Neuroscience shows we’re hard-wired for stupidity. Happily, we can change habits, and must do so if we are to survive
We are getting smarter, aren’t we? Or perhaps not. In a speech at the London Library, the novelist Sebastian Faulks expressed dismay at the collapse of knowledge in young people; and in my own life I don’t see much evidence of the improvement. Each morning starts with my dropping an egg into boiling water and neglecting to note the time, so I end up with a hard boiled or runny egg. The kettle steams up my glasses, if I have remembered to bring them down to read the newspapers. The toast burns two out of seven mornings and the fire alarm goes off maybe once a week. Instead of reading the article that is useful to me, my mind wanders off on one of its pointless excursions.
I am prisoner of idiotic and clumsy habits, the worst of which is the faith, renewed with each night’s sleep, that I can time the egg by instinct. My life is full of ludicrous self-confidence; for example, that this article will take one hour, rather than four, to write; that the fuel in my petrol tank will expand according to my need; that butter will not make me fat and that trains and planes are flexible in their departure times.
This is fine because I am not running a government or a bank. But look at the collapse of HBOS, and you will realise that the same stupid habits and hopeless optimism filled the heads of Lord Stevenson, former chairman of the bank, James Crosby, its megalomaniac former chief executive and his successor Andy Hornby. They weren’t merely rash and greedy; they were stupid, because they ignored one of their own experts, Paul Moore, who warned about the risks that led to a bailout of £20bn and their own richly deserved humiliation.
An organisation that succumbs to this kind of failure suffers from “functional stupidity”, a syndrome that requires such individuals as Mr Moore, who was fired from his job and eventually testified about HBOS to parliament, to stifle their criticisms and go along with the groupthink of powerful individuals. The same functional stupidity gripped the Blair and Bush governments as they went to war with a country that was not conceivably involved in the 9/11 attacks, and the groups of climate-change deniers who, for self-serving reasons or personality-driven prejudice, determine that all the evidence of a warming planet is cooked up by fantasists.
We are dumb beyond words in making the connection between our behaviour and well-understood outcomes – the links between smoking and cancer, fatty foods and obesity, driving fast and death on the roads, impulse buying and going broke, gossipy tweets and losing friends and esteem. We know the likely results but we are convinced we can defy norms with impunity, while denying ourselves nothing but the truth.
The literature on our stupidity seems to expand by the day. Every book on neuroscience and the choices we make seems to underline the reality that we are not in control, that “the two biological bags of fluid” as David Eagleman describes our brain in his book Incognito, are hard-wired for stupidity, or at least the triumph of emotional over rational systems.
Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind, an exploration of the psychological reasons for political and religious divisions, denies the existence of the effective force for good and sensible outcomes that we call reason. “Anyone who values truth,” he writes, “should stop worshipping reason” in the social context, because it evolved not to help us find the truth of a matter, but to aid “argument, persuasion and manipulation”.
The scientific thinking does force us to come to terms with the limitations of the two sacks of fluid. Research by the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow shows that we are given to all sorts of short cuts that lead us to the wrong conclusion. He divides the mind, like many others before him, into two systems – one that operates automatically and quickly, with little effort and no voluntary control; the other that allocates attention to mental tasks and requires a high degree of effort. System one frequently suggests solutions that are not always right, but have a ring of truth about them. Greater knowledge of the way we think is a good thing, yet the reductionism seems to ignore the dazzling chambers of the human mind, which produced the first art in Europe 30,000 years ago, the Antikythera mechanism, the world’s first computer, 2,100 years ago and today performs extraordinary feats of reasoning about the nature of the subatomic world and space-time.
The human brain is one of the most awesome objects in the known universe and the evidence, despite everything, is that we are getting smarter. For a start, the number of highly intelligent people alive is far greater than at any time in human history. If we take population growth since the second world war, we can assume that number of gifted individuals has risen proportionately, from roughly 2 million to 6 million – which, incidentally, happens to be the estimated total human population of the world at the end of the last ice age. We live in a more complicated world, which undoubtedly requires the brain to make more connections at greater speed. And potentially we have unlimited access to the sum of the world’s knowledge at our fingertips.
The last doesn’t necessarily make us brighter, but nor does it make us dimmer. Faulks’s speech suggested that our children’s generation would “capture” and remember far less than ours and that this was a kind of catastrophe for civilisation. I don’t know what evidence my old schoolfriend has, but it seems obvious that the function of memory is being partly outsourced to the internet – what’s the problem with that? – and that the web generation is going to make great leaps of understanding because of the new connectedness of human imagination and endeavour. They are operating in interestingly new ways.
