from the world's big
Why You Don't Have to Be Rational to Run Your Own Life
Are we becoming too obsessed with the idea that people can't think straight? When I began blogging here at BigThink five years ago, I would have said no. After all, for the most part, economists and many social scientists still operate on the assumption that people are rational—that we can, whenever we choose, make decisions by consciously processing real facts through a logical calculator in our heads. (And, the economists would add, that our goal in these calculations is always to maximize our personal share of some measurable benefit, like money or square footage or fur coats). This is pretty obviously not what real people do, so why blame people for talking up the facts? Over the past couple of years, though, I've noticed loose talk about human mental incapacity being used to justify assaults on personal autonomy. If we can't think straight, after all, it follows that we need "help." And much of this "help" consists of taking choices away from human beings and giving them to organizations, machines or software.
Some examples: Once a human being called a boss would decide who would work which shifts at the local coffee shop. Today, Starbucks and many other retail chains are using algorithms to schedule workers, which is great for the bottom line (why pay more people than you need to if you can predict that traffic will be light this Thursday?). Medium, the hot new writing site, is paying some writers and editors according to the amount of time readers spend on their material. This makes for better metrics on the precise relationship between the content and the response. Or consider this technology, now being used in high school gyms in Dubuque, Iowa: It monitors students' heart rates directly, via strapped-on monitors on each kid, to make sure they are exercising enough in class. Then there is this gizmo, described by my fellow-BigThink blogger Teodora Zareva, which delivers fines, electric shocks and social-media humiliations if you do not comply with your own goals. No doubt this is much more effective than just telling yourself you should get to the gym more often.
None of these things are evil in intent. They are not inherently evil in intent. Instead, they're benign. Like the government "nudging" about which I've written a fair amount (for example, here and here) these helpful technologies are aimed at making life easier and literally more profitable. As users of such technology, most people are delighted. Each individual decision-making aid seems so reasonable and sensible, offering reliability and "seamlessness" in the place of irrationality and friction. It's only as targets of technology (the worker whose schedule is machine-written, the kid who's tired and wants to slow down while running laps) that we feel annoyed. The rhetoric of irrationality is a powerful balm against such vexation. You know, it says, you can't trust yourself.
Many of us (not all) would argue that autonomy, the process of self-governance, is valuable. It is, after all, the theoretical basis of our civil rights. So how are we supposed to preserve that autonomy in the face of evidence that machines and organizations and apps are better at making our decisions than we are?
One way would be to deny the whole problem. In 2012, my fellow BigThink blogger Steve Mazie argued that claims about our inability to reason were overblown. The other day he reran that post here and restated his argument here. He thinks the basis for perceptions of human irrationality are exotic laboratory manipulations that have little to do with real life. It is easy to support this claim with some cherry-picked examples of truly odd-sounding experiments. Few of us are ever confronted with examples of the "Linda problem" or the Wason test.
However, Mazie doesn't mention a host of other experiments that document "irrational" behavior in situations that are quite natural and familiar to people. The ultimatum game, for example, is a negotiation in which two people have to decide how to split up money or some other valuable. Dividing up something between two people is a negotiation we all engage in during our lives, from the playground to the edge of the grave. Concerned about results that come only from experiments on people in WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic) societies, Joe Henrich and his colleagues have run this experiment on many different continents with a many different kinds of people. Almost no one (with the occasional exception of students recently trained in economics) does the "rational" thing in that game. I think Mazie is right that casual talk about irrationality has gotten out of hand. But I don't think it's because there is no "there" there.
And so we have a problem: Personal autonomy has been defended for more than a century by the principle that people are rational when they choose to be. This principle seems to be false. At the same time, practical challenges to autonomy—what the philosopher Evan Selinger calls the "outsourcing" of humanity to governments, machines and apps—are growing. How is autonomy to be defended?
I think the answer is this: Decouple the defense of autonomy from the claim that people are rational. Instead of defending the notion that people will make good decisions if they are free, I'd rather argue that the quality of their decisions is irrelevant. It's the process of making them that matters. We don't want to outsource that process to an institution, a company or a machine because doing so makes us value ourselves, and our humanity, less. The process of wrestling with yourself over the gym is part of being a person, whichever way it turns out. The process of scheduling workers (and dealing with their sighs and sulks and protests) is part of what it means to be in a community, and work with other people. Machines and nudges can make more of our experiences "seamless" and efficient, but hold up, we need the seams.
