions and individuals no longer have to pay for the article. That shifts the cost of publishing onto the researcher( and their institution) instead. This can open the door for some periodicals to fake peer reviews in order to take advantage of the income from publishing open access. But you can keep track of these predatory periodicals by consulting an ever-updating list of them online.

If you want to sink your teeth into some open-access goodness, check out our field guide to understanding science onlineitll help you learn to read and construe articles. Then hop over to open-access periodicals like PLOS One and eLife. You can broaden your science horizons by checking out individual open-access articles. Many databases such as Elsevier also have guides to their open-access material. PubMed has a filter for free full text articles on every search query to assistance narrow down outcomes to free and open-access articles only.

You can also check out PLOS Ones blog for more events about Open Access Week.

Photo via Ainsley Seago/ PLOS One( CC BY 4.0 )

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Therapy wars: the revenge of Freud | Oliver Burkeman

5 months, 17 days ago

The long read: Cheap and effective, CBT became the dominant kind of therapy, consigning Freud to psychologys dingy basement. But new analyzes have cast doubt on its domination and presented dramatic results for psychoanalysis. Is it is high time to get back on the lounge?

Dr David Pollens is a psychoanalyst who assures his patients in a modest ground-floor office on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a neighbourhood probably only rivalled by the Upper West Side for the highest concentration of therapists anywhere on countries around the world. Pollens, who is in his early 60 s, with thinning silver hair, sits in a wooden armchair at the head of a sofa; his patients lie on the lounge, facing away from him, the very best to investigate their most embarrassing fears or fantasies. Many of them come several times a week, sometimes for years, in keeping with analytic tradition. He has an impressive track record treating anxiety, depression and other disorders in adults and children, through the medium of uncensored and largely unstructured talk.

To visit Pollens, as I did one darknes wintertimes afternoon late last year, is to plunge immediately into the arcane Freudian speech of resistance and neurosis, transference and counter-transference. He exudes a sort of warm neutrality; you could easily imagine telling him your most troubling secrets. Like other members of his tribe, Pollens ensure himself as an excavator of the catacomb of the unconscious: of the sex drives that lurk beneath awareness; the hatred we feel for those we claim to love; and the other distasteful truths about ourselves we dont know, and often dont wish to know.

But theres a very well-known narrative when it comes to therapy and the relief of agony and it leaves Pollens and his fellow psychoanalysts decisively on the wrong side of history. For a start, Freud( this story runs) has been debunked. Young boys dont lust after their mothers, or fear their fathers will castrate them; adolescent girls dont envy their brethren penises. No brain scan has in the past situated the ego, super-ego or id. The practice of charging clients steep fees to ponder their childhoods for years while characterising any objections to this process as resistance, demanding farther psychoanalysis looks to many like a swindle. Arguably no other notable figure in history was so fantastically incorrect about nearly every important thing he had to say than Sigmund Freud, the philosopher Todd Dufresne proclaimed a few years back, summing up the consensus and echoing the Nobel prize-winning scientist Peter Medawar, who in 1975 called psychoanalysis the most stupendous intellectual confidence trick of the 20 th century. It was, Medawar went on, a terminal product as well something akin to a dinosaur or a zeppelin in the history of notions, a vast structure of radically unsound design and with no posterity.

A jumble of therapies emerged in Freuds wake, as therapists struggled to set their endeavours on a sounder empirical footing. But from all these approaches including humanistic therapy, interpersonal therapy, transpersonal therapy, transactional analysis and so on its generally agreed that one emerged triumphant. Cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT, is a down-to-earth technique focused not on the past but the present; not on mysterious inner drives, but on adjusting the unhelpful think patterns that cause negative emotions. In contrast to the meandering conversations of psychoanalysis, a typical CBT exercise might involve filling out a flowchart to identify the self-critical automatic thoughts that occur whenever you face a setback, like being criticised at work, or rejected after a date.

CBT has always had its critics, primarily on the left, because its cheapness and its focus on getting people promptly back to productive work constructs it suspiciously attractive to cost-cutting politicians. But even those opposed to it on ideological grounds have rarely questioned that CBT does the job. Since it first emerged in the 1960 s and 1970 s, so many studies have stacked up in its favour that, these days, the clinical lingo empirically supported therapies is usually simply a synonym for CBT: its the one thats based on facts. Seek a therapy referral on the NHS today, and youre much more likely to end up , not in anything resembling psychoanalysis, but in a short series of highly structured sessions with a CBT practitioner, or perhaps learning methods to interrupt your catastrophising believing via a PowerPoint presentation, or online.

Yet rumblings of dissent from the vanquished psychoanalytic old guard have never quite gone away. At their core is a fundamental disagreement about human nature about why we suffer, and how, if ever, we can hope to find peace of mind. CBT exemplifies a very concrete opinion of painful emotions: that theyre principally something be removed, or failing that, made tolerable. A condition such as depression, then, is a bit like a cancerous cancer: sure, it might be useful to figure out where it came from but its far more important to get rid of it. CBT doesnt exactly claim that happiness is easy, but it does imply that its relatively simple: your distress is caused by your irrational faith, and its within your power to confiscate hold of those faiths and change them.

Psychoanalysts contend that things are much more complicated. For one thing, psychological pain needs first not to be eliminated, but understood. From this perspective, depression is less like a tumour and more like a stabbing ache in your abdomen: its telling you something, and you need to find out what.( No responsible GP would just pump you with painkillers and send you home .) And happiness if such a thing is even achievable is a much murkier matter. We dont actually know our own minds, and we often have powerful motives for keeping things that way. We find life through the lens of our earliest relationships, though we usually dont realise it; we want contradictory things; and change is slow and hard. Our conscious minds are tiny iceberg-tips on the dark ocean of the unconscious and you cant genuinely investigated that ocean by means of CBTs simple, standardised, science-tested steps.

This viewpoint has much romantic appeal. But the analysts debates fell on deaf ears so long as experimentation after experiment seemed to confirm the superiority of CBT which helps explain the shocked response to a study, published last May, that seemed to show CBT get less and less effective, as a therapy for depression, over time.

Examining scores of earlier experimental trials, two researchers from Norway concluded that its consequence sizing a technological measure of its usefulness had fallen by half since 1977.( In the unlikely event that this trend were to persist, it could be entirely useless in a few decades .) Had CBT somehow benefited from a kind of placebo impact all along, effective merely so long as people believed it was a miracle cure?

That puzzle was still being digested when researchers at Londons Tavistock clinic published results in October from the first rigorous NHS study of long-term psychoanalysis as a treatment for chronic depression. For the most severely depressed, it concluded, 18 months of analysis worked far better and with much longer-lasting effects than treatment as usual on the NHS, which included some CBT. Two years after the various therapies ended, 44% of analysis patients no longer fulfilled the criteria for major depression, compared to one-tenth of the others. Around the same day, the Swedish press reported a finding from government auditors there: that a multimillion pound scheme to reorient mental healthcare towards CBT had proved completely ineffective in meeting its goals.

Such findings, it turns out, arent isolated and in their midst, a newly emboldened band of psychoanalytic therapists are pressing the instance that CBTs pre-eminence has been largely built on sand. Indeed, they argue that teaching people to guess themselves to wellness might sometimes make things worse. Every thoughtful person knows that self-understanding isnt something you get from the drive-thru, said Jonathan Shedler, a psychologist at the University of Colorado medical school, who is one of CBTs most unsparing critics. His default bearing is one of wry good humour, but exasperation ruffled his demeanor whenever our dialogue dwelt too long on CBTs claims of supremacy. Novelists and poets seemed to have understood this truth for thousands of years. Its only in the last few decades that people have said, Oh , no, in 16 sessions we can change lifelong patterns! If Shedler and others are right, it may be time for psychologists and therapists to re-evaluate much of what they thought they knew about therapy: about what works, what doesnt, and whether CBT has really consigned the cliche of the chin-stroking shrink and with it, Freuds picture of the human mind to history. The impact of such a re-evaluation could be profound; eventually, it might even change how millions of people around the world are treated for psychological problems.

