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(Unsuccessful) Bloody revolution in Barnsley, 1820 & Georgia, 2013: How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?

A story in the Huffington Post, spotted by Occupy Posters (well worth following: ):

Georgia Men Used Facebook To Plot Anti-Government Militia Uprising, Prosecutors Say
Three Georgia men were charged in federal court this week with plotting an attack against the government designed to trigger martial law and encourage other militias to join their violent uprising.

The men were trapped by an FBI informant:

Cannon told an FBI cooperating source on Feb. 8 that the group was planning to “start a fight” with the government by attacking power grids, transfer stations and water treatment facilities, which they hoped would trigger martial law, according to prosecutors. Cannon said he would invite the FBI’s source to a private Facebook group, where plans were being made, according to the government.
Later, on Feb. 15, Cannon told another FBI informant the types of weapons that Peace allegedly wanted. The FBI gave the cooperating informant 12 non-working pipe bombs and two high-temperature thermite devices. The three men met with the cooperating informant, who handed over the thermite devices. The three suspects were arrested as the cooperating informant went to obtain another box of supplies.

So, that’s good: we’ve had quite enough Christian terrorism (or, more precisely, terrorist acts carried out by those purporting to be Christians) over the last century or so.

Occupy Posters took the trouble to track down some of the Facebook posts from the accused:

..which make interesting reading. I was puzzled to start with by Cannon’s term SHTF, but realised it’s when the Shit Hits The Fan. I’m not sure if this is the breakdown of civilisation as we know it, or when the Revolution kicks off, or maybe both/either.
On reading these, however, I was reminded of stuff I’ve just been reading written by English revolutionaries in the early 19th century, in Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. This was a time when there seem to have been (according to Thompson, at least) groups of disaffected people all over England planning real, bloody revolution with sword, gun and pike. Of course, they never got it together to actually do anything, and, as above, plots were defused by government spies and informers (and maybe provocateurs), as in the Pentridge rising and the Cato Street Plot. There was a real expectation among some people that once the levolution had started, people would join in and make an unstoppable wave – if only people would step up and join in. In Georgia in 2013, Brian Cannon moans:

I am absofuckinglutely sick and tired of all the keyboard commandos that only know how to run their mouths!! Sure they claim to train but what the fuck for? Seriously, why waste the time and energy if you are not willing to do something with that training?
(First link above)

The English revolutionaries had similar problems:

The Barnsley Radicals expected all the north and the Midlands to rise on the same night. They were to proceed to Grange Moor, where they would rendezvous with other contingents, and then proceed:
‘…through Barnsley to Sheffield and on to London. It was said the Scotsmen would be at Leeds as soon as us or not above a day’s march behind us.’
Perhaps 300 assembled, with drums, weapons, haversacks (with three days provisions) and a green flag with black fringe: ‘He that smiteth a man so that he die, shall surely be put to death.’ They were marshalled by two former soldiers, Comstive (a ‘Waterloo man’ and a ‘good penman’) and Addy (who wore the symbolic white hat). They trudged the twelve miles to Grange Moor, picking up small parties on the way, arriving in the small hours to find the rendezvous deserted. After waiting for some time, the rumour of a Government plot spread through the ranks, and they scattered in dismay. For these two attempts, Comstive, Addy, and several others were transported.
[…] On 14 April a weaver, Joseph Tyas, was apprehended near Huddersfield, and in his wife’s cap a letter was found, addressed by him to ‘our brethren in Lankaster Shire’:

Dearly beloved—
We hope you are comeng on pretty well though your Captifeity is painful. . . . Our Musick in Yorkshire as played twise where yours in Lankashire has never struck at all, is your Musicians sick? …
Melancholy, Melancholy, Melancholy Yorkshire, your Reformers stand true. … About 300 at Grange Moor, they marched all night, each man had is Blanket Spare [Spear] or Gon & well filed with ammunition poor Men to be so deceived by short sighted men it would have tuck an afect on your feelings to have seen the brave men stand under their arms all that weet night after a march of 12 miles and Not one Man to meet them according to Apointment all their pike shafts were left on the more the blades taken out except 3 or 4 which was to feast in [too fast in], the poor Men stud with charefull [cheerful] hearts till daylight beating the drums and their breast but no other partity joyned them. All at a loss to know what to do. Return to Barnsley they could no think of but when there was no other prospect they all begain to shed tears Most bitterly with Crys of the most distracted …
‘I hope,’ the letter concludes, ‘that we may all meet in one Body and one Voice yet.. ‘(Thompson pp776-7)

I’m sure I could find a similar sort-of religious piece from around 1820 to match Tony Kinsey’s:

I ask that you [God] be with all the good men, women and children that will stand up in defiance of the wicked rulers and in defense of our Country and the world. I ask that you shield us and those we protect from harm and injury. Give us great speed and accuracy, make us invisible to our enemies and our enemies easily seen. Help us to destroy those that make this world painful and miserable so that one day all hearts will radiate your love freely without constraint.
(Second link above)

– but I had to take Thompson’s book back to the library, so I can’t search for quotes at the moment.

I have some sympathy (at a comfortable distance of 200 years) with the English radicals, and none at all with modern right wing terrorists, but as well as similar laments (better expressed, though with worse spelling, by Tyas than by Cannon), there’s the same underlying problem: the rich grinding the faces of the poor.
That fits with something else I found online. A posting from one of the ‘53%’ (the 53% of US workers who pay Federal tax, according to Mitt Romney in his presidential campaign, and who may see themselves as supporting the rest of the idle, feckless scum who probably voted for Obama), in the genre of posting a selfie holding up a handwritten testament started by ‘I am the 99%’ (fascinating stuff: just do a Google image search for “I am the 99%”: try “53%” and “47%”, too). The text reads (you can see the image in the Daily Kos link below. I can’t find the original, so I’m not able to credit it):

I am a former Marine.
I work two jobs.
I don’t have health insurance.
I worked 60-70 hours a week for 8 years to pay my way through college.
I haven’t had 4 consecutive days off in over 4 years.
But I don’t blame Wall Street.
Suck it up you whiners.
I am the 53%.
God bless the USA!

Which really socks it to the ‘99%’ whiners, but as Max Udargo gently but very effectively points out in his ‘Open Letter to That 53% Guy’: …the statement itself shows the reality of the problem the whiners are on about: is that really what it takes for an ordinary person to get along in the richest country around? And how could you raise a family that way?

And if so, it’s not so surprising that there are people looking for ‘the Second American Revolution’ and thanking God for ‘for the opportunity to kill the bad guys that are wicked and vile’ (Tony Kinsey in the Cory Williamson link above).

As Blind Alfred Reed asked at another difficult time How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?
Best ever modern version: Ry Cooder & Flaco Jimenez: (you can find a Springsteen version on YouTube, too)

DISCLAIMER: I’m not advocating violent revolution here, either in Barnsley or Georgia, and yes, I have checked my privilege, as someone who isn’t a poor man and is living very comfortably in these times, but I think there are fascinating – and worrying – parallels here.

Thompson,EP (1980)  The Making of the English Working Class London: Gollancz

The Stanford Prison Experiment part 2: an alternative explanation (involving rotten apples)

LevineRotten Apples

(Image from Alan Levine at

This is the second of three posts on the Stanford Prison Experiment: the myth of what happened (last post), an alternative explanation for what happened (this post), and how that relates to the abuses at Abu Ghraib (next post).
The oversimplified version of the SPE is that the guards all became abusive, irrespective of their values and personalities, because they fell into the role required of them in the prison situation. Zimbardo’s full account of the study in The Lucifer Effect (2007) shows it was much more complicated than that, and he discusses thoughtfully and at length the various processes involved. As usual, this shows the value of going back to original accounts or papers, rather than relying on the text-book versions. I’ve discussed in the previous post how Zimbardo’s account shows considerable ‘personality-related’ variation in behaviour amongst both prisoners and guards, and questioned the extent to which situation/role governed everyone’s behaviour (though Zimbardo points out quite convincingly how he himself was overcome by the expectations of the ‘prison governor’ role).

