Category Archives: Podcasts

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Discussion #19 – “You’re Not My Type” – the Science and Ethics of Personality Testing

We’re joined this week by musician, writer and director Polash Larsen for a critical look at the world of “personality testing” and in particular the famous Myers-Briggs Type Indicator which categorizes people (“personalities”) as four-letter codes (e.g. ENTP).

If you like Myers-Briggs, I should warn you that we don’t (much). As gentlemen scientists, we’re not fond of any scheme that seeks to linearize a complex, non-linear system – especially when that scheme is then used as a guide for how to treat other people.

Calling someone (or yourself) an ENTP is fine as a game, but claiming it’s somehow scientific is wrong. It’s arbitrary and made up. And then using it to pre-judge people – well, that raises ethical questions.

chimpanzeeENTPs on the prowl

Personality testing and Myers Briggs in particular is very popular in certain circles (e.g. recruiting). The assumption that people have unified “personalities” and that these don’t change over time is common enough to have become a part of our language (she’s not my “type”). There’s something comforting about labelling other people and yourself.

Polash puts forward a plausible hypothesis about this – do we just label ourselves to be who we want to be?

[By the way, the soundtrack for today’s podcast is Paula Abdul’s Opposites Attract. Don’t ask us to explain – just go with us on this one.]

She was our type (in 1989)

Update Monday 2/11: BTW Paula Abdul sends her love! (no, really)

Horoscopes and fortune telling are fun, but we don’t hire and fire based on them (although, see footnote about Raymond Domenach below). By putting people in boxes, we deny them the opportunity (the right!) to surprise us. Labelling people has a painful history – let’s just be careful.

Special note: we should really issue a (mild) bad language warning for this week 🙂

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1Wikipedia entry for the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

2Uncovering the Secret History of Myers-Briggs – excellent piece by Merve Emre.

3Stephen Jay Gould gives a wonderful example of reification in a devastating critique of IQ testing and the concept of intelligence in A Mismeasure of Man

4Explaining the term “bogan” to a non-Australian is always difficult. Maybe the best way is to direct the interested reader to Things Bogans Like.

5The French soccer team was chosen using psychology (no Scorpios!) Raymond Domenach Looks to the Stars

6If you want to find out more about moral psychology (and chickens) check out this page.

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Discussion #17 – Ancestors, Kinship and Genomics

Why do we find our ancestors so fascinating? In many cultures, the story of our ancestors is incorporated into daily life and celebrated through ritual. In the modern world we often pride ourselves on our independence from history, our ability to cut free from tradition and remake ourselves in every generation. And yet, as shown by the popularity of ancestry.com and TV shows such as “Who Do You Think You Are”, family history matters. Their stories are our stories.

GGFShourov’s great-grandparents – note the colourization of the photos done by hand

Scientists recognize kin selection as an evolutionary strategy – we care more about those genetically closer to us, all the better to persist our genes. This may operate across time too – our great-grandparents share our genes too, and thus trigger the same feelings of kinship. Brian makes the point that listening to your parents is good evolutionary strategy, but listening to the stories of your extended family in time (i.e. your ancestors) may be even more beneficial.

59898047_072077d3bb_oEveryone is you.

Can we hack kinship selection to make the world a better place? We all share a lot more ancestry than we think. Take any two random people from anywhere in Europe and they share hundreds of ancestors from only 1,000 years ago – similarly for everyone in the world. If we could bring this shared ancestry into our collective consciousness, could it create empathy and love between strangers? Could we make the Golden Rule – “love thy neighbour as yourself” – closer and closer to a tautology?

backtothefuture2Dating your mother … ewww (screenshot from Back to the Future)

We finish with a segue and a controversial thought – were our ancestors happier because they expected less from life? What are the costs of social mobility and equality of opportunity? If we could meet one of our ancestors from centuries ago, what would he or she think of us? The further you go back in time, the less options people had. We assume that caused them pain, but maybe they adjusted to their lot and found contentment – no one told them that “you can be anything you want to be”.

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1ancestry.com.au is the popular Australian franchise of the global genealogy website.

2“Subliminal” by Leonard Mlodinow is a great read – Shourov refers to his phrase that our memories are more like “historical novelists and historians”.

3Brian refers to Ned Kelly, a famous bushranger (highway robber) in Victoria, Australia.

4“Mapping Human History” by Steve Olsen makes the point that we share far more genetic material with strangers than we acknowledge.

5My Big Fat Euopean Family makes the same point “Any two modern-day Europeans, even those living on opposite sides of the continent, may be more closely related than they might think”.

6Brian refers to this story – “The Egg” by Andy Weir.