How does that stimulate “youre feeling”?


Freud was full of horseshit ! the therapist Albert Ellis, arguably the progenitor of CBT, liked to say. Its hard to deny he had a phase. One big part of the problem for psychoanalysis has been the evidence that its founder was something of a charlatan, prone to distorting his findings, or worse.( In one especially eye-popping example, which only came to sun in the 1990 s, Freud told a patient, the American psychiatrist Horace Frink, that his sadnes stemmed from an inability to recognise that he was lesbian and hinted that the answer lay in making a large fiscal contribution to Freuds run .)


Illustration: Peter Gamlen for the Guardian

But for those working challenging psychoanalysis with alternative approaches to therapy, even more troublesome was the sense that even the most sincere psychoanalyst is always engaged in a guessing-game, always prone to finding proof of his or her hunches, whether its there or not. The basic premise of psychoanalysis, after all, is that our lives are was governed by unconscious forces, which speak to us only indirectly: through symbols in dreamings, accidental slip-ups of the tongue, or through what infuriates us about others, which is a clue to what we cant face in ourselves. But all this stimulates the whole thing unfalsifiable. Protest to your shrink that , no, you dont actually dislike your father, and that merely shows how desperate you must be to avoid acknowledging to yourself that you do.

This problem of self-fulfilling prophecies is a disaster for anyone hoping to figure out, in a scientific route, whats really going on in the mind and by the 1960 s, advances in scientific psychology had reached a point at which patience with psychoanalysis began to run out. Behaviourists such as BF Skinner had already shown that human behaviour could be predictably manipulated, much like that of pigeons or rats, by means of penalty and reward. The burgeoning cognitive revolution in psychology is of the view that goings-on inside the mind could be measured and manipulated too. And since the 1940 s, there had been a pressing need to do so: thousands of soldiers returning from the second world war exhibited emotional disturbances that exclaimed out for rapid, cost-effective treatment , not years of dialogue on the couch.

Before laying the groundwork for CBT, Albert Ellis had in fact originally trained as a psychoanalyst. But after practising for some years in New York in the 1940 s, he found his patients werent getting better and so, with a self-confidence that would come to define his career, he concluded that analysis, rather than his own abilities, must be to blame. Along with other like-minded therapists, he turned instead to the ancient philosophy of Stoicism, teaching clients that it was their beliefs about the world , not events themselves, that distressed them. Getting change over for a promotion might induce unhappiness, but depression came from the irrational propensity to generalise from that single setback to an image of oneself as an all-round failure. As I see it, Ellis told an interviewer decades later, psychoanalysis devotes clients a cop-out. They dont have to change their styles they get to talk about themselves for 10 years, blaming their parents and waiting for magic-bullet insights.

Thanks to the breezy , no-nonsense tone will be approved by CBTs supporters, its easy to miss how revolutionary its claims were. For traditional psychoanalysts and those who practise newer psychodynamic techniques, largely derived from traditional psychoanalysis what happens in therapy is that seemingly irrational symptoms, such as the endless repetition of self-defeating patterns in love or run, are revealed to be at least somewhat rational. Theyre responses that made sense in the context of the patients earliest experience.( If a parent abandoned you, years ago, its not so strange to live in constant dread that your spouse might do so too and thus to act in ways that screw up your matrimony as a result .) CBT flips that on its head. Feelings that might appear rational such as impression depressed about what a disaster your life is stand exposed as the outcomes of irrational thinking. Sure, you lost your job; but it doesnt follow that everything will be awful forever.


Illustration: Peter Gamlen for the Guardian

If this second approach is right, change is clearly far simpler: you need only identify and correct various thought-glitches, rather than decoding the secret reasons for your agony. Symptoms such as sadness or nervousnes arent necessarily meaningful clues to long-buried anxieties; theyre intruders to be banished. In analysis, the relationship between therapist and patient serves as a kind of petri dish, in which the patient re-enacts her habitual ways of pertaining with others, enabling them to be better understood. In CBT, youre just trying to get rid of a problem.

The sweary, freewheeling Ellis was destined to remain an foreigner, but the approach he pioneered soon attained respectability thanks to Aaron Beck, a sober-minded psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania.( Now 94, Beck has probably never called anything horseshit in his life .) In 1961, Beck devised a 21 -point questionnaire, known as the Beck Depression Inventory, to quantify clients suffering and showed that, in about half of all cases, a few months of CBT relieved the worst symptoms. Objections from analysts were dismissed, with some justification, as the complaints of people trying to protect their lucrative turf. They detected themselves compared to 19 th-century medical doctors bungling improvisers, threatened and offended by the notion that their mystic art could be reduced to a sequence of evidence-based steps.

Many more analyzes followed, demonstrating the added benefit of CBT in treating everything from depression to obsessive-compulsive disorder to post-traumatic stress. I went to the early seminars on cognitive therapy to fulfill myself that it was another approach that wouldnt work, David Burns, who went on to popularise CBT in his worldwide bestseller Feeling Good, told me in 2010. But I passed the techniques to my patients and people whod seemed hopeless and stuck for years began to recover.

Theres little doubt that CBT has helped millions, at least to some degree. This has been especially true in the UK since the economist Richard Layard, a vigorous CBT evangelist, became Tony Blairs happiness czar. By 2012, more than a million people had received free therapy as a result of the initiative Layard helped push through, working with the Oxford psychologist David Clark. Even if CBT wasnt especially effective, you might argue, that kind of reach would count for a lot. Yet its hard to shake the sense that something big is missing from its model of the agony mind. After all, we experience our own inner lives, and our relationships with others, as bewilderingly complex. Arguably the entire history of both religion and literature is an attempt to grapple with what it all means; neuroscience daily uncovers new subtleties in the workings of the brain. Could the answer to our woes truly be something as superficial-sounding as identifying automatic supposes or modifying your self-talk or challenging your inner critic? Could therapy genuinely be so straightforward that you could receive it not from a human but from a book, or a computer?

A few years ago, after CBT had started to dominate taxpayer-funded therapy in Britain, a woman Ill call Rachel, from Oxfordshire, tried therapy on the NHS for depression, following the birth of her first child. She was sent first to sit through a group PowerPoint presentation, promising five steps to improve your mood; then she received CBT from a therapist and, in between sessions, via computer. I dont guess anything has ever constructed me feel as lonely and isolated as having a computer program ask me how I felt on a scale of one to five, and after Id clicked the sad emoticon on the screen telling me it was sorry to hear that in a prerecorded voice, Rachel recalled. Completing CBT worksheets under a human therapists guidance wasnt much better. With postnatal depression, she said, youve run from a situation in which youve been working, earning your own money, doing interesting things and suddenly youre at home on your own, mostly covered in sick, with no adult to talk to. What she required, she sees now, was real connect: that fundamental if hard-to-express sense of being held in the mind of another person, even if only for a short period each week.

I may be mentally ill, Rachel said, but I do know that a computer does not feel bad for me.


