Wine tasting is bullshit. Here’s why. (from io9)


The human palate is arguably the weakest of the five traditional senses. This begs an important question regarding wine tasting: is it bullshit, or is it complete and utter bullshit?

There are no two ways about it: the bullshit is strong with wine. Wine tasting. Wine rating. Wine reviews. Wine descriptions. They’re all related. And they’re all egregious offenders, from a bullshit standpoint.

Exhibit A: Wine experts contradict themselves. Constantly.

Statistician and wine-lover Robert Hodgson recently analyzed a series of wine competitions in California, after “wondering how wines, such as his own, [could] win a gold medal at one competition, and ‘end up in the pooper’ at others.” In one study, Hodgson presented blindfolded wine experts with the same wine three times in succession. Incredibly, the judges’ ratings typically varied by ±4 points on a standard ratings scale running from 80 to 100. Via the Wall Street Journal:

A wine rated 91 on one tasting would often be rated an 87 or 95 on the next. Some of the judges did much worse, and only about one in 10 regularly rated the same wine within a range of ±2 points.

Mr. Hodgson also found that the judges whose ratings were most consistent in any given year landed in the middle of the pack in other years, suggesting that their consistent performance that year had simply been due to chance.

It bears repeating that the judges Hodgson surveyed were no ordinary taste-testers. These were judges at California State Fair wine competition – the oldest and most prestigious in North America. If you think you can consistently rate the “quality” of wine, it means two things:

1: No. You can’t.

2. Wine-tasting is bullshit.

Exhibit B: Expert wine critics can’t distinguish between red and white wines

This one’s one of my favorites. In 2001, researcher Frédéric Brochet invited 54 wine experts to give their opinions on what were ostensibly two glasses of different wine: one red, and one white. In actuality, the two wines were identical, with one exception: the “red” wine had been dyed with food coloring.

The experts described the “red” wine in language typically reserved for characterizing reds. They called it “jammy,” for example, and noted the flavors imparted by its “crushed red fruit.” Not one of the 54 experts surveyed noticed that it was, in fact a white wine.

Exhibit C: We taste with our eyes, not our mouths

Actually, scratch that. We taste with our eyes, ears, noses, and even our sense of touch. We taste with our emotions, and our state of mind. This has been demonstrated time after time after time.

Research out of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab has shown that people will rate food as more enjoyable if it’s consumed in the relaxed atmosphere of a fine dining environment, as opposed to a noisy fast food restaurant.

A 2006 study, published by the American Association of Wine Economists, found that most people can’t distinguish between paté and dog food.

A recent New Yorker piece describes a followup to Brochet’s 2001 study, wherein he served wine experts a run-of-the-mill Bordeaux in two different bottles:

One bottle bore the label of a fancy grand cru, the other of an ordinary vin de table. Although they were being served the exact same wine, the experts gave the bottles nearly opposite descriptions. The grand cru was summarized as being “agreeable,” “woody,” “complex,” “balanced,” and “rounded,” while the most popular adjectives for the vin de table included “weak,” “short,” “light,” “flat,” and “faulty.”

Exhibit D: Wine critics know wine reviews are bullshit

Here’s Joe Power, editor of the popular Another Wine Blogin a post titled “Wine Reviews are Bullshit!”:

Today, with apologies to messieurs Penn and Teller, I am going to stand up and shout, “Wine reviews are bullshit!”

If you are wondering if this is going to be some justification of why our reviews at AWB are just spiffy and everyone else is full of shit, you can stop wondering; ours are bullshit too. It is just the nature of the beast.

There is no hard science involved in reviewing wine, no real way to quantify results, no test cases, and certainly no verifiable set of standards that everyone adheres to. Everyone makes up their own processes for reviewing from Wine Spectator to us and all of the way down to the most recent person who just discovered how easy it is to set up a blog of their own.

When asked point blank what he thought of the aforementioned results from Robert Hodgson’s study (see Exhibit A) wine-maker Bob Cabral said he was “not surprised”:

In Mr. Cabral’s view, wine ratings are influenced by uncontrolled factors such as the time of day, the number of hours since the taster last ate and the other wines in the lineup. He also says critics taste too many wines in too short a time. As a result, he says, “I would expect a taster’s rating of the same wine to vary by at least three, four, five points from tasting to tasting.”

See? Horseshit.

Exhibits E – ZZZ: Countless other studies

In 1996, research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology concluded that wine experts cannot reliably identify more than three or four of a wine’s flavor components. Most wine critics routinely report tasting six or more. The wine review excerpted in the top image for this post, for example (which is a real review, by the way – somebody actually wrote those words about a bottle of wine, in earnest) lists the following components in the wine’s “principle flavor” profile: “red roses, lavender, geranium, dried hibiscus flowers, cranberry raisins, currant jelly, mango with skins [Ed. note: jesus wine-swilling christ – mango with skins?], red plums, cobbler, cinnamon, star anise, blackberry bramble, whole black peppercorn,” and more than a dozen other flavors that I refuse to continue listing lest my head implode.