The kind of thing that happened in the SPE does happen in other total institutions* (schools, children’s homes, care homes: see examples in the previous post), so the ‘SPE effect’ is pretty robust – but not all these total institutions have potentially dangerous inmates and a punitive (or at least corrective) ethos like a prison, so it can’t be simply the ‘prison guard role’ which is causing the effect.
My explanation is rather simple: individuals with a propensity for bullying and the ‘rotten apple’ effect, coming together in a total institution environment with lax controls on worker behaviour.

Zimbardo’s account distinguishes clearly between the ‘tough guards’ and the ‘good guards’, and even discusses a power struggle between them, which the tough guards win. One individual stands out: a guard named by Zimbardo in the book as Hellman (not his real name), who the other guards nicknamed ‘John Wayne’. In the available videos of the SPE which you may have seen he is a tall guard with straight fair hair who usually appears as taking a lead role in taunting the prisoners, and The Lucifer Effect emphasises his dominance and enthusiasm for mistreating the prisoners (which Hellman presents as his own ‘experiment’ to see how far he could go before someone stopped him: Zimbardo, 2007, p194).
Zimbardo commented on him, years later: “He was creative in his evil. He would think up very ingenious ways to degrade, to demean the prisoners.” BBC2 (2002)
Just after the end of the experiment, one of the prisoners talking to Hellman about how he might have behaved himself as a guard says: “I don’t think, I don’t believe, I would have been as inventive as you. I don’t think l would have applied as much imagination to what I was doing. Do you understand? […] I think I would have been a guard, I don’t think it would have been such a masterpiece!.” Zimbardo 2007, p193
I also remember Zimbardo reporting a conversation between one of the other guards and Hellman: “I know we have to do this stuff, Dave, but you don’t have to be so damn good at it.” I’m ashamed to say I can’t find the source for this now: if you know it, please let me know.

So, a personality difference, with one person seemingly more inclined to be abusive than others. But several other guards followed his lead, and no other guard, even ones that both Zimbardo and the prisoners regarded as ‘good guys’, effectively stopped the abuse. This is where the rotten apple effect comes in.

Rotten apples

Whenever some example of institutional abuse or corruption emerges, some senior spokesperson will blithely say ‘of course, there are always a few rotten apples, but….’ to reassure the public that there’s no fundamental problem. Such people are using a metaphor they don’t understand (don’t you hate people like that?), are actually confirming (if they understood what they were saying) that there is a real systemic problem, and worst of all DON’T KNOW ABOUT STORING FRUIT. The point about a rotten apple is that it quickly makes all the other apples in the barrel rotten. If it’s not removed at the first sign of decay, the whole lot can be lost. And that’s what rotten apples do: they’re not isolated instances – they’re centres of systemic corruption, once they’re allowed to get away with their rottenness. That seems to be what happened in the SPE: a ‘creatively evil’ person, running their own ‘experiments’, and lax management (Zimbardo), who allowed that kind of thing to take hold. Zimbardo is well aware of that in retrospect, and in The Lucifer Effect he staunchly owns up to his responsibility. Zimbardo does understand the metaphor, but he turns it around by suggesting that the situation was a ‘rotten barrel’ which infected the apples, not the other way around. There is some truth in that, and it may be a characteristic of total institutions (especially those with lax management) to provide ideal conditions for the infection to spread unopposed, but the influence of someone like guard Hellman is an important starting point. There seems to have been a similar influence at Abu Ghraib, which I’ll describe in the next post.

* The term ‘total institution’ comes from Erving Goffman’s 1961 book Asylums: well worth reading as background to all this stuff. (Everything Goffman wrote is well worth reading.)

A total institution may be defined as a place of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together live an enclosed, formally administered round of life. Goffman, 1961, 1991: p11 in 1991 Penguin edition

An ‘appreciable period of time’ doesn’t have to be continuous, I think, so day schools can fit here, though boarding schools do fit better.

The standard ref for the Stanford Prison Experiment is:
C Haney, C Banks, P Zimbardo (1973) Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison – International Journal of Criminology and Penology, 1, 69-97 (note this isn’t a psychological journal), but you probably won’t be able to get hold of that.

BBC2 (2002) The Stanford Prison Experiment

Goffman, Erving (1991, 1961) Asylums: essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates London: Penguin Books

Zimbardo, Philip (2007, 2009) The Lucifer Effect London: Rider

There are very extensive and informative websites about the SPE at and The Lucifer Effect at (but that’s not a substitute for reading the book).

(Almost) everything you know about the Stanford Prison Experiment is wrong

This is a critical discussion of the Stanford Prison Experiment, a study reported by Haney, Banks and Zimbardo in 1973, which gets a write-up in most introductory psychology books, and the place it has come to occupy in the mythology of psychology. It isn’t a criticism of the study itself or Zimbardo’s work, though I have some criticisms of Zimbardo’s conclusions from the study, but of the simplistic ways it has been reported and interpreted and applied to account for events like the mistreatment of prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison in 2003/4. Zimbardo has recently provided a detailed account of the study in The Lucifer Effect (2007) and in that book, and more recent lectures, he gives a more nuanced account of the psychology of bullying and oppression than the accounts I’m criticising here.
Philip Zimbardo and his colleagues set up a fake prison, put volunteers into it as randomly assigned ‘guards’ and ‘prisoners’, and the ‘guards’ abused and bullied the ‘prisoners’ to such an extent that the experiment was stopped after a few days. The myth of the study is that it showed that role and situation overcame individuality; both guards and prisoners fell into their roles, whatever their personal or social inclination may have been, and that the study gives a full explanation of prison abuse. There is a comforting follow-on from being told this myth: now we know how these things work, we can avoid the same kind of thing happening again. That comfortable belief was shaken by the revelation of the physical and sexual abuse suffered by prisoners in the military jail at Abu Ghraib in Iraq in 2003/4, which was taken by many as ‘the Stanford Prison Experiment in real life’.
A Critical Psychology approach suggests that things are more complicated than this standard version. In 2007, Zimbardo published a book which contained a detailed, almost hour-by-hour, account of the study, which helps in this analysis.
A useful critical psychology framework is to ask who? where? why? and when? about a piece of research.
Who and where? Zimbardo was a young academic with an imaginative approach, working at a prestigious university in the USA.
When? The research was undertaken while the USA was at war in Vietnam, and not long after the Korean war.
Why? In both of these conflicts, US soldiers became long-term prisoners of war, and there was concern about how resistant these soldiers might be to interrogation, indoctrination and ‘brainwashing’. This concern was the original point of the study. The research was funded by the US Navy, and the point was to study how prisoners might react to stressful conditions. The guards were not originally the focus of the research. They were just there as part of the machinery of making things difficult for the prisoners. In fact, to start with the researchers thought that the guards were treating the prisoners too well (see later).
The myth is that everyone fell into their roles, and played them altogether too well: the prisoners cowed and intimidated, the guards bullying and sadistic. However, it’s clear from the 2007 account that there were considerable individual differences between the guards and their inclination to abuse prisoners – and the prisoners themselves showed wide individual differences in their behaviour, as the following quotes show:

Arnett [a guard] doesn’t like the fact that Tom-2093 is ‘too good’ in his ‘rigid adherence to all orders and regulations’. (Indeed 2093 will later be disparagingly nicknamed ‘sarge’ by the other prisoners precisely because of his militaristic style of obediently following orders. He has brought some strong values into the situation that may come into conflict with those of the guards….) p47