7For those not from Australia – Richmond is a long suffering football club in the Australian Football League.

Discussion #15 – The Mind-Set of Aging

This week Shourov and Brian explore the link between mind and body as it relates to the aging process.

Studies by Prof Ellen Langer have shown that to some extent we are only as young (or old) as we feel.  And given the chance, the human body can surprise us when the mind is encouraged to forget the true age of its body, and instead subtly prompted to remember what it was like to be younger.


Prof Ellen Langer, photgraph from rdigitallife.com

Prof Langer has done experiments where people are treated a lot younger than their real age, in a share-house situation, and studied the effects. She says that part of the key is to encourage mindfulness, or actively noticing new things.

In our conversation we speculate on whether this means there are benefits to focusing outside the self. And at the same time not giving up when things are bad, not dwelling on how bad things are, which can be a natural habit our minds return to if there is nothing else to do.  Don’t give up. When you give up, things go down hill.

We also discuss the power of the placebo effect, and conversely the nocebo effect, and also links between immune system and attitude.

Listen to the pod cast here:

Download as MP3

The original New York Times article which started this conversation: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/26/magazine/what-if-age-is-nothing-but-a-mind-set.html?_r=0

Your Mindset and Aging: http://blog.timesunion.com/healthylifemagazine/your-mindset-our-changing-attitude-toward-aging/697/

“Being jocks, being beautiful, having bundles of energy. Those are not bad things. We are grateful for having been young and that there are always young people. But how awful to have a society where being young is ‘the best of life,’ the only good in life?” asks Githler. “Not everyone needs to do that. People who have been successful because of how they ‘think’ (rather than how they look or perform) are not subject to that kind of hysteria, a set of behaviors many of us find sadly amusing.”

We recognize that in some performers/actors/models who are terrified of aging and lie about their age!

The ever-young Rara Avis: http://www.adorn-london.com/jewelry-inspiration/rare-bird-of-style-rara-avis-by-iris-apfel/

Prof Ellen Langer:
web page: http://www.ellenlanger.com/
rdigitalife.com: http://rdigitalife.com/ellen-langer/
5 minute interview: http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/can-your-mental-attitude-reverse-the-effects-of-aging/

Discussion #14: Your Brain on Music

This week we talk about music and why we as a species like it so much.
We are joined by the very learned Declan Jones, one of Melbourne’s talented musicians.

Every human society has music. It is a Cultural Universal which features in all cultures and tribes around the world. Music is thought to have been there at the start of human evolution, along with dance and laughter as some of the fundamental building blocks of the human psyche and human language.

Other animals such as birds also sing, for many reasons. But perhaps birds use music as their language, like we talk. And so too humans use music to communicate.

We discuss the book by Dr Daniel J Levitin, ‘This is Your Brain On Music.’

Music is certainly an important part of our lives. It is tied strongly to emotion. Some emotions are very difficult to express effectively with words but much easier to convey with music. Listening to certain songs a change our mood. Musicians express their emotions through music and it resonates with the rest of us. And that resonance stays with us through our lives.

For example, the bands that were there for us during our years of teen angst such as Roxette and Bananarama stay with us, even though the equivalent musicians and bands of today have much less traction with us old timers. But the newer bands obviously mean something to the current generation of angst-ridden teenagers.

roxette in 1980sRoxette, still going strong incidentally.

 

Listen to the pod cast here:

Download as MP3

Links to our own music:
Shourov and Declan are in The Bombay Royale.
Declan currently also appears in The Wikimen and Hoodoo Mayhem.

Discussion #13 – Why do Big Projects Fail?

This week we discuss the topic, ‘Why do big projects fail’. With a slant towards IT projects due to our backgrounds in the field, we discuss and explore some examples of failures to date.

There are different types of project failure, where the project is: complete but costs too much; complete but too late; complete but with low quality; incomplete and doesn’t do what was originally envisaged; combinations of the four; and not done at all – scrapped by the stakeholders with nothing to show for it.

Software and IT projects, more than other types of projects such as construction or manufacturing, often suffer from the last case – scrapped. We discuss agile methodologies and whether they are the solution – or at least whether they reduce the probability of failure.

Sometimes there are too many chiefs and not enough engineers. And even if the business analysts identify the full scope of what needs to be done, sometimes the stakeholders don’t see the same vision or can’t afford the required budget.

As always, Scott Adams has an angle:

Dilbert.com

Listen to the pod cast here:

Download as MP3

1One of Shourov’s rants about Myki can be found at http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2013/11/28/comment-oh-you-forgot-design-user.