Perhaps this is hopeless, in the face of the seductions of our gadgets, marketing campaigns and the "psychological state" that increasingly nudges us. But isn't the erosion of personal autonomy is worth resisting?
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Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
A study looks at the performance benefits delivered by asthma drugs when they're taken by athletes who don't have asthma.
- One on hand, the most common health condition among Olympic athletes is asthma. On the other, asthmatic athletes regularly outperform their non-asthmatic counterparts.
- A new study assesses the performance-enhancement effects of asthma medication for non-asthmatics.
- The analysis looks at the effects of both allowed and banned asthma medications.
WADA uncertainty<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMDc4NjUwN30.fFTvRR0yJDLtFhaYiixh5Fa7NK1t1T4CzUM0Yh6KYiA/img.jpg?width=980" id="01b1b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2fd91a47d91e4d5083449b258a2fd63f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="urine sample for drug test" />
Image source: joel bubble ben/Shutterstock<p>When inhaled β-agonists first came out just before the 1972 Olympics, they were immediately banned altogether by the WADA as possible doping substances. Over the years, the WADA has reexamined their use and refined the organization's stance, evidence of the thorniness of finding an equitable position regarding their use. As of January 2020, only three β-agonists are allowed — salbutamol, formoterol, and salmeterol —and only in inhaled form. Oral consumption appears to have a greater effect on performance.</p>
The study<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTIzMDQyMX0.Gk4v-7PCA7NohvJjw12L15p7SumPCY0tLdsSlMrLlGs/img.jpg?width=980" id="d3141" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ebe7b30a315aeffcb4fe739095cf0767" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="runner at starting position on track" />
Image source: MinDof/Shutterstock<p>Of primary interest to the authors of the study is confirming and measuring the performance improvement to be gained from β-agonists when they're ingested by athletes who don't have asthma.</p><p>The researchers performed a meta-analysis of 34 existing studies documenting 44 randomized trials reporting on 472 participants. The pool of individuals included was broad, encompassing both untrained and elite athletes. In addition, lab tests, as opposed to actual competitions, tracked performance. The authors of the study therefore recommend taking its conclusions with just a grain of salt.</p><p>The effects of both WADA-banned and approved β-agonists were assessed.</p>
Approved β-agonists and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzkxODk0M30.3RssFwk_tWkHRkEl_tIee02rdq2tLuAePifnngqcIr8/img.jpg?width=980" id="39a99" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b1fe4a580c6d4f8a0fd021d7d6570e2a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="vaulter clearing pole" />
Image source: Andrey Yurlov/Shutterstock<p>What the meta-analysis showed is that the currently approved β-agonists didn't significantly improve athletic performance among those without asthma — what very slight benefit they <em>may</em> produce is just enough to prompt the study's authors to write that "it is still uncertain whether approved doses improve anaerobic performance." They note that the tiny effect did increase slightly over multiple weeks of β-agonist intake.</p>
Banned β-agonist and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjI3ODU5Mn0.vyoxSE5EYjPGc2ZEbBN8d5F79nSEIiC6TUzTt0ycVqc/img.jpg?width=980" id="de095" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="02fdd42dfda8e3665a7b547bb88007ef" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="swimmer mid stroke" />
Image source: Nejron Photo/Shutterstock<p>The study found that for athletes without asthma, however, the use of currently banned β-agonists did indeed result in enhanced performance. The authors write, "Our meta-analysis shows that β2-agonists improve anaerobic performance by 5%, an improvement that would change the outcome of most athletic competitions."</p><p>That 5 percent is an average: 70-meter sprint performance was improved by 3 percent, while strength performance, MVC (maximal voluntary contraction), was improved by 6 percent.</p><p>The analysis also revealed that different results were produced by different methods of ingestion. The percentages cited above were seen when a β-agonist was ingested orally. The effect was less pronounced when the banned substances were inhaled.</p><p>Given the difference between the results for allowed and banned β-agonists, the study's conclusions suggest that the WADA has it about right, at least in terms of selection of allowable β-agonists, as well as the allowable dosage method.</p>
Takeaway<p>The study, say its authors, "should be of interest to WADA and anyone who is interested in equal opportunities in competitive sports." Its results clearly support vigilance, with the report concluding: "The use of β2-agonists in athletes should be regulated and limited to those with an asthma diagnosis documented with objective tests."</p>
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.