Research suggests global average IQ is rising, but how do we reconcile that with our persistent stupidity, unnecessary wars, damaging inequality and denial of probable catastrophe? What hope is there for humanity if the lazy, self-serving, toast-burning creature of system one cannot change?
The answer, surprisingly, comes from Tony Blair who said when he was being recommended an employee because of their high intelligence, “But does he have good judgment?” After shouting “And well he might”, it’s worth noting that for intelligence to exist, stupidity must be vanquished. That requires judgment, the presence of the other voice in the boardroom or in your head that identifies dumb solutions and customary stupidity. And the good news is that habit can be taught. It will have to be if we are to survive.
Too few women studying science, maths and engineering and a curb on immigration make government hopes forlorn
The government’s hope that it can drive an economic recovery by growing the UK’s manufacturing industry will be thwarted by a lack of science and technology graduates, a report suggests.
The report – which concludes that there is an annual shortfall of 40,000 science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) graduates – has been released amid calls for a national campaign to boost the number of women in science.
A spokesman for the Social Market Foundation (SMF) thinktank, said the number of home-grown graduates in STEM subjects needs to increase by half just to keep science-related industries at their current size.
If the government would like to grow these sectors to drive a recovery at the same time as reducing migration, the shortfall balloons even further.
Nida Broughton, a senior economist at the SMF, said: “The government has made clear its aim to rebalance the UK economy towards manufacturing and away from financial services. But it has also pledged to reduce immigration. Our analysis shows that the gulf between skills and jobs makes these aims incompatible in the short-term.”
The manufacturers’ association, the EEF, estimates that 90% of Britain’s engineers are male and 80% of workers in the manufacturing industry are male. That compares with other sectors, where men are an average of 51% of the workforce.
The EEF notes that manufacturing companies in the FTSE 100 have a higher than average number of women on their boards. But with 81% of directorships at manufacturing companies held by men and 92% of executive directorships, the representation of women on boards is still very low.
EEF chief executive Terry Scuoler, said: “There is no getting away from the fact that women are substantially under-represented in manufacturing at a time when industry needs to be tapping every talent pool.
“Some will argue for quotas for women on boards but this would not address the underlying need for a substantial increase in the pipeline of women with engineering and other key skills going into industry.”
The EEF is calling for a national campaign to increase the number of women studying STEM topics to professional level, as well as to promote apprenticeships and other vocational routes into work.
According to the SMF, even if the same number of girls as boys studied STEM subjects beyond GCSE, there would still be a significant skills shortage. As well as boosting uptake of STEM subjects among girls, the SMF said the UK must improve results at GCSE level. It calls for the government to increase pay for science and maths teachers, relax the eligibility criteria for teacher training and encourage international recruitment of science and maths teachers in the short-term.
Musician will.i.am is encouraging young people to engage with science, technology, engineering and maths.
More here: VIDEO: will.i.am promotes science subjects
This week, I’ve seen things that have changed me. I have watched animal carcasses being hacked apart and been petrified by meteors hurtling from the sky
As a fan of nightmarish dystopian sci-fi, I’ve been enjoying watching the rolling news channels immensely of late. Well, for a few seconds anyway, until I remember it’s all really happening. Then I stand up and start smashing dustbin lids against the wall, screaming. If you live in London, you’ve probably heard me.
First we had an equine restaging of Soylent Green in which we all, as a nation, looked up from the trough for a moment to spit out a lump of unidentified sinew. It turns out thousands of us may have gobbled off a horse. The shredded stallion scandal shows no signs of abating, and last week went international, as it was revealed the meat in your microwaved lasagne has racked up more air miles than Elton John by the time it hits your tonsils. Seriously, did you see the maps showing the route it takes? France, Luxembourg, Romania … it’s like James Bond, but deader and dumber and minced up and eaten.
Surely they could cut down on transportation costs by simply constructing a pipeline to carry the minced slurry from one nation to the next. And why stop there? Once you’ve laid the pipes you can expand the system – make it like the water supply, but for ground mammal sludge. You pay a small fee to have your house connected to it, and hey presto: a torrent of warm bolognese on tap 24 hours a day. And add some fluoride while you’re about it.
