Category Archives: Mummy’s Word

Science in the Soul

“I think it’s high time,” writes Richard Dawkins in the introduction to Science in the Soul, “the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to a scientist.”

We agree. Dawkins doesn’t mean to imply that he might be one such deserving scientist. Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Oliver Sacks and now Stephen Hawking are out of contention, but there’s Brian Greene, Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond, Neil deGrasse Tyson, James Gleick, Michio Kaku and others…

The laureates for Literature have caused quite a stir at times. The Swedish Academy’s decision to bestow its distinguished literary award — and the accompanying $1.1 million prize — to Bob Dylan in 2016 unleashed a storm of criticism, with many arguing the American musician and songwriter did not deserve an award that was typically bestowed on novelists, dramatists, and writers of non-fiction. Dylan’s reluctant acknowledgement of the award and his decision to be absent at the official award ceremony only added fuel to the fire.

In this era of “alternative facts” and with science under siege, maybe it’s about time that a science writer was awarded the prize. But it’s not going to happen this year. The Swedish Academy is dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct, financial malpractice and repeated leaks, and has announced earlier this month no Nobel prize for literature will be awarded this year.

If they were to head down the science path, just about the first person the Nobel organizers would bump into would be Richard Dawkins.

Debates about the most influential science book of all time habitually settle into a face-off between Darwin’s Origin of Species and Newton’s Principia Mathematica. But last year, a poll to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Royal Society Science Book Prize returned a more recent winner: Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene.

Dawkins took a decisive 18% of the vote, while Darwin was jostled into third place by Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything in the Royal Society poll of more than 1,300 readers. As interesting as the votes on the 10 books shortlisted for contention was the often passionate championship of titles that were left off the list. They were dominated by physics and cosmology. Silly not to include David Deutsch, sniffed one of many, who cited a range of works by the Oxford-based quantum physicist. Carl Sagan’s “mind-blowing” 1980 TV tie-in Cosmos garnered a clutch of votes from fans who described it as life-changing.

A less inspiring picture emerges from a crunch of the ratio of recommendations by gender, unsurprisingly perhaps in the context of a prize that only had its first female winner – Gaia Vince – in 2015. Of 313 suggestions outside the shortlisted books, fewer than 20 were for books by women – but they win out on imaginative titles. Hats off to Elizabeth Royte for The Tapir’s Morning Bath and to Robin Wall Kinnear for Braiding Sweetgrass – and above all, to primatologist Jane Goodall, who summed it up in the five words of her 1971 title: In the Shadow of Man.

The top 10 most influential science books of all time – from the shortlist
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins – 236 votes
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson – 150 votes
On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin – 118 votes
The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White – 101 votes
Bad Science by Ben Goldacre – 88 votes
Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh – 81 votes
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot – 77 votes
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson – 39 votes
Married Love by Marie Carmichael Stopes – 5 votes
The Science of Life by HG Wells, Julian Huxley and GP Wells – 4 votes

Out of this list, 6 authors are eligible for the Nobel Prize as they are still alive. And since the members of the Swedish Academy are busy infighting and have lost public confidence, maybe others should step up to the task.

It was in 1976 when Richard Dawkins suggested, in the opening words of The Selfish Gene, that, were an alien to visit Earth, the question it would pose to judge our intellectual maturity was: “Have they discovered evolution yet?” We had, of course, by the grace of Charles Darwin and a century of evolutionary biologists who had been trying to figure out how natural selection actually worked. In 1976, The Selfish Gene became the first real blockbuster popular science book, a poetic mark in the sand to the public and scientists alike: this idea had to enter our thinking, our research and our culture.

The original book cover, illustrated by Desmond Morris.

The idea was this: genes strive for immortality, and individuals, families, and species are merely vehicles in that quest. The behaviour of all living things is in service of their genes hence, metaphorically, they are selfish. Before this, it had been proposed that natural selection was honing the behaviour of living things to promote the continuance through time of the individual creature, or family, or group or species. But in fact, Dawkins said, it was the gene itself that was trying to survive, and it just so happened that the best way for it to survive was in concert with other genes in the impermanent husk of an individual.