Fun fact: MIT behavioral economist Coco Krume recently conducted a meta-analysis of the classifiers used in wine reviews, and found that reviewers tend to use “cheap” and “expensive” words differently. Cheap descriptors are used much more frequently, expensive ones more sparingly. Krume even demonstrated that it’s possible to guess the price range of a wine based on the words used in its review. “From a quantitative standpoint,” Krume writes, “there are three types of words more likely to be used for expensive wines”:

  • Darker words, such as intense, supple, velvety, and smoky
  • Single flavors such as tobacco or chocolate versus fruity, good, clean, tasty, juicy for cheap wines
  • Exclusive-sounding words in place of simple descriptors. For example, old, elegant, and cuvee rather than pleasing, refreshing, value,and enjoy
  • Additionally, cheap wine is preferentially paired with chicken and pizza, while pricey wine goes with shellfish and pork

Using her scientific metric, Krume goes on to create the most expensive-sounding wine review ever penned: “A velvety chocolate texture and enticingly layered, yet creamy, nose, this wine abounds with focused cassis and a silky ruby finish. Lush, elegant, and nuanced. Pair with pork and shellfish.” If that sentence made you yearn for a glass of classy red, congratulations, there’s a very real chance you’re a pompous asshole.

The Exception

You want an exception to the wine-tasting is bullshit mantra? Here it is.

In 2008, a survey comprising more than 6,000 blind tastings found a positive correlation between price and enjoyment – for individuals with wine training. In other words: if you’re a wine expert, there’s a chance you’ll enjoy expensive wines more than cheaper ones. HOWEVER, it bears emphatic mentioning that whether this suggests more expensive wines are objectively better (which it doesn’t) is irrelevant, because among amateur wine drinkers (which, let’s face it, you are), the survey found the opposite, i.e. a negative correlation between price and happiness, “suggesting that individuals on average enjoy more expensive wines slightly less.” This lead the researchers to conclude that “both the prices of wines and wine recommendations by experts may be poor guides for non-expert wine consumers.”

The upshot: screw the experts. Drink what tastes good/whatever you can afford. Or just have a beer – it’s unequivocally better, anyway.

What’s Driving Chaotic Dismantling of Canada’s Science Libraries?

Scientists reject Harper gov’t claims vital material is being saved digitally.

By Andrew Nikiforuk, 23 Dec 2013,

Scientists say the closure of some of the world’s finest fishery, ocean and environmental libraries by the Harper government has been so chaotic that irreplaceable collections of intellectual capital built by Canadian taxpayers for future generations has been lost forever.

Many collections such as the Maurice Lamontagne Institute Library in Mont-Joli, Quebec ended up in dumpsters while others such as Winnipeg’s historic Freshwater Institute library were scavenged by citizens, scientists and local environmental consultants. Others were burned or went to landfills, say scientists.


[Editor’s note: This is verbatim text from a DFO scientist sent to The Tyee.]

The loss of seven out of nine DFO regional science libraries is a big tragedy.

Here is a link to one comment suggesting it was an act of“Libricide.”

The first step in the process was to move the libraries from Science into Information Management and Technology Services (IMTS) several years ago. At that point DFO Science became merely a client of another sector of the department for library services. It is not known whether DFO Science management put up any opposition to the cuts when IMTS announced their plans last year.

IMTS operates under a corporate business model. Under this model, one sector of government sells its services to another sector of government with the objective of providing the least amount of service for the largest possible service fee. This would seem to be a very bad business model for running a government department that has the prime objective of long-term public good — giving the public the best return possible on their tax dollar across all sectors of government though working co-operatively.

The decision to cut the libraries was made by executives within DFO rather than imposed by higher levels of government. It was done without any prior consultation with the DFO research community and researchers have been kept largely in the dark throughout the process. There has been very little information provided to DFO science staff or the public throughout the process.

The cuts were carried out in great haste apparently in order to meet some unknown agenda. No records have been provided with regard to what material has been dumped or the value of this public property. No formal attempt was made to transfer material to libraries of existing academic institutions.

Each of the seven regional libraries had thousands upon thousands of items in their holdings including unique valuable material of local regional significance documenting research into aquatic systems, fish stocks and fisheries carried out in the 1800s and early 1900s, as well as more recent grey literature such as laboratory reports, consultants reports, research vessel survey reports, reports of commissions of enquiries into fisheries etc.

The Department has claimed that all useful information from the closed libraries is available in digital form. This is simply not true. Much of the material is lost forever.

Local staff in the regions were given a brief opportunity to scavenge through the piles of books, journals and documents not wanted by the remaining two DFO Science libraries. Books and other library material already on loan to researches were never recalled, indicating a chaotic and haphazard process.

