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Does brain training really work?

There are a variety of products out there that claim to improve your cognitive functions through brain training — often in the form of games. The game of Sudoku is particularly popular among people who think it is important to keep their brain active. This article from Randi.org asks whether such brain training activities actually lead to generalized cognitive gains.

Girl Stretching
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If you practice Sudoku, does your memory and concentration get better, or do you just get better at Sudoku?

The research is mixed, but the overall pattern of research is converging on a particular nuanced answer. It seems that practicing a particular task improves your performance mostly on that task, and to a lesser extent on closely related tasks, but not beyond that to more general intellectual function.

There does seem to be a particular advantage to doing novel things – don’t get stuck in a rut, do a variety of things and add some new experiences and challenges to your life.

But don’t buy into neurosciencey hype about “brain training” and scientifically designed games that are allegedly going to be better for your brain than other similar games. There is no cheat, there is no short cut to becoming smarter or better. The more you work, the more you benefit.

Anti-science and Progressives

Laboratory
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Here is an interesting article from Skeptic that asks whether conservatives or progressives are more anti-science. Common wisdom is that conservative thinkers are more anti-science, but this article reviews a book that demonstrates that progressive thinkers are also waging a war against science.

Let’s settle this thing once and for all—right here, right now. Who are more anti-scientific—Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or progressives? Conventional wisdom would have us believe—or at least so says science writer Chris Mooney—that Republicans have waged an unparalleled and all-out war on science.

Indeed, certain big business interests continue to see basic climate science as an entirely too inconvenient truth. And, yes, some religious leaders will likely always deny the facts of human evolution, abortion, homosexuality, and stem cell procurement and therapeutic cloning. Responsible journalists have documented and exposed these affronts to reason quite thoroughly with appropriate vigor.

But are progressives really so different? Not according to Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell. In Science Left Behind, the authors contend that American media have long bestowed a “free pass” on the political Left (primarily progressives), who are just as likely to “misinterpret, misrepresent, and abuse” science to advance their ideological agendas. In fact, the authors say, progressives are currently waging an “undeclared war on scientific excellence itself.”

 

Light a Candle for Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini was an escape artist, magician, and showman. He was also an important skeptic famous for exposing the simple tricks used by mediums of his time. This article explains why we should light a candle to Harry on Hallowe’en.

Houdini’s careers in magic as well as escapology, aviator, filmmaker and movie star, author, book collector, and magic historian, are all fodder for fascinating stories in their own right. But we should particularly honor, this and every Hallowe’en, his career as a skeptic. While the link between magic and skepticism preceded Houdini by at least three centuries in the written record alone (marked with the publication of the classic Elizabethan text, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, by Reginald Scot, in 1584), and other magicians of the Edwardian era spoke out stridently against spiritualism both in the United States and Great Britain, nevertheless, Houdini crystallized the role of the magician in critical thinking, and the importance of having qualified magicians present when investigating self-proclaimed psychics.

Mistaken beliefs about crowds in emergencies

In the crowd
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This is an interesting article about the beliefs held by police and safety professionals, and the actual behavior of crowds in emergency situations. Contrary to the myths, people tend to act rationally and cooperate when faced with a crisis.

Police and safety professionals fall for myths about people’s behaviour in emergencies.

Research shows that people typically shown signs of collective resilience in emergency situations. Promisingly, the professional groups recognised that emergency crowds are often cooperative; that acts of heroism often occur; that people use their local knowledge to aid their escape; and that people often underestimate the risk they face. On this last point, it was clear that many participants in this study held directly contradictory beliefs about crowd behaviour given, as mentioned, that many had also endorsed the idea of people overestimating threats.

CFP: Workshop on Usable Security, due Nov. 6

NDSS logo

I am helping out on the Program Committee for the  USEC’14 workshop.  The workshop will take place as part of the Network and Distributed System Security (NDSS) Symposium in February 2014 in San Diego. Consider submitting your work.