Prisoner 8612 tries to talk the others into going on a sit-down strike to protest these ‘unacceptable’ prison conditions… p48

The ringleader of the revolt is Paul-5704, who got his buddies in Cell 1 […] to agree that it was time to react against the violation of the original contract they made with the authorities (me). They push their beds against the cell door, cover the door opening with blankets. pp60-61

One of those prisoners commented: ‘Although I am usually quiet, I don’t like to be pushed around like this. Having helped to organise and participate in our rebellion was important for me. I built my ego up from there. I felt it was the best thing in my entire experience. Sort of asserting myself after the barricade made me more known to myself.’ p63

Meanwhile, in cell 1, two prisoners are quietly executing the first stage of their new escape plan. Paul-5704 will use his long fingernails, strengthened from guitar-picking, to loosen the screws in the faceplate of the power outlet. Once that is accomplished, they plan to use the edge of the plate as a screwdriver to unscrew the cell door lock. One will pretend to be sick and, when the guard is taking him to the toilet, will open the main entrance door down the hall.  Signalled by a whistle, the other cellmate will burst out. They will knock the guard down and run away to freedom![…] but as bad luck would have it, Guard John Landry, making routine routine rounds, turns the door handle on Cell 1, and it falls to the ground with a resounding thud. Panic ensues [and the escape attempt is foiled]. pp63-64 

Not all the guards were keen to be oppressive, and some had to be nudged by the researchers into being tougher:

Guard John Marcus seems listless. He rarely gets involved in the main activities in the Yard. Instead, he volunteers to do off-site duties, like picking up food at the college cafeteria. His body posture gives the impression that he is not enacting the macho guard image: he slouches, shoulders down, head drooping. p65

He is later taken aside and urged to ‘play the role of the tough guard’.

The warden takes [guard Markus] out to the yard and chastises him…
“The guards have to know that every guard has to be what we call a ‘tough guard’…”
[Markus objects] “…we need you to act in a certain way. For the time being, we need you to play the role of a ‘tough guard’… your individual style has been a little too soft” Zimbardo 2007, p65

Certainly, an abusive situation did develop, but from the 2007 account, it seems to have been the product of one or two dominant, bullying individuals, rather than something that was ‘produced’ by the situation. The situation did allow this bullying, because of Zimbardo’s deliberately laissez-faire management, but perhaps didn’t require it. This conclusion is supported by the outcome of a ‘replication’ staged by Reicher and Haslam in 2006 (lots of details at Although this wasn’t a true replication – there were many detail differences, although the starting setup was similar to Zimbardo’s – the outcome was very different, with co-operation between prisoners and guards, and prisoners sure of their rights taking back some dominance from the guards . Reicher and Haslam (2006) discuss how a different social milieu thirty years later, and different emerging social processes within the ‘prison’, could change the outcome so markedly.
Although there clearly were lessons to be learned about prison management from the original study, and Zimbardo has been an active expert witness on prison reform over the years, the idea that this knowledge can straightforwardly change things hasn’t been borne out either. In a 1998 paper, Haney & Zimbardo conclude that US prison policy showed “a consistent disregard of context situation in the criminal justice practices of the past 25 years” (p714). They conclude that this was because of a politically-driven shift of prison ideology from rehabilitation to punishment, and the failure of the politically motivated ‘war on drugs’; the significance and effectiveness of psychological research depends crucially on the social and political conditions of the time.
However, the Stanford study did seem to come true all over again in Abu Ghraib – perhaps as a result of lax management, and a dominant, bullying personality (Charles Graner), just as in the original study – but I think it’s more complicated than that. As always, it’s necessary to consider the surrounding social and political conditions. I’ll talk about that in my next post.
Certainly, the kind of thing that happened in the SPE does happen, with depressing regularity, but the ‘people fall into their (oppressive) roles’ explanation doesn’t really work. I don’t think bullying is part of the job description of prison guards, and it certainly doesn’t apply in other cases. For instance: a reported case of 16-year-old being tied up by teachers in UK, 2007….

Two teachers have been suspended after mobile phone footage showed a 16-year-old pupil being tied up with electrical tape and taunted in front of his classmates at a new academy in Kent.
At one point in the five-minute clip a voice, believed to be a teacher’s, says: ‘Give us a shout when you are ready to start grovelling.’ It ends with the pupil being released by another teacher. The boy was reportedly distressed. Polly Curtis, The Guardian Thursday December 20, 2007 (,

…and it’s not the case that teachers are supposed to be sadistic bullies – and the same goes for care workers:

Winterbourne View care home “BBC One’s Panorama showed patients at a residential care home near Bristol, being slapped and restrained under chairs, having their hair pulled and being held down as medication was forced into their mouths. The victims, who had severe learning disabilities, were visibly upset and were shown screaming and shaking. One victim was showered while fully clothed and had mouthwash poured into her eyes.
Undercover recordings showed one senior care worker at Winterbourne View asking a patient whether they wanted him to get a “cheese grater and grate your face off?”
The abuse was so bad that one patient, who had tried to jump out of a second floor window, was then mocked by staff members.”
BBC News 26 October 2012

…and only a rabid anti-cleric would suggest that bullying and oppression was the ‘role’ of a nun:

Children were forced to eat their own vomit and bathe in disinfectant at residential care homes run by nuns, the UK’s largest public inquiry into institutional child abuse was told on Monday.
During evidence on the behaviour of nuns from the Sisters of Nazareth order at two Catholic church-run children’s homes in Derry, the inquiry heard that children were beaten for bedwetting and had soiled sheets placed on their heads to humiliate them.
Nazareth House children’s home and St Joseph’s Home, Termonbacca, were both run by the Sisters of Nazareth in Derry. Forty-nine ex-residents of the two homes gave evidence about their treatment in written and oral testimony to the historic institutional abuse inquiry sitting at Banbridge courthouse.
A total of 16 church- and state-run orphanages, care homes and other institutions in Northern Ireland are under scrutiny in a public inquiry expected to last until June 2015.
Young people at Sisters of Nazareth properties in Derry were known by numbers rather than their names, and many were allegedly subjected to humiliation, threats and physical abuse, said Christine Smith QC, senior counsel for the inquiry.
Henry McDonald, The Guardian Monday 27 January 2014

I think there’s a different explanation, consistent with the happenings in the SPE, but quite different from the standard text-book myth, and a bit different from Zimbardo’s version. It’s briefly sketched above, but I’ll elaborate it, and talk about the Abu Ghraib case, in my next post.

Haney,  Banks & Zimbardo (1973) Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison – International Journal of Criminology and Penology, 1, 69-97 (note this isn’t a psychological journal), This is the standard ref for the Stanford Prison Experiment but you probably won’t be able to get hold of it. 

Haney, Craig & Zimbardo, Philip (1998) The Past and Future of American Prison Policy: Twenty-five years after the Stanford Prison Experiment  American Psychologist, 53(7), 709-727. This doesn’t tell you anything very new about the SPE, but suggests that it didn’t have much effect on government policy.

Reicher, Stephen & Haslam, Alexander (2006) Rethinking the psychology of tyranny: The BBC prison study British Journal of Social Psychology 45, 1–40
Available at
Also see for the BBC Prison Study

Zimbardo, Philip (2007, 2009) The Lucifer Effect London: Rider

There are very extensive and informative websites about the SPE at and The Lucifer Effect at

Not psychology: early 19th Century analysis of modern issues

I’ve been reading EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (Gollancz, 1980) in an attempt to make up for the weaknesses of my academic education in the 1950s and 60s. Not having had the benefit of having been taught in a modern comprehensive, my history knowledge derives mainly from Time Team and Blackadder (I note that Michael Gove hasn’t objected to Blackadder’s portrayal of Elizabeth 1 and the Prince Regent, so I guess he thinks those are pretty accurate).