No explanations have been provided with regard to how the limited space in the remaining two DFO Science libraries will accommodate material from the regions deemed (by whom?) too important to destroy. One can only assume that the amount of material not being dumped is relatively small.

The official DFO statements have indicated that an “alternate service delivery system” is to be put in place to meet the library needs of the regions and that operations will not be affected by the library closures. To date this alternate service delivery system is not in place and no information has been provided on what form it will take.

The impact of the library closures on both the operations and the morale of DFO research staff have been immense.

Furthermore, the government is falsely claiming that vital content is being retained by extensively digitizing material from nine regional libraries that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) whittled down to two.

“The Department has claimed that all useful information from the closed libraries is available in digital form. This is simply not true. Much of the material is lost forever,” reports one DFO scientist who requested not to be named.

That picture of a taxpayer-funded treasure trove of information laid waste emerges from interviews by The Tyee with half a dozen prominent scientists, many of whom asked to remain anonymous for fear that their funding or other government support could be hurt if their names were connected with the concerns they were eager to share.

Some of the research scientists interviewed questioned the legality of what they saw happening, accusing the Harper government of “libricide.”

Not only has the Canadian public lost critical environmental and cultural baseline data more than 100 years old, but scientists have lost the symbolic heart of their research operations.

A DFO scientist told The Tyee, “The cuts were carried out in great haste apparently in order to meet some unknown agenda. No records have been provided with regard to what material has been dumped or the value of this public property. No formal attempt was made to transfer material to libraries of existing academic institutions.” (See sidebar.)

One scientist after another struggled to make sense of the shuttering of libraries devoted to water and fish in a nation that guards the world’s largest coastline and roughly 18 per cent of the world’s surface freshwater. Most saw in the actions a political agenda by the Harper government to reduce the role of government in Canadian society, as well as the use of scientific evidence in making policy.

According to an analysis by Bill Curry published by the Globe and Mail, the Harper government will reduce the size of the Canadian government to its smallest level in 50 years by 2015.

Closing libraries, stopping research

As reported by The Tyee earlier this month, key libraries dismantled by the government included the famous Freshwater Institute library in Winnipeg; the historic St. Andrews Biological Station (SABS) in St. Andrews, New Brunswick (Rachel Carson, the celebrated environmental scientist, corresponded with researchers there for her book, Silent Spring) and one of the world’s finest ocean collections at Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Centre in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

At the same time the government has killed research groups that depended on those libraries such as the Experimental Lakes Area, the Hazardous Materials Information Review Commission and the DFO’s entire contaminants research program. The Freshwater Institute as well as the Centre for Offshore Oil, Gas and Energy Research (COOGER) has lost much of their funding and staff, too.

Ken Lee, a world authority on oil spills and COOGER’s former director, saw the writing on the wall and tooka prestigious job in Australia.

In a private email originally sent to a colleague and then shared with The Tyee, one scientist compared the dismemberment of the Freshwater Institute library last week to a rummage sale: “I did manage to salvage a few bits and pieces, one of which was a three volume print version of the data that went into the now extinct DFO toxins database.”

The scientist suggested “that interested individuals should drop-in and loot [the] library before the bonfires begin.”

Kelly Whelan-Enns, head of media and policy research for Manitoba Wildlands, spent two days at the library trying to salvage maps from the 1900s and wildlife data from the 1920s.

“I saw a private consultant firm working for Manitoba Hydro back up a truck and fill it with Manitoba data and materials that the public had paid for. I was profoundly saddened and appalled.”

“It’s obvious that this government cares little for public discourse.”

The scene at the Freshwater Institute’s library shocked another scientist with 30 years of experience in the federal government.

“Hundreds of bound journals, technical reports and texts still on the shelves, presumably meant for the garbage or shredding. I saw one famous monograph on zooplankton, which would probably fetch a pretty penny at a used science bookstore… anybody could go in and help themselves, with no record kept of who got what.”


Although some books have been transferred to libraries in Sidney, B.C., and Halifax, Nova Scotia, the dismemberment of priceless library collections has stunned freshwater and marine scientists and ordinary citizens.

“The fact that many materials were thrown away or given away is heartbreaking to those of us who are dedicated to this field of research [marine science and fisheries] and the history of science in Canada,” says Peter Wells, a prominent marine environmental scientist at Dalhousie University.

Wells, who is also an aquatic toxicologist, spent a career working as a public servant for Environment Canada (1974-2006) on a variety of environmental issues.

“That we as a society are condoning information destruction and core library closures in Canada is unbelievable, and in my view, undemocratic and probably criminal… that would be an interesting aspect to investigate,” adds the scientist.

“Through a misguided policy purportedly driven by the desire for cost savings in the public service, and I believe this was only one reason for this action, we have trashed a network of world-class marine and fisheries libraries, the envy around the world. The rest of the world cannot believe what is happening in Canada on this issue.”

Concludes Wells: “If I were still working for the government, I probably would be fired for being concerned and outspoken about the future of aquatic science in Canada and the impact of current federal policies.”