Jonathan Shedler remembers where he was when he first realised there might be something to the psychoanalytic notion of the mind as a realm far more complex, and peculiar, than most of us imagine. He was an undergraduate, at college in Massachusetts, when a psychology lecturer astounded him by construing a dream Shedler had associated about driving on bridges over ponds, and trying on hats in a store as an expression of the fear of pregnancy. The lecturer was exactly right: Shedler and his girlfriend, whose dream it was, were at that moment waiting to learn if she was pregnant, and urgently hoping she wasnt. But the lecturer knew none of this context; he was apparently merely an expert interpreter of the symbolism of dreams. The impact could not have been greater, Shedler recollected, if his terms had been heralded by celestial cornets. He decided that if there were people in the world who understood such things, I had to be one of them.

Yet academic psychology, the field Shedler next entered, entail having that kind of exuberance for the mysteries of the mind drummed out of you; researchers, he concluded, were committed to quantification and measurement, but not to the inner lives of real people. To become a psychoanalyst takes years of training, and its compulsory to undergo analysis yourself; analyzing the intellect at university, by contrast, necessitates zero real-life experience.( Shedler is now that rarity, a trained therapist and researcher, who bridges both worlds .) You know that thing about how you need 10,000 hours of practise to develop an expertise? he asked. Well, most of the researchers inducing pronouncements[ about which therapies work] dont have 10 hours!

Shedlers subsequent research and writing has played a significant role in undermining the received wisdom that theres no hard evidence for psychoanalysis. But its undeniable that the early psychoanalysts were sniffy about research: they were prone to viewing themselves as embattled practitioners of a subversive art that needed nurturing in specialist institutions which in practice meant forming cliquish private bodies, and rarely interacting with university experimenters. Research into cognitive approaches thus got a big head start and it was the 1990 s before empirical studies of psychoanalytic techniques began hinting that the cognitive consensus might be flawed. In 2004, a meta-analysis concluded that short-term psychoanalytic approaches were at least as good as other routes for many ailments, leaving recipients better off than 92% of all patients prior to therapy. In 2006, a study tracking approximately 1,400 people suffering from depression, nervousnes and related conditions ruled in favour of short-term psychodynamic therapy, too. And a 2008 analyse into borderline personality disorder concluded that merely 13% of psychodynamic patients still had the diagnosis five years after the end of therapy, compared with 87% of the others.


Illustration: Peter Gamlen for the Guardian

These analyzes havent always compared analytic therapies with cognitive ones; the comparison is often with treatment as usual, a phrase that encompasses a multitude of sins. But over and over again, as Shedler has argued, the starkest differences between the two emerge some time after therapy has finished. Ask how people are doing as soon as their therapy ends, and CBT seems persuading. Return months or years later, though, and the benefits have often faded, while the effects of psychoanalytic therapies remain, or have even increased is recommended that they may restructure the personality in a lasting style, rather than simply helping people manage their moods. In the NHS study conducted at the Tavistock clinic last year, chronically depressed patients receiving psychoanalytic therapy stood a 40% better opportunity of going into partial remission, during every six-month period of the research, than those receiving other treatments.

Alongside this growing body of evidence, intellectuals have begun to ask pointed questions about the studies that first fuelled CBTs ascendancy. In a provocative 2004 newspaper, the Atlanta-based psychologist Drew Westen and his colleagues showed how researchers motivated by the desire for an experiment with clearly interpretable outcomes had often excluded up to two-thirds of possibilities participants, typically because they had multiple psychological problems. The practise is understandable: when a patient has more than one problem, its harder to untangle the lines of cause and impact. But it may mean that the people who do get analyzed are extremely atypical. In real life, our psychological problems are intricately embedded in our personalities. The issue you bring to therapy( depression, say) may not be the one that emerges after several conferences( for example, the need to come to words with a sex orientation you fear your family wont accept ). Moreover, some studies have sometimes seemed to unfairly stack the deck, as when CBT has been compared with psychodynamic therapy delivered by graduate students whod received only a few days cursory training in it, from other students.

But the most incendiary charge against cognitive approaches, from the torchbearers of psychoanalysis, is that they might actually make things worse: that finding ways to manage your depressed or anxious guess, for example, may simply postpone the point at which youre driven to take the plunge into self-understanding and lasting change. CBTs implied promise is that theres a relatively simple, step-by-step route to gain mastery over agony. But perhaps theres more to be gained from acknowledging how little control over our lives, our emotions, and other people actions we really have? The promise of mastery is seductive not just for patients but therapists, too. Clients are anxious about is available on therapy, and inexperienced therapists are anxious since they are dont have a clue “what were doing”, writes the US psychologist Louis Cozolino in a new volume, Why Therapy Works. Therefore, it is comforting for both parties to have a task they can focus on.

Not astonishingly, resulting supporters of CBT reject most of these criticisms, arguing that its been caricatured as superficial, and that some decrease in effectiveness is merely to be expected, because its grow so much in popularity. Early analyses employed small samples and pioneering therapists, enthused by the new approach; more recent analyses use bigger samples, and inevitably involve therapists with a wider range of talent levels. People who say CBT is superficial have just missed the phase, said Trudie Chalder, professor of cognitive behavioural psychotherapy at the Kings College Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience in London, who highlights the fact that no single therapy is best for all maladies. Yes, youre targeting peoples beliefs, but youre not only targeting easily accessible beliefs. Its not just Oh, such person or persons looked at me peculiarly, so they must not like me; its faiths like Im an unlovable person, which may derive from early experience. The past is very much taken into account.

Nonetheless, the dispute wont be settled by adjudicating between clashing analyses: it goes deeper than that. Experimenters may reach wildly different conclusions about which therapies have the best outcomes. But what should count as a successful outcome anyway? Examines measure relief of symptoms yet a crucial premise of psychoanalysis is that theres more to a meaningful life than being symptom-free. In principle, you might even aim a course of psychoanalysis sadder though wiser, more conscious of your previously unconscious reactions, and living in a more engaged way and still deem the experience a success. Freud famously declared that his aim was the transformation of neurotic suffering into common unhappiness. Carl Jung said humanity requires difficulties: they are necessary for health. Life is painful. Should we be thinking in terms of a cure for painful feelings at all?


Theres something profoundly appealing about the idea that therapy shouldnt be approached as a matter of science that our individual lives are too distinctive to be submitted to the relentless generalisation by which science must be pursued. That sentiment may help explain the commercial success of The Examined Life, Stephen Groszs 2013 collect of narratives from the analysts couch, which expended weeks on UK bestseller lists and has been translated into more than 30 languages. Its chapters consist not of experimental findings or clinical diagnoses, but of narratives, many of which involve a jolt of insight as the patient suddenly gets a sense of the depths he or she contains. Theres the man who lies compulsively, in a bid for secret intimacy with those he can persuade to join him in deceit, just like his mother hid evidence of his bedwetting; and the woman who eventually realises how effortfully shes been denying the evidence of her husbands infidelity when she notices how neatly someone has stacked the dishwasher.

Each life is unique, and your role, as an analyst, is to find the unique narrative of the patient, Grosz told me. There are so many things that only come out through slip-ups of the tongue, through someone confiding a fantasy, or employing a certain word. The analysts undertaking is to stay watchfully receptive to it all and then, from such ingredients, help people stimulate meaning of their lives.


