Tag Archives: biology

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.


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:

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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 #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


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


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


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


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


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.