According to an infographic made by Environment Canada (another agency that has witnessed severe science cuts) “about 14 per cent of Canada” is covered by lakes, rivers, wetlands, marshes and the marine waters of estuaries.

Moreover “these fragile freshwater habitats, vital to the ecology and the Canadian economy, are under severe threat by drainage, land reclamation, pollution, overuse and development.”

Scientists blast claim material adequately digitized

A DFO website claims that the library closures and consolidation of nine regional facilities into just two central libraries somehow “allows for easier search and access to clients no matter their location.”

The site also defends the closures by claiming that few citizens ever used the libraries anyway, and that most material will be digitized.

An agency spokesperson did not answer a series of questions posed by The Tyee. Instead David Walters referred The Tyee to a government propaganda site.

Six scientists contacted by The Tyee all refuted various claims on the website.

They argue that DFO statistics show that only one out of 20 books in the department’s 600,000 plus collection have been digitized. Moreover records on library usage were overtly biased and based on who asked for help, said Burton Ayles, a retired director general for DFO who lives in Winnipeg and has used the Freshwater Institute library frequently.

“Most people that come in to the library don’t have to request help. They just use the material. Just look at any regular library.”

Ayles had no doubt that the closures will severely restrict public and scientific access permanently.

“Previously one could walk in, scan the shelf of such material, select one publication and see if it is relevant to one’s needs. Now you have to get an inter-library loan to even look at material that may be stored away in some vault.”

‘Losing libraries not a neutral act’: scientist Hutchings

The Freshwater Institute library held collections dating back 100 years, on the quality and state of freshwater systems in central Canada, the Great Lakes and the Arctic.

Acclaimed Dalhousie University biologist Jeff Hutchings, who recently chaired the Royal Society of Canada’s Expert Panel on the future of marine biodiversity, calls the closures scientifically disastrous and an assault on civil society.

“It is always unnerving from a research and scientist perspective to watch a government undermine basic research. There are many materials online but just as many books and materials that are not. The idea that you can send an email to Ottawa and get a book somewhere down the road is a myth. The idea that all requests will be honored also won’t happen.”

“From a science and research perspective these closures will have no positive impact on the quality of research but they will have a negative impact. Losing libraries is not a neutral act.”

He notes that the closures have also demoralized researchers. “This is a department that has suffered cutbacks and been stripped of its responsibilities. For scientists, technicians and biologists, for people who have gone to university, the library symbolically represents knowledge and wisdom. It’s key to research. Taking it out of a building is not easy.”

‘It must be about ideology’: Hutchings

Hutchings said none of the closures has anything to do with saving money, due to the small cost of maintaining the collections. He, like many scientists, concludes that Harper’s political convictions are driving the unprecedented consolidation.

“It must be about ideology. Nothing else fits,” said Hutchings. “What that ideology is, is not clear. Does it reflect that part of the Harper government that doesn’t think government should be involved in the very things that affect our lives? Or is it that the role of government is not to collect books or fund science? Or is it the idea that a good government is stripped down government? ”

Hutchings saw the library closures fitting a larger pattern of “fear and insecurity” within the Harper government, “about how to deal with science and knowledge.”

That pattern includes the gutting of the Fisheries Act, the muzzling of scientists, the abandonment of climate change research and the dismantling of countless research programs, including the world famous Experimental Lakes Area. All these examples indicate that the Harper government strongly regards environmental science as a threat to unfettered resource exploitation.

“There is a group of people who don’t know how to deal with science and evidence. They see it as a problem and the best way to deal with it is to cut it off at the knees and make it ineffective,” explained Hutchings.

“The other worrying thing is that no one seems to care a great deal about it. There is minimal political cost for doing these things just as there is no political cost to making bad decisions about ocean management.”

Many scientists, including Hutchings and world famous water ecologist David Schindler, compared the government’s concerted attacks on environmental science to the rise of fascism and the total alignment of state and corporate interests in 1930s Europe.

“You look at the rise of certain political parties in the 1930s,” noted Hutchings, “and have to ask how could that happen and how did they adopt such extreme ideologies so quickly, and how could that happen in a democracy today?”

A recent Sunday editorial in the New York Times condemned the suppression and monitoring of environmental science in Canada by the Harper government:

“This is more than an attack on academic freedom. It is an attempt to guarantee public ignorance,” said the editorial.

“It is also designed to make sure that nothing gets in the way of the northern resource rush — the feverish effort to mine the earth and the ocean with little regard for environmental consequences.”  [Tyee]

Scientific evidence that you probably don’t have free will

@ by George Dvorsky, January 14th, 2013

Humans have debated the issue of free will for millennia. But over the past several years, while the philosophers continue to argue about the metaphysical underpinnings of human choice, an increasing number of neuroscientists have started to tackle the issue head on — quite literally. And some of them believe that their experiments reveal that our subjective experience of freedom may be nothing more than an illusion. Here’s why you probably don’t have free will.
Indeed, historically speaking, philosophers have had plenty to say on the matter. Their ruminations have given rise to such considerations as cosmological determinism (the notion that everything proceeds over the course of time in a predictable way, making free will impossible), indeterminism (the idea that the universe and our actions within it are random, also making free will impossible), and cosmological libertarianism/compatibilism (the suggestion that free will is logically compatible with deterministic views of the universe).