Illustration: Peter Gamlen for the Guardian

Surprisingly, perhaps, recent support for this seemingly unscientific view has emerged from the most empirical corner of its further consideration of the mind: neuroscience. Many neuroscience experimentations have indicated that the brain processes information much faster than conscious awareness can keep track of it, so that countless mental operations run, in the neuroscientist David Eaglemans phrase, under the hood unseen by the conscious intellect in the driving-seat. For the above reasons, as Louis Cozolino writes in Why Therapy Works, by the time we become consciously aware of its own experience, it has already been processed many times, activated memories, and initiated complex patterns of behaviour.

Depending on how you interpret the evidence, it would seem we can do countless complex things from performing mental arithmetic, to reaching a automobiles brakes to avoid a crash, to making a choice of wedding partner before becoming aware that weve done them. This doesnt mesh well with a basic assumption of CBT that, with develop, we can learn to catch most of our unhelpful mental responses in the act. Rather, it seems to confirm the psychoanalytic intuition that the unconscious is huge, and largely in control; and that we live, unavoidably, through lenses created in the past, which we can only hope to modify partially, slowly and with great effort.

Perhaps the only undeniable truth to emerge from conflicts among therapists is that we still dont have much of a clue how minds run. When it comes to easing mental suffering, its like weve got a hammer, a watch, a nail-gun and a loo brush, and this box that doesnt always work properly, so we just maintain making the box with each of these tools to consider what works, said Jules Evans, policy director for the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London.

This may be why many intellectuals have been drew attention to what has become known as the dodo-bird verdict: the idea, supported by some studies, that the specific kind of therapy induces little difference.( The name comes from the Dodos pronouncement in Alice in Wonderland: Everybody has won, and all must have awards .) What seems to matter much more is the presence of a compassionate, dedicated therapist, and a patient committed to change; if one therapy is better than all others for all or even most problems, it has yet to be discovered. David Pollens, in his Upper East Side consulting room, said he had some pity for that verdict, despite his passion for psychoanalysis. There was a wonderful British analyst, Michael Balint, who was very involved in medical train, and he had a question he liked to pose[ to physicians ], Pollens said. It was: What do you think is the most powerful drug you prescribe? And people would try to answer that, and then eventually hed say: the relationship.

Yet even this conclusion that we simply dont know which therapies work best might be seen as a point in favour of Freud and his successors. Psychoanalysis, after all, personifies merely this awed meeknes about how little we can ever comprehend about the workings of our minds.( The one question nobody can ever answer, writes the Jungian analyst James Hollis, is of what are you unconscious ?) Freud the man scaled heights of arrogance. But his legacy is a reminder that we shouldnt inevitably expect life to be all that happy , nor to assume we can ever genuinely know whats going on inside indeed, that were often profoundly emotionally invested in preserving our ignorance of unsettling truths.

What happens in therapy, Pollens said, is that people come in asking for help, and then the very next thing they do is they try to stop you helping them. His smile hinted at these components of sillines in the situation and in the whole therapeutic endeavour, perhaps. How do we help a person when theyve told you, in one way or another, Dont help me? Thats what analytic treatment is about.

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Read more: www.theguardian.com

Marilyn’s dress to Britney’s gum: the social sciences of sky-high memorabilia prices

6 months, 13 days ago

Celebrity items tend to be relatively common artefacts yet attract phenomenal sums of fund. Why?

In November last year, the dress that Marilyn Monroe wore to sing Happy Birthday to President John F Kennedy sold for $4.81 million. In 2004, several pieces of Britney Spears used chewing gum sold for up to 100 a piece. There is even a market for the belongings of scorned someones: A bracelet Charles Manson induced in prison is currently selling for $4,500.

Some of these, like Marilyn Monroes dress, reflect a moment in history. But the attraction of others, such as Britney Spears chewing gum, are harder to explain. Celebrity items tend to be relatively common artefacts such as garb or furniture. Their previous ownership rarely adds any functional value and they are often indistinguishable from other, apparently identical items in the marketplace.

Nevertheless, some people are willing to pay huge amounts of money to own these objects and museums regularly hold exhibitions of celebrity collections. Why?

Try it at home

The degree to which a person values celebrity memorabilia will fall along a continuum. Some people value celebrity belongings enormously, while other people care very little. The following thought experimentation is accommodated from a paper by George Newman and colleagues at Yale University.

Write down the name of your favourite living celebrity or public figure. This could be a movie star, a musician, a professional athlete, a politician, etc. This should be someone whom you like very much and would be excited to satisfy personally.

Now imagine that you have the opportunity to bid on a sweater that belonged to that individual. On a scale from one( much less likely to purchase) to nine( much more likely to purchase ), how willing would you be to purchase the sweater compared to an identical use sweater( in the same condition) that was not owned by your favourite living celebrity?

On a scale of one( exceedingly unpleasant) to nine( highly pleasant ), how pleasant would you find the experience of wearing the sweater?

Now consider the following:

There is very little demand for items owned by your favourite living celebrity, so even if “youre trying to”, it is highly unlikely that you could resell the sweater to someone else. How willing would you be to purchase the sweater knowing this, and how pleasant would you find wearing it?

And now consider the following information:

This sweater was given to your favourite living celebrity as a gift but he/ she never actually wore it or even opened the box that it came in. How willing would you be to purchase the sweater knowing this, and how pleasant would you find wearing it?

If you have time, repeat this set of ratings but this time imagine that the sweater belongs to a living celebrity or public figure who you despise.

How it works

In a series of studiesinvolving nine hundred and forty American respondents, George Newman and colleagues found that, on average, respondents willingness to purchase their favourite celebritys sweater was not much affected by the information that they could not re-sell it.

However, willingness plummeted when respondents learned that the sweater had never been touched by the celebrity. This was especially the suit for respondents who were also very sensitive to physical contagion( for example, saying that they would never feed novelty chocolate shaped like dog-doo ).

The writers argue that this pattern of findings show that mere associations and market forces-out have limited influence on the cult of celebrity memorabilia. Instead, they suggest that magical contagion beliefs are what is driving much of the market for celebrity memorabilia in the West.

Magical contagion was first proposed by anthropologists in the late nineteenth century when they find cultural practises focused on the transfer of a persons identity( or soul) into inanimate objects. This is thought to be the basis for rituals such as Haitian voodoo ceremonies and Tibetan processes to determine the next Dalai Lama. There is a growing wealth of research to show that magical contagion faiths are also widespread in scientifically literate, Western adults across a variety of context.

And these biases arise early. In a study I helped run with Bruce Hood( Bristol University) and Paul Bloom( Yale University) we found that children from four years of age believed that an object that had once belonged to the Queen was worth significantly more than an identical transcript. And farther research we have conducted with George Newman is showing that there are consistent cultural differences in people motive for buying celebrity memorabilia.

How did you get on? Do you value your favourite celebritys sweater a lot, a little or not at all? And what effect did the knowledge that the celebrity had never touched it have on your willingness to purchase it? Are you a magical thinker too?

Read more: www.theguardian.com

The Great Barrier Reef: a catastrophe laid bare

6 months, 18 days ago

Australias natural wonder is in mortal threat. Bleaching caused by climate change has killed almost a one-quarter of its coral this year and many scientists believe it could be too late for the rest. Employing exclusive photographs and new data, a Guardian special report investigates how the reef has been devastated and what can be done to save it

It was the smell that really have to go to diver Richard Vevers. The smell of demise on the reef.

I cant even tell you how bad I smelt after the dive the smell of millions of rotting animals.

Vevers is a former advertising executive and is now the chief executive of the Ocean Agency, a not-for-profit company he founded to raise awareness of environmental problems.

After diving for 30 years in his spare time, he was compelled to combine his work and hobby when he was struck by the calamities faced by oceans around the world. Chief among them was coral bleaching, caused by climate change.