2Things that cost Less than Myki (I love this site) https://sites.google.com/site/cheaperthanmyki/

3Why Software Fails – http://spectrum.ieee.org/computing/software/why-software-fails

4http://www.lessons-from-history.com/home/project-failure-case-studies/case-studies-project-failure

5http://calleam.com/WTPF/?tag=examples-of-failed-projects

6http://www.computerworld.com/article/2533563/it-project-management/it-s-biggest-project-failures—-and-what-we-can-learn-from-them.html

7http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_failed_and_overbudget_custom_software_projects

8http://news-beta.slashdot.org/story/13/05/25/139218/worlds-biggest-agile-software-project-close-to-failure

Discussion #12 – Atheists, Retail Therapy and Baptist Zombies

Susan Blackmore, a psychologist and researcher who is an authority in the field of “memetics”, posted a recent article on the Richard Dawkins Foundation site describing her dismay at having religious students walk out of one of her memetics lectures. Muslim and Christian students took exception to her description of religion as a “virus of the mind” (ala Dawkins), the Koran as a “horrible book” and other remarks critical of religious faith.

TED2008

Spreading the atheist gospel

The easy narrative here is that Professor Blackmore, an avowed atheist and rationalist, was trying to open the minds of her students and show them the irrationality of their beliefs – and that those students who were offended were displaying an inability to think for themselves and explore alternative viewpoints.

As gentlemen scientists, we don’t think things are quite so simple. We like Dawkins and Blackmore, but we think that they and their compatriots often lack humility. It’s easy to sneer to religious people, but which of our ‘secular’ behaviours and beliefs will be sneered at by the Dawkins of five hundred years from now?

(Brian points out that the modern act of shopping – buying material goods that we don’t need – would be deeply irrational and ridiculous to the members of a Papua New Guinean highland tribe.)

ay_107042114

IKEA

Deeply irrational “viruses of the mind”

We are all selective and biased in our processing of information. We distort reality at every step of the way, often in subconscious ways beyond our control. We are masters of self-deception. And the boundaries of our knowledge are completely opaque to us – we have no idea of what we don’t know.

All of which means that the only rational state of mind is one of humility, skepticism and open-mindedness. Not everything can be falsified now, but just because we can’t do it does not mean that it cannot be done. We know a lot, and vanishingly little at the same time. Not everything can be settled. Arguments rarely if ever change minds, but they can plant a seed. And everyone has an agenda, even the most ‘objective’ of scientists and even (perhaps especially) if they have convinced themselves that they do not.

Our ramblings then move into memetics itself and debate the core meme-gene analogy; religions as memeplexes and useful mutations thereof; proselytization and the power of faith; our responsibility to attempt empathy; how to build bridges; learning by doing, not talking; the good that religions do for individuals and communities.

We love the ideas behind complexity, adaptive systems and evolution and we would defend them anytime, but we don’t feel the need to proselytize. You’re free to listen to our ramblings and opinions, but we are not asking you to share them. As gentlemen scientists we never expect everyone to think exactly the same way that we do.

So we sympathize with Professor Blackmore. But if her objective is to introduce her ideas to new audiences, then insulting their way of life isn’t a great way to do it.

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1Susan Blackmore’s book is called The Meme Machine

2The book that Shourov is currently reading is Deceit and Self Deception by Robert Trivers

3Brian refers to ‘stuff sickness’ as identified by Papuan New Guinea highlanders, but no relevant links can be found. Standby for more on this topic in a future podcast.

4In fact, students walking out on her lecture were demonstrating memes in action – it seems the meme of “walk out on Professor Blackmore” was conceived and transmitted quite effectively within the room without the use of verbal language.

Discussion #11 – The Doomsday Review

This week we are joined again by Nick Raphael to discuss doomsday scenarios – ways in which our world (or at least the human race) may end. We’ve picked a few of our favourites, from meteors to killer robots to meme epidemics, and we review their feasibility (and entertainment value) in light of what we know about how the world works. Some of them make great movie ideas; some of them are scary but statistically very unlikely; and there are one or two are plausible enough to get us a little worried.

In the spirit of (pseudo) scientific enquiry, we have given each scenario a “rating” – a combination of likelihood (how likely it is to happen in the near future) and risk (how catastrophic would it be for us).

Download or listen to the podcast below and scroll down to see a summary of our ratings.


