The Sweet Side of Nobel Prizes

What is the best predictor of a country’s ability to produce Nobel winners? Chocolate.

Wait, what?
Yes, a study is promoting the idea that countries that consume more chocolate produce more Nobel laureates. It’s been published on a scientific journal by a New York cardiologist, who got the idea from his research into flavanols, a type of antioxidants that help keep the brain young. Since chocolate in rich in them, he tried to plot a statistical correlation between the taste for chocolate and mental prowess. Amazingly, he found it worked: Switzerland, the country with the highest per capita chocolate consumption in the world, has given birth to more Nobel laureates than anyone else. China, who has a modest appetite for it, just two. The only country that deviates from the plot is Sweden: the chocolate predictor allows for just 14 of the 28 Nobels won by Swedes. But you could dismiss that entirely on the understandable bias the Nobel committee might have toward fellow compatriots.

But wait, is this guy for real? Well, even though the study is clearly light-hearted, the numbers are sound. The linear correlation between chocolate consumption and Nobel prizes is 0.791, where 1 would be a perfect match. That’s a very high value for social factors, and it shoots up to 0.862 if you don’t take sneaky Sweden into account. (In statistics, this number is called the Pearson correlation coefficient. Another factor that measures the probability of chance mudding the results, the p-value, is even better: p<0.0001. The target threshold is p<0.05, and lower is better).

There’s more research centered around strange predictors. What can you use to estimate the level of corruption of a country? Tips. A study conducted by the Harvard Business School on data from 32 countries found that high rates of corruption and high rates of tipping (or ‘prosocial gratuities’, as they call them) go together. Why? If you consider a tip as a way to ensure good service in the future, that is similar, in a way, to a bribe. So, tipping and corruption might both stem from the same predicament and their correlation is statistically measurable (The Pearson coefficient in this study was 0.6).

One of the most fascinating statistical correlations I’ve ever encountered links rainy days to admission rates at a Canadian medical school: fewer candidates were accepted when the weather was gloomy.  We all know that weather affects how we feel, but the notion that you should try to sustain job interviews when the sun is shining takes the idea to another level. (The p-value in this study was a decent 0.042).

The real jungle of strange predictors is economy. Sales of various items are periodically linked to its health. The trend was started by Alan Greenspan in the 1970s, when he said he looked at sales of men’s underwear as an indicator of how the economy was doing.
The assumption is that refreshing your underwear lineup will not be your top priority if you have trouble making the ends meet.

In the wake of this, researchers have come up with many different ways to assess the current state of the economy. Take the Box Index, for example: it measures the production levels of cardboard boxes used to ship everyday goods like beer, toothpaste or cereal. When they plunge, it’s because sales are slow. But that’s boring, right? Much more interesting is the idea the the length of women’s skirts might be tied to how much money is going around. The New York Magazine calls it the Hot Waitress Index: the hotter the waitress, the weaker the economy. Why? Because they attract more business when the money flow decreases. Sexist all you want, but effective. There’s more very weird indicators, including the number of unclaimed corpses at the morgue (funeral services are not cheap), mosquito infestations (home foreclosures create favorable breeding grounds), and the cover of Sport Illustrated magazine. Business Insider has a list.

And since you’ve made it this far, I might as well ask you: what’s in the picture that opens this post? A chocolate fountain? Chocolate pouring from the Heavens? Nope. It’s a lamp.

It’s called the Nemo ChocoLite Lamp and it’s made by Italian furniture manufacturer Cassina. So don’t underestimate the power of chocolate on the human brain yet.

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Heisenberg’s Television Principle

The Associated Press reported today that a new type of methamphetamine from Mexico is flooding the US. It is said to be “of the purest quality” and coming from “high-tech labs”. Furthermore, it has “a clearer, glassier appearance, usually with a clear or bluish-white color”. Bluish-white color? Hang on a minute…

The HuffPost has already sniffed the connection: it’s a bewildering idea, that some Cartel drug lord might be trying to play Heisenberg, the chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-artist from the fantastic TV series Breaking Bad. Someone was already selling ‘blue meth’, but it was just sugar crystals from a particularly avant-garde Albuquerque candy shop.