His job these days is instead morbid. He travels the world documenting dead and dying coral reefs, sometimes gathering photo only ahead of their demise, too.

With the world now in the midst of the longest and probably worst global coral bleaching event in history, its boom time for Vevers.

Even with all that experience, hed never seen anything like the desolation he saw last month around Lizard Island in the northern third of Australias spectacular Great Barrier Reef.

Gallery link: dead and dying coral at Lizard Island on Australias Great Barrier Reef. The once brilliant coral is blanketed by seaweed a sign of extreme ecosystem meltdown

As part of a project documenting the global bleaching event, he had surveyed Lizard Island, which sits about 90 km north of Cooktown in far north Queensland, when it was in full glorious health; then just as it started bleaching this year; then finally a few weeks after the bleaching began.

It was one of the most disgusting sights Ive ever seen, he says.

The hard corals were dead and covered in algae, looks a lot like theyve been dead for years. The soft corals were still dying and the flesh of the animals was decomposing and dripping off the reef structure.

Its the sort of description that would be hard to believe, if it wasnt captured in photographs. In images shared exclusively with the Guardian, the catastrophic nature of the current mass bleaching event on previously pristine parts of the Great Barrier Reef can now be revealed.

Richard Vevers, the founder and chief executive of the Ocean Agency, a not-for-profit that is documenting the longest coral bleaching event in history. Photograph: the Ocean Agency

Coral bleaches when the water its in is too warm for too long. The coral polyps gets stressed and spit out the algae who lives in inside them. Without the colorful algae, the coral flesh becomes transparent, uncovering the stark white skeleton beneath.

And because the algae provides the coral with 90% of its energy, it begins to starve. Unless the temperatures promptly return to normal, the coral dies and get taken over by a blanket of seaweed.

Once that happens it can take a decade for the coral to retrieve and even then that recovery depends on the reef not being hit by other stressors such as water pollution.

Vevers images show how the once brilliant coral first turned white and then became contained within seaweed.

While the hard corals are still holding their structure under the seaweed blanket, the soft corals are succumbing; dripping off the dead coral skeletons.

The thick seaweed is a sign of extreme ecosystem meltdown. Fish can no longer use the coral structure as shelter blocked by the plants and before long the coral structures themselves are likely to collapse, leaving little chance of full recovery within the next 10 years.

When the coral dies, the entire ecosystem around it transforms. Fish that feed on the coral, use it as shelter, or nibble on the algae that grows among it succumbs or move away. The bigger fish that feed on those fish disappear too. But the cascading consequences dont be brought to an end. Birds that eat fish lose their energy source, and island plants that thrive on bird fells can be depleted. And, of course, people who rely on reef for food, income or shelter from waves some half a billion people worldwide lose their vital resource.

1 – before and after images demonstrating white coral after bleaching, and then algae-covered dead coral

Justin Marshall, a biologist at the University of Queensland who expends a lot of his time analyzing the reef ecosystem around Lizard Island, says: What happens is the colony dies, the polyps disintegrate. The algae use that as fertiliser and grow very quickly over the coral head. And at that point its fated. Its going to break up.

Its like a forest where plants compete for sunlight. On the reef youve got this continuous competition between the seaweed and the coral. And, in the conditions weve got at the moment, the seaweed tends to win because its warm and its got lots of rotting stuff around to fertilise it.

Marshall says the thing that struck him about the bleaching event this year was not just the severity but the rapidity of the death. I was just blown away by that.

Once the seaweed has taken hold, and the structure of the reef is broken up and lost, studies have shown that recovery is slower. Reefs can be lost forever.

2- before and after images demonstrating white coral after bleaching, and then algae-covered dead coral

Whats at stake here is the largest living structure in the world, and by far the largest coral reef system. The oft-repeated cliche is that it can be seen from space, which is not surprising given it stretches more than 2,300 km in length and, between its virtually 3,000 individual reefs, encompasses an region about the size of Germany. It is an underwater world of unimaginable scale.

But it is up shut that the Great Barrier Reef genuinely astounds. Among its water live a dizzying array of colourful plants and animals. With 1,600 species of fish, 130 types of sharks and lights, and more than 30 species of whales and dolphins, it is one of the most complex ecosystems on the planet.

It begins in the subtropical water of Hervey Bay in Queensland, about 200 km north of Brisbane. From there it stretchings the rest of the route up the eastern coast of Australia, stopping only off the coast of Papua New Guinea.

About 2 million people visit it per year and together they contribute virtually$ 6bn to the Australian economy.

Going back for millennia, Indigenous Australians have relied on the Great Barrier Reef. As the world emerged from the last ice age about 20,000 years ago and sea level began to rise, Indigenous Australians moved off the region that was once a floodplain and would have watched as todays Great Barrier Reef formed.

Today there are more than 70 Indigenous groups with a connection to the reef, many of whom depend on it for their livelihoods.

3 – before and after images demonstrating white coral after bleaching, and then algae-covered dead coral

Perhaps most disturbingly, what Marshall and Vevers have witnessed on Lizard Island is in no way unique. In the upper third of the 2,300 km reef its estimated that about half the coral is dead.

Surveys have revealed that 93% of the almost 3,000 individual reefs have been touched by bleaching, and almost a one-quarter 22% of coral over the entire Great Barrier Reef has been killed by this bleaching event. On many reefs around Lizard Island and further north, there is utter devastation.

Further south, the bleaching is less severe. Since tourists usually run diving and snorkelling in the middle and southern segments, there are plenty of spectacular corals for them to see there. But they shouldnt be fooled by that the reef is in the midst of a major environmental catastrophe.

Many scientists are now saying it is almost too late to save it. Strong and immediate action is required to alleviate water pollution and stop the underlying cause: climate change.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

Is the world truly better than ever?

7 months, 19 days ago

The long read: The headlines have never been worse. But an increasingly influential group of thinkers insists that humankind has never had it so good and merely our pessimism is holding us back

By the end of last year, anyone who had been paying even passing attention to the news headlines was highly likely to conclude that everything was terrible, and that the only attitude that attained sense was one of profound cynicism tempered, perhaps, by cynical humor, on the principle that if the world is going to hell in a handbasket, one may as well try to enjoy the ride. Naturally, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump loomed largest for many. But you didnt need to be a remainer or a critic of Trumps to feel depressed by the carnage in Syria; by the deaths of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean; by North Korean missile exams, the spread of the zika virus, or terror attacks in Nice, Belgium, Florida, Pakistan and elsewhere nor by the spectre of catastrophic climate change, lurking behind everything else.( And all thats before even considering the string of deaths of beloved celebrities that seemed like a calculated attempt, on 2016 s part, to rub salt in the wound: in the space of a few months, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Carrie Fisher and George Michael, to name only a handful, were all gone .) And few of the headlines so far in 2017 Grenfell tower, the Manchester and London attacks, Brexit chaos, and 24/7 Trump provide any reason to take a sunnier view.

Yet one group of increasingly prominent commentators has seemed uniquely immune to the gloomines. In December, in an article headlined Never be borne in mind that we live in the best of days, the Times columnist Philip Collins an end-of-year summary of reasons to be cheerful: during 2016, he noted, the proportion of the worlds population living in extreme poverty had fallen below 10% for the first time; global carbon emissions from fossil fuel had failed to rise for the third year running; the death penalty had been ruled illegal in more than half of all countries and giant pandas had been removed from the endangered species list.