The Romanian connection to the horsemeat scandal initially got the news broadcasters quite excited, because for a moment it looked like we could pin the blame on insensitive horse-murdering foreigners. Suddenly there were news packages littered with shots of Romanian pony-and-trap riders clopping through the streets of Bucharest, the unspoken implication being that the entire nation was a medieval anachronism where horses were in plentiful supply. To be fair to the reporters, the Romanian meat industry didn’t do itself any favours by supplying a heavyset media spokesman who sat in a poky office smoking at his desk, with what looked like a sizeable collection of reindeer skulls littering the floor.
But about 10 minutes later the finger of blame pointed back home, as British police began raiding meat plants all over the country. Let’s face it, chances are none of us has actually eaten a cow since about 1998. It’s been horse, horse, horse. And it won’t stop there. They’ll be turning up evidence of peopleburgers next. I know it and you know it. Might as well get used to the idea: you are a cannibal, and have been for years.
One peculiar consequence of the story is that just about every news bulletin for the past 10 days has featured stock footage of the inside of an abattoir; strings of chewed flesh spewing from mincers while anonymous men in bloodstained overalls hack dementedly at scarlet carcasses. I’ve seen things that have changed me. The other day a guy was sawing a lamb carcass in half; it was mainly hollowed out apart from the kidneys, which were lolling about uselessly like glistening brown eggs, while the anchor monotonously droned on about traces of phenylbutazone. Meanwhile, I was eating lunch without pausing for breath. I’m fairly confident I could now eat sandwiches in a field-hospital tent during a civil war. I couldn’t have said that two weeks ago
It’s strange the broadcasters feel the need to show us this, and show us it repeatedly. We’ve spent years trying to pretend we don’t understand how dead cow is made, and then they go and spoil it all by grabbing a fistful of entrails and wiping our faces with it. Still, at least all this negative coverage of meat makes vegetarians happy. Or at least it would do, if they had the energy to be happy.
Just about the only thing that eclipsed the ongoing horse horror was the petrifying footage of the Russian meteor strike, some of which resembled a celestial game of Angry Birds played by God. It’s not very often you see an image on the news that makes you instinctively want to run for shelter. If those pictures of the blazing fireball searing toward the ground didn’t make your bowels shiver like a ghost, you’re simply not human.
Having spent most of the 1980s having regular nightmares about nuclear war, I was thrilled to discover how accurate the images of imminent destruction I’d pictured in my sleep actually were. Come to think of it, if the meteor had hurtled over the Urals at the height of the cold war, chances are Moscow would have mistaken it for an incoming nuclear attack and launched an immediate counterstrike on western targets, and I wouldn’t be sitting here typing this now. I’d be stabbing a man to death in a fight over the citadel’s last remaining potato.
The images couldn’t have come at a better time, given that a far bigger asteroid was due to scrape past us later that same day, passing close enough that if you climbed on your roof and reached up, you could scratch bits of spacedust off it with your fingernails.
In the end, asteroid DA14 chickened out of destroying us and ran away to hide behind the sun like a pussy. Which was almost a disappointment when you consider just how awesome the footage would’ve been.
Still, so far 2013 has brought us meteor strikes and mass cannibalism (probably). And it’s still
PM will be accompanied by more than 100 representatives from multinationals, SMEs and universities, as well as parliamentarians
David Cameron arrives in Mumbai on Monday with the largest trade delegation ever taken by a British prime minister to any country in the world. Cameron, who will be the first British prime minister to visit India’s commercial capital in more than 20 years, will be accompanied by more than 100 representatives from multinationals, small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and universities. His delegation includes four ministers plus nine other parliamentarians, many of whom have Indian heritage.
Association of Colleges
Association of Corporate Treasurers
Brit Health Care
BT India Pvt.
