Inoculating Against the Anti-Vaccine Meme

The debate over vaccination is raging (c.f. Wired article) and it smacks of one of those conundrums that is unlikely to get resolved by scientific inquiry.  I offer the following hypothesis and a way out of the dilemma.

Hypothesis: Vaccination is something that is good at the societal level but bad at the individual level.  That is, it is a tragedy of the commons.  You want all your neighbors to get vaccinated so they don’t pass on the germs to you, but there is enough risk from the vaccination process (at least for certain ones) that you’d rather not do it yourself.

The mathematics of the commons tragedies suggests that there are two ways out.   One is to change the payout/incentive structure, in other words, make the vaccine’s less risky to the individual, or at least change the perception of the individual risk (as the Wired article suggests).  The problem with manipulating perception is, what if you’re wrong?  The marketplace of ideas …

The Link Between Food & Healthcare Reform

Also must-read this Sunday is Michael Pollan’s NY Times Op-Ed piece from Wednesday.  Nice cap to my week of ranting on the dismantling of rationality when it comes to lifestyle choices that directly impact one’s health, here and here.…

“Bad people do bad things”

In listening to this account of Hemant Lakhani, convicted in 2005 of illegal arms dealing, I was reminded of another This American Life episode about Brandon Darby.  Underlying both stories are accounts of seemingly incompetent, misguided, would-be bad guys who were actualized on a path of evildoing by law-enforcement agents during sting operations.

What I found most interesting was the quote in the title of this post, said by the prosecutor in the Lakhani case.  This was his justification for why it was okay to have the U.S. military supply Lakhani the weapon that he was convicted of illegally dealing.  (If you listen to the story you will learn that Lakhani had been making promises to the informant of being able to procure weapons for a long time and he’d been unsuccessful on his own).

While it seems on the surface that “bad people do bad things” — i.e. that’s how bad things get done, they require a bad person to do them — …

What Obama Needs to Do

The old philosophical theory says that reason is conscious, can fit the world directly, is universal (we all think the same way), is dispassionate (emotions get in the way of reason), is literal (no metaphor or framing in reason), works by logic, is abstract (not physical) and functions to serve our interests. Language on this view is neutral and can directly fit, or not fit, reality.

The scientific research in neuroscience and cognitive science has shown that most reason is unconscious. Since we think with our brains, reason cannot directly fit the world. Emotion is necessary for rational thought; if you cannot feel emotion, you will not know what to want or how anyone else would react to your actions. Rational decisions depend on emotion. Empathy with others has a physical basis, and as much as self-interest, empathy lies behind reason.

This is part of a brilliant article by cognitive science and linguistics pioneer, George Lakoff (emphasis mine).  His argument about what …

Something Fishy About Mercury

Here is a fascinating discussion on NPR’s Forum from earlier this year on the subject of mercury and fish:

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If you’ve listened to this the whole way through (which you should), I’m curious as to how it will affect your habits, if at all.  And why?…

Paying Women to Not Get Pregnant

What’s fascinating to me about this is not that it works so well and or that there might actually be support in the Obama administration for doing it on a national scale, but rather that there has not been a backlash against it yet.  What are the odds that something like this will actually get implemented?  Is it actually a good thing?

hat tip: Annie Duke’s mom

Don't Eat That Marshmallow!

Short but brilliant TED talk by Joachim de Posada.  I love the economic point he makes at the end.

Behavioral Economics With Dan Ariely

If you liked this talk (as I do), check out Ariely’s 3 irrational lessons from the Bernie Madoff scandal.…

Placebos Work Even If You Don't Believe in Them

This is one of the most important medical “breakthroughs” in recent memory.  You should read the entire article, because it makes some subtle points, but the upshot is that placebo has (at least) two components, one that is triggered by conscious belief in a putative cure, and another that is triggered by unconscious, Pavlovian association.…

Crohn's Disease

Debbie Maier asks us on the Upcoming Topics page to address Crohn’s Disease.

