Our purpose in life

There’s a passage that I once read by the writer and programmer Paul Graham which went along the following lines:

What you should not do, I think, is worry about the opinion of anyone beyond your friends. You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world. [It] is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like… If you do anything well enough, you will make it prestigious.

What-you-should-not-do-I (1)

I love this statement. I think that far too often we look for something fulfilling in our lives and sometimes base these desires on the illusion of what we think we want rather than being the authors of our own ambitions. Alternatively, we get frustrated or envious when we can’t do something as well as people we see around us, forgetting that their expertise is, in part, the product of their own silent perseverance.

Perhaps, what we don’t realise, as the psychologist-cum-philosopher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi once observed, is that enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety; when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.


I live a lot by these insights, not only because I’ve found them to be true but because they best address how to live in a world we can neither understand nor influence.

Whether one believes that individuals have the ability to control their own destiny or thinks that our fates lie in the hands of some higher order, spiritual or scientific, I feel that, as far as we are able to perceive and experience our lives, luck plays a far greater role, especially at the key, life-changing moments.

Given we cannot predict when serendipity will strike, I try to find enjoyment in everything that I do and aim to be noticed for doing something well, rather than through unctuousness or obsequity. I live to experience, not to hope. Hope is the preserve of the desperate. You can’t live on hope, but it sustains you, to paraphrase Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

With that comes the humility that we can’t do everything, and nor should we. In my experience, we crave promotion and recognition in our careers because we don’t enjoy what we’re actually doing.

I was recently asked what my most enjoyable day at work had been over the last however many years since I started. I gave a few examples and it was pointed out to me that they were all very similar: they were times when I had solved difficult problems. They were times when the challenges were just balanced with my capacity to act.

Some people argue that life is to be lived but not designed to be enjoyed. I’m not sure I agree. Mammals have clearly evolved a need for pleasure, albeit only perhaps as a driver for survival. Enjoyment brings us together, helps us relax, makes us more civil.

The challenge we face is learning how to moderate this enjoyment. With more and more income we place higher and higher degrees of expectation on ourselves for how we should spend our free time. We expend a lot of energy trying to fit in and be someone we are not. We need to slow down and discover how to be ourselves.

And we need to accept that our purpose may neither be what we expected nor hoped for. If our lives do have a purpose, perhaps it is nothing more than to provide entropy. Through our actions and interactions with the world around, we bump off one another and influence everybody around us, sometimes in imperceptible ways, seemingly randomly like particles in Brownian motion.

We are a primordial soup of social interaction, rubbing up alongside one another forming partnerships, communities, colonies and countries. We have no inkling of the chain of events that may spawn from a single act of kindness or hostility so it seems to me that the most gracious way to approach life is to do what we enjoy while respecting the people and environment around us. As John F Kennedy said:

For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.

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No news is good news

Newspapers B&W (3)

I have not watched, read or listened to the news for an entire year. And, if you’re looking for a novel new year’s resolution, I’d heartily recommend you do the same. Hell, why wait? Start today!

When I told friends I was doing this, they were amazed. Some couldn’t understand how I’d cope: didn’t I want to know what was going on in the world? Others thought it was important – almost a democratic responsibility – to keep up-to-date with current affairs; one even accused me of sticking my head in the sand.

The news doesn’t matter

If I’ve learnt one thing this year, it’s how little the news actually matters. My life has not been turned upside down by some unexpected government policy.  If it was going to be, I’m sure I’d have heard about it through word of mouth

For instance, although it didn’t affect me, I found out about the introduction of the ‘bedroom tax’ through friends and neighbours. Without being influenced by the opinion makers in the news, I formed my own view quite independently. It seemed quite a reasonable thing to me. When there’s a shortage of housing, it seemed both expensive and unfair for the four bedroom council house next door to be occupied by only two people. Perhaps a little more could have been done to iron out some of the discrepancies, but here’s my question: how many of the people who think it’s important to follow the news for things like this, how many of the people in uproar, did anything about what they saw as an injustice? I suspect very few.

And that’s my point. When it comes down to it, very little matters. The news does a lot to anger or scare us. It appears less interested in truth and understanding, and more interested in making headlines. The media has somehow appointed itself the vox populi, self-mandated to hold politicians to account. News stories become Punch and Judy shows with our most revered journalists turning QC for the prosecution, savagely cross-examination the hostile witness.