In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof proclaimed that by many measures, 2016 was the best year in the history of humanity, with falling global inequality, child mortality roughly half what it had been as recently as 1990, and 300,000 more people gaining access to electricity each day. Throughout 2016 and into 2017, alongside Collins at the Times, the author and former Northern Rock chairperson Matt Ridley the title of whose book The Rational Optimist constructs his inclinations plain kept up his weekly output of ebullient columns celebrating the promise of artificial intelligence, free trade and fracking. By the time the professional contrarian Brendan ONeill delivered his own version of the debate, in the Spectator( Nothing better sums up the aloofness of the chattering class than their blathering about 2016 being the worst year ever) the standpoint was becoming sufficiently well-entrenched that ONeill seemed in danger of forfeiting his contrarianism.

The loose but growing collection of pundits, academics and thinktank operatives who endorse this obstinately cheerful, handbasket-free account of our situation have occasionally been labelled the New Optimists, a name are aiming to elicited the rebellious scepticism of the New Atheists led by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. And from their perspective, our persisting mood of despair is irrational, and frankly a bit self-indulgent. They argue that it says more about us than it does about how things genuinely are exemplifying a certain tendency toward collective self-flagellation, and an unwillingness to believe in the power of human ingenuity. And “that its better” explained as the result of various psychological biases that served special purposes on the prehistoric savannah but now, in a media-saturated era, constantly mislead us.

Once upon a period, it was of great survival value to be worried about everything that could go wrong, says Johan Norberg, a Swedish historian and self-declared New Optimist whose volume Progress: Ten Reasons to Appear Forward to the Future was published just before Trump won the presidency last year. This is what attains bad news especially compelling: in our evolutionary past, it was a very good thing that your attention could be easily confiscated by negative info, since it are most likely indicate an imminent danger to your own survival.( The cave-dweller who always assumed there was a lion behind the next stone would usually be wrong but hed be much more likely to survive and reproduce than one who always presumed the opposite .) But that was all before newspapers, television and the internet: in these hyper-connected times, our addiction to bad news just leads us to vacuum up depressing or enraging stories from across the globe, whether they threaten us or not, and therefore to conclude that things are much worse than they are.

Really good news, on the other hand, can be a lot harder to place partly because it tends to occur gradually. Max Roser, an Oxford economist who spreads the New Optimist gospel via his Twitter feed, pointed out recently that a newspaper could legitimately have operated the headline NUMBER OF PEOPLE IN EXTREME POVERTY FELL BY 137,000 SINCE YESTERDAY every day for the last 25 years. But none would have done so, because predictable daily events, by definition, arent newsworthy. And youll rarely watch a headline about a bad event that failed to occur. But surely any judicious assessment of our situation ought to take into account all the wars, pandemics and natural disasters that might hypothetically have happened but didnt?

I used to be a pessimist myself, says Norberg, an urbane 43 -year-old raised in Stockholm who is now a fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington DC. I used to long for the good old days. But then I started reading history, and asking myself, well, where would I have been in those good old days, in my ancestors northern Sweden? I probably wouldnt have been anywhere. Life expectancy was too short. They mixed tree bark in the bread, to make it last longer!

In his volume, Norberg canters through 10 of the most important point basic indicators of human flourishing food, sanitation, life expectancy, poverty, violence, the state of the environment, literacy, freedom, equality and the conditions of childhood. And he takes special pleasure in squelching the fantasies of anyone inclined to wish they had been born a couple of centuries back: it wasnt so long ago, he find, that puppies gnawed at the abandoned corpses of beset victims in the street of European cities. As lately as 1882, only 2% of homes in New York had running water; in 1900, worldwide life expectancy was a paltry 31, thanks both to early adult death and rampant child mortality. Today, by contrast, its 71 and those extra decades involve much less agony, too. If it takes you 20 minutes to read this chapter, Norberg writes at one point, in his own fluctuation on the New Optimists favourite refrain, almost another 2,000 people will have risen out of[ extreme] poverty currently defined as living on less than $1.90 per day.

These onslaughts of upbeat statistics seem intended to have the effect of demolishing the usual intractable political disagreements about the state of the planet. The New Optimists invite us to forget our partisan biases and tribal allegiances; to dispense with our cherished theories about what is wrong with the world and what should be done about it, and breathe, instead, the refreshing air of objective fact. The data doesnt lie. Just look at the numbers!

But numbers, it turns out, can be as political as anything else.

The New Optimists are surely right on the nostalgia front: nobody in their right mind should wish to have lived in a previous century. In a 2015 survey for YouGov, 65% of British people( and 81% of the French) said they supposed the world was getting worse but judged according to numerous sensible metrics, theyre simply incorrect. People are indeed rising out of extreme poverty at an extraordinary rate; child mortality really has plummeted; standards of literacy, sanitation and life expectancy have never been higher. The median European or American enjoys luxuries medieval potentates literally couldnt have imagined. The essential finding of Steven Pinkers 2011 volume The Better Angels of Our Nature, a key reference text for the New Optimists, seems also to have been largely accepted: that we are living in historys most peaceful era, with violence of all kinds from deaths in war to schoolyard bullying in steep decline.

But the New Optimists arent primarily interested in persuading us that human life involves a lot less suffering than it did a few hundred years ago.( Even if youre a card-carrying pessimist, “youre supposed to” didnt require convincing of that fact .) Nestled inside that essentially indisputable assert, there are several more controversial implications. For instance: that since things have so clearly been improving, we have good reason to assume they will continue to improve. And farther though this is a claim merely sometimes made explicit in the work of the New Optimists that whatever weve been doing these past decades, its clearly run, and so the political and economic arrangements that have brought us here are the ones we ought to stick with. Optimism, after all, means more than merely expressed his belief that things arent even worse as you imagined: it entails having justified confidence that they will be getting even better soon. Rational optimism holds that the world will pull out of the current crisis, Ridley wrote after the financial crisis of 2007 -8, because of the route that marketplaces in goods, services and notions allow human being to exchange and specialise honestly for the betterment of all I am a rational optimist: rational, because I have arrived at optimism not through temperament or instinct, but by looking at the evidence.

Illustration by Pete Gamlen

If all this were really true, it would suggest that an overwhelming proportion of the energy we dedicate to debating the country of humanity all the political outrage, the warns of imminent calamity, the exasperated op-ed column, all our anxiety and remorse about the suffering afflicting people all over the world is wasted. Or, worse, it might be counterproductive, insofar as a belief that the situation is irredeemably nasty seems like a bad route to motivate people to induce things better, and thus in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Here are the facts, wrote the American economist Julian Simon, whose vocal opposition to the gloomy predictions of environmentalists and population experts in the 1970 s and 1980 s set the stage for todays New Optimists. On average, people throughout the world have been living longer and feeing better than ever before. Fewer people succumb of famine nowadays than in earlier centuries every single measure of material and environmental welfare in the United States has improved rather than deteriorated. This is also true of the world taken as a whole. All the long-run trends phase in exactly the opposite direction from the projections of the doomsayers.

Those are the facts. So why arent we all New Optimists now?

Optimists have been telling doom-mongersto cheer up since at least 1710, when the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz concluded that ours is necessary the best of all possible worlds, on the grounds that God, being perfect and merciful, would barely have created one of the more mediocre ones instead. But the most recent outbreak of positivity is a possibility best understood as a reaction to the cynicism triggered by the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. For one thing, those attacks were a textbook example of the various kinds of high-visibility bad news that activates our cognitive biases, persuading us that the world is becoming lethally dangerous when actually it isnt: in reality, a slightly higher number of Americans were killed while riding motorcycles in 2001 than died in the World Trade Center and on the hijacked planes.