I don’t know too much about it except that it’s an autoimmune disease and has a complex, multi-causal etiology and pathology.  In my reading on autoimmune diseases in general there seems to be a direct link between latitude an incidence.   Specifically, the farther from the equator you live the more likely you are to get Crohn’s, Type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and so on.…

Chasing the Dragon

Kevin just posted about a great article by Felix Salmon in Wired.  I underlined three quotes in my reading of it:

  1. “Correlation trading has spread through the psyche of the financial markets like a highly infectious thought virus.” (Tavakoli)
  2. “…the real danger was created not because any given trader adopted it but because every trader did. In financial markets, everybody doing the same thing is the classic recipe for a bubble and inevitable bust.” (Salmon)
  3. “Co-association between securities is not measurable using correlation…. Anything that relies on correlation is charlatanism.” (Taleb)

Twitter vs. Psychoanalysis

In this Times Online article, two psychologists and an author weigh in with their view of Twitter users as narcissistic and infantile:

The clinical psychologist Oliver James has his reservations. “Twittering stems from a lack of identity. It’s a constant update of who you are, what you are, where you are. Nobody would Twitter if they had a strong sense of identity.”

“We are the most narcissistic age ever,” agrees Dr David Lewis, a cognitive neuropsychologist and director of research based at the University of Sussex. “Using Twitter suggests a level of insecurity whereby, unless people recognise you, you cease to exist. It may stave off insecurity in the short term, but it won’t cure it.”

For Alain de Botton, author of Status Anxiety and the forthcoming The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Twitter represents “a way of making sure you are permanently connected to somebody and somebody is permanently connected to you, proving that you are alive. It’s like when a parent goes

Why It's Important to be an Optimist

The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.  (James Branch Cabell)

I am currently reading What Are You Optimistic About?, a collection of short essays by thought leaders in many different disciplines on the eponymous subject.  I’m also reading True Enough, a compelling argument by Farhad Manjoo for how despite — nay, because of — the fire hose of information that permeates modern society and is available for the asking, the schism between what’s true and what we believe is widening; a polemic on polemics if you will.  Taken together, these two books suggest to me that there is a case, not for being optimistic per se, but for why you should consciously, actively try hard to become an optimist if you aren’t already.…

Red Pill or Blue Pill?

As we approach the inauguration of a new leader who trying to be truly post-partisan, I think Jonathan Haidt’s TED brilliant talk is apropos:…

Making Great Decisions When it Counts

Some friends and I watched the above talk together by Dan Gilbert on the various ways humans made logical errors in decision making.  If you are a behavioral economist or are into psychology literature, you are probably all too familiar with the experiments on this subject, but it’s worth watching anyway.

There was some criticism of the talk in that it does ignore the fact that given limited resources in making decisions, the heuristics that we humans use (i.e. the rules of thumb, like price being a good indicator of quality) serve us very well most of the time.  It’s only under specific circumstances that these heuristics lead to logical errors and bad decisions.  Thus, the talk left some people thinking that the point Gilbert was making is that we’re all pretty bad decision makers and we should learn to transcend these error-prone heuristics.  The critics further suggested that no, we’re not bad decision makers, we are in fact really good 95% of the time, …

Embodied Cognition

Until recently, Artificial Intelligence research has been grounded on a theory of cognition that is based on symbolic reasoning.  That is, somewhere in our heads the concepts are represented symbolically and reasoned about via deduction and induction.

At long last, AI researchers are truly learning from human cognition (oh the irony!)  Introducing Leo, the robot that learns to model and reason about the world like human babies do, via embodied experience and social interactions:

Two Paths to Empathy

By all accounts, the ability to empathize with others is the hallmark of social behavior.  Indeed, when we come across those rare individuals whom we view as anti-social, or those even more rare individuals that we label as sociopaths, the diminished or missing feature of their personality is empathy.

There are two paths to empathetic behavior, one innate, and one constructed.  …

Notes from TED

Here are some notes that I took at TED 2008.  I have a bunch more on each of the speakers individually which I may post as time permits.  Let me know if you want me to expand any of the notes below into a full post.

The Fundamental Theorem of Email

I can count on one hand the number of times my inbox has been empty in my life. If you are like me, your email inbox is the center of your organizational universe. It’s the main “to do” list, and when the emails start piling up unread or unprocessed, it creates anxiety. A whole industry has cropped up to address such angst by teaching people practical tactics for becoming more efficient with their time. While this is good and all, it doesn’t seem to address the Fundamental Theorem of Email: the rate you receive new email is directly proportional to the speed with which you reply. Some corollaries:…

Try This Experiment

For one full day, whenever you are in physical proximity to another person, be they friend or stranger, look them in the eyes, hold their gaze and smile.…