Now, while these lines of inquiry are clearly important, one cannot help but feel that they’re also terribly unhelpful and inadequate. What the debate needs is some actual science — something a bit more…testable.

And indeed, this is starting to happen. As the early results of scientific brain experiments are showing, our minds appear to be making decisions before we’re actually aware of them — and at times by a significant degree. It’s a disturbing observation that has led some neuroscientists to conclude that we’re less in control of our choices than we think — at least as far as some basic movements and tasks are concerned.

At the same time, however, not everyone is convinced. It may be a while before we can truly prove that free will is an illusion.

Neuroscientists first became aware that something curious was going on in the brain back in the mid 1960s.

German scientists Hans Helmut Kornhuber and Lüder Deecke discovered a phenomenon they dubbed “bereitschaftspotential” (BP) — a term that translates to “readiness potential.” Their discovery, that the brain enters into a special state immediately prior to conscious awareness, set off an entirely new subfield.

After asking their subjects to move their fingers (what were self-initiated movements), Kornhuber and Deecke’s electroencephalogram (EEG) scans showed a slow negative potential shift in the activity of the motor cortex just slightly prior to the voluntary movement. They had no choice but to conclude that the unconscious mind was initiating a freely voluntary act — a wholly unexpected and counterintuitive observation.
Needless to say it was a discovery that greatly upset the scientific community who, since the days of Freud, had (mostly) adopted a strictly deterministic view of human decision making. Most scientists casually ignored it.

But subsequent experiments by Benjamin Libet in the 1980s reinforced the pioneering work of Kornhuber and Deecke. Similarly, Libet had his participants move their fingers, but this time while watching a clock with a dot circling around it. His data showed that the readiness potential started about 0.35 seconds earlier than participants’ reported conscious awareness.

He concluded that we have no free will as far as the initiation of our movements are concerned, but that we had a kind of cognitive “veto” to prevent the movement at the last moment; we can’t start it, but we can stop it.

From a neurological perspective, Libet and others attributed the effect to the SMA/pre-SMA and the anterior cingulate motor areas of the brain — an area that allows us to focus on self-initiated actions and execute self-instigated movements.

Modern tools show the same thing
More recently, neuroscientists have used more advanced technologies to study this phenomenon, namely fMRIs and implanted electrodes. But if anything, these new experiments show the BP effect is even more pronounced than previously thought.

For example, a study by John-Dylan Haynes in 2008 showed a similar effect to the one revealed by Libet. After putting participants into an fMRI scanner, he told them to press a button with either their right or left index fingers at their leisure, but that they had to remember the letter that was showing on the screen at the precise moment they were committed to their movement.
The results were shocking. Haynes’s data showed that the BP occurred one entire second prior to conscious awareness — and at other times as much as ten seconds. Following the publication of his paper, he told Nature News:

The first thought we had was ‘we have to check if this is real.’ We came up with more sanity checks than I’ve ever seen in any other study before.

The cognitive delay, he argued, was likely due to the operation of a network of high-level control areas that were preparing for an upcoming decision long before it entered into conscious awareness. Basically, the brain starts to unconsciously churn in preparation of a decision, and once a set of conditions are met, awareness kicks in, and the movement is made.

In another study, neuroscientist Itzhak Fried put aside the fMRI scanner in favor of digging directly into the brain (so to speak). To that end, he implanted electrodes into the brains of participants in order to record the status of individual neurons — a procedure that gave him an incredibly precise sense of what was going on inside the brain as decisions were being made.

His experiment showed that the neurons lit up with activity as much as 1.5 seconds before the participant made a conscious decision to press a button. And with about 700 milliseconds to go, Fried and his team could predict the timing of decisions with nearly 80% accuracy. In some scenarios, he had as much as 90% predictive accuracy.

Different experiment, similar result.

Fried surmised that volition arises after a change in internally generated fire rates of neuronal assemblies cross a threshold — and that the medial frontal cortex can signal these decisions before a person is aware of them.

“At some point, things that are predetermined are admitted into consciousness,” he told Nature, suggesting that the conscious will might be added on to a decision at a later stage.

And in yet another study, this one by Stefan Bode, his detailed fMRI experiments showed that it was possible to actually decode the outcome of free decisions for several seconds prior to it reaching conscious awareness.

Specifically, he discovered that activity patterns in the anterior frontopolar cortex (BA 10) were temporally the first to carry information related to decision-making, thus making it a prime candidate region for the unconscious generation of free decisions. His study put much of the concern about the integrity of previous experiments to rest.