But the New Optimism is also a rejoinder to the various kinds of introspection that gained pace in the west after 9/11, and subsequently the Iraq war the help feeling that, whether or not the new global insecurity was all our defect, it certainly demanded self-criticism and reflection, rather than simply a more strident assertion of the merits of our worldview.( The whole world hates us, and we deserve it, is how the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner derisively characterises this attitude .) On the contrary, the optimists insist, the data demonstrates that the global dominance of western power and notions over the last two centuries has watched a transformative improvement in almost everyones quality of life. Matt Ridley likes to quote a predecessor of the contemporary optimists, the Whig historian Thomas Babington Macaulay: On what principle is it that, when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?

The despondent self-criticism that frustrates the New Optimists is fuelled in part at least the way they see it by a kind of optical illusion in the way we think about progress. As Steven Pinker observes, whenever youre busy judging governments or economic systems for falling short of standards of decency, its all too easy to lose sight of how those standards themselves have altered over time. We are scandalised by reports of prisoners being tortured by the CIA but only thanks to the historically recent emergence of a general consensus that torture is beyond the pale.( In medieval England, it was a comparatively unremarkable feature of the criminal justice system .) We can be appalled by the deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean merely because we start from the position that unknown strangers from distant lands are worthy of moral consideration a notion that would probably have hit most of us as absurd had we been born in 1700. Yet the most powerful this kind of consensus grows, the more unconscionable each violation of it will seem. And so, ironically enough, the outrage you feel when you read the headlines is actually evidence that this is a magnificent time to be alive.( A recent addition to the New Optimist bookshelf, The Moral Arc by Michael Shermer, bind this argument immediately to the optimists faith in science: it is scientific progress, he argues, that is destined to induce us ever more ethical .)

The nagging suspicion that this argument is somehow based on a sleight of hand it would seem to permit any outrage to be reinterpreted as evidence of our betterment may lead you to another objection: even if its true that all efforts really is so much better than ever, why assume things will continue to improve? Improvements in sanitation and life expectancy cant avoid rising sea levels destroying your country. And its dangerous, more generally, to predict future outcomes by past performance: position things on a sufficiently long timescale, and it becomes impossible to tell whether the progress the New Optimists celebrate proved to be history steady upward trajectory, or just a blip.

Almost every advance Norberg champs in his book Progress, for example, took place in the last 200 years a fact that the optimists take as evidence of the unstoppable potency of modern civilisation, but which might just as easily be taken as evidence of how rare such periods of progress are. Humans have been around for 200,000 years; extrapolating from a 200 -year stretch seems unwise. We risk inducing the mistake of the 19 th-century British historian Henry Buckle, who confidently declared, in his volume History of Civilization in England, that war would soon be a thing of the past. That this barbarous pursuit is, in the progress of society, steadily declining, must be evident, even to the most hasty reader of European history, he wrote. It was 1857; Buckle seemed confident that the recently concluded Crimean war would be one of the last.

But the real concern here is not that the steady advance of the last two centuries will gradually swing into reverse, plunging us back to the conditions of the past; its that the world we have created the very engine of all that progress is so complex, volatile and unpredictable that tragedy might befall us at any moment. Steven Pinker may be absolutely correct that fewer and fewer people are resorting to violence to settle their disagreements, but( as he would confess) it merely takes a single angry narcissist in possession of the nuclear codes to spark a global catastrophe. Digital technology has unquestionably helped fuel a worldwide surge in economic growth, but if cyberterrorists use it to bring down countries around the world fiscal infrastructure next month, that growth might instead swiftly become moot.

The point is that if anything does go severely wrong in our societies, its really hard to see where it stops, says David Runciman, prof of politics at Cambridge University, who takes a less sanguine view of the future, and who has debated New Optimists such as Ridley and Norberg. The thought that, say, the next financial crisis, in a world as interconnected and algorithmically driven as our world, could simply spiral out of control that is not an irrational believe. Which stimulates it quite hard to be blithely optimistic. When you live in a world where everything has appeared to be getting better, yet it could all breakdown tomorrow, its perfectly rational to be freaked out.

Runciman raises a related and equally troubling thought about modern politics, in his book The Confidence Trap. Democracy seems to be doing well: the New Optimists note that there are now about 120 democracies among the worlds 193 countries, up from just 40 in 1972. But what if its the very strength of republic and our complacency about its capacity to withstand almost anything that augurs its eventual breakdown? Could it be that our real problem is not an excess of despair, as the New Optimists maintain, but a dangerous degree of overconfidence?

According to this argument, the ones who voted for Trump and Brexit didnt genuinely do so because they had concluded their system was broken, and needed to be replaced. On the contrary: they voted as they did precisely because they had grown too confident that the essential security provided by government would always be there for them, whatever incendiary selection they made at the ballot-box. People voted for Trump because they didnt believe him, Runciman has written. They wanted Trump to shake up a system that they also expected to shield them from the recklessness of a human like Trump. The problem with this pattern delivering electoral shocks because youre confident the system can withstand them is that theres no reason to assume it can continue indefinitely: at some phase, the damage may not be repairable. The New Optimists describe a world in which human agency doesnt appears to matter, because there are these evolved forces-out that are moving us in the right direction, Runciman says. But human bureau does still matter human beings still have the capacity to mess it all up. And it may be that our capacity to mess it up is growing.

The optimists arent unaware of such risks but it is a dependable feature of the optimistic mindset that one can usually find an upbeat interpretation of the same seemingly scary facts. Youre asking, Am I the man who falls out of a skyscraper, and as he passes the second storey, says, So far, so good? Matt Ridley says. And the answer is, well, actually, in the past, people have foreseen tragedy only around the corner and been wrong about it so often that this a relevant fact to take into account. History does seem to bear Ridley out. Then again, of course it does: if a civilisation-ending catastrophe had in fact occurred, you presumably wouldnt be reading this now. People who predict imminent tragedies are usually wrong. On the other hand, they need only be right once.

If there is a single momentthat signalled the birth of the New Optimism, it was fittingly, somehow a TED talk, delivered in 2006 by the Swedish statistician and self-styled edutainer Hans Rosling, who died earlier this year. Entitled The best stats youve ever seen, Roslings talk summarised the results of an ingenious survey he had conducted among Swedish university students. Presenting them with pairs of countries Russia and Malaysia, Turkey and Sri Lanka, and so on he asked them to guess which scored better on various measures of health, such as child mortality rates. The students reliably got it incorrect, basing their answers on the assumption that countries closer to their own, both geographically and ethnically, must be better off.

But in fact Rosling had picked the pairs to demonstrate a phase: Russia had twice Malaysias child mortality, and Turkey twice that of Sri Lanka. Part of the defeatist mindset of the modern west, the way Rosling find it, was the deeply ingrained assumption that we are living through times that are as good as theyre ever going to be and that the future “weve been” bequeathing, to future generations and especially to the world beyond Europe and north America, can only has become a disheartening one. Rosling enjoyed observing that if you had run this experiment on chimps by labelling a banana with the name of each country and inviting them to pick one, they would have performed better than the students, since they would be right half the time, thanks to opportunity. Well-educated European humans, by contrast, get things far wronger than opportunity. We are not merely ignorant of the facts; we are actively convinced of depressing facts that arent true.

