The Sexiness of Conspiracy

Was 9/11 a conspiracy by the US government to gain more Big Brother control and garner immense profits for a select group of politicians? Do Jews have a secret mission to take over the world by orchestrating wars and social upheavals? Was Princess Diana murdered by the royal family, the communists, the mob? These are all mainstream conspiracy theories that I read about in my most recent book Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History by David Aaronovitch. Let me first preface that I was a guy who was dazzled by the 9/11 conspiracy popularized by the film Loose Change. The facts, expert opinions, and mesmerizing footage in the film all convinced me that 9/11 was a conspiracy. I did not become a 9/11 conspiracy evangelist but I did voice my opinion if it ever came up in conversations with friends or family. This was my attitude until I was introduced to Voodoo Histories and was able to read the history, psychology, and societal obsession with conspiracy theories.

There are conspiracies for each and every generation. Back in 1903, the famous Protocols of Elders of Zion was published and hugely circulated for the next 50 years; fostering antisemitism by famous people like Henry Ford and you guessed it-Adolf Hitler. Pearl Harbor was the conspiracy of the 1940’s which convinced a huge group of people that FDR was a very evil man. The JFK assassination, MLK assassination, and moon landing were all conspiracies associated with the 60’s. After that was Princess Diana, Da Vinci Code, and 9/11. I missed a lot but those are some of the big ones. As you can see, we as a society love the conspiracy theory. I did to, until I learned about how prevalent they are and how easy it is to pick apart each and everyone of them.

I learned that conspiracy theorists use a few convincing tools to give validity to their hypotheses. First they attempt to bring supposed experts to the table who agree with the conspiracy. These experts many times are not experts but rather only hold high degrees and have limited applicable experience. Second they cite a source, that cited a source, that cited a source, so there is very little truth left from the original fact (think of that game where you whisper a message down a line and it changes from person to person). Third, when authorities try to disprove a conspiracy, they are said to be naive or are in someway being controlled by the conspirators.

The other important reason why conspiracies are so common is our affinity to story telling. Conspiracies are sexy, different, out of the norm,and humans by nature like drama. Also, conspiracies come about whenever there is social or political change. These changes usually propagate conspiracies by the losing party: transfer of government control, transfer of societal morals, or transfer of group power. Losers go down kicking and screaming and many times use conspiracies as a poor-sport anthem. Also, conspiracies are very profitable for those who write about them-Google all the materials surrounding The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Lastly, conspiracies make us feel smarter, more researched, and more caring then the stupid sheep who believe in the status quo.

In the end, conspiracies are harmful because they shape a very inaccurate picture of history, create unneeded paranoia, and many times create resentment to certain groups of people. The Protocols of Elders of Zion framed Hitler’s thinking that Jews were inferior and needed to be exterminated. My advice is to critically access all information, look at the credential’s of the authors, and think of the unrealistic probability of the conspiracy hypothesis. Understanding accurate history will make you better informed to make political, social, and individual decisions that will make you wiser in the end.

Summed up Learning Sentence:

The sheer number of conspiracies out there shows that humans love a story and the arguments against each conspiracy are more convincing then those for the conspiracy.

One Smart Dude

Who would have thought that ketchup appeals to toddlers because it provides familiarity when trying new foods and tantalizes all five taste sensations: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. This little factoid was written about in the most recent book that I completed, What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures by Malcolm Gladwell. I have read several Malcolm Gladwell books and find the man extremely interesting. Gladwell can take a boring subject like hair dye and connect it to history, sociology, and psychology in a way that you would never expect. What the Dog Saw is a compilation of 19 writings from The New Yorker which touch on so many categories it is extremely hard to speak about all of them. One of the articles was about John Rock, the inventor of the “Pill” in the 1950’s, and how he designed it to have a 7 day placebo because he still wanted women to have periods and make the process as natural as possible. This push for naturalness was based on his desire to appeal to the Catholic Church. Gladwell digs deeper and actually cites research that shows women in native cultures, on average, only have 100 periods in their lifetime compared to modern-westernized women who average 400 periods in their lifetime (due to age of first menarche, total number of pregnancies, and breastfeeding length). The increase in periods in the modern age is connected with the increases in breast and reproductive related cancers. This is due to the fact that each cycle causes an onslaught of hormones that cause cell division-increasing chances of mutation and something going wrong. My question is whether women should take a contraceptive that limits periods to only a few times per year to model a more natural frequency (100 vs 400 periods in a lifetime)? 

