Tag Archives: science

The Red Queen in Iraq

The Red Queen has to keep running just to stay in the same place

The Economist has a fascinating article on the arms race going on between American soldiers and bomb makers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A great example is something called “Darwin” patrols. Many early improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were triggered by remote controls for garage doors. The CIA quickly realized this and began driving around pressing their own garage openers. Any bomb makers nearby would be blown up.

Predictably, these easy wins didn’t last. By killing those bomb makers the CIA effectively improved bomb making. Only better IEDs and bomb makers survived – hence the name “Darwin” patrols.

As the coalition forces become better at detecting IEDs the bomb makers get better at making them. There are plenty more examples of innovation being met with innovation in the article.

Both sides must constantly keep improving just to keep up. This is common in evolutionary biology and is known as the Red Queen effect.

In Through the Looking Glass (the sequel to Alice in Wonderland) the Red Queen tells Alice:

“It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.”

It’s a great name for this effect.

Wherever there is competition, from biology to the Iraq war to the office, the Red Queen effect arises. We have to keep moving, just to stay where we are.

The Psychology of Power and Corruption

The old anecdote says that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The Economist has a fascinating article describing experiments into this effect.

These experiments show that there is in fact a causal link between power and corruption. Even more interestingly, they may point to the reason for this link.

How the experiments work

The researchers used “priming” techniques to make test subjects feel either powerful or powerless.

Once primed, both high-power and low power subjects were asked to rate the morality of various situations. For example the researchers asked subjects to rate the morality of cheating on taxes or of taking an abandoned bicycle.

The results

The experiments showed a significant difference in the judgments of high-power and low power subjects:

  • High-power = Judge others more harshly than yourself
  • Low-power = Judge others more leniently and yourself more harshly

Power does indeed seem to cause people to judge themselves more leniently than others – they are moral hypocrites.

The entitlement hint

It seems that powerful people not only abuse the system, they also feel entitled to abuse it. This proved to be an important hint and the researchers did more experiments to explore this entitlement.

In these experiments the subjects were primed again, but this time entitlement was split from power:

  • High-power subjects who felt they deserved to be powerful
  • High-power subjects who felt they did not deserve the power
  • Low-power who deserved to be powerless
  • Low-power who did not deserve to be powerless

These subjects were also asked to rate moral actions of themselves and others.

Again the powerless judged others leniently and themselves harshly. This was true whether they legitimately powerless or not.

As expected, those who felt entitled to their power judged others very harshly and themselves very leniently.

The interesting result is for those who were powerful but felt the high-power position was undeserved. These subjects were lenient on others but very harsh on themselves.

This was the exact opposite of the normal result for high-power test subjects.

The reasons why

Why would undeserving powerful people be harsher on themselves than others? That is the opposite of the usual reaction to having power.

The answer to that question provides an elegant explanation for the whole set of results.

Humans evolved living in smallish groups with dominance hierarchies. In such hierarchies all of the experimental results make sense.

Powerful (dominant) members of the band can get away with bending the rules (judging themselves more leniently). They should also deal harshly with anyone lower in the hierarchy taking a chance (judging others more harshly).

Powerless group members should be submissive – they should judge others (normally more dominant) leniently and themselves harshly.

When people from low in the hierarchy find themselves temporarily in powerful positions they are in danger of attracting punishment from the true dominants.

So they act extra-submissively by judging themselves extra harshly and being extra lenient on others.

It all makes sense!

Power Balance is rubbish

I’ve been coming across Power Balance bracelets more and more often.

Power Balance Wrist Band

These bracelets use a special hologram (or sometimes quantum effects) to “restore your body’s electrical balance, promoting a free exchange of positive and negative ions and align your body’s energy pathways.”

They instantly provide: “Faster synaptic response (brain function), enhanced muscle response (in both fast and slow twitch tissues), increased stamina (better oxygen uptake and recovery), more flexibility (faster recovery) and vastly improved gravitational balance.”

All for only R495!

Sound to good to be true. It is.

The thing is that the salesmen have some really cool “tests” that illustrate the effects of the bracelet. The tests are well done and when administered by an enthusiastic salesman they are quite tempting.

Power Balance test

Double Blinds

Since hearing about this miracle product I have wanted to see the results of a double blind test.

In a double blind neither the tester nor the subject knows if the real product is used or some other fake is used. If the product really works then there should still be benefits even when the testers and subjects don’t know the product is being used.


Over the xmas holidays I was lucky enough to come across someone with the product. I immediately made myself seem geeky by enthusiastically explaining double blind tests and then conducting them.

The results were pretty predictable. You can also watch a video showing similar tests debunking the bracelets.

No effect whatsoever.

Power Balance is just an expensive placebo. Just believing that something has an effect often causes the effect! Amazing actually.

In fact, I’ve previously blogged that more expensive placebos are more effective! These are very expensive, so they must work! Right?

Breaking the spell

Now for the really interesting part. Even if it was just a placebo effect, the guy who I was testing this with really believed that there was an effect.

By illustrating that it was a fake I broke the placebo effect. So I broke his Power Balance…

Our brains appear to solve problems unconsciously

One day, back when I was a schoolboy, I got stuck with a particularly tricky programming problem. After unsuccessfully puzzling over the problem I decided to take a break and went for a walk with my family.

About an hour later, while chatting about something else entirely, I was suddenly struck by the solution – it just popped into my head. It was an excellent example of the subconscious mind ticking away at a problem.

