Who’s the moral monster here?

Even if you take the claims of transfer effects at face value, it’s unclear if the benefits are big enough to be worth the time and money spent on these products. For example, brain-training proponents note that ACTIVE volunteers who trained their brain speed were half as likely to experience a car crash. That sounds incredible, but based on the absolute figures from the study, Simons’ team calculated that someone who did the training could expect one fewer crash every 200 years.

Mahncke thinks the criticism is absurd. “[The authors] are moral monsters for making that argument, and you can quote me on that,” he says. “This is a public health [issue]. Senior driving is a problem, which is important at a population level. A person in health sciences who argued that we shouldn’t reduce heart attacks because heart attacks are rare would be rightfully drummed out of the profession.”

–Ed Yong, The Weak Evidence Behind Brain-Training Games

Henry Mahncke is the CEO of Posit Science, one of the companies that makes brain-training games, which is subjected to critique in the scientific paper Yong reports on in his article. The peer-reviewed article does not say that we should stop using brain-training games because transferable cognitive improvement is rare. It says that transferable cognitive improvement, being rare, should not be over-promised to consumers. The conclusion states,

If a company claims scientific proof for the benefits of its products, it must adhere to best scientific practices. Exploratory scientific research is a necessary part of the discovery process, and such research might well lead to innovative and novel approaches to cognitive enhancement. We do not believe our recommendations stifle such discovery. For drug testing, the early phases of research allow for the discovery of promising therapies, but only after more rigorous testing can they be promoted as a treatment. The same is true for cognitive interventions and brain training; an initial discovery using weaker methods should not be translated to the marketplace until it has been evaluated with more rigorous testing.

I might add that people like Henry Mahncke, who are evidently prone to gross hyperbole when their own profit margins are on the line, are perhaps not the best analysts of scientific data. Let me further add that deliberately ignoring, misreading, or distorting solid scientific analysis when making claims about a product’s efficacy represents its own special kind of moral monstrosity. That this special kind of moral monstrosity frequently goes by the name capitalist self-interest will pass without further comment.

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The Gamergate candidate

My students—budding historians—tell me exactly what budding historians are supposed to say: It has always been like this. And in a way they’re right. Go back to the Early Republic and consider how Burr, Adams, Hamilton and the like went after each other. It was vicious. Adams was the worst. He famously called Hamilton “the Bastard brat of a Scotch peddler”; Paine’s Common Sense, a “crapulous mess”; and Jefferson’s soul, “poisoned with ambition.” But the difference with Trump is that, unlike past political mudslinging, his insults are divorced from political reality. Trump isn’t hissing out insults to underscore his political position, or to denigrate the political position of another. He’s doing it to bully for the sake of bullying. Trump issues taunts apolitically, all over the place (against Republicans and Democrats), and with abandon. He’s often compared to a third grader on a playground. But, honestly, that’s not fair to third graders, most of whom seem to understand that you don’t behave that way.

–James McWilliams, “Why Trump?”

That last is the best line in a relatively light piece in which McWilliams suggests that what is historically unique about Donald Trump’s campaign is that the link between his vulgar outbursts and his upticks in polling is, broadly and collectively speaking, our social media. I’m not totally persuaded by this argument, even though I suppose that, to a certain extent, social media do foster “a culture of insult that prevails in the darker arenas of the Web, in places where We The People are allowed to be at our worst.” And I do also suspect that Trump is being used as a way to, as McWilliams argues, legitimate those discourses.

In other words, he’s quintessentially a Gamergate candidate. Whatever that may mean.

The discreet charm of scarcity gaming

“Equilibrium with the environment, even dynamic equilibrium, is nigh impossible to achieve. Develop a large enough town to build a town hall, and you can gain access to statistics and graphs that show your settlement’s slow accretion and periodic massive shocks. It is striking how closely these resemble the infamous chart from the Club of Rome report The Limits to Growth (1972): output and population accelerate, peak, and abruptly collapse. That chart still hangs over our civilisation, part-warning, part-prophecy: with one side of politics preaching economic ruin and the other environmental ruin, it is hardly surprising that a taste for austerity has crept into playtime.”

—Will Wiles, “Hunger Games”