from the world's big
A simple principle that explains everything from the perceived success of speed cameras and alternative medicine to the Sports Illustrated jinx
According to urban legend, sports stars who appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated will subsequently experience bad luck. This seems counterintuitive but time and time again the Sports Illustrated jinx repeats itself. Take another example that at first might seem unrelated: Flight cadets have been noted to improve in performance immediately following punishment and show poorer performance immediately following rewards - a finding that seemingly flies in the face of much of what we know about behavioural psychology. Think about your own life for a moment, have you ever noticed this effect? Why might this be the case?
In both cases, as Nobel prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman explains in Thinking Fast and Slow, the answer is nothing to do with what we might expect - the fact that the sportsmen and women appeared on Sports Illustrated or the way the flight cadets were rewarded or punished. The real explanation is all down to probability - a principle known as regression to the mean. Wherever we can expect random fluctuations, if we take an extreme example such as a sportsmen who is on a winning streak or a flight cadet performing particularly well or badly, we can expect that in the immediate future their performance will return closer to the mean due to chance alone. A classic example of this is in how we interpret the effect of speed cameras which are typically installed following a streak of accidents. Following a streak of accidents we can expect that due to random chance there will be a period of time where no accidents take place, regardless of whether or not a speed camera is installed - but when a speed camera is installed we attribute the subsequent immediate drop in accidents as a result of the speed camera.
Regression to the mean can be used to explain the success of alternative medicine (i.e. any intervention that has not passed the test of randomised controlled trials). This is due to the fact that people often tend to get better by themselves given time - they regress to the mean. Statistically, having a headache for example, is an extreme situation. You're most likely to seek help for symptoms when the pain is at its most severe. If you have a headache and take a homeopathic pill you might feel better because of the placebo effect - but you might just feel better because your headache passed all by itself - regression to the mean. This can be a problem for all kinds of research if an experiment is not carefully controlled. If a patient group is selected for their extreme symptoms we can expect that as a group their condition will generally improve over time regardless of any intervention.
A thought experiment presented by Daniel Kahneman is to consider the case that "highly intelligent women tend to marry men that are less intelligent than they are". Take a moment to think about that. As humans, we naturally tend to spot patterns such as this and come up with our own causal explanations. The solution proposed by Kahneman is somewhat more straightforward: "If the correlation between the intelligence of spouses is less than perfect and if men and women on average do not differ in intelligence then it is a mathematical inevitability that highly intelligent women will be married to husbands who are on average less intelligent than they are - and vice versa of course". Whether we like it or not we are programmed to seek causal explanations even when they do not exist and that is something we need to actively remember if we don't want to be misled - or mislead ourselves.
It's staggering how few adults understand the concept of regression to the mean, but it really is a concept worth getting to grips with. This video introduces the concept beautifully:
Related post: How being called smart can actually make you stupid.
Image Credit: Shutterstock/soliman design
Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.
- The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
- The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
- It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
The Red Sea area where Neom will be built:
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Are we genetically inclined for superstition or just fearful of the truth?
- From secret societies to faked moon landings, one thing that humanity seems to have an endless supply of is conspiracy theories. In this compilation, physicist Michio Kaku, science communicator Bill Nye, psychologist Sarah Rose Cavanagh, skeptic Michael Shermer, and actor and playwright John Cameron Mitchell consider the nature of truth and why some groups believe the things they do.
- "I think there's a gene for superstition, a gene for hearsay, a gene for magic, a gene for magical thinking," argues Kaku. The theoretical physicist says that science goes against "natural thinking," and that the superstition gene persists because, one out of ten times, it actually worked and saved us.
- Other theories shared include the idea of cognitive dissonance, the dangerous power of fear to inhibit critical thinking, and Hollywood's romanticization of conspiracies. Because conspiracy theories are so diverse and multifaceted, combating them has not been an easy task for science.
A growing body of research suggests COVID-19 can cause serious neurological problems.
- The new study seeks to track the health of 50,000 people who have tested positive for COVID-19.
- The study aims to explore whether the disease causes cognitive impairment and other conditions.
- Recent research suggests that COVID-19 can, directly or indirectly, cause brain dysfunction, strokes, nerve damage and other neurological problems.
Brain images of a patient with acute demyelinating encephalomyelitis.
COVID-19 and the brain<p>A growing body of research reveals alarming neurological complications among COVID-19 patients. On Wednesday, for example, researchers from University College London published a <a href="https://academic.oup.com/brain/article/doi/10.1093/brain/awaa240/5868408" target="_blank">study</a> in the journal Brain that describes how some patients have suffered temporary brain dysfunction, strokes, nerve damage, and other neurological problems concurrent with COVID-19.</p><p>Some patients suffered brain inflammation as a result of a rare disease called acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, which can cause numbness, seizures, and confusion. One patient in the study even hallucinated monkeys and lions in her home.</p>
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images<p>A separate study published in the <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7198407/" target="_blank">Journal of Clinical Neuroscience</a> notes that some COVID-19 patients have also suffered neurological complications like impaired consciousness and acute cerebrovascular disease. The study notes that past viruses like MERS and SARS also seemed to cause neurological problems.</p><p>A troubling finding among this growing body of research is that some patients seem to suffer neurological damage even when respiratory symptoms aren't obvious. Additionally, scientists aren't sure whether damage from the disease will be permanent.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Given that the disease has only been around for a matter of months, we might not yet know what long-term damage COVID-19 can cause," Dr. Ross Paterson, joint first author of the University College London study, said in a <a href="https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-07/ucl-iid070620.php" target="_blank">press release</a>. "Doctors needs to be aware of possible neurological effects, as early diagnosis can improve patient outcomes."</p><p>If you've been diagnosed with COVID-19 and want to enroll in the study, visit <a href="https://www.cambridgebrainsciences.com/studies/covid-brain-study" target="_blank">cambridgebrainsciences.com/studies/covid-brain-study</a>.</p>
Coronavirus layoffs are a glimpse into our automated future. We need to build better education opportunities now so Americans can find work in the economy of tomorrow.