Have you noticed…

Politicians, like lambs to the slaughter, are helpless. They’re damned if they act and damned if they don’t. Have you noticed how they’re always “forced” to make “embarrassing u-turns”? The media never describes policy changes as “courageous” or “humble”, which is strange given the bravery it must take to alter your opinion in the face of adversity.

Perhaps you think that politicos can’t be trusted or you just have an instinctive, visceral hatred of them. In which case, why make yourself angry and upset by listening to the news, especially if you’re not going to do anything?

Have you also noticed how the media won’t report the results of any initiative, only the aspects they take umbrage with? Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science is an anthology of inaccuracies and scare stories peddled by the media and how they’ve influenced scientific policy making, sometimes for the worse. As Goldacre points out, they don’t even follow-up on the safety studies they so ardently called for; safety studies that proved there was nothing to fear in the first place.

The information fallacy

For reasons I still can’t fathom, some people still think it’s important to keep up date with what’s going on in the world, as if immediate and continuous access to information matters. I call this the information fallacy; Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls it the green lumber fallacy after the trader Joe Siegel who was one of the most successful traders in ‘green lumber’. Siegel thought green lumber was wood that had been painted green rather than freshly felled timber that had not been dried. Maybe he got lucky, but maybe not. Others have done studies showing that immature traders just relying on past market data outperformed experienced professionals who pulled data from various sources. Daniel Kahneman’s book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ describes a number of similar pieces of research that echo this.

Our memories are short. And impressionable.

Very few of us are experts in any particular field but it’s amazing how much we think we can interpret the news. Suddenly we’re all experts. Especially us men. However, we seem predisposed to overreacting to the latest events and it’s no surprise. This is the information that comes most easily to hand and it’s a lot harder to recall all the related pieces of information from a few months, let alone a few years back. Also, we’re more likely to recall the information that most likely re-affirms our position of the world – it’s more easily accessible. We are far from the rational beings we perhaps wish to be, capable of reasoned and impartial decision making.

That being the case, why follow the news at all? It will either reinforce your opinion or anger you.

A note about compassion

Perhaps the toughest things addressed in the news are the ones we are powerless to prevent: natural disasters, war, abject poverty. Maybe we fear we’d never hear about these if it weren’t for the news and then we couldn’t help. My answer is simple: if these things matter to you, join a charity. Get on mailing lists and Twitter feeds to know when your help is needed. However, don’t expect the news to keep you informed. People continue to suffer once the cameras have left and it’s easy for events to be obscured by more pressing or immediate concerns.

Get a hobby

I’ve found that forgetting the news has made me happier and more knowledgeable. There’s no shouting at the radio in the morning when you’re dancing around the kitchen to your iPod. Think of all the time you spend during the morning commute or Sunday afternoon reading opinion, trivia and gossip, that could be spent somewhere else. Get lost in a book or try and understand an issue for yourself. Buy books to read again and again rather than papers you will throw out once you’re done. Get a hobby, get out of the house. Talk to people or even talk with your family.

Life’s too short to get annoyed by, or worry about, the things you’ll do nothing about in the news.

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I hold these truths to be self-evident

There is an entrenched, prevailing attitude that an opinion is only valid if it can be supported by evidence and logical, rational argument. There’s an additional view that you learn nothing if you only listen to people who agree with you.

I don’t agree. Someone can be in love and not explain why; and to find a song or poem that puts those emotions into words doesn’t mean the feelings aren’t real. Opinions are borne of experience and sometimes we need an articulate writer to express and justify our thoughts better than we ever could.

That’s not to say we should be blinkered and obstinately ignore every contrary point of view. We should open our minds to new ideas, be willing to experience new things, and have the humility and courage to change opinions in light of new facts.

A rational opinion shouldn’t be based on logic but on understanding. Look up the etymology of ‘rational’ and you find it traces back to Latin words for ‘reckoning’, ‘judgement’, ‘calculation’. At first glance, these words all imply a process-driven, in-depth evaluation of the facts. In practice, these are often instinctive. Our minds learn to recognise a situation, a scenario, a pattern, and apply some basic heuristics to make decisions. Over time, these instincts change through experience.