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Nuclear War

nuclear-war

Sure we have enough bombs to “kill us all”, but in any real conflict there would be many millions of survivors globally. And even under the severest of nuclear winters with its attendant disruption of the food chain, you could assume that some communities would persist and survive under the harshest of conditions (as some of them do today) to seed a new generation. 2/10

Eco-pocalypse

We rely on a healthy biosphere for optimal existence, but even a highly damaged biosphere is likely to be habitable by humans2. In fact, the resilience of networks in the natural world and our own adaptability are part of the problem – we don’t appreciate how much damage we are doing because we always seem to ‘get by’. There are excellent ethical and practical reasons why we should limit our ecological footprint, but the claim that we are driving ourselves to extinction is a dubious one. 2/10

Reversal of the Earth’s Magnetic Field

Reversals and disruptions of the Earth’s magnetic field seem to happen quite regularly, every half a million years on average. If it happened again, we might expect global disruption – even catastrophe – but it’s unlikely to be the full-blown extinction event3. 1/10

Meteor strike

ast_2121796b

It’s thought that a meteor is what did for the dinosaurs – what would it do to us? A really large meteor would irreversibly change our climate and block the sun’s rays from much of the Earth for a long time. Nothing larger than a chicken survived the last big strike 65 million years ago, and the Gentlemen Scientists don’t like our chances with this one. 5/10

Black hole passes by the Solar System

Planets go flying in every direction, including ours. Sounds pretty bad, right? We’re not sure how likely this is, but it feels like it is unlikely. Undoubtedly a full-blown extinction for us if it does, though (unless we have time to prepare?). 1/10

Gamma Ray burst from space

Unimaginably powerful beams of energy travel through space on a regular basis – we can see them. If one of them hit us, it could burn off the ozone layer, expose us to high doses of radiation and destroy the food chain. Statistically very unlikely, but we’d never see it coming and we’d be screwed. 3/10

Extraterrestrial life wreaks havoc

Looney_Tunes_'Mad_as_a_Mars_Hare'_-_screenshot

Some people believe that life on Earth may have come from another planet, and it might happen again. It’s logically possible that lifeforms (microscopic life, viruses etc.) may be relayed to Earth, and that such a “pan-spermic” event could wreak havoc. However, if there is one thing about our biosphere it is highly competitive, and any “alien” life is unlikely to be adapted to our environment, let along superior in any important way (although it is possible – think of introduced species). A very unlikely scenario but risk difficult to assess. 1/10

Superbugs

A mass epidemic of an engineered ‘superbug’ would be super-scary, and they might not be too hard to make. But here is where the raw material of natural selection – the natural variability of our population – is our defense. In even the worst pandemic, some people survive, and the genes that lead to their lowered susceptibility are strengthened over time. Even a zombie virus couldn’t achieve a coverage of one hundred percent, and the survivors would carry the flag. 2/10

Grey Goo – Nanotechnology gone wild

The idea of grey goo seems fanciful – tiny little nano-robots that can replicate themselves take over the world, munching their way through everything. It’s possible in principle (we think) and some people take it semi-seriously, but we think any such self-replicating technology would end up mired in its own waste and would be too easy to stop. 1/10

Runaway Artificial Intelligence

Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 5.02.46 PM

Will we reach a moment of technological singularity, when we build a super-human intelligence – which might decide to (or inadvertently) eliminate us? Even a super-intelligent machine will need raw materials and energy, and none of them would be evolved for our biosphere the way we are (not to mention our co-evolution with the organisms that help us live). And is it even possible for us to build machines that can think to that level? Too many assumptions needed for this scenario. 1/10

Killer Meme Epidemic

Some Jains in eastern India starve themselves to death. Could a suicidal meme such as this ever spread through the population, causing us to override our most ancient biological instincts and exterminate ourselves? Sounds far-fetched, but scary and difficult to rule out exactly because we don’t really understand the principles of cultural transmission. Again, natural variation protects us – a killer meme might infect everyone but there might be some who are immune (eg. the mentally deficient or mentally ill). 3/10

Mass Infertility

Thought experiment – some kind of catastrophe instantaneously destroy every human egg in every female on Earth. That’d the end of the human race, since women don’t create eggs but are born with them. Sexual reproduction as a modus operandi might have a weak link somewhere, but we can’t think of how you could “break” it for every individual in our global population. 0/10

1The Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) was America’s plan for nuclear conflict during the Cold war era.

2In the Asimov story 2430 A.D., there are 15 trillion humans, the Earth is covered with concrete and there are no other mammals.

3Magnetic field disruption was in the plot of the (terrible) film called 2012.

4Correction: the dinosaurs were around for 150 million years, not 65 millions years.

5A large meteor hit the atmosphere above the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in February 2013.

6Correction: we said “AIDS virus” and “HIV virus” which are both wrong. It is of course the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)

7The Jain ritual of suicide by starvation is called Sallekhana

8The weird urge to jump off a bridge, explained

9Children of Men depicts a future where women are infertile and humanity is living through its last ever generation.