There’s a running debate on how TV and especially reality TV is affecting, well, reality. For example, on how series like Teen Mom or 16 and Pregnant are influencing the behavior of young girls. Regardless of how pregnancy and its consequences are depicted in these shows, the mere exposure and the power of social norms might have a stronger impact on viewers than the producers would expect.

Social norms can be used very effectively as an incentive toward desirable behavior. Consider the message you find in hotel bathrooms that tries to persuade you to reuse your towels. A study has found that people are 26 percent more likely to do so when the message states that most hotel guests reuse their towels at least once, as opposed to a general plea to consider the environment. Obama’s advisors used a similar tactic to entice voters to go to the polls in 2008, by spreading the word that a record voter-turnout was expected and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy (turnout increased by 5 million in the 2008 elections). You generally tend to do what others are doing. You don’t want to be the odd one out.

Similarly, if you tell a teenage girl that she shouldn’t get pregnant because a lot of her peers are carelessly doing so and ruining their lives, that’s probably not going to dramatically affect her decisions. Saying, however, that most girls in her school are taking precautions to avoid unwanted pregnancies and STDs is usually much more effective. A TV show centered around pregnant young girls gives that idea an aura of ‘normality’ that might have unintended effects. The psychology involved in how television modulates people’s behavior might be more subtle than you think.

People will act inadvertently badly under the influence of fictional stories. You don’t think a cute film like Finding Nemo would cause any evil, but after its release sales of clownfish briefly exploded due to thousands of kids nagging parents to take one home. Most were treated like goldfish and put in freshwater bowls (they are marine fish that require lots of care), where they would survive only a matter of hours. Some kids even intentionally flushed them down the toilet to set them free, recreating events from the film. But no matter how heartbreaking that is, dead fish do not stack up with pregnant teenagers and metheads.

Nat Geo is currently airing a show called Doomsday Preppers, about people who believe the apocalypse is nigh and are prepping for it, generally by stacking up massive amounts of foodstuffs and guns. They each have their own impending doom scenario (economic collapse, earthquakes, polar shifts, radiation, you name it), but it’s mostly irrelevant: they just want to invest every resource they have into preparing for the worst.

It’s easy to think that these people might have been influenced by the recent flurry of post-apocalyptic movies and series. This creates a curious recurrence: preppers may have been influenced by a TV show, and they now have their own, potentially influencing others. Mostly, preppers are extreme right-wing xenophobic hoarders who come up with a bullshit excuse for the end of the world so they can cave in to their fears and isolate themselves. And buy lots of assault rifles. What’s lamentable about Doomsday Preppers is that it doesn’t do much to instill the doubt that these might be dangerous, delusional sociopaths. Or if you don’t care for that, that it’s wiser to put your money into a savings account rather than buying boatloads of food and ammo. At least, after every segment, the world-ending scenario invoked by each prepper is properly debunked, but that doesn’t do enough to sway the balance of the show. I’m afraid it might be inspiring even more xenophobic hoarding.

Breaking Bad has endless artistic merits and I love it dearly. But it’s full of elegantly designed, sticky ideas about drug trafficking. It was just a matter of time before someone tried to turn them into reality.

The Fairy Tale Effect

Have you ever heard of the Goldilocks Principle?

It’s named after the fairy tale Goldilocks and the Three Bears, in which the porridge is not too hot, not too cold, but just right. It’s become an ideology for something that needs to sit between extremes. It’s used in many fields, but most famously in astronomy: the Goldilocks Zone is the ideal orbiting region for a planet, one that allows water to remain liquid. That’s where Earth is and where NASA, in distant star systems, is looking for exoplanets that could host life.

The Goldilocks Principle is one of many effects, laws and disorders named after stuff from children’s books. There’s something about the simpleness of a bedtime story that fascinates academics the world over. Who gets more ‘likes’? No doubt, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. It has inspired at least four of these things.

The first one has the most obvious name, but it’s a very peculiar condition. It’s called the Alice in Wonderland Syndrome and it’s a neurological disturbance that messes with the perception of size. Objects may seem exaggeratedly big or impossibly tiny, as if you drank one of Alice’s potions that made her bigger or smaller. But this is no benign trip, as it is accompanied by strong migraines, high fever and nasty hallucinations.

The Cheshire Cat effect also has to do with perception, but it’s not a condition: it’s a strange quirk of binocular vision wherein you will see a person magically disappear, just like the infamous grinning cat, while one of your eyes is pointed straight at them. You can experience this yourself with the help of a friend, a small mirror and a white wall, following the instructions in this very clear, if a little slow, science project video.