The workshop on Usable Security invites submissions on all aspects of human factors and usability in the context of security. USEC’14 aims to bring together researchers already engaged in this interdisciplinary effort with other computer science researchers in areas such as visualization, artificial intelligence and theoretical computer science as well as researchers from other domains such as economics or psychology.

 

Canadian municipalities and anti-science

teethHere is a disturbing article from the National Post on how some municipalities are practicing anti-science under pressure from fringe groups.

Attacks on science: Canadian municipalities often more likely to listen to activists than scientific facts | National Post.

In the past few years, towns, villages and cities throughout Canada have passed a wave of laws that could well be described as “anti-science.” Water fluoridation bans. Anti-WiFi resolutions. GE free zones. The decisions often fly in the face of scientific consensus, ignore the advice of experts and lend legitimacy to groups once considered fringe.

But, as activists are starting to discover, science does not matter when a city hall meeting is facing a room full of angry townsfolk.

Elizabeth Loftus on embedding false memories in U.S. soldiers

Loftus’ work on memory continues to be one of the most important areas of Psychology. Here is an article describing a study of soldier’s memory after they were subjected to simulated capture and interrogation.

Elizabeth Loftus on embedding false memories in U.S. soldiers | TED Blog.

These findings show that even when an event is stressful, people can be led to make memory mistakes when fed misinformation. Moreover, this happened to a high degree even though the soldiers were highly trained individuals.

6 Reasons We Share Too Much Online

My Summer
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An interesting article from Mother Jones on how we value, or don’t value, our privacy.

The conventional wisdom in Silicon Valley is that nobody cares about online privacy, except maybe creeps, wingnuts, and old people. Sure, a lot of us might say that we don’t like being tracked and targeted, but few of us actually bother to check the “do not track” option in on our web browsers. Millions of people have never adjusted their Facebook privacy settings. According to a recent Pew survey, only small fractions of internet users have taken steps to avoid being observed by hackers (33 percent), advertisers (28 percent), friends (19 percent), employers (11 percent), or the government (5 percent).

What’s going on here? The short answer is a lot of pretty twisted psychological stuff, which behavioral scientists are only now starting to understand.

Our uneasy relationship with the internet begins with the fact we don’t really know who can see our data and how they might exploit it. “Not even the experts have a full understanding of how personal data is used in an increasingly complicated market,” points out Carnegie Mellon University public policy professor Alessandro Acquisti, who researches the psychology behind online privacy perceptions. Behavioral economists often refer to this problem as information asymmetry: One party in a transaction (Facebook, Twitter, advertisers, the NSA) has better information than the other party (the rest of us).

The six reasons are:

  1. we are more willing to sell our privacy than pay for it
  2. we accept default settings
  3. offering some privacy controls may induce people to be reckless
  4. we fall for misdirection
  5. we are addicts
  6. ignorance is bliss

Read more at:

6 Reasons We Share Too Much Online, According to Behavioral Scientists | Mother Jones.

Irony: Theodore Roosevelt on The State

I am visiting Washington DC this week and had a chance to walk to the Theodore Roosevelt memorial. Along with a statue of Roosevelt, the memorial contains four large stones carved with quotations. This one struck me as particularly ironic given the recent NSA activities and a government shutdown.

quote

The quotation reads:

The State

Ours is a government of liberty by, through, and under the law.

A great democracy must be progressive or it will soon cease to be great or a democracy.

Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords.

In popular government results worth while can only be achieved by men who combine worthy ideals with practical good sense.

If I must choose between righteousness and peace, I choose righteousness.

Fingerprints are Usernames, not Passwords


fingerprint

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From Dustin Kirkland, an interesting way to think about fingerprints:

I could see some value, perhaps, in a tablet that I share with my wife, where each of us have our own accounts, with independent configurations, apps, and settings.  We could each conveniently identify ourselves by our fingerprint.  But biometrics cannot, and absolutely must not, be used to authenticate an identity.  For authentication, you need a password or passphrase.  Something that can be independently chosen, changed, and rotated.  I will continue to advocate this within the Ubuntu development community, as I have since 2009.

From the Canyon Edge: Fingerprints are Usernames, not Passwords.