This gene-centric view of evolution also began to explain one of the oddities of life on Earth – the behaviour of social insects. What is the point of a drone bee, doomed to remain childless and in the service of a totalitarian queen? Suddenly it made sense that, with the gene itself steering evolution, the fact that the drone shared its DNA with the queen meant that its servitude guarantees not the individual’s survival, but the endurance of the genes they share. Or as the Anglo-Indian biologist JBS Haldane put it: “Would I lay down my life to save my brother? No, but I would to save two brothers or eight cousins.”

These ideas were espoused by only a handful of scientists in the middle decades of the 20th century – notably Bob Trivers, Bill Hamilton, John Maynard Smith and George Williams. In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins did not merely recapitulate them; he made an impassioned argument for the reality of natural selection. Previous attempts to explain the mechanics of evolution had been academic and rooted in maths. Dawkins walked us through it in prose. Many great popular science books followed – Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, Stephen Pinker’s The Blank Slate, and, recently, The Vital Question by Nick Lane.

More books followed from Dawkins, including The Extended Phenotype (1982), The Blind Watchmaker (1986), which won the Royal Society of Literature Award in 1987, and River Out of Eden (1995). Dawkins particularly sought to address a growing misapprehension of what exactly Darwinian natural selection entailed in Climbing Mount Improbable (1996).

Though much of Dawkins’s oeuvre generated debate for asserting the supremacy of science over religion in explaining the world, nothing matched the response to the polemical The God Delusion (2006). The book relentlessly points out the logical fallacies in religious belief and ultimately concludes that the laws of probability preclude the existence of an omnipotent creator. Dawkins used the book as a platform to launch the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (2006), an organization that, in dual American and British incarnations, sought to foster the acceptance of atheism and championed scientific answers to existential questions. Along with fellow atheists Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel C. Dennett, he embarked on a campaign of lectures and public debates proselytizing and defending a secular worldview. Dawkins launched the Out Campaign in 2007 in order to urge atheists to publicly declare their beliefs.

In the memoir An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist (2013), Dawkins chronicled his life up to the publication of The Selfish Gene. A second volume of memoir, Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science (2015), recorded episodes from the latter part of his career.

Dawkins’s prose is lucid and powerful, his arguments difficult to contend. Science in the Soul is Dawkins’ 14th book and contains the usual vivid explanations of Darwinism and kin selection, replicators and phenotypes, written in sentences that grab you by the throat. He is brilliant, as ever, at evoking a sense of wonder about nature – a fly’s compound eye, the waggle-dance of a honeybee – then showing how the scientific reality is infinitely more complex and beautiful than the appeal to the supernatural.

It is a shame that Dawkins is now perhaps better known for his irritable contempt for religion, since his true legacy is The Selfish Gene and its profound effect on multiple generations of scientists and lay readers.

Setting aside the response to his views on religion and politics, there have been plenty of attacks on the idea of the selfish gene. The Selfish Gene has been attacked variously by philosophers, comedians, vicars and journalists. Much of the enmity stems from people misunderstanding that selfishness is being used as a metaphor. The irony of these attacks is that the selfish gene metaphor actually explains altruism. We help others who are not directly related to us because we share similar versions of genes with them.

Richard Dawkins is one of the great thinkers of the 20th and 21st century. He is erudite, considered in his statements and unapologetic in his insistence that facts, empirical evidence and reason take center stage. He received a standing ovation at the end of his talk and rightly so!

Consider this statement from Kurt Wise, who has a Ph.D. in paleontology and an M.A. in geology from Harvard University, and a B.A. Geology from the University of Chicago:

Although there are scientific reasons for accepting a young earth, I am a young age creationist because that is my understanding of the Scripture. As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate.

Here is someone who despite having the ability and knowledge to engage in critical thinking and think for himself, deliberately chooses not to. And admits it out loud!

A number of Stanford studies became famous for the contention that people can’t really think straight and reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational. Rarely has this insight seemed more relevant than it does right now.

Richard Dawkins doesn’t have any answers for how people can embrace critical thinking and empirical evidence and reason. But he most definitely does not use abusive language towards anyone, individual or group, and while some of his statements might make you cringe, well… the truth sometimes hurts. Criticism is not ‘abuse’. People may get offended and hurt by honest criticism, but that’s still not abuse. And it is noticeable that many of the attacks on Dawkins are ill-tempered spats full of abusive language, while he remains calm and rational and backs up his arguments with evidence.