Cobra Beer Partnership
Confederation of British Industry (CBI)
CTC Aviation Group
De La Rue
East End Foods
Financial Services Authority
Hip Impact Protection
InterContinental Hotels Group
John McAslan & Partners
London Chamber of Commerce & Industry
London School of Economics & Political Science
London Stock Exchange
Marshall of Cambridge (Holdings)
Mitras Automotive (UK)
New College Nottingham
Oxford Business Group
Pathfinder Health India
Polaris Financial Technology
Project Orange Architects & Interiors
Red Gate Software
Solent India Business Network & Dutton Gregory Solicitors LLP
Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) UK
Technology Strategy Board
Thames Bridge Capital
The Blackstone Group
The British Library
The City UK
The Clinical Trial Company Ltd
The Open University
Trans Data Management
UK Export Finance
UK Higher Education International Unit
Ultra Electronics Holdings
Ultra Global PRT
University of Cambridge
University of Cardiff
University of Exeter
University of Southampton
Univesity of Warwick
West Nottinghamshire College
Lord Green, trade minister
Hugo Swire, Foreign Office minister
David Willetts, universities and science minister
Greg Barker, climate change minister
Nine MPs and peers
Priti Patel MP
Alok Sharma MP
Paul Uppal MP
Shailesh Vara MP
MECHELEN, BELGIUM–(Marketwire – Jan 30, 2013) – Galapagos NV (Euronext: GLPG) announced
today that it has been awarded a EUR2.5 million grant from the Flemish
Innovation by Science and Technology (IWT) for inflammatory bowel disease
research and development. The goal of this 2.5-year project is to
therapeutic compounds for future treatment of IBD patients.
View original post here: Galapagos receives EUR2.5 million IWT grant for IBD research
Deep Space Industries hopes to land spacecraft on asteroids and have them scrape up material for return to Earth for sale
A US company has unveiled plans to launch a fleet of spacecraft to hunt for small asteroids that pass close to Earth which might one day be mined for their precious resources.
Deep Space Industries aims to fly a series of low cost prospecting satellites in 2015 on missions of two to six months, with larger spacecraft embarking on round-trips to collect material a year later.
Announcing the proposals, chairman Rick Tumlinson said that resources locked-up in nearby asteroids were sufficient to “expand the civilisation of Earth out into the cosmos ad infinitum”.
The first prospecting missions with what the company call FireFly and DragonFly probes could hitch a ride into space on the launches of large communications satellites, it said.
The company hopes ultimately to land spacecraft on hurtling asteroids and have them scrape up material for processing in space or for return to Earth for sale. One long-term idea is to build a space-borne manufacturing facility that takes in asteroid material, processes it into usable alloys and other substances, and makes objects with the material via a 3D printer.
The ambitious plans come less than a year after another US company, Planetary Resources, backed by Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, and the film-maker, James Cameron, revealed independent plans to harvest valuable minerals and metals from passing asteroids.
Asteroids vary in their compositions, but some are rich in the platinum group materials and other highly valued metals. Some asteroids are largely made from nickel-iron alloys.
Mark Sonter, a consultant geologist with the Deep Space Industries, said about 1700 near-Earth asteroids are known that are easier to fly to than the moon. Almost all of the material found in asteroids has commercial value, from the silicate gravel to metal alloys and water, he added. “It’s potentially extremely valuable material,” he said.
At a presentation at the Santa Monica Museum of Flying in California, the company called for investors who might be interested in backing the company. “It’s going to be an exciting ride,” said Tumlinson.
Scientists and engineers who spoke to the Guardian said that mining asteroids was feasible but unlikely to make commercial sense for several decades, when the cost of launches came down, and prices of resources on Earth rose.
Keith Cowing, editor of NasaWatch.com, said he was not yet convinced by Deep Space Industries’ plans. “Is the prospect of using asteroid resources crazy? No it’s not. Is if difficult? Yes it is. Can you make a business case for it? People are trying, and making progress.”
But he said any company must have a product, experienced people and a business case. “This is like a three-legged stool. You need all three legs, otherwise it’s not a business, it’s a hobby,” he said.
Ian Crawford, a planetary scientist at Birkbeck, University of London, said some asteroids are made of highly valuable materials that are in growing demand by industry. “The time may come when the rising cost of these materials on Earth, due to dwindling availability and greater demand, makes the price of mining them from asteroids competitive. In principle, mining asteroidal material could become economical within a few decades,” he said.
Building an industry that specialises in asteroid interception and mining might serve us well in the future, should a lump of space rock be spotted on a collision course with Earth. “The infrastructure that helps us mine asteroids could help us to divert any incoming asteroids too,” Crawford said.
Fred Taylor, who is Halley professor of physics at Oxford University, said the launch of cheap and compact satellites to look for small asteroids close to Earth was conceivable by 2015, but much more needed to be done.
“Proper prospecting and eventually mining is much further off, difficult and expensive. Presumably they are after platinum and rare earths, and there may come a time when they are so valuable it makes sense to look for them in asteroids, but I can’t imagine it will be commercially viable any time soon,” he added.
