China Is Rich, But Is It Charitable?

Question: How is philanthropy evolving in China?

Matthew Bishop: So China has embraced capitalism, but has done it in a very authoritarian way where the government is very much still in control of the system. And that has made it, I think, quite hard for philanthropy to get started because people are making a lot of money, but they don’t want to be too visible about the fact that they’ve got money because it seems to call into question the whole system. But what’s happened recently is that they are looking, some of the wealthy Chinese, are looking at their society and they are saying there are huge social problems, terrible environmental problems, terrible problems of poverty, of water shortage and so forth, and the government is clearly struggling to solve those problems on its own. They are looking at people like Bill Gates and saying, well that’s a good role model for us. We think that’s what it means to be a successful wealthy person now. We want to be like the best American business people, but also we see our own society and we see there is a need to solve a lot of problems. And I think the government is now open to encouraging that because it sees that as a good role model, they want a harmonious society and so when they see the rich give back, that’s a good thing. And they are also aware that they can’t solve these problems on their own and they need to engage the business community in that.

And so, when there was an earthquake, a huge earthquake that killed a lot of people last year, that was the first moment where you saw a lot of the new rich in China actually come out and start giving substantial amounts of money. And that, I think, was when the government for the first time gave its official nod of approval towards that phenomena. And you are seeing people like Jet Li, the movie star, create a popular culture of giving; so with a million Chinese now giving – he has this slogan of one-one per month is the ideal. And they are going by the Internet and the mobile phones. And they you also have this culture of Western companies that want to do business in China being expected to give back in the communities where they are working. Particularly there is a lot work going on with HIV Aids where international companies have come in and done work in that field. Interestingly, talking to Jet Li, one of the issues he’s hoping to solve through his foundation is that when you are a western company and you are asked to do something socially good in China, you have to partner with a local organization, a non-profit or something. And they are quite often, you have no idea whether you are actually working with a good organization or with a crook who just wants to take your money and do whatever with it. And he’s hoping that he’s going to create a real marketplace with genuine feedback so that you know, as a western company that you are doing business with a bona fide non-profit that is actually serious about solving problems. And so, I think we are going to see in China, over the next five years, this extraordinary takeoff of philanthrocapitalism as you get business philanthropy and non-profits and the government all working together to solve these huge problems that China faces.

Question: How has China adapted to being an economic superpower?

Matthew Bishop: So, China I think has been doing a lot of catching up so far. They had all these years where it was state dominated, communistic, and after Tiananmen Square, the Government said, we have to embrace economic growth, which means we have to embrace capitalism; otherwise, the whole system is going to crumble. And so, they were catching up by copying the successful practices of the West and basically doing it much cheaper. So they were undercutting us by using very cheap labor. Now, there’s a real question about how do that go beyond that because they’ve actually probably achieved much of what they can do by simply copying and doing it cheaper. They’re labor markets are actually quite expensive relative to many other emerging countries now, so they are losing out to them. So, they’ve got to become innovative and that’s what is so interesting about someone like Jack Marr at Alibaba, he has these extraordinary events. Alibaba is ten years old, they had an event he other week where they had 27,000 people in a stadium all of whom were what Jack Marr calls netropreneurs which are sort of people who are running a small business and they are basically doing e-commerce via his website. And he’s actually talking about now not B to C, business to consumer, but C to B, consumer to business where you’re creating a whole industry around the customer actually telling the firm what it wants. What the customer wants and actually leading to a really high level of customization I don’t even think you are seeing in the west in terms of the products that are produced. So, this is the real challenge for China kind of go from being a follower in terms of innovation to being a leader. And I think there is every reason to think the talent and the energy that they have there, and the awareness that they need to just keep growing as fast as they can and at the same time deal with the social problems they face is going to mean they will probably a leader in things like green energy. But they have to solve these problems and that’s actually going to make them very, very innovative over the next few years.

Question: How will the U.S. think of India and China in five years?

Matthew Bishop: Well, I think the U.S. has a schizophrenic view to the growth that is happening in developing countries like India and China. India and China both taking jobs from America, in a way, and so that seems very threatening. On the other hand, there is an awareness that China in particular is providing most of the money that America is using to spend and enjoy a high quality of life, so a lot of Treasury Bonds are bought by the Chinese. And there is an underlying recognition that when countries like India and China come out of poverty, the world as a whole gets wealthier, which means we all win. It’s a win-win situation. And so the next five years are going to be about adjusting to a world where America is not the dominant economy anymore, but is still a very important economy and it has to find a more satisfactory relationship with these emerging economies and that’s going to mean a bit of give and a bit of take on both sides. But I think there will ultimately a better relationship between America and China and India because it will become a more equal relationship and I think gradually the public will understand in America that its not a threat fundamentally, that America, if it sorts out its own domestic issues which are largely about retraining the labor force so that people can do jobs that aren’t done more cheaply overseas, this will be a very much a win-win.

Question: Will the next five years bring more economic opportunity in the East?

Matthew Bishop: Well China and India, I think, have a lot of opportunities because they’re still very many people who aren’t in the mainstream labor market. India in particular has a very young population that is getting educated fast, but their education system still has a long way to go before it is as good as it could be. China, there is still a lot of brain power, a lot of engineers there and this is still a period of human history where there is a great deal of potential for innovation and so, I think there are great opportunities there. The issue is that labor markets are becoming globally integrated which means that the price of Chinese labor and of Indian labor is increasingly moving up to global levels and therefore, unless they are actually adding real value relative to what you could do in America, there’s not going to be just simply a matter of cost cutting, it’s going to be about figuring out a way that they do things better.

Recorded on:  September 24, 2009

As China made clear during Obama's visit, the country has caught up to the West in a big way. But is it ready to take on the role of a global leader? A Bureau Chief from the Economist explains how China is adapting to its rise, both in terms of philanthropy and the broader world economy.

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.


Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.