We don’t have the answers either, and it is quite likely that we have even less optimism than Dawkins that humanity as a whole will evolve to the next stage of overcoming the evolutionary and cultural conditioning to fully embrace facts, empirical evidence and reason.

Consider what’s become known as “confirmation bias”, the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them. Of the many forms of faulty thinking that have been identified, confirmation bias is among the best catalogued; it’s the subject of entire textbooks’ worth of experiments. One of the most famous of these was conducted, again, at Stanford.

Some cognitive scientists prefer the term “myside bias”. Humans, they point out, aren’t randomly credulous. Presented with someone else’s argument, we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses. Almost invariably, the positions we’re blind about are our own.

An experiment performed by a group of cognitive scientists neatly demonstrates this asymmetry. Participants were asked to answer a series of simple reasoning problems. They were then asked to explain their responses, and were given a chance to modify them if they identified mistakes. The majority were satisfied with their original choices; fewer than fifteen per cent changed their minds in step two.

In step three, participants were shown one of the same problems, along with their answer and the answer of another participant, who’d come to a different conclusion. Once again, they were given the chance to change their responses. But a trick had been played: the answers presented to them as someone else’s were actually their own, and vice versa. About half the participants realized what was going on. Among the other half, suddenly people became a lot more critical. Nearly sixty per cent now rejected the responses that they’d earlier been satisfied with.

This lopsidedness might reflect the task that reason evolved to perform, which is to prevent us from getting screwed by the other members of our group. Living in small bands of hunter-gatherers, our ancestors were primarily concerned with their social standing, and with making sure that they weren’t the ones risking their lives on the hunt while others loafed around in the cave. There was little advantage in reasoning clearly, while much was to be gained from winning arguments.

And this social game has not changed much over centuries and millenia. The unwritten rules for success, failure, belonging, and other key attributes of people’s lives remain similar to the hunter-gatherer times. People need to fit in, to behave in ways that are acceptable to the groups to which they belong. What has changed are the toys people use in playing the game.

Little bears don’t suffer from the hunter-gatherer conditioning, they weren’t around then! 🙂

It says that the book is written by a passionate rationalist for other passionate rationalists…

That’s us!

Once more, with feeling: life as bilingual

Finnish-born PhD student Wilhelmiina Toivo, from the University of Glasgow School of Psychology, has won the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) 2016 -17 writing competition Making Sense of Society, in partnership with SAGE Publishing.

l-r: Martin Rosenbaum, ESRC Council member and an executive producer in the BBC Political Programmes department; Wilhelmiina Toivo; and Dr Alan Gillespie, Chair of the ESRC

Brought up in Helsinki, Finland, Wilhelmiina came to Glasgow in 2011 to study psychology as an undergraduate student; last year she completed a Master of Science in Psychology and is currently six months into her PhD.

The competition, which is now in its second year, celebrates and fosters the writing skills of the next generation of social scientists. This year students were asked to write 800 words about why their research matters, and how it helps us make sense of and understand the society in which we live. There were nearly 300 entries which demonstrated the incredible breadth and depth of social science research taking place across the UK. Topics ranged from Big Data, to climate change, class, immigration, dementia, the economy and education. You can find all the winning entries here: Making Sense of Society

Entrants were encouraged to temporarily take off their academic hat, and write in a style different to what they might be used to, using their imagination to think of new ways to capture the interest of the public. A wise requirement, as academic writing, frankly, is incredibly tedious to read and it appears designed to exclude all but the chosen few. And no doubt it contributes a great deal to the failure to transfer knowledge from research into practice.

In her winning essay Once more, with feeling: life as bilingual, Wilhelmiina Toivo wrote about her experiences growing up in Scotland speaking English as a second language, and how speaking in her non-native tongue gave her a sense of liberation when it came to swearing and discussing her emotions. This personal insight linked well to her PhD research project, which focuses on why many bilinguals report feeling less emotionally connected to their second language, a phenomenon known as the ‘reduced emotional resonance of language’.

Below is the essay written by Wilhelmiina Toivo that made her joint winner with Lauren White, from the University of Sheffield. Wilhelmiina’s research caught my attention because I can relate on some level. With English as my second language, I find that the emotional force of swearwords and taboo (S-T) words is much stronger in my native language, so I switch to that when I really need to unload! It also helps that people around me can’t understand me then 🙂 And that is despite the fact that my entire life now unfolds in English and I think (and probably dream) in English. I also find it much easier to discuss some subjects in English, they don’t carry the same emotional weight as they do when I try to discuss them in my native language.