Furthermore, opinions are beliefs. Beliefs don’t need to be justified, just stated. Take the Tridentine Creed, recited at mass by Christians around the world: “I believe in one God, The Father, The Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…”. Or the opening of the US Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

You can disagree with these sentiments but you can’t say they are wrong. These affirmations are illustrations of leading by example.

In that spirit, below are some of the things I believe to be true. I don’t care to justify them and I may change my mind in the future. That is the beauty of opinion.

*           *           *

It is better to have an open mind than to insist you are right: always assume you don’t know something.

Manila. Bangkok. All the other places degraded and denuded of their natural beauty and cultural charm in the name of growth: this is not progress.

Don’t chase prestige or success; do something because you enjoy it, not because it will bring you fame and fortune.

Don’t judge your quality of life by that of your friends or peers: marketing and conspicuous consumption have led us to pursue what we’d like to like rather than what we do.

Bringing pleasure and enjoyment to other people is a noble goal, so don’t be afraid to flaunt your artistic talents. Never think this is not a worthy calling.

Skills are more important than intellect. You don’t have to be intelligent to be good at something.

Don’t meddle in things you don’t understand and can’t comprehend unless they pose a serious threat.

The news is depressing, opinionated and often misleading. Most of the things you’ll hear or read won’t affect you so stop worrying and stop following.

Experiences make far better presents than material gifts.

Bigger is not necessarily better; it’s doing something well that counts. I’d rather the UK had the world’s most reliable airport than the world’s busiest.

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Goat or No Goat: applying the Monty Hall problem to Deal or No Deal

Can you apply the logic from the Monty Hall problem to Deal or No Deal? I’m no statistician, but after a conversation this week, I think you can…

For those of you unfamiliar with the Monty Hall problem, imagine a game show where you have three doors. Behind one door lies a shiny new sports car, while the other two doors hide goats (or, if you’re concerned about animal welfare, they can be empty). You’re asked to pick one door. The game show presenter will then open one of the doors that does not hide the car and then ask you if you’d like to change you choice.

Many people think that this is a 50/50 choice. In fact, if you change your choice, the odds are 2:1 in your favour of winning the car. Yes, it’s counterintuitive, but if you take the time to play out all the combinations you’ll see that this is correct.

Some people assume that you cannot apply the same principle of swapping your selection to Deal or No Deal. Firstly, the Monty Hall problem relies on a single item of value and multiple worthless items, and secondly, in the Monty Hall problem, the presenter always knows where the prize is located.

Although the Monty Hall problem features only one item of value and multiple low-value items, the game can be extrapolated. Provided there are always more low-value than high-value items to choose from, and the low-value items are always removed, you are more likely to win by swapping at the end of the game. Therefore, the Monty Hall problem can be used to consider games featuring multiple high-value items.


How can this be applied to Deal or No Deal? I suspect that most contestants on the game show don’t come on just hoping to win the top prize (£250,000 in the UK). Most people will be happy to win, or at least want to win, a range of values, from a minimum amount all the way up to the £250,000.

So the game will start and prize money will be lost as different boxes are selected by the contestant. Now, in the Monty Hall problem, the presenter knows the location of the high value prize(s) so these aren’t removed. This isn’t the case on Deal or No Deal – some of the bigger prizes will be removed by chance. However, some prizes in this range will still remain.

I wrote a short computer program to measure the likelihood of winning your minimum target or greater if you chose to swap when there was only one prize left in this range. As you can see, the greater your minimum amount, the more likely you are to win that value or greater if you swap; this mirrors what we see in the Monty Hall problem.

Minimum desired winnings Successes if swap Successes if stay
£1 13585 86415
£5 17947 82053
£10 22757 77243
£50 27148 72852
£100 31962 68038
£250 36342 63658
£500 40848 59152
£750 45572 54428
£1,000 50151 49849
£3,000 54796 45204
£5,000 59293 40707
£10,000 63494 36506
£15,000 67958 32042
£20,000 72867 27133
£35,000 77271 22729
£50,000 81821 18179
£75,000 86068 13932
£100,000 91092 8908

Obviously, you don’t have this option in the real game but you could apply its logic to your decision making when offered a deal by the banker: if there are fewer prizes in your target range than outside it, and the banker offers you a deal greater than your minimum amount, you should take it, as this is tantamount to swapping. From a purely rational point of view, you should take it anyway (and now you have a statistical reason why) although humans clearly aren’t rational and contestants clearly enter the show either with grandly over ambitious goals, or get overwhelmed with excitement (or possibly greed?) as the game progresses.