The critics
But not everyone agrees with the conclusions of these findings. Free will, the skeptics argue, is far from debunked.

Back in 2010, W. R. Klemm published an analysis in which he complained about the ways in which the data was being interpreted, and what he saw as grossly oversimplified experimentation.
Others have criticized the timing judgements, arguing about the short timeframes between action and movement, and how attention to aspects of timing were likely creating distortions in the data.

It’s also possible that the brain regions being studied, namely the pre-SMA/SMA and the anterior cingulate motor areas of the brain, may only be responsible for the late stages of motor planning; it’s conceivable that other higher brain systems might be better candidates for exerting will.

Also, test subjects — because of the way the experiments were set up — may have been influenced by other “choice-predictive” signals; the researchers may have been measuring brain activity not directly related to the experiment itself.

The jury, it would appear, is still out on the question of free will. While the neuroscientists are clearly revealing some important insights into human thinking and decision making, more work needs to be done to make it more convincing.

What would really settle the issue would be the ability for neuroscientists to predict the actual outcome of more complex decisions prior to the subject being aware of it themselves. That would, in a very true sense, prove that free will is indeed an illusion.

Furthermore, neuroscientists also need to delineate between different types of decision-making. Not all decisions are the same; moving a finger or pressing a button is very different than contemplating the meaning of life, or preparing the words for a big speech. Given the limited nature of the experiments to date (which are focused on volitional physical movements), this would certainly represent a fruitful area for inquiry.

Blurring science, philosophy, and morality
Moreover, there’s also the whole issue of how we’re supposed to reconcile these findings with our day-to-day lives. Assuming we don’t have free will, what does that say about the human condition? And what about taking responsibility for our actions?

Daniel Dennett has recently tried to rescue free will from the dustbin of history, saying that there’s still some elbow room for human agency — and that these are still scientific questions. Dennett, acknowledging that free will in the classic sense is largely impossible, has attempted to reframe the issue in such a way that free will can still be shown to exist, albeit under certain circumstances. He writes:

There’s still a lot of naïve thinking by scientists about free will. I’ve been talking about it quite a lot, and I do my best to undo some bad thinking by various scientists. I’ve had some modest success, but there’s a lot more that has to be done on that front. I think it’s very attractive to scientists to think that here’s this several-millennia-old philosophical idea, free will, and they can just hit it out of the ballpark, which I’m sure would be nice if it was true.

It’s just not true. I think they’re well intentioned. They’re trying to clarify, but they’re really missing a lot of important points. I want a naturalistic theory of human beings and free will and moral responsibility as much as anybody there, but I think you’ve got to think through the issues a lot better than they’ve done, and this, happily, shows that there’s some real work for philosophers.

Dennett, who is mostly responding to Sam Harris, has come under criticism from people who complain that he’s being epistemological rather than scientific.

Indeed, Sam Harris has made a compelling case that we don’t have it, but that it’s not a problem. Moreover, he argues that the ongoing belief in free will needs to come to an end:

A person’s conscious thoughts, intentions, and efforts at every moment are preceded by causes of which he is unaware. What is more, they are preceded by deep causes — genes, childhood experience, etc. — for which no one, however evil, can be held responsible. Our ignorance of both sets of facts gives rise to moral illusions. And yet many people worry that it is necessary to believe in free will, especially in the process of raising children.

Harris doesn’t believe that the illusoriness of free will is an “ugly truth,” nor something that will forever be relegated to philosophical abstractions. This is science, he says, and it’s something we need to come to grips with. “Recognizing that my conscious mind is always downstream from the underlying causes of my thoughts, intentions, and actions does not change the fact that thoughts, intentions, and actions of all kinds are necessary for living a happy life — or an unhappy one, for that matter,” he writes.

But as Dennett correctly points out, this is an issue that’s far from being an open-and-shut case. Advocates of the “free will as illusion” perspective are still going to have to improve upon their experimental methods, while also addressing the work of philosophers, evolutionary biologists — and even quantum physicists.

Why, for example, did humans evolve consciousness instead of zombie-brains if consciousness is not a channel for exerting free will? And given the nature of quantum indeterminacy, what does it mean to live in a universe of fuzzy probability?

There’s clearly lots of work that still needs to be done.

Images: Shutterstock/Oliver Sved/malinx, BP graph, Edge.

The persistence of the left-brain right-brain myth

by Christian Jarrett for Psychology Today

The myth of the logical left hemisphere and the creative right hemisphere has become a powerful and useful metaphor for understanding the human brain. But while this notion is not entirely unfounded, it’s one that psychologist Christian Jarrett says we should challenge. Find out what the left-brain/right-brain model gets right — and how it misleads you about your own brain.

The left-brain right-brain myth will probably never die because it has become a powerful metaphor for different ways of thinking — logical, focused and analytic, versus broad-minded and creative. Take the example of Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks talking on BBC Radio 4 earlier this year. “What made Europe happen and made it so creative,” he explained, “is that Christianity was a right-brain religion … translated into a left-brain language [Greek]. So for many centuries you had this view that science and religion are essentially part of the same thing.”