To take a short tangent now, it turns out even if you learn a second language to a very high standard, you’ll never speak it like a native unless you were exposed to it by around the age of eight. This is mirrored by brain scans. Languages you learn after eight go into a subtly different area of the brain to those acquired earlier.

Due to the complex nature, and often diverse subject matter, the value of social science research is too often overlooked or called into question, despite its significant impact on society. It turns out using a foreign language reduces decision-making biases. Four experiments show that the framing effect disappears when choices are presented in a foreign language. Whereas people were risk averse for gains and risk seeking for losses when choices were presented in their native language, they were not influenced by this framing manipulation in a foreign language. Two additional experiments showed that using a foreign language reduces loss aversion, increasing the acceptance of both hypothetical and real bets with positive expected value. The hypothesis is that these effects arise because a foreign language provides greater cognitive and emotional distance than a native language does.

Once more, with feeling: life as bilingual, by Wilhelmiina Toivo

My dad had a rather liberal philosophy of bringing up children, but he would always tell us off for swearing. As a result, I grew up feeling very uncomfortable using swearwords. Or, at least, so I thought – when I first moved to Scotland, I noticed that it was actually very easy to swear in English. Interestingly enough, I also found it easy to talk to my flatmates about topics that felt too intimate to discuss in my native tongue. In a flat of seven girls from all over Europe, we discussed the full magnitude of emotions and topics; the fears of living abroad, falling in and out of love, death, sex – everything. Swearing and talking about these emotions was not easy just because of the inherent rowdiness of the student community, or because we felt liberated being away from home for the first time. The effect I was observing is something that goes deeper and touches a huge number of people who live in multilingual settings.

Language is so much more than just a communication device; it is a way to understand the world around us

Many bilinguals report ‘feeling less’ in their second language; it does not bear the same emotional weight as your native language. Feeling less emotionally connected to your second language might make it easier to use highly emotional vocabulary, which is precisely what I was experiencing with my ease of swearing and talking about sensitive topics in English. The scientific term for this is ‘reduced emotional resonance of language’. It is a fairly well-established phenomenon, but many specific questions still remain unanswered. For example, what exactly makes one’s second language less emotional? How does this affect different immigrant communities? My research project aims to address these questions by looking into the reasons and implications of reduced emotional resonance in bilinguals’ second language.

It is still unclear what exactly shapes emotional resonance of a language and in what way – results thus far have been inconclusive. In the first part of my project we are exploring which factors in a person’s language background contribute to reduced emotional resonance. For example, is it influenced by the age at which you have learnt your second language? Does it matter how frequently and in which context you use the language? Or is your emotional experience of a language predictable from whether you dream or can do maths in it?

To investigate these questions, my project uses eye-tracker technology to measure bilinguals’ pupil responses to emotional words in English. Typically, when shown highly emotional words or pictures, people’s pupils dilate as an uncontrollable, emotional reaction. Previous research has shown the effect is smaller in bilinguals’ second language, which suggests reduced emotional resonance. Understanding the reasons why this happens can, in turn, help us explain how you experience a foreign language community, and how this could be taken into account in acculturation and adaptation.

Wittgenstein said: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” This is particularly true for your second language. For fluent bilinguals living in a community where their native language is not
spoken, reduced emotional resonance sets ‘the limits of the world’. While your language skills can be more than adequate, not being able to fully structure your surroundings through language might leave you feeling alienated; not a part of the society you live in. Or perhaps you are perceived as rude or socially awkward for using the wrong words in the wrong emotional context.

Many bilinguals report ‘feeling less’ in their second language

However, not all the implications of reduced emotional resonance are negative – bilinguals can actually benefit from being able to approach things in a less emotionally involved way. For example, bilinguals have been shown to be able to make more rational decisions in their second language. Also, switching languages can be used as a tool in therapy when working through emotionally difficult or traumatising experiences. Imagine how it would be if it were easier to talk about your emotions with your partner – maybe bilingual couples have a communicative advantage? Ultimately, understanding the full scale of implications of reduced emotional resonance is a way to understand how bilinguals experience the world.