I’ve been really struck by how precisely things people wrote 200 years ago mirror modern issues. Perhaps if I knew more history, it wouldn’t be so striking – but perhaps if many modern commentators knew more history, they would have more sensible things to say about these modern issues.
So (p225 in the 1980 edition): “Thus as early as 1817 the Leicester framework knitters put forward, in a series of resolutions, an under-consumption theory of capitalist crisis”, which could be seen as support for raising the minimum wage, and a criticism of the global race to the bottom in wage rates:

  • That in proportion as the Reduction of Wages makes the great Body of the People poor and wretched, in the same proportion must the consumption of our manufacturers be lessened.
  • That if liberal Wages were given to the Mechanics in general throughout the Country, the Home Consumption of our Manufactures would be immediately more than doubled, and consequently every hand would soon find full employment.
  • That to Reduce the Wage of the Mechanic in this Country so low that he cannot live by his labour, in order to undersell Foreign Manufacturers in a Foreign Market, is to gain one customer abroad, and lose two at home ..

And the benefits system works in the favour of employers to subsidise wages, and to maintain a pool of workers for zero-hours contracts (p244):

…a country magistrate in 1800 […] went on to argue that the poor-rates, by maintaining a surplus population and encouraging marriages – thereby ensuring a supply of labour in excess of demand – brought down the total wages bill. Indeed, he showed himself a pioneer in the science of ‘averages’:
‘Let us suppose the annual poor-rates, and the amount of wages throughout England added together in one total; I think this total would be less than the sole amount of the wages, if the poor-rates had not existed.’
The motives which led to the introduction of the various systems of poor-relief which related relief to the price of bread and to the number of children were no doubt various. The Speenhamland decision of 1795 was impelled by both humanity and necessity. But the perpetuation of Speenhamland and ’roundsman’ systems, in all their variety, was ensured by the demand of the larger farmers – in an industry which has exceptional requirements for occasional or casual labour – for a permanent cheap labour reserve.

And, in the eyes of employers and the comfortably off, the countryside in 1800 was pretty much like Benefits Street. The same prejudiced ranting that you’ll find in the modern right-wing press was visible than, too. Depressing.
243: from the Commercial and Agricultural Magazine, October 1800:

[The village poor are] ‘designing rogues, who, under various pretences, attempt to cheat the parish’ and ‘their whole abilities are exerted in the execution of deceit, which may procure from the parish officers an allowance of money for idle and profligate purposes’.

..and by 1816, the human rights menace from Brussels (or at least Paris) had been added (p246):

‘In regard to the poor-rates,’ one Bedfordshire ‘feelosofer’ (Dr Macqueen) wrote to the Board of Agriculture in 1816, ‘I always view these as coupled with the idleness and depravity of the working class:
The morals as well as the manners of the lower orders of the community have been degenerating since the earliest ages of the French Revolution. The doctrine of equality and the rights of man is not yet forgotten, but fondly cherished and reluctantly abandoned. They consider their respective parishes as their right and inheritance, in which they are entitled to resort …’

I guess the poor are always with us, and so always need to be slagged off by those who benefit from maintaining their poverty, in order to justify to themselves and others what is done to maintain that poverty (we psychologists call it Dissonance Reduction).
Later in the 19th century, I believe (haven’t got that far in the book yet), these lower orders and mechanics organised themselves and affected some improvement in their conditions. Might that happen this century?

Mind? Brain? As a psychologist, who cares?

This started out as an overlong comment on Facebook, in response to some posts by Andrew Dunn and Colin Johnson about the brain-mind problem. Thanks, as always, to Andrew and Colin for giving me interesting things to think about. The starting point for the discussion was a video clip ( suggesting that we can see mind as an emergent feature of brain, and/or that we can think of mind as being like software and brain like hardware. Both of those are ideas worth considering, and I find the software/hardware analogy quite alluring, though it doesn’t quite hold up or explain anything if you look at it closely, but then I thought: is this my problem? As a psychologist (and as an everyday walking-around person), the issue is mind (conscious awareness) and only mind. Phenomenologically, the *only* thing that exists for me is my mind/consciousness/awareness/experience, so that is the core reality. OK, from some outside perspective mind might be an epiphenomenon of brain activity, but for me, the brain activity is more of an epiphenomenon of my existence. I know that changes in brain activity affect my experience (vascular dementia, alcohol, whatever it is that makes me left-handed, which does seem to be related to other characteristics), and I will sometimes deliberately mess with my brain to affect my experience (alcohol), and maybe some things about my brain make that more or less dangerous for me than for others (addiction-prone or -resistant brain structures?)– but the only thing that’s actually going on for me is my experience. It would be fascinating to know something about the machinery of that experience, and that knowledge could be used to change my experience – as we now know enough about exercise physiology to bio-engineer athletic performance – but the brain things I might do with that knowledge would be mind-driven and mind-purposed. In the original discussion, Colin pointed out that that the bit we’re aware of is only a tiny fraction of all the things the brain does (absolutely right), and said “..and we are then supposed to induce that that small channel of neural activity is what makes you ‘you’? – nonsense”, and that’s right at one level – but at the level of my lived experience, me being “me” is the only game in town. I have eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of ‘me’ and ‘not-me’, and once I’ve done that I can’t be brain activity: there has to be a mind. All I have is my experience, and all that that is built on is my experience, and where that experience might come from is interesting, entertaining, and possibly useful, but it doesn’t stop my experience being my experience. So, although it might be possible to solve the problem of mind “by the objective and experimental analysis of the brain proper” (quote from Colin again), the only point of doing that, as a human, would be to satisfy our curiosity about how we work, or to use the information to modify our experience – so it remains an experiential, mind-governed enterprise. Actually, there’s also the problem of the inbuilt indeterminacy of the systems involved, which might make the problem insoluble in engineering terms (see but it’s still worth trying). As an ex-physiologist, I’m fascinated by this stuff, just as I remember being mightily impressed by cross-current filtration in the kidney, and how that’s paralleled by cross-current heat exchangers in birds’ legs, but my real involvement in kidney physiology is having to get up to go to the toilet, or discussions and feelings about my friend’s experience of kidney failure. So, this is a claim for psychologists to be interested in mind-type things, and only bother about the brain where it clearly does impose on conscious experience, just as we only bother about society when it impinges from the other direction. Physiology and sociology and politics are fine, but they’re not really the appropriate level of analysis for a lot of what goes on with people (they are the right level of analysis for some other things that go on). This argument seems to me to be very similar to the resolution of Descartian doubt – how can I be sure that what I think I’m experiencing is what’s really going on? Well, if what I’m experiencing is all I can experience, who cares? Unless I’m being offered a choice between blue and red pills, I might as well – actually, I need to – get on with living that (possibly illusory) experience – what else could I do? As with the ‘let psychology be psychology’ argument above, there is some leakage from other realities: study of optical illusions shows a fracture between two versions of available reality, and you could see irrational dissonance reduction or Freudian repression and defence mechanisms as evidence of other fractures – and useful in casting light on what the ‘sum’ of ‘cogito ergo sum’ is, but still, there’s enough existential doubt around, for goodness sake, without actually needing to doubt one’s existence.