Its exhilarating to watch The best stats youve ever seen today partly because of Roslings nerdy, high-energy stage performance, but also because it seems to shine the bracing light of objective fact on questions usually mired in angry partisanship. Far more than when he delivered the talk, we live now in the Age of the Take, in which a seemingly infinite supplying of blog posts, opinion columns, books and Tv talking heads compete to tell us how to feel about the news. Most of this opinionising focuses less on stacking up hard facts in favour of an debate than it does on proclaiming what posture you ought to adopt: the typical take invites you to conclude, say, that Donald Trump is a fascist, or that he isnt, or that BBC presenters are overpaid, or that your yoga practice is an instance of cultural appropriation.( This shouldnt really come as a surprise: the internet economy is fuelled by attention, and its far easier to confiscate people attention with emotionally charged debate than mere datum plus you dont have to pay for the expensive reporting required to ferret out the facts .) The New Optimists promise something different: a route to feel about the state of the world based on the way it really is.

Illustration by Pete Gamlen

But after steeping yourself in their work, you begin to wonder if all their upbeat factoids genuinely do speak for themselves. For a start, why expressed the view that the correct comparison to be making is the one between the world as it was, say, 200 years ago, and the world as it is today? You might argue that comparing the current with the past is stacking the deck. Of course things are better than the latter are. But theyre surely nowhere near as good as they ought to be. To pick some obvious instances, humanity indisputably has the capacity to remove extreme poverty, aim famines, or radically reduce human damage to the climate. But weve done none of these, and the fact that things arent as terrible as they were in 1800 is arguably beside the point.

Ironically, given their reliance on cognitive biases to explain our predilection for negativity, the New Optimists may be in the grip of one themselves: the anchoring bias, which describes our tendency to rely too heavily on certain pieces of information when attaining decisions. If you start from the fact that plague victims once languished in the street of European cities, its natural to conclude that life these days is wonderful. But if you start from the position that we could have eliminated famines, or reversed global warming, the fact that such problems persist may provoke a different kind of judgment.

The argument that we should be feeling happier than “weve been” because life on countries around the world as a whole is getting better, on average, also misunderstands a fundamental truth about how happiness works: our judgments of the world result from constructing specific comparings that feel relevant to us , not on adopting what David Runciman refers to as the position from outer space. If people in your small American town are far less economically secure than they were in living memory, or if youre a young British person facing the prospect that you might never own a home, its not particularly consoling to be told that more and more Chinese people are entering the middle classes. At volume readings in the US midwest, Ridley recollects, audience members often questioned his optimism on the grounds that their own lives didnt seem to be on an upward trajectory. Theyd say, You keep saying the worlds getting better, but it doesnt feel like that round here. And I would say, Yes, but this isnt the whole world! Are you not even a little bit cheered by the fact that really poor Africans are get a bit least poor? There is a sense in which this is a fair point. But theres another sense in which its a completely irrelevant one.

At its heart, the New Optimism is an ideological argument: broadly speaking, its proponents are advocates for the power of free markets, and they aim their sunny picture of humanitys recent past and imminent future to vindicate their politics. This is a perfectly legitimate political argument to attain but its still a political argument , not a straightforward, neutral reliance on objective facts. The assert that we are living in a golden age, and that our dominant mood of despair is unwarranted, is not an antidote to the Age of the Take, but a Take like any other and it induces just as much sense to adopt the opposite opinion. What I detest, Runciman says, is this assumption that if you push back against their argument, what youre saying is that all these things are not worth valuing For people to feel deeply uneasy about the world we inhabit now, despite all these indicators pointing up, seems to me reasonable, given the relative instability of the evidence of this progress, and the[ unpredictability] that overhangs it. Everything really is pretty fragile.

Johan Norberg, who launched his book Progress two months before the US presidential election, watched the results come in on a foggy morning in Stockholm, at a party organised by the American embassy. As Trumps victory became a certainty, the atmosphere turned from one of growling alarm to frightened skepticism. We were all Swedes in the media, politics, business and so on I think it would have been hard to find a single person there who had hoped for a Trump win so pretty soon the mood was going downhill dramatically, Norberg recollected. And whats more, they didnt have any alcohol, which didnt assist, because everyone was saying: We require something strong here! But they had it more put up like a breakfast thing. He smiled. I think Americans dont actually understand Swedes.

The populist surges of the last two years in the US and Britain powering the rise of Trump, the Brexit vote, and the unpredicted levels of support for Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn pose a complicated problem for the New Optimists. On the one hand, its easy enough to characterise such anger directed toward political establishments as a mistake, based on a failure to perceive how well things are going; or as a legitimate reaction to real, but localised and temporary bumps in the road, which neednt constitute any larger argument for despair. On the other hand, it is a curious view of the world that sees such political waves exclusively as responses, mistaken or otherwise, to the real situation. They are part of that real situation. Even if you think that Trump advocates, say, were wholly in error to perceive their situation negatively, the perception itself was real enough and they genuinely did elect Trump, with all his potential for destabilisation.( The New Optimists, says David Runciman, think of politics as nothing more than an annoyance, because in their view the things that drive progress are not political. But the things that drive failing are political .) There is a point at which it stops being so relevant whether widespread pessimism and anxiety can be justified or not, and becomes more relevant simply that it is widespread.

Norberg is no Trump supporter, and the outcome of the elections might have seemed like a setback to an writer promoting a book painting humanitys immediate future as wholly rosy. In it, he does warn that progress isnt inevitable: There is a real risk of a nativist backlash, he writes. When we dont consider the progress we have attained, we begin to search for scapegoats for the problems that remain. But it is in the nature of the New Optimism that negative developments can be alchemised into reasons to be cheerful, and by the time we talked, Norberg had an upbeat spin on the election, too.

I think it might be that in a couple of years day, well think it was a great thing that Trump won, he says. Because if hed lost, and Hillary had won, shed have been the most hated president of modern times, and then Trump and Bannon would have employed that to build an alt-right media empire, create an avalanche of hatred, and then there might have been a more disciplined nominee the next time round a real fascist, rather than person impersonating Trump may prove to have been the incompetent, self-absorbed person who ruins the populist brand in the United States. This sort of counterfactual debate suffers from not being falsifiable, and in any case, its a long way from a position of straightforward positivity about the direction in which the world is moving. But perhaps it is the one genuinely indisputable truth on which the New Optimists and the more pessimistically minded can agree: that whatever happens, things could always, in principle, have been worse.

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Read more: www.theguardian.com

Has the age of quantum computing arrived?

8 months, 16 days ago

Its a mind-bending theory with the health risks to change the world, and Canadian tech company D-Wave claims to have cracked the code

Ever since Charles Babbages conceptual, unrealised Analytical Engine in the 1830 s, computer science has been trying very hard to race ahead of its time. Particularly over the last 75 years, there have been many astounding developings the first electronic programmable computer, the first integrated circuit computer, the first microprocessor. But the next expected step may be the most revolutionary of all.

Quantum computing is the technology that many scientists, entrepreneurs and big businesses expect to provide a, well, quantum leap into the future. If youve never heard of it theres a helpful video doing the social media rounds thats couple of million hits on YouTube. It features the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, detailing exactly what quantum computing means.

Trudeau was on a recent visit to the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, one of the worlds resulting centers for its further consideration of the field. During a press conference there, a reporter asked him, half-jokingly, to explain quantum computing.

Quantum mechanics is a conceptually counterintuitive region of science that has baffled some of the finest intellects as Albert Einstein said God does not play dice with the universe so its not something you expect to hear legislators holding forth on. Hurl it into the context of computing and lets just say you could easily make Zac Goldsmith look like an expert on Bollywood. But Trudeau rose to the challenge and devoted what many science commentators thought was a textbook instance of how to explain a complex notion in a simple way.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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