In the increasingly globalising world where studying abroad, immigration and sojourning are more and more common, as well as pervasive issues in international politics, understanding the realities of bi- and multilingual people is crucial. Being bilingual no longer means just being exposed to two languages from birth – it can refer to a person who uses two languages in their everyday life, regardless of their level of fluency. As the number of people with versatile language backgrounds grows, understanding all aspects of language and how these mediate our lives become important. Language is so much more than just a communication device; it is a way to understand the world around us, defining our reality and what it actually means to be human.

Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart

Is the name of one of our favourite books, by Dr Gordon Livingston. Written in 2004, Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart, a variation on a Dutch proverb, is a work dealing with human issues that has been translated into 22 languages.

The book includes essays on what Dr. Livingston called 30 bedrock truths. Among them:

  • Any relationship is under the control of the person who cares the least.
  • Only bad things happen quickly.
  • Forgiveness is a form of letting go, but they are not the same thing.
  • The statute of limitations has expired on most of our childhood traumas.
  • If the map doesn’t agree with the ground, then the map is wrong.
  • The problems of the elderly are frequently serious but seldom interesting.

He got that last one from a New Yorker cartoon and worried that the old folks would be offended. But the point was that people die, bodies fail and nonstop complaining only isolates the elderly at a time when they need people the most.

Dr Livingston died a year ago this month and we have to hope that he has left us with enough wisdom to guide us forward. To read him is to trust him and to learn, for his life has been touched by fire, and his motives are absolutely pure. (Mark Helprin)

As a practising psychiatrist, he prescribed virtues like courage to his patients instead of tranquilizers or antidepressants. In his books he told us all what we need to do to develop personal virtues in the face of societal fear – and our own individual fears. And he did this with the crystalline prose and leavening wit that have made him an internationally bestselling author.

He told us we are accustomed to thinking about character in the most superficial ways. “He has a lot of personality” is usually a statement about how engaging or entertaining someone is. In fact, the formal definition of personality includes our habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and relating. to others. Most of us understand that people differ in certain characteristics, such as introversion, fondness for detail, tolerance for boredom, willingness to be helpful, determination, and a host of other personal qualities. What most people fail to realize, however, is that the qualities we value — kindness, tolerance, capacity for commitment — are not randomly distributed. They tend to exist as constellations of “traits” that are recognizable and reasonably stable over time.

Likewise, those attributes of character that are less desirable — impulsivity, self-centeredness, quickness to anger — often cluster in discernible ways. The psychiatric profession has taken the trouble to categorize personality disorders. Dr Livingston used to say he often thought that this section of the diagnostic manual ought to be titled “People to avoid”. The many labels contained herein —histrionic, narcissistic, dependent, borderline, and so on — form a catalogue of unpleasant persons: suspicious, selfish, unpredictable, exploitative. These are the people your mother warned you about. (Unfortunately, sometimes they are your president.) They seldom exist in the unalloyed form suggested by the statistical manual, but knowing something about how to recognize them would save a lot of heartbreak and bad decisions.

We are what we do. In judging other people we need to pay attention not to what they promise but how they behave… We are drowning in words, many of which turn out to be the lies we tell ourselves or others.

If every misfortune can be blamed on someone else, we are relieved of the difficult task of examining our own contributory behavior or just accepting the reality that life is and has always been full of adversity. Most of all, by placing responsibility outside ourselves, we miss out on the healing knowledge that what happens to us is not nearly as important as the attitude we adopt in response.

What would be useful is a manual of virtuous character traits that describes qualities to nurture in ourselves and to seek in our friends and leaders. At the top of the list would be kindness, a willingness to give of oneself to another. This most desirable of virtues governs all the others, including a capacity for empathy and love. Like other forms of art, we may find it hard to define, but when we are in its presence, we feel it.

This is the map we wish to construct in our heads: a reliable guide that allows us to avoid those who are not worthy of our time and trust and to embrace those who are. The best indications that our always-tentative maps are faulty include feelings of sadness, anger, betrayal, surprise and disorientation. It is when these feelings surface that we need to think about our mental instrument of navigation and how to correct it, so that we do not fall into the repetitive patterns of those who waste the learning that is the only consolation for our painful experience.

He was spared the events of last 12 months, but he left us his wisdom on the subject. We have to identify those among us who are qualified to lead and teach us. They must be intelligent and devoted to the principles of kindness, tolerance and hope. If, instead, we elevate those who are stupid or arrogant (or both) we will then get the future we deserve.