As The Man (Lao-Tzu) said: Open yourself to the Tao, then trust your natural responses; and everything will fall into place (Tao Te Ching 23, translation by Stephen Mitchell, 1988)

This was written at the turn of 2013/14, and if you’ve persisted this far, I wish you all a very Happy New Year – but remember that while the occurrence of New Year’s Day is, of course, entirely objectively explainable in terms of the chronology of the Gregorian calendar and the cosmology of the solar system, the irresponsible saturnalia driven by existential despair which goes on on New Year’s Eve (I can hear it going on next door as I write) is entirely mind- and consciousness-driven.

Where’s the harm in creationism?

I was talking to a friend about being sceptical about being sceptical, and he raised the question: “where’s the harm in creationism?” Creationism is offensively stupid, of course, but then so are lots of other commonly held beliefs – like that anything Paris Hilton (2016 update: any of the Khardashians. Paris Hilton has lost her appeal, it seems) does is interesting and should be monetised – which are equally stupid, but probably don’t do much harm. Other –isms – racism, sexism, sectarianism, homophobia-ism – are clearly harmful and can be directly linked to discrimination, ethnic cleansing, rape, murder, war….Those are isms clearly worth combating – but is creationism anything to get het up about? What did the creationists ever do to us?
A good question, and it got me thinking. Here is why I think creationism is damaging. I’m talking here about Abrahamic creationism – mainly because that’s the only kind of creationism that I have any theological grounding in: I was raised as a Christian. There are lots of other versions of creationism (the ones involving Raven and Halibut are part-way convincing), but I guess one set of creationists aren’t prepared to co-opt other sets’ versions to work towards a general theory of creation.

So, where’s the harm in creationism? What did the creationists ever do to us?

1) It supports lots of the other –isms.
Sexism: Woman was created secondarily to Man, and therefore inferior and subservient to Man.
Speciesism: Man was created master over the rest of creation.
Racism: the curse of Ham falls on people with dark skin (‘a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren’*) – no, wait: that is in Genesis, but it’s not really part of the story of the Creation, which ought to end with the abatement of Noah’s flood, if not with the expulsion from Eden.
Sectarianism: no, that’s probably post-Holy Scripture.
Condemnation of same-sex acts: biblical, but not part of the creation myth (though it could have been: lots of creation myths have the creator making several false starts before getting humanity right; so there could have been a version in which God first created two same-sex individuals, rather than a man and a woman, and then decided that that wasn’t a good basis for procreation. Missed a trick there, 5-10th century B.C.E bigots.)
But then many evolutionists are just as bad. The eugenics movement developed alongside, and as a natural extension of, really, the theory of evolution. The (mistaken, admittedly) notion that some species and races are ‘more evolved’ than others is used to justify speciesism and racism.
There’s a whole genre of sexist evolutionary thought. You know the kind of thing: women evolved to have better colour discrimination than men because back in the old hunter-gatherer days, out on the savannah, those women with excellent colour discrimination were better able to choose the right colours to use to knit** effective camouflage garments for their mates, which enabled those men to go out and kill more sabre-toothed mammoths than those who had partners with mediocre colour discrimination, and therefore raise more offspring. Conversely, men are more stupid than women because back in those evolutionary days, you had to be stupid to go out trying to kill sabre-toothed mammoths when you could easily have raised (rather fewer) offspring on worms and beetles. Evolutionists have a problem understanding same-sex relationships, too: what’s the point? However, I think you can model an evolutionary advantage to having a gay uncle (a lesbian aunt probably enhances infant survival odds even more). So, from the point of view of harmful isms, there may not be much to choose between creationists and evolutionists (though maybe not all evolutionists are as bad as evolutionary psychologists).

And don’t get me started on Social Darwinism.

2) Some of the big problems and dangers which face us depend on evolutionary mechanisms, and if we don’t understand or believe in those we could be stuffed.
One of those problems is species loss and reduction in biodiversity, and the food security risks of genetically limited monocultures. Reasons for thinking these things are dangerous depend on at least some acceptance of evolutionary processes (though presumably lots of good creationists got the point of the Irish potato famine at the time).
From a creationist point of view, what’s the problem?

Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.
And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for food. Genesis 1: 28-29

There you go; we’ve been given it, and it’s there for us to exploit AS WE THINK FIT.
Well, you’d hope that a sensible creationist would think that even if the rest of the world was created to serve humanity, that doesn’t mean we can trash it with impunity – and for less sensible creationists, surely any act of deliberate or negligent extinction is blasphemy? Do we really have the right to destroy what God saw fit to create?
Of course, selective breeding itself ought to be a problem for creationists. Obviously it can’t work, because the mechanisms we use (artificial selection) are too close to the natural selection which doesn’t work and doesn’t modify organisms. Or if it does work, we shouldn’t do it. Modifying that which God saw fit to create in all its perfection has to be blasphemous, again. Every heavily overbred bulldog  is an Abomination Unto The Lord (they’re probably right on that one***). This interpretation seems logical to me, but I’ve not heard it raised by creationists, though it does appear in John Windham’s post-apocalyptic novel The Chrysalids.

The other evolution-based problem that’s worrying me is the evolution of antibiotic resistance in common bacteria. Here’s somewhere where lack of belief in evolution and natural selection will surely kill our grandchildren. This one in itself is enough to condemn creationism.
Having said that, the bland refusal to bother with scientific stuff shown by our ruling and communicative classes is just as dangerous. Last week, I heard an interviewer on Radio 4’s Today programme, interviewing an expert about antibiotic resistance, twice saying that antibiotics had become less effective because ‘our bodies have got used to them’. The second time he said it, the interviewee gently (much too gently, I think) corrected him – but such cluelessness can be as dangerous as creationist resistance. I blame Oxbridge education.

3) Creationism sets a bad intellectual example, which may warp people’s ability to cope with other aspects of the world. Ever since Darwin, what we’ve discovered in all kinds of areas apart from the zoology and botany he was mainly using for evidence – geology, physics, molecular biology – has fitted in with the general notion of the change and diversification of organisms and the age of the earth, most spectacularly in genetics and molecular biology, where we’ve understood the mechanisms for processes which Darwin could only infer, and plate tectonics, where we understand the mechanism for a process which seemed necessary to account for the distribution of living things (and rocks) over the surface of the earth, but which, even in my lifetime, seemed manifestly impossible. By and large (there are always complications in science) the evidence FITS, even in areas which seemed to have little to do with the original thesis****.
If you’re prepared to deny all that, you’re prepared to deny almost anything in science, and probably everyday logic as well. So a the cast of mind which allows a belief in creationism (or, more accurately, denial of evolution and the age of the Earth) is a serious intellectual handicap which can spread to all kinds of other areas of life, with potentially damaging effects, like starting wars to protect ourselves from Weapons of Mass Destruction. Put more simply, creationism is monumentally stupid, and choosing to be monumentally stupid is a hazard to your health, and probably to the health of those around you.

4) Creationism is a subset of a wider problem: literal belief in every single word in the Christian Bible, as the word of God. One problem I have with this is that I can’t find a solid provenance of the fully divinely Authorised Version. I’ve read lots of English versions of the bible, which are all translations of translations, as far as I can make out, and different versions say different things, and I know that in the past people were put to death for asserting that some sentences in the bible should be translated one way rather than another. But maybe that can be put aside as an epistemological problem for believers which we non-believers don’t have to worry about.
But have you seen what the Bible says outside of Genesis?*****
Leviticus 11: 30 forbids eating ferrets and chameleons, which seems fair enough, but 11: 23 forbids eating flying creeping things with four feet (which are extinct now, though not as a result of evolutionary pressure), and 11: 10 bans lobster bisque and moules marinière, which is going a bit far.
Leviticus 19: 19 bans linen/wool blends, though the abomination that is cotton-rich seems to be spared.
More seriously, Leviticus 19: 33-34 says:

And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

– which rules out any anti-immigration policy. Exodus 35: 2 says:

Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you an holy day, a sabbath of rest to the LORD: whosoever doeth work therein shall be put to death.