Since then I have often wondered at how solutions seem to just pop into my mind. When trying to solve a tricky problem or brain-teaser the solution suddenly appears – but from where?

Sometimes I can follow my conscious thought process systematically arriving at a solution – but often it just pops into my consciousness.

The Economist has this fascinating article about an experiment illustrating that the subconscious mind is responsible for at least some problem solving.

Experimental subjects were faced with a brain-teaser had their brains scanned while they attempted to solve the problem.

Several seconds (up to eight) before a subject had a eureka moment his/her brain waves altered significantly.

This seems to show that the test subjects had subconsciously solved the problem several seconds before they consciously realized that they had the solution.

We are hopelessly ignorant of the workings of human consciousness. I truly hope that during my lifetime experiments such as this one will reveal this fascinating miracle.

More shocking evolution stats

Numbers like those represented in this graph from The Economist upset me badly. The fact that only about 40% of Americans believe evolution is true is just horrific!

Anyone who knows anything about evolution (it is so fundamental that it should be taught in primary school) should see evolution for what it is – obviously true.

Evolution is so mind-blowingly obvious that I’m often surprised when intelligent friends refute it. I’ve gone to great lengths to understand how intelligent people who are not ignorant of the details can still argue against evolution.


These guys and girls are so desperate to hold onto something that they reject something as fundamental and as obvious as evolution…

Graph showing belief in evolution by country

Why people procrastinate

The Economist has this article reviewing experimental results that suggest people are more likely to procrastinate when given abstract tasks:

  • Concrete tasks = Act on time
  • Abstract tasks = More likely to procrastinate

The experiments
Three individual experiments were used to test the hypothesis. In each experiment test subjects were offered a reward (a few dollars) to complete a task within 3 weeks. Half were given a concrete task and the other half an abstract task.

The results
In all of the experiments the researchers found that those given concrete tasks were:

  1. Quicker to respond
  2. Far more likely to respond at all

The article itself doesn’t include much in the way of interpretation. I would think it quite obvious.

  • Concrete tasks: If you have confidence in what is required and that the task won’t change then it pays to get on with it
  • Abstract tasks: However, if the requirement is unclear and might change then it pays to hold out. If you get going you may do the wrong thing or the requirement might change.


Pheromones: unconscious messages

New Scientist has this interesting article on human pheromones. It’s amazing to find that we are unconsciously able to detect information and messages about each other.

A mothWhat are pheromones?
Actually, there is quite a lot of debate about that. Basically, pheromones are chemical messages emitted by animals that trigger responses in receivers.

For example a female moth will release a sex pheromone to signal that she is fertile. Male moths can detect and will react to the pheromone message.

There are many types of pheromones (see the Wikipedia article) including alarm pheromones, sex pheromones and food trail pheromones. They are actually fairly common in the animal world.

Pheromones in humans
Humans are animals so it would make sense that we would also produce and react to pheromones. They are evolutionarily useful after all.

For a variety of reasons (discussed in the article) there has been controversy about the existence of human pheromones. To me it seems pretty obvious that something is going on in humans too, and that is what the article is about.

Human examples
There are several examples of the unconscious effects of human pheromones:

  • It has been shown that women living together will gradually synchronize their menstrual cycles. Later experiments showed that the sweat of women in different stages of their menstrual cycle could affect the cycles of other women. Sounds like pheromones.
  • Brain scans have shown the ‘sex centre’ of women’s brains lighting up when they were exposed to the smell of a male sex hormone (found in men’s sweat). Interestingly the effect was only reliable when there was a man in the room.
  • Alarm pheromones can also be subconsciously detected by humans. Test subjects were able to distinguish between the sweat of people who had watched scary movies and people who had watched funny movies. This was despite not being able to consciously tell the difference.
  • In a similar experiment brain scans showed the fear centre of the brain lighting up when subjects were exposed to the sweat of first time skydivers.

Very interesting stuff. Luckily the effects seem pretty weak because it could get crazy if we learned to reliably affect people’s behavior using chemicals!

One-organism ecosystem in SA mine

Wired has this article on “the world’s loneliest species” which was discovered living deep (3km down) in a South African mine. This is the first ecosystem ever discovered that is comprised of only a single species. That makes it “the tidiest package of life found yet” with everything necessary for maintaining life packed into a single genome.


Ig Nobels for improbable science

A picture of the 2006 Ig Nobel awards

The Ig Nobel awards are a parody of the Nobels for ‘improbable science’

The Ig Nobel Prizes are a parody of the Nobel Prizes that are awarded for achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make them think.” The prizes generally go out for interesting but strange research.

This year’s awards for for research including:

  • Nutrition: For electronically modifying the sound of potato chips to make a person chewing them believe they are fresher than they really are.
  • Archeology: For measuring how armadillos scramble dig sites thereby confusing the order to history
  • Biology: For discovering that fleas living a dogs can jump higher than fleas on cats
  • Medicine: For showing that high priced placebos are more effective than cheap placebos. This actually makes sense to me (I have blogged about the effect on wines)
  • Economics: For showing that lap dancers make more money when they are fertile (also blogged this one before)
  • Physics: For mathematically proving that a heap of string will almost certainly tangle into knots (seriously)
  • Chemistry: For discovering that Coca-Cola is an effective spermicid

Very cool. Check out more detail on the winners and previous winners here.