I haven’t quite worked out what to do if you get given an offer below you target prize, though. Statistically, the winning box(es) are less likely to be picked so by playing a little longer the deal could shift in your favour. This could be especially beneficial if there are some very high value boxes left, and anecdotal evidence suggest that the banker’s offers get more generous as the game goes on.

And, for the sake of completeness, if you came to the final two boxes, with one containing a penny and the other £250,000, you should swap (but don’t re-swap). However, I’d say you’d be very foolish not to take the banker’s offer at that point!


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Why Generation Y is unhappy

Think it misses a couple of things and I don’t agree with the first bit of advice, but thought it worth passing on…


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Are some types of people just a necessary evil?

According to an intriguing body of research by psychologists Paul Piff, Dacher Keltner and their collaborators, the higher someone’s social class, or the greater their wealth, the more unethical their behaviour is likely to be.

For example, people who drove cars of a higher status were more likely to cut off a pedestrian on a crossing. When invited to help themselves to a bowl of sweets, people who ranked themselves as more upper class took more sweets than those who ranked themselves a lower socioeconomic status. This was despite being told that the sweets were really meant for some children later on. In a further study, the higher someone ranked themselves in social status, the less likely they would divulge information on job security to a candidate.

It’s important to remember that all these examples simply highlight statistical correlations between class and unethical behaviour. They merely imply that social class causes changes in ethical behaviour, but they don’t prove it.

I can certainly comprehend the arguments for why class may affect behaviour. Poorer people may have a greater sense of community or are more aware of how their actions may affect others. Richer people may be more independent and subsequently forget about or ignore how their behaviour impacts the world around them. Richer people may not comprehend what abject poverty is, or have different frames of reference of the value of things…

In these experiments we could even be seeing people subconsciously parodying stereotypical cultural behaviours of superiority that have become reinforced over time. We should remember that all these experiments were conducted in the US and I wonder if we’d see the same responses in countries that have a more clearly delineated social class structure (like India or the UK) or those with a stronger welfare state (such as those in Scandinavia)? And what about cultures where wealth isn’t the status symbol it appears to be in the West?

However, I wonder if another factor is at work: what if some of the ‘successful’ people have different, innate attitudes to risk and entitlement compared to the majority? What if society needs a few bastards to keep the economy ticking on? In an ideal world, everyone would behave rationally, and there would be no risk associated with a new venture or idea. Then again, we’d also be able to predict the future.

In reality, the world is a volatile place, and decision making is based much more on necessity and trial and error, and we need people to take chances or put themselves first from time to time. The world needs risk takers – whether it’s the entrepreneur who quits their job to start their own business or the company director deciding to dig a mine in an unstable Third World country. Perhaps the personality types seen in these decision makers are the same types that make some of them more inclined to behave unethically in general.

For instance, to cut someone off at a pedestrian crossing is illegal in California, but getting caught is a small risk that some people would be willing to take. Entrepreneurs and business men and women take opportunities. A bowl of sweets is an opportunity. They are smart enough to take what has been offered to them. Maybe even smart enough to take reserves.

There is also a variety of everyday situations, you could say environments, that require some people to be assertive and others to be submissive. Stepping out of the Eurotunnel terminal into Kings Cross station, you are greeted with a wall of people each on their own mission. Tourists stop abruptly, looking confused and trying to get their bearings. Office workers dash past trying to get home at the end of a busy day. If everyone aggressively did their own thing to get through the crowds, people would bump into each other at a high rate; if everyone slowed down or stopped to equitably negotiate a way through, the daily commute would take all day.