Another essay concerned the problem of homelessness and how we should go about fixing it. Research shows that the homeless cost the system quite a bit of money because of their dependency on shelters, soup kitchens, food pantries, and most of all emergency healthcare services. It was found that it would be cheaper to give the homeless an apartment for free and try to get them back on their feet which would decrease their usage of the aforementioned services. This is currently being done in several US cities but is fraught with controversy. Why do homeless people get free housing when there are hard working Americans struggling to pay their rent? Why would we keep paying for housing if they show no desire to stop their addictions? In the end, whether the homeless deserve the housing or not, it is a decision based on simple economics-a person on the street drains taxpayers dollars more than a person living in a stable, albeit free, apartment setting. 

Some other tidbits of information I learned are as follows: you can buy “Put Options” that bet against the stock market’s success, mammograms are extremely hard to interpret, driving fatalities would decrease if we switched which side of the rode we drove on every 5 years, plagiarism is acceptable in music but not in writing, criminal profiling is essentially worthless, and pit bulls are not inherently dangerous to humans. If you like to know more about these points then read the book. I think all Gladwell books are great because he thinks about things in a different way than most people. My mind has been thoroughly expanded thanks to this quirky-looking man. 

Summed up learning sentence:

The ordinary can be quite extraordinary and surface-level understanding is almost never adequate. 

A Sweat Band for the Brain

Can you workout your brain to make yourself smarter? Can you flex your brain and make your memory grow like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s hulking biceps? These questions were indirectly answered in the book, Smarter by Dan Hurley. Intelligence is made up of two distinct components, fluid and crystallized intelligence. Fluid intelligence is your ability to reason, make decisions, and think abstractly. Crystallized intelligence is your factual knowledge and practiced abilities which are learned throughout life-1+1=2, George Washington is the first president, and your reading speed. Think street smarts for fluid and book smarts for crystallized. Another definition, working memory, is your ability to manipulate things you are trying to remember. If I asked you to add 25+27 you would most likely add 25+25=50 first and then add the remaining 2 to get 52-that requires working memory. Alright, the painful part is over and we can mull over the main concepts of Smarter. Cognitive psychologists, are currently having orgasms over the new idea that we can increase our intelligence through simple brain training games. These games incorporate some sort of working memory task and are recommended to be done 30-60 minutes a day on a regular basis-think Lumosity. Overall, studies showing a positive effect for these types of games on cognitive function number 75, while there are only 4 studies that show no effect at all. This may seem like a lopsided and resounding, “Duh this stuff works, let me get my credit card and start playing falling numbers on my Lumosity profile-SmartestManAlive2014,”…but lets take a step back. These studies show improvements on the specific games played, but the real question is whether that translates into an improved fluid intelligence and consequently an improved brain that makes life easier? In my opinion, the verdict is still technically out in the scientific community but the common-sense benefits are real and translatable to everyday life. I like to use the analogy of squatting in the gym. Squats use primarily your legs but that single movement improves your concentration, discipline, balance, and overall strength. Lumosity may make you better at specific games but that brain training can translate to improved memory in everyday tasks, concentration, and quickness in decision making.