This should be grim news for many workers in modern retail.
The New Testament is worse. We are encouraged to undermine the economic and moral order:

Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.
Matthew 19:21


But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.
Matthew 5: 44

(The quotes above are from the King James version: authenticated by the King as the Lord’s agent on Earth at that time.)
So, apart from decimating fine dining and retail, the Bible requires us to welcome immigrants, sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor, and do good to those that hate us. That would hit the Home Counties like a Zombie Apocalypse. Imagine what the Daily Mail would say.

If creationists believed all this stuff, and acted on it, society as we know it would be in big trouble. THAT’S where the real harm in creationism would lie.

5) However, either most fundamentalist creationists don’t believe what it says in places like this in the Bible, or believe it and aren’t prepared to act on it – which seems like monumental hypocrisy. And, eventually, that may be the biggest harm: just as creationism is a training in intellectual inadequacy, claiming to believe and follow the Divine Word of God as set out in the Bible – but not doing so on matters like those above – is a moral failure, which softens people up for accepting all the other injustices, cruelties, prejudices and meanesses of life.

Many thanks to Andy Sutton for the original question.

* Although Wikipedia points out that in the original story (or factual account, if you want it that way), there’s no reference to Ham being Black, and Abraham’s curse is on Canaan (Ham’s son, or maybe the nation descended from Ham’s son), not on Ham himself: “And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.” (Genesis, chapter 9)

** Yes, I know that’s pastoralist, but it’s a shame to get historical accuracy get in the way of a good evolutionary psychology story.

***And the hairless cat is Satan’s Work Right Here On Earth:

**** Note that this is strikingly different from modern cosmology, where developing research and theory has led to more and more weird notions because the evidence doesn’t fit. Dark matter and dark energy do seem very like theological inventions to explain away awkward reality, and not that unlike celestial spheres. Doubting the big bang theory because of these counter-intuitive accretions is probably unjustified, but does make intellectual sense.

***** West Wing fans will know that I got most of the ideas for this bit from ‘Bartlett’s Quotations’:

Chaos, Determinism, & Psychology

I’ve been rereading James Gleick’s excellent book Chaos  (1988), and it started me thinking about the practical usefulness of a deterministic psychology.

Determinism in psychology has always been a personal problem for me, because it’s difficult to reconcile the rigid determinism that the science of psychology must lead to: ‘varying factor X will result in effect Y’, with the feeling of free will and choice which is an everyday experience. As a scientist, I have to go with determinism; as an individual, I feel I have free will and I regret the bad choices I continually make. OK, that’s an existential problem, but what about the practical usefulness of a deterministic psychology?

I think understanding chaotic systems and how they work gives us some ideas about this.

Here’s the creation myth of chaos theory: a meteorologist called Lorenz constructed a simple mathematical weather model in 1961 consisting of a dozen non-linear equations. These describe things like the relationship between temperature and atmospheric pressure, and pressure and windspeed. He fed data on these variables into a computer model and let it run to see what weather it would predict. In those days, computers were slow and calculations took a long time to run. On one occasion, he restarted the calculation that he had had to stop partway through by retyping in the figures that the incomplete run had produced.

To give the machine its initial conditions, he typed the numbers straight from the earlier printout. Then he walked down the hall to get away from the noise and drink coffee. When he returned an hour later, he saw something unexpected, something that planted the seed for a new science.

The new run should have exactly duplicated the old. Lorenz had copied the numbers into the machine himself. The program had not changed. Yet as he stared at the new printout, Lorenz saw his weather diverging so rapidly from the pattern of the last run that, within just a few months, all resemblance had disappeared. He looked at one set of numbers, then back at the other, he might as well have chosen to random numbers out of a hat. His first thought was that another vacuum tube had gone bad.

Suddenly he realised the truth. They have been no malfunction. The problem lay in the numbers he had typed. In the computer’s memory, six decimal places were stored: .506127. On the printout, to save space, just three appeared: .506. Lorentz had entered the shorter, rounded off numbers, assuming that the difference – one part in thousand – was inconsequential.
Gleick (1988), p16

But it wasn’t inconsequential. What Lorenz had discovered was that even a tiny change in the starting conditions of a process which depends on several non-linear functions can lead to unpredictable and far-reaching changes in final outcomes. This is what we now call the ‘Butterfly Effect ‘: a tiny change in weather conditions in one part of the world may lead to large unpredictable changes elsewhere. Because of this, it is now generally recognised that long-term weather prediction is practically impossible, no matter how sophisticated our computer models or how extensive and precise measurements of the conditions are.

I think the same applies in psychology. Although we can describe some psychological functions in terms of how factor X leads to effect Y, those functions are generally non-linear. A trivial but obvious example is the effect of amount of alcohol consumed on how good you feel. At low levels, increasing the amount consumed increases the sense of well-being in many people; a higher levels, increasing the amount consumed just leads to the resolution to never, ever, do this again.

Now, if the deterministic relationships which control our behaviour are non-linear, and we are complex systems in which many of these non-linear relationships interact, we are perfect examples of a chaotic system. As such, no matter how well we understand the relationships, nor how precisely we can measure (or control) the starting conditions, we cannot make long-term predictions of the outcomes.

Gleick sums this up later in the book in describing the views of psychiatrist Arnold Mandell:

To Mandell, the discoveries of chaos dictate a shift in clinical approaches to treating psychiatric disorders. By any objective measure, the modern business of ‘psychopharmacology” – the use of drugs to treat everything from anxiety and insomnia to schizophrenia itself – has to be judged a failure. Few patients, if any, are cured. The most violent manifestations of mental illness can be controlled, but with what long-term consequences, no one knows. Mandell offered his colleagues a chilling assessment of the most commonly used drugs. Phenothiazines, prescribed for schizophrenia, make the fundamental disorder worse. Tricyclic antidepressants “increase the rate of mood cycling, leading to long-term increases in numbers of relapsing psychopathological episodes.” And so on. Only lithium has any real medical success, Mandell said, and only for some disorders.

As he saw it, the problem was conceptual. Traditional methods of treating this “most unstable, dynamic, infinite-dimensional machine” were non-linear and reductionist. “The underlying paradigm remains: one gene – one peptide – one enzyme – one neurotransmitter – one receptor – one animal behaviour –  one clinical syndrome – one drug – one clinical rating scale. It dominates almost all research and treatment in psychopharmacology. More than 50 transmitters, thousands of cell types, complex electromagnetic phenomenology, and continuous instability-based autonomous activity at all levels, from proteins to the electroencephalogram – and still the brain is thought of as a chemical point-to-point switchboard.” To someone exposed to the world of non-linear dynamics the response could only be: how naïve. Mandell urged his colleagues to understand the flowing geometries that sustain complex systems like the mind.
Gleick (1998), pp 298-299 (Gleick gives a reference to Mandell’s original writing: I’ve put that at the end).

We might not be quite so pessimistic as Mandell about the effectiveness of psychopharmacology, though even 25 years later I’m not sure that much has changed, and his description of the models used is a bit of a caricature, but the basic point of the unpredictable chaotic nature of the human system is surely valid.

So, even if it were the case that we were completely deterministic systems (like the meteorological systems of weather), and we could determine the relationships within those systems (which we are clearly a very long way away from being able to do at the moment), would that be useless in producing a fully descriptive, fully predictive psychology?