There are many forms of psychotherapy, each one following a different school. Some believe that they all produce the same results, regardless of procedural differences. This controversial hypothesis is called the Dodo Bird Verdict, after the running competition organized by the Dodo in the book, in which there are no losers: “Everybody has won and all must have prizes”.

Biologists also have borrowed from Alice. The very intriguing Red Queen hypothesis is an evolutionary scenario in which two competing species (such as prey/predator or parasite/host) both keep adapting at full pace to each other’s mutations, in an evolutionary arms race. The passage it refers to is actually from Through the Looking Glass, in which Alice and the Red Queen furiously run but do not progress an inch, and the latter remarks: “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place”.

It’s not surprising that psychology has such a fondness for Alice: even if the main underlying theme of the book is math (Carroll was a math teacher in Oxford), the mind-related matters are much more readily apparent. The characters in Alice are so riddled with disorders that, put together, they summon practically every demon in the psychological bestiary: Alice is violently schizophrenic, the Red Queen is bipolar, the Mad Hatter has the more rare adult form of Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and the White Rabbit exhibits severe anxiety and possibly some form of Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Some believe that the novel itself is a description of the reality and dynamics of Borderline personality disorder, from which Lewis Carroll is thought to have suffered.

I don’t want to go among mad people, Alice remarked.

Oh, you can’t help that, said the Cat. We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.

Don’t Quote Me on This


Play it again, Sam.
Elementary, my dear Watson.
Houston, we have a problem.
Beam me up, Scotty!

It’s rather easy. You know exactly where all those famous lines come from. Of course, they’re from Casablanca, Sherlock Holmes (pretty much any book, right?), Apollo 13 (both the mission AND the movie), and the classic Star Trek series.

Well, not really. All of those are misquotations. At no point in the movie Casablanca does Humphrey Bogart say “Play it again, Sam”. He does say this: “You played it for her, you can play it for me. … If she can stand to listen to it, I can. Play it.” The wrong quote sticks mostly because it’s the title of the 1972 homage film by Woody Allen. Sherlock Holmes never utters the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson!” in any of Arthur Conan Doyle’s books; the closest he gets to that is by saying “My dear Watson” and “Elementary” in two different lines of dialogue in the same page. And Jim Lovell, commander of the Apollo 13 mission, stated the following to mission control: “Houston, we’ve had a problem here. We’ve had a main B bus undervolt”. Pretty dull. But in the movie, Tom Hanks misquotes it in the fashion that we all know. And finally, Captain James T. Kirk never pronounces the words “Beam me up, Scotty!” in any episode of Star Trek. He does, though, repeatedly say “Beam me aboard,” “Beam us up home,” or “Two to beam up” and other variations thereof. Yet James Doohan, the actor who played Scotty, titled his 1996 memoir precisely Beam me up, Scotty!

There are many more blatant examples. Wikiquote has a handy list that saves me a lot of work. It’s easy enough to see why this happens. For an idea to stick, it has to be concise, simple, and strong. Beam me up, Scotty! is an immortal line, Beam me aboard is just a request. The You played it for her… speech might work in a movie, but it’s no T-shirt material. The interesting thing is that people become absolutely convinced that these quotes are correct, to the point that most will swear to remember them, in their exact form, from the source material. It’s one of the many tricks that our memory plays on us.

This is a very common practice anyway. You might have heard of the recent case of the New Yorker journalist who resigned after evidence emerged that a number of Bob Dylan quotes in his bestselling book about creativity were completely made up. To no one’s surprise, the media do that every day. It’s more than enough to catch the gist of what someone said if it needs to be put in a fancier, stickier form. There is an ongoing battle on the subject, with the New York Times on the forefront of media outlets that forbid quote approval.

But I digress. Here’s what I thought was, until five minutes ago, my favorite misquotation of them all. For years I have been reading a line attributed to Bugs Bunny, the cartoon hare famous for walking off cliffs in a straight line, unhindered by gravity: “I know this defies the law of gravity, but you see, I never studied law“. Too perfect, too clever, I thought. Conveniently made up, for sure. But see for yourself. Bugs Bunny’s PR representatives are the best in the business.