Alright, Lumosity helps, but are there any other ways to make my brain glisten with sweat? Sure there are you frick, studies show that exercise (both aerobic and weight lifting), learning an instrument, mindfulness meditation, caffeine/coffee consumption, nicotine, and low electrical brain stimulation all have positive effects on improving markers of brain function. Nicotine, I learned, is not harmful or addictive on its own, and the brain actually has nicotinic receptors. Nicotine is only addictive in combination with chemicals found in cigarettes and is currently being researched as a drug to help those with Parkinson’s Disease (the nicotinic receptor positively effects malfunctioned dopamine receptors in Parkinson’s). The effects of brain training are most profoundly seen in those with cognitive disorders, such as, ADD, ADHD, age related cognitive decline, autism, and Down Syndrome. In healthy adults, the degree of benefit is less pronounced but still apparent and helpful in creating cognitive reserve which is shown to delay age-related cognitive decline. Most of us design our life around things we are good at so we can be comfortable and happy at all times. If we try to be comfortable in everything we do, we are going to have a weenie brain and a weenie body. Do something that challenges your brain and your body and don’t squander the gifts that God gave you. IQ is only a number, what you do with that number is what matters most. If my IQ is 150 and all I do is go home, watch TV, and check Facebook each night then my intelligence is essentially worthless. Go out use your blessings, get smarter, learn an instrument, critically think, pick up a heavy weight, run really quick, and read a book. Don’t waist that beautiful brain of yours-make it glisten like one of Arnold’s biceps.

Words that I did not know:

Incredulity: a feeling that you do not or cannot believe or accept that something is true or real
Erudite:having or showing knowledge that is gained by studying
Egregious: conspicuous
Abhorrent: not agreeable

Summed up learning sentence:

Training your brain can only improve memory/fluid intelligence if your willing to challenge yourself and the best way to train is with an activity that your most likely to stick with over the long term.

Drive by Daniel H. Pink

This is my first book review on this blog and I want to talk about my purpose for these reviews before diving into Drive by Daniel H. Pink.

I think that writing about the books I read will cement their message into my memory and help me critically think about them in the future. I don’t want to read a book and just jump to the next one without pausing and thinking about the things I just learned. Books have so much information in them so I think it is necessary to have a notebook while reading to write down interesting information that stands out to me. These reviews are not meant to be a perfect school book summary of the book or a critical dissection of the authors ability to write.

Drive by Daniel H. Pink is by no means a book I would have picked off the shelves to read. Christina, my wonderful wife, checked this book out at the library because she is on a huge psychology kick right now. Although I didn’t think I would like Drive I almost immediately got into it’s general subject of motivation and how screwed up our understanding of the topic truly is. The old school way of motivation is the “Carrot on a Stick” mentality in which we incentivize good behavior and punish behavior we don’t want. This can be seen in the workforce with bonuses, in education with grades, and in the home with allowances for chores. Before reading this book, I never thought to much about incentives and the negative impacts they can have on our internal drives. Essentially when you have an external incentive you cancel out intrinsic drive and it can turn play into work. Rewards can send performance, creativity, and even upstanding behavior tumbling downward. The only time external rewards are helpful is if a task is algorithmic, inherently boring, and overall awful. Think of getting a bonus after folding five thousand envelopes. In cases of creative/heuristic tasks the motivation needs to come from an intrinsic desire. True intrinsic motivation needs three components: mastery, autonomy, and purpose. Let’s take the example of my goal to master the subject of “History.” My mastery entails pushing my learning through writing/discussion, my venture is completely self-guided (autonomy), and my purpose includes bettering myself and other people with this blog. So there you go, use that simple guideline for motivating yourself and other people. The end of the book has helpful tips on how to apply the principles of motivation and I found many applicable to my future children. Have your children understand why they are learning a certain subject and why it is relevant to their lives to create intrinsic motivation. In terms to the corporate world, the current system of management hawking over employees is outdated and in the future there will be more businesses giving their employees freedom to work when and where they want. This future will be needed because more and more jobs are not algorithmic (I need a large fry and a large burger) but rather heuristic (I need you to brainstorm some marketing ideas for the next quarter). In the end, this book was very good and I would give it three stars. Pick it up and read it.

Words that I learned:

Sanguine-optimistic or positive, especially in an apparently bad or difficult situation.
Autotelic-having a purpose in and not apart from itself (aka intrinsic motivation)
Indomitable-impossible to defeat or discourage
Equanimity-evenness of mind especially under stress

Summed up learning sentence:

Extrinsic motivation is everywhere but only works for boring mundane tasks and intrinsic motivation is what every human is meant to run on, yet the majority of all organizations squash it like a bug.