As well as having metaphorical appeal, the seductive idea of the right brain and its untapped creative potential also has a long history of being targeted by self-help gurus peddling pseudo-psychology. Today the same idea is also picked up by the makers of self-improvement video games and apps. The latest version of the The Faces iMake-Right Brain Creativity app for the iPad, for example, boasts that it is “an extraordinary tool for developing right brain creative capabilities”.

There is more than a grain of truth to the left-brain right-brain myth. While they look alike, the two hemispheres of the brain do function differently. For example, it’s become almost common knowledge that in most people the left brain is dominant for language. The right hemisphere, on the other hand, is implicated more strongly in emotional processing and representing the mental states of others. However, the distinctions aren’t as clear cut as the myth makes out — for instance, the right hemisphere is involved in processing some aspects of language, such as intonation and emphasis.

Much of what we know about the functional differences between the hemispheres comes from the remarkable split-brain studies that began in the sixties. These investigations were conducted on patients who’d had the thick bundle of fibres connecting their hemispheres cut as a last-resort treatment for epilepsy. Researchers, including the psychologists Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga, could present stimuli to just one hemisphere or the other at a time, and they discovered that the two halves of the brain acted like independent entities with contrasting processing styles.

It’s also important to note that the kind of tasks that engage one hemisphere more than the other don’t always map neatly onto the kind of categories that we find useful to talk about in our everyday lives. Let’s take the example of creativity. We may find it a useful shorthand to divide tasks up into those that are creative and those that are repetitive. But the reality of course is more complex. There are many ways to be creative.

Some studies have indeed shown that the right hemisphere seems to be involved more when we have an Aha! flash of insight. For instance, one study found that activity was greater in the right hemisphere when participants solved a task via insight, rather than piecemeal. Another showed that brief exposure to a puzzle clue was more useful to the right hemisphere, than the left, as if the right hemisphere were nearer the answer.

But insight is just one type of creativity. Telling stories is another. One of the most fascinating insights from the split-brain studies was the way the left hemisphere made up stories to explain what the right hemisphere was up to – what Gazzaniga dubbed the “interpreter phenomenon”. For example, in one study, a patient completing a picture-matching task used their left hand (controlled by the right hemisphere) to match up a shovel with an image of a snow storm (shown only to the right hemisphere). The patient was then asked why he’d done this. But his left hemisphere (the source of speech) didn’t admit to not knowing. Instead, it confabulated, saying that he’d reached for the shovel to clear out the chicken coup (the picture shown to the left hemisphere was of a bird’s foot).

Writing an overview of the split-brain research in a 2002 article for Scientific American (pdf), Gazzaniga concluded, based on the interpreter phenomenon and other findings, that the left hemisphere is “inventive and interpreting”, whilst the right brain is “truthful and literal.” This seems at odds with the myth invoked by Rabbi Sacks and many others.

I suppose the logical left-brain, creative right-brain myth has a seductive simplicity about it. People can ask – which kind of brain have I got? They can buy an app to target their weaker half. They can categorise languages and people as right-brained or left. It’s tricky to combat that belief system by saying the truth is really more complicated. But it’s worth trying, because it would be a shame if the simplistic myth drowned out the more fascinating story of how our brains really work.

This post by Christian Jarrett originally appeared at Psychology Today. Jarret is a psychologist and author of The Rough Guide To Psychology. His writing has appeared in The Times, The Guardian, New Scientist, BBC Focus, Psychologies, Wired UK, Outdoor Fitness, and many other outlets. He works for the British Psychological Society as staff writer on their house magazine The Psychologist, and as editor of their award-winning Research Digest blog.

Scientists might have found the Higgs Boson

By Maggie Koerth-Baker at 11:36 am Wednesday, Jul 4 via Boing Boing

Back in December, I told you that physicists at CERN thought that by this summer they might be able to say, once and for all, whether the Higgs Boson particle exists. As a quick reminder, here’s how I described that particle in a post from last year:

You know that reality is like a Lego model, it’s made up of smaller parts. We are pieced together out of atoms. Atoms are made from protons, neutrons, and electrons. Protons and neutrons are made of quarks. (Quarks and electrons, as far as we know, are elementary particles, with nothing smaller inside.) When you’re talking about the Higgs Boson, you’re talking about the mass of these particles. Here’s an imperfect analogy: A top quark, the most massive particle we know of, is like an elephant. An electron, on the other hand, is more like a mouse. And nobody knows for certain why those differences exist.

There is a theory, though. Back in the 1960s, a guy named Peter Higgs came up with the idea that all these particles exist in a field, and their mass is a reflection of how much they interact with that field. Heavy particles have a lot of interaction. Lighter particles are relatively standoffish. If this field exists, the Higgs Boson is the tiny thing it’s made of.