For 80 years antibiotics have helped us to fight disease. But bacteria are growing resistant – so it’s time we stopped treating winter colds with such a powerful weapon
So it’s that time of year again. Just about everyone I know has a cough, a cold, a sniffle, a sore throat. We’re suffering from a general outbreak of snot, a seasonal plague of phlegm that descends on us with tedious predictability and makes us feel as cold and damp inside as it is outside.
But it’s the 21st century! Surely we should be able to come up with a cure for this misery?
Pharmaceutical companies’ balance sheets must be benefiting from cough and cold remedies (which merely offer limited relief from symptoms) – couldn’t they divert some funds into finding a real cure? There would be millions of punters lining up to buy such a drug. But much as we might all like a cure for the common cold, there’s a much more worrying problem looming when it comes to infections and our ability to fight them off.
Microbiologists have likened this impending crisis in healthcare to climate change – it’s big, scary, and we’re not doing much about it. The crisis? We’re running out of antibiotics, and quickly.
In the battle against bacteria, antibiotics have been formidable weapons. We’ve been using them widely for only 80 years, but in that time they have helped to transform our lives: we now expect our children to survive into adulthood, we expect to live to a ripe old age. The trouble is, antibiotics don’t last for ever, and the reason for that is evolution: bacteria evolve resistance. Drugs that would have killed their ancestors at 20 paces glance off newer generations of bugs.
If this were a conventional war, I think we would have realised the need for a concerted effort long before now. We would be cutting up railings to make into tanks and fighter planes. We’d be donating our silk underwear for parachutes. Instead, what we’re doing is sitting back on our (silk-lined) laurels. We’re being incredibly profligate in the way we’re firing off our limited arsenal, and we’re flirting dangerously with the enemy.
Every time we use antibiotics, we show populations of bacteria the weapons we’re going to use against them. If antibiotics are overprescribed, this just accelerates the problem. In the UK, most antibiotics are prescribed by GPs, and the evidence suggests that prescriptions could be significantly reduced without adverse effects – antibiotics don’t do much for runny noses, sore throats, bronchitis, sinusitis, or even middle ear infections. Unfortunately, GPs seem to be prescribing more of them. For instance, from 2003 to 2006 there was a 10% increase in prescriptions of antibiotics to children in the UK. Pressure from patients doesn’t help – in France, apparently more than 50% of people expect to be prescribed an antibiotic for flu-like illnesses. In China, physicians are financially rewarded if they prescribe more drugs. The problem with overuse isn’t restricted to humans. In fact, more than half of all antibiotics manufactured are used for animals as “growth promoters”, routinely added to their feed. You can keep livestock alive in dreadful conditions if you throw antibiotics at them.
Overuse and antibiotic resistance is a massive problem, but our weapons manufacturers are also failing us: pharmaceutical companies are not inventing the new weapons we need. There have been no new classes of antibiotics discovered since 1987 – the year that Bon Jovi released Livin’ on a Prayer, natch. In the 1990s it seemed that the revolution in genomics would lead to rapid development of new antimicrobials – but it hasn’t yet. Coming up with new antibiotics is a huge challenge; if we turn to “natural antibiotics” made by other bacteria, plants or fungi, it’s likely there will already be resistance to those compounds. Coming up with completely novel drugs to kill bacteria is tricky too. Semisynthetic antibiotics, made by tweaking or combining naturally occurring, antibacterial molecules, look promising. For pharmaceutical firms, though, trying to find new antibiotics is a challenge that doesn’t pay off.
We like to think we’re the top of the pile when it comes to life on the planet – we’ve eliminated or controlled most of our natural predators. But it’s not wolves, lions and tigers that we really need to fear. It’s these minuscule enemies that are still preying on us today just as they always have done. And if we start running out of effective drugs, that leaves us incredibly vulnerable. We won’t ever win the battle outright, but we need to make sure we’ve got the upper hand.
Somehow, we need to persuade pharmaceutical companies to back the war effort. Perhaps more collaboration between academia and private companies, and more open sharing of ideas might help. Revisiting old antibiotics could be useful, but we also need to look at other ways of controlling infection – expanding our arsenal by using vaccines, probiotics and things we’ve not even thought of yet. There’s an urgent need to rein in our overuse of antibiotics too, in both medicine and agriculture. Patients need to stop demanding antibiotics, doctors need to be even more judicious in prescribing them.
Back to those sniffles, then. I’m just going to have to wait for this damn virus to get out of my system. Antibiotics aren’t going to help, and I certainly don’t want to become a breeding ground for a new resistant strain of bacterium.