Well, yes and no. We now know that long-term fine-grained meteorological prediction is impossible, but short-term local weather forecasts can still be very useful, even though we don’t expect them to be completely accurate. Similarly (until we started messing around with things with ever-rising CO2 levels, at least) we can make reasonably reliable long-term general predictions. We know how April in Spain will generally differ from August in Spain, and how the weather there will generally differ from the weather in Finland at the same times of year. In many cases, that’s good enough to be going on with, but we are always aware of the possibility of ‘freak’, ‘unpredictable’ weather events.

Similarly, we can make pretty good short-term psychological predictions, certainly in terms of predicting the general outcome of experimental manipulations, and generally useful long-term predictions, based on the climatic differences between ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’, or convergent and divergent thinkers.

In fact, in a chaotic deterministic model, failures of prediction, such as the unpredictable extroverted behaviour of some introverts, and people’s ability to switch from convergent to divergent in certain circumstances, might not be disconfirming evidence for our models. Some unpredictability is to be expected. As long as we limit predictions to the very short term or to generalisms, and have some idea of the unpredictability to be expected (which chaos theory can give us), our models may serve pretty well. That is, they can serve understanding of the processes involved, but may be much less useful for control or categorisation. Even in a fully deterministic world, the ‘gene for believing in flying saucers’ is not going to be simplistically effective, and the test for leadership potential is not going to unerringly detect potential leaders.

So where does this leave the effective usefulness of a completely deterministic psychology, and what does it mean for the existential problem of the possible illusion of free will? I think it shows that the aim of describing, understanding and controlling human behaviour through deterministic (and reductionist) models is over-optimistic. We can make some weather-forecaster-like predictions, but more holistic and phenomenological ways of understanding are going to be equally useful. I think the same applies to determinism and free will. It may be that all my thoughts, reactions, and behaviours are determined, but if so, since they are determined in a way which is unpredictable (and may be unfathomable) carrying on behaving as though I have free will and I’m responsible for the choices I make not only seems to work, but might be the most practical alternative. We are aware that we are to some extent determined; we have ideas of internal and external compulsion, but we also have ideas about ways of working with that, and to the extent that these ideas work, they are practically, humanly, useful – even if fundamentally illusory. This is the solution that that old determinist Skinner came to in his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Although he felt that behaviour was determined by reinforcement contingencies, somehow, if we have the ability to understand and manipulate those contingencies, we can choose to create better or worse worlds.

In some ways this is similar to the practical solution of the Cartesian problem, that we can never be sure that the world we experience is as it seems to be – that it is not an illusion produced by our senses. It could well be an illusion, but unless someone is offering us the red pill or the blue pill, there is no way of establishing that, and the only sensible thing we can do is to operate in the world as we experience it. What other world could we operate in? Also, we know that some parts of our world experience are illusory, and the understanding of that gives us a more secure basis for operating in good faith in other parts of the world.

Yes I know that’s simplistic, and ignores problems like the false consciousness associated with late-phase capitalism, but it works for me. Just as Samuel Johnson established the existence of the stone by kicking it*, my world of free will is established by the consequences of the good and bad choices I seem to be making, and the pleasure I experience in looking at the trees  and birds which seem to be in front of me.


Gleick, James (1988) Chaos: Making a new science London: Cardina

Mandell, Arnold J. (1985) From Molecular Biological Biological Simplifiaction to more Realistic Central Nervous System Dynamics: an Opinion in Cavenar & al (eds) Psychiatry: Psychobiological Foundations of Clinical Psychiatry New York: Lippincott (cited in Gleick, 1988)

Skinner, B.F. (1971) Beyond Freedom and Dignity NewYork: Knopf

*After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, “I refute it thus.”
— James Boswell In Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1820), Vol. 1, 218.

Why the private sector shouldn’t do public service: or why these people behave like scum, even if they didn’t start out like that

Three stories in The Guardian over the last week which started me thinking about the inherent, and serious, danger of using the private sector to run organisations which are supposed to be for the public good. My disgust started with a story about Adam Afriyie, who has emerged as a possible conservative leadership contender (no, I don’t know what that’s about either, but obviously someone has a Cunning Plan): Adam Afriyie profile: before any plot, there was always a word farm by Robert Booth The Guardian, Thursday 31 January (

“Afriyie, the MP for Windsor, who was forced to deny any ambition to unseat the PM, has made a multimillion-pound fortune from businesses that include an operation employing hundreds of young writers to churn out thousands of news stories a day about anything from car roof racks to the best way to cook Christmas lunch.
Afriyie owns businesses that include Adfero which bills itself as “the UK’s leading dedicated online news provider”. It produces thousands of short articles for corporate clients who need fresh content on their websites featuring popular keywords in the daily battle to appear near the top of Google’s search rankings.
[…]  Adfero staff are asked to produce around 30 articles per day, each of around 200 words – a rate of one every 15 minutes in an eight-hour shift. The stories – many written from press releases harvested systematically – are then sold to clients at a price of around £18 per time to clients.
Adfero is part of the burgeoning industry of “search engine optimisation” and to make sure Google puts an organisation’s website high up its list of search results whenever an internet user inputs search terms that relate to that organisation’s trade. So by writing stories about a film star such as Jennifer Lopez and posting them on a film rental website, when a movie fan does a Google search for Jennifer Lopez, there is a higher likelihood of the company’s site appearing in the search.”

I can’t imagine anything more vacuous, meretricious, and wasteful (and deceitful to those of us who [unwisely] trust Google’s algorithms to find us good quality content) – but you can make a multi-million pound business* out of that.

Then I found: The Google adverts helping to rip-off consumers Patrick Collinson The Guardian, Saturday 2 February 2013 (

“There are a bunch of slimy toerags who create websites that trick people into paying £1.50 a minute to ring free services such as calling NHS Direct and DWP benefit helplines, or lure them into paying £10 for a European health insurance card when they’re free, or charge £50 for what should be an £8 US visa. Now unsuspecting visitors to London are being targeted with sites that mislead drivers into paying 50% more than they should for the congestion charge.”

Slimy toerags is mild – but if there’s money to be made…..

….And finally, I remembered from the week before: Fake reviews plague consumer websites: Consumer website reviews should give you the truth about goods and services – unless they’ve been written to order Mike Deri Smith The Guardian, Saturday 26 January 2013 (

“Websites such as Trustpilot claim to have millions of “authentic reviews from actual customers” to help shoppers buy online with confidence. But a Guardian Money investigation has uncovered fake reviewing on an almost industrial scale, with companies paying offshore contractors to post numerous glowing accounts of their activities, yet maintaining they are from unbiased consumers.

Many of the fake reviews uncovered by Money were written by computer science specialists in countries such as Bangladesh, India and Indonesia, who, for a relatively low fee, will write and send false reviews using scores of aliases and fake addresses. Many offer their services to western companies on, which promotes itself as an international website on which you can “outsource anything you can think of”. Companies simply post their requirements and wait for freelancers to start bidding for the work.

Guardian Money tracked down fake reviews promoting WAE+ (formerly known as We Are Electricals), which last year was the most complained about company to our consumer champions’ Bachelor&Brignall consumer champions column.”

OK, you shouldn’t believe everything you read in The Guardian, but you just know this stuff is true, because it’s absolutely in character: the character of the private sector.