So that’s the Higgs Boson—what it (theoretically) is and why that matters. And now, scientists at CERN are saying that they might have found it. What’s that mean? Basically, they found a new sub-atomic particle that seems to fit the theoretical description of what a Higgs Boson should be like. The New York Times reports that scientists are calling it the “Higgslike” particle for now.

Meanwhile, all across the Internet, science journalists and bloggers are alternately celebrating the discovery, skepticizing the details, and cringing at the overuse of the obnoxious moniker “God particle”. Want to know more? Here are some great places to start:

• “We’ve observed a new particle. … We have quite strong evidence that there’s something there,” Joe Incandela, spokesperson for the LHC’s CMS experiment, said in the video, which was discovered by Science News on CERN’s website. “So, to ascertain its properties is still going to take us a little bit of time.” — Yesterday, MSNBC’s Cosmic Blog wrote about a leaked video from CERN that presaged the announcement today.

• “The Higgs has long been a mixed blessing for particle physics. In the early 1990s, when physicists were pleading—ultimately in vain–with Congress not to cancel the Superconducting Supercollider, which was sucking up tax dollars faster than a black hole, the Nobel laureate Leon Lederman christened the Higgs “the God particle.” This is scientific hype at its most outrageous. If the Higgs is the “God Particle,” what should we call an even more fundamental particle, like a string? The Godhead Particle? The Mother of God Particle?” — At Scientific American blogs, John Horgan explains how the Higgs could screw physics funding. It’s been spun as THE fundamental particle, but it’s not really. And now, how do we convince governments to keep research going?

• “Is it the Higgs boson? That’s a surprisingly complicated question! The difficulty lies with our theories of fundamental particles: the Standard Model and its modifications (including supersymmetry). None of these theories provides a clear, precise prediction for the mass of the Higgs boson, and the mass ranges may overlap between different models. Some models predict the existence of more than one Higgs particle, so if any of those are true, then we have at best found a Higgs boson. And that doesn’t rule out the (slim) possibility that this discovery is a Higgs-mimic, a particle that acts kind of like the Higgs, but doesn’t play the same role. In other words, the work isn’t done.” — Physicist and blogger Matthew Francis talks about whether this discovery is a big deal, how big a deal it might be, and why Higgs Bosons are so damn confusing.

• “Physicists said that they would probably be studying the new Higgs particle for years. Any deviations from the simplest version of the boson — and there are hints of some already — could open a gateway to new phenomena and deeper theories that answer questions left hanging by the Standard Model: What, for example, is the dark matter that provides the gravitational scaffolding of galaxies? And why is the universe made of matter instead of antimatter?” — The New York Times covers the basics and what happens next.

• “…Other physicists are preparing for disappointment. That’s because scientists have been secretly hoping all along that, when they finally found the Higgs, it would be an interesting particle with unexpected behaviors — even somewhat unruly. A perfectly well-behaved Higgs leaves less room for new, exciting physics — the kind that theorists have been wishing would show up at the LHC.” — Wired Science explains why finding a Higgs Boson isn’t the end of the story.

• “Seminars proper start at 9am Geneva time (3am Eastern time, midnight Pacific time, 5pm Melbourne time). One from ATLAS, by Fabiola Giannoti, and one from CMS, by Joe Incandela. Then a press conference after. Remember what we’re looking for: how significant is the signal, do the two experiments agree with each other, does the rate agree with the Standard Model prediction, are different channels mutually consistent with each other.” — Way early this morning, while most of us slept, physicist and blogger Sean Carroll was live-blogging the Higgs Boson announcement from CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. His live-blog offers a lot of great analysis and research detail.

• “For many of us, the most shocking revelation to come out of CERN’s Higgs boson announcement today was quite unrelated to the science itself. Rather, we were blown away by the fact that a team made up of some of the most undoubtedly brilliant people in the world believe that Comic Sans is an appropriate font for such a historic occasion.” — The Verge on CERN’s ongoing love affair with the much-reviled font Comic Sans. (They used the same font back in December.)

• “But for cosmologists, one of the most exciting things about the Higgs is that it seems to exist at all. The Higgs is a boson, which means that you can pack many of them into a single state, and therefore can be thought of as a field pervading all of space — photons, which make up the electromagnetic field, are also bosons. (This is in contrast to fermions, which cannot be brought into the same state and are thus more usefully thought of as individual particles of matter.) An even more precise categorisation of particles is via their spin: bosons can take on integer values (0, 1, 2, …) , and fermions half-integer values (1/2, 3/2, …). The known bosons, like the photons, have spin 1 and are known as vector particles. The Higgs, however, has spin 0, and is called a scalar.” — Astrophysicist Andrew Jaffe talks about what a real-life Higgs Boson might mean for other branches of physics.

• Finally, Ph.D. Comics explains the Higgs Boson for those of you who are already too drunk on 4th of July beer to read a long article.