Aug 05, 2020
Scientists claim that if we ever find extraterrestrial life, it may be so unrecognisable that it needs a new term. But lyfe is not as alien as it looks
Mr Spock never actually said to Captain Kirk: “It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it.” (That comes from the 1987 single “Star Trekkin”.) But the principle is sound. If we ever find extraterrestrial life, will we even recognise it as life at all? It might be so alien that it’s actually “lyfe”.
“Lyfe” is a recent scientific coinage defined as any system that combines four processes: “dissipation, autocatalysis, homeostasis, and learning”. Life in the familiar sense is merely “the instance of lyfe that we are familiar with on Earth”, but other much weirder types might exist. Continue reading...
Jul 15, 2020
From Covid-19 to the tobacco industry to the climate crisis ... a punchy, amusing history of the deliberate misuse of statistics
The old saw that there are “lies, damned lies and statistics” is attributed to various figures, but was already considered proverbial in 1890 – perhaps as an adaptation of the old lawyers’ joke that there were three kinds of liars: “the liar simple, the damned liar and the expert witness”.
Even though we have been well warned for more than a century, people still use statistics dishonestly all the time – as when, for example, it emerged that the number of Covid-19 tests the British government claimed were being performed each day included tens of thousands of test kits that had merely been sent out in the post, as well as multiple tests performed on the same individuals. Continue reading...
Jun 24, 2020
John Bolton says the president is surrounded with responsible advisers, but an ‘axis’ needs more than just a circle
In his White House memoir, John Bolton, the belligerently moustachioed former national security adviser, calls the few rational personnel around the president the “axis of adults”. But why an axis? Bolton was no doubt recalling the halcyon days of 2002, when George W Bush denounced the “axis of evil” (Iran, Iraq and North Korea), and then Bolton, in a rant called “Beyond the Axis of Evil”, added Libya, Syria and Cuba.
None of that made sense since those countries were not working together, but the word “axis” (Latin for axle or pivot) implied an alliance. It had done so since 1936, when Benito Mussolini celebrated Italy’s treaty with Germany. “This Berlin-Rome protocol is not a barrier,” he said, “it is rather an axis around which all European states animated by a desire for peace may collaborate on troubles.” Continue reading...
Jun 17, 2020
In the past, being insulated from reality has been viewed as a bad thing. Now we all want nothing more
When is living in a bubble a good thing? Why, when it’s a “support bubble”, or – since it lifted the prior ban on people from different households having sex – a shagbubble. There has also been talk of “social bubbles”, but what is behind all the froth?
The word “bubble” is onomatopoeic, imitating the sound of bubbling liquid. (William Caxton, in his translation of a medieval French encyclopedia, describes the existence of wells that “spryng up with grete bobles” if you play a harp over them.) Continue reading...
Jun 10, 2020
From peacenik hunter-gatherers to helpful toddlers … a ‘hopeful history’ argues that the underlying nature of human beings is not savage but essentially nice
Like most big-idea books, this one begins by absurdly overstating the novelty of its argument. The author promises to reveal “a radical idea” that has been “erased from the annals of world history”. It is, even, “a new view of humankind”. Some measure of bathos is presumably intended when we learn that this radical new view is that “most people, deep down, are pretty decent”. But there appears to be no authorial shame over the laughably bogus claim that this idea has been “erased” from history, presumably by a dark centuries-long conspiracy of secretive misanthropes, to some bafflingly obscure end.
Not yet erased from the annals of history, for example, is the 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, on whom the author regularly calls for his view that humans are naturally nice, and it is the institutions of civilisation that have corrupted us. Bregman contrasts this with what he calls, following the biologist Frans de Waal, “veneer theory”: the view (attributed to Hobbes among others) that civilisation is a thin skin of decency barely concealing the savage ape underneath. Continue reading...
Apr 15, 2020
If this is a ‘war’ against Covid-19, you don’t have to be on the frontline to become a casualty
In these times we are rightly encouraged to appreciate the work of the “frontline” staff of the NHS and other essential services. But does it make sense to apply military metaphors to medicine?
First recorded in the Earl of Orrery’s 1677 A Treatise of the Art of War, the phrase “front line” refers to the forwardmost part of an army, at which point it might be engaged by the enemy. Made gruesomely popular by the trench warfare of the first world war, the adjectival “front-line” also then came to mean those of an organisation’s workers who directly engaged with customers, or ideas that were in the vanguard of thinking, as in “frontline research” or even “frontline fashion”. Continue reading...
Mar 31, 2020
Does ‘nudging’ work? And how useful is it to assume that people ‘are not naturally rational’? This is an urgent study of the political harm of bias
In experiments, people perceive an approaching spider to be moving much faster than it really is, and faster than a ping-pong ball or other neutral object moving at the same speed. It is reasonable to deduce, then, that humans generally have an unconscious bias against spiders. Nothing too depressing about society follows from this. But the idea that we are prey to unconscious bias in more important areas – to do with decision-making, and how we treat our fellow bipeds – has in recent decades become a hot topic. It is at the root of what is called “behavioural science” and “nudge politics”, which reports suggested were driving the British government’s laissez-faire early coronavirus strategy. But how strong is the evidence that it exists?
It was the field of behavioural economics, as described in Daniel Kahneman’s bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow, that demonstrated that humans do not make mathematically perfect decisions about probability; they instead rely on rough rules of thumb, and often go wrong. Some of these habits are uncontroversial, such as confirmation bias (you tend to notice only the evidence that confirms what you already believe). But the inference by the field that such biases mean – as Pragya Agarwal uncritically repeats here – that “humans are not naturally rational” is extremely dubious, especially since it depends heavily on which definition of rationality you use. Continue reading...
Mar 24, 2020
From Ian McKellen reading Homer to Bill Bryson on the body, these audiobooks can expand your horizons, even when you can’t go out
For those staying at home during the pandemic, the entertainment options might soon run low. There are only so many podcasts released each week, and streaming TV shows and films for 18 hours straight is no more practical than reading books all day, if one has to be moving around cooking, exercising, or preventing small children from maiming themselves with unexpected household objects. So perhaps the long-form audiobook deserves a top slot in the menu of, I’m sorry, quarantainment.
This might be a good chance to catch up on classics from previous centuries. An unavoidable monument here – and already a recent bestseller on Scribd, which has just announced that all its books and audiobooks will be available free for 30 days — is The Plague by Albert Camus. This is the tale of a small French-Algerian town cut off from the outside world after an outbreak of bubonic plague, which its citizens at first refuse to believe is a serious threat. The central character, a doctor, remarks that his fellow townspeople in this respect “were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words, they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences. A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away.” Continue reading...