The point of private enterprise is to make profit for the owners. There is no other objective, and from its point of view there should be no restrictions on how to do that, as long as it’s legally allowed (thank goodness there are some legal restrictions, which is why – for any libertarian US  readers – yes, we really do need a democratic government and a set of laws). Anything else can go and get stuffed. I was first made aware of this thirty-odd years ago when I read The Famine Business (1977)**, a book by Colin Tudge, the excellent science writer about all kinds of things, where he pointed out that the business of food companies was not to make food, but to make money – and once you realise that, a lot of unfairness and suffering in the world starts to make sense.
OK, there can be useful side-effects. Maybe the public sector wouldn’t have done what Apple did (though it might not have overcharged, restricted use of its technology, and introduced infuriating DRM, either), but producing all that good stuff isn’t really the point for Apple. If they had brilliant products which didn’t produce fat profits, they’d ditch them. On the other hand, if there are malevolent products which make good profits, then it’s the entirely consistent business of the private sector to promote them. It isn’t an aberration that there’s one mis-selling scandal after another: mis-selling is what they do. It’s what they should do, if mis-selling produces more profit than ethical selling.
On the other hand, the business of the public sector is to benefit the public. There will be all kinds of failures, wrong decisions, self-serving employees, bureaucratic befuddlement – but in the end, what people are trying to do (and what they’re judged by) is to do something useful. The NHS is supposed to promote health and provide medical care; the fire service is supposed to prevent fire, and save lives and property, the education system is supposed to help people understand the world and get the skills to cope with life and work (and, yes, to filter to deserving classes from the dross, but if we really wanted, we could change that aim). They won’t succeed, but at least they’re trying do the right thing, and there will be attempts at correction.
As I write this, I realise that this is so stupidly obvious that I shouldn’t be wasting your time expecting you to read it – or my time writing it, maybe – but it doesn’t seem to be something that’s realised by the people who are in the business of making life worse for almost everyone (the coalition government). Actually, that’s probably wrong, because they’re acting in the interests of people who stand to profit enormously from things like the privatisation of health care, and they know that very well. But why do we let ourselves be fooled?

So – someone can get enormously, unnecessarily, rich, by employing people to write meaningless articles about useless topics in order to fool people about which websites are most useful or relevant to their interests. WTF.

*Unlike me, who…..

** but don’t buy it from Amazon, unless you’re citizen of Luxemburg. Better Books World have two secondhand copies in stock (on 3 February 2013):

One of the foundation myths of modern psychology: “Brain Scans Show”

I’ve written about this before ( and, but reading through Dorothy Bishop’s excellent BishopBlog (, I came across a post of hers which made the points more clearly than I can:

Bishop also links to from Neuroskeptic, who makes similar points. Neuroskeptic’s argument is not as carefully organised as Bishop’s (and ends up by dismissing the James-Lange theory of emotions as obviously rubbish, which isn’t really justified), but is pleasantly forceful.

Neuroskeptic also discusses the Bennet & al (2009) ‘brain scan of emotion-judging activity in a dead fish’ study (  which Christina mentioned in her lecture. The original poster by Bennet & al (it didn’t make it into a peer-reviewed journal, as far as I know) is at – .

Why do we believe these stories, and believe that brain scans are the royal road to an understanding of the unconscious (or at least a way of answering psychological questions)? I’ll try to explain in my next lecture.

Psychologist* shows that you can see almost anything in complex, ambiguous figures

A piece in Psychology Today (July 29, 2012) by Neel Burton in their ‘hide & Seek’ column: The Creation of God: Michelangelo’s awesome hidden message.

It’s an analysis of Michaelangelo’s famous picture from the Sistine chapel ‘The Creation of Adam’ ( claiming to show that “what almost everyone has missed is the hidden message that Michelangelo inserted: a human brain dissimulated in the figure of God.”

Although the Creation of Adam was painted around 1511, it is not until 1990 that Frank Lynn Meshberger, a physician in Anderson, Indiana, publicly noted in the Journal of the American Medical Association that the figures and shapes that make up the figure of God also make up an anatomically accurate figure of the human brain. Take a close look at the picture above and you will see the Sylvian fissure that divides the frontal lobe from the parietal and temporal lobes: it is represented by a bunching up of the cape by one of the angels and by a fold in God’s tunic. The bottom-most angel that appears to support the weight of God is the brainstem, and his trailing scarf the vertebral artery. The foot of another angel is the pituitary gland, and his bent knee the optic chiasm where the optic nerves from the eyes partially cross over. The ingenuity and level of detail is simply staggering, and a lasting testament to Michelangelo’s extraordinary—and, for the time, very unusual—knowledge of human anatomy.

Yeah, right. Take another look and you’ll see that if it is an image of the brain, then the cerebellum has been blown to ribbons, and there’s a very unhealthy-looking overdevelopment of the occipital lobe at the back of the brain. Also most of God’s body is in the midbrain, with a bit of His head sticking through into the frontal lobes. Given that God is the primary image in the right-hand cloud, what was M’s meaning in slicing up his body so randomly amongst different brain areas, given his “extraordinary—and, for the time, very unusual—knowledge of human anatomy”?

I think this is just another example of the powerful and compelling ability we have to extract meaningful information from very complex or confusing input – which sometimes leads us to ‘see’ clearly things which just aren’t there. You will have heard of images of the Virgin Mary  on pieces of toast, or sliced tomatoes (I regularly see Lao Tsu in my porridge).

An old example is this image:

Hidden face

Said to be originally a photograph of a snowy mountainside, but ‘revealing’ an image of a bearded man with long hair (some say Christ, some say Gerry Garcia: it’s probably Allen Ginsberg) if you look at it long enough. If you don’t see it,don’t worry. The face will pop out at you sooner or later, and once you’ve seen it, you won’t be able to go back to the meaningless blobs.

We all do this kind of thing with clouds, as Shakespeare noted some time ago:

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
Polonius: By the mass, and ’tis like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale?
Polonius: Very like a whale.

— Hamlet, III.ii

OK, this is Hamlet mocking Polonius for always agreeing with what the boss says, but it only makes sense because we all know that we can see all kinds of things in the complex, ambiguous patterns of clouds.

Charles Schultz used the idea too, in Peanuts:

Peanuts strip

In case you can’t read the speech bubbles above,or the image link stops working:

Lucy Van Pelt: Aren’t the clouds beautiful? They look like big balls of cotton. I could just lie here all day and watch them drift by. If you use your imagination, you can see lots of things in the cloud’s formations. What do you think you see, Linus?

Linus Van Pelt: Well, those clouds up there look to me look like the map of the British Honduras on the Caribbean. [points up] That cloud up there looks a little like the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous painter and sculptor. And that group of clouds over there… [points] …gives me the impression of the Stoning of Stephen. I can see the Apostle Paul standing there to one side.

Lucy Van Pelt: Uh huh. That’s very good. What do you see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?

Charlie Brown: Well… I was going to say I saw a duckie and a horsie, but I changed my mind.

So, I think Neel Burton is wrong – and I think he’s missed an even more remarkable clue: God is passing the spark of life from his finger to Adam – just like the spark of life which ignites the petrol/air mixture in the combustion chamber of the petrol engine (M. did actually do drawings of a flat-four hemihead air-cooled engine, intended to power his famous helicopter, but they were lost in the 19th century). So every time I fire up the Bristol, I reflect on M’s secret message about the true meaning of life.

If you really want to get into the ‘M’s secret messages’ stuff, here’s  Orion in the Vatican by Daniel A. Wilten, an online book (only $9.99):

Witness the Orion nebula hidden in high altars and in famous frescoes by masters such as Michelangelo since the early 1500’s
Discover the famous fresco depicting the Orion constellation in the main vault of the mother Jesuit church
Discover the true origin of the winged disk and where the ancients derived its symbolism
Learn why Hermes Trismegistos declared Egypt the image of heaven
See proof of the Hall of Records and the Orion nebula matching recent development in Egypt
Resdiscover mystical knowledge uncovered after thousands of years
Learn man’s connection to the Orion nebula and its association to consciousness
Learn why the Orion nebula is the master code

*Not a psychologist, actually. Psychology Today says: “Neel Burton, M.D., is a psychiatrist, philosopher, and writer who lives and teaches in Oxford, England.”