Instead, it somehow just works. People subconsciously adapt to the environment. Some people will charge through regardless, others will pause to make way, others will find a way to skirt around. It’s an organic, living system that requires everyone to play their part. We’re not molecules in a test tube with nowhere to go; we’re organisms with destinations in mind; we individually, and subconsciously, work out the most effective and efficient way to cross a busy public place. And it requires some to be submissive and some to be aggressive.

Similarly, the other day I was in a traffic jam and the motorway signs flashed up saying ‘Congestion. Stay in lane.’ I was in the middle lane. To my right was a lane empty as far as the eye could see and I slipped into it. Obviously, if everyone had done so, nothing would have improved, but are you honestly telling me that if a few people took advantage of an empty lane, we would have increased congestion through relieving pressure on a congested one?

Similarly, with overtaking, people go above the speed limit to make progress. If people didn’t overtake, would there be more traffic in the lanes, would this increase congestion, lower the speed limit, and make the journey longer for everyone? Maybe society, or at least some systems, need a bit of arrogance from time to time.

I’m not saying that moral behaviour isn’t an important factor, though. Clearly, things like trust are important for any functioning economy. Studies show that societies with higher levels of trust have lower levels of corruption  and higher GDP and growth figures. Does an economy, and a society, need a proportion of ‘bastards’ to be successful? Does it need a balance of people who have high levels of trust and those who are more liberal with their attitude to risk, rules and honesty?

Trust is certainly important for maintaining social order: for instance, knowing that property can’t be summarily seized means people invest in a country which grows the economy. However, once this is in place, does it need people who are prepared to bend the rules or, at the very least, push boundaries, to continue growing; growth that is essential for that economy and all the ones it feeds into? If there was no appetite for risk in a society, would there be any innovation?

I wonder if there’s an experiment we could use to see if some unethical behaviour is the product of aggressive personalities? In fact, we already have an idea. Paul Zak is the scientist known as Doctor Love for his research into trust and morality. He discovered that oxytocin plays a fundamental role in building trust between people: higher levels of oxytocin were correlated with higher levels of trust; furthermore, when people were given oxytocin, their levels of trust and trustworthiness increased. However, a small proportion of people don’t produce oxytocin and show little or no trust. These people might be more aggressive or manipulative. It would be interesting to measure the effect of success and poverty on oxytocin levels, which might shed light on some of the arguments described above. Oxytocin also helps create empathy, so perhaps we might find a biological reason why some drivers of posh cars cut pedestrians off.

In the meantime, though, humour me a little longer. I’d like to live in a world where everybody has the same philosophical outlook as me, but I don’t. We live in a biological system that we try to control through a series of social and legal rules, with the hope and expectation that if people abide by these, we will have stable and secure societies and economies. The reality is much different and perhaps we need to accept the variation that exists between individual people. After all, every living system has a homeostatic mechanism, but any system than actively requires balancing, also requires stressing, otherwise can it really be said to be alive at all?

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Our most important sense

What is our most important sense? When I’ve asked this question of others, I’ve often got the answer: “well, I wouldn’t want to lose my sense of sight”. And I agree. I wouldn’t want to lose my sense of sight either. However, just because it’s our preferred sense, doesn’t necessarily mean it is our most important one. I put it to you that touch is actually our most important sense.

Culturally and socially, touch plays a pivotal role in our lives. Our language is littered with words and phrases rooted in the definitions of touch: we say people have hurt our feelings or touched our hearts; we have business and social contacts; we touch wood to avoid fate; we stay in touch, touch base and lose touch; we have palpitations; describe people as being prickly or cuddly, cold or warm. Have we subconsciously developed a lexicon around the thing that’s most important to us?

Touch is considered by psychologists today, as well as Aristotle over 2000 years ago, as our most elementary sense; the sense from which all others have evolved. All animals possess the sense of touch, but may lack at least one of the others. Deaf people can hear the beat of the music and rumble of traffic through vibrations; blind people can read using Braille. Studies have shown that embryos develop a sense of touch from as early as eight weeks of development. Of all the senses to be born without, to be born without the sense of touch is the rarest of them all. And we know that embracing and mothering babies decreases infant mortality.

Just as significantly, touch also facilitates trust and social bonding. When upset or stressed, being touched releases a number of hormones that ease our anxiety and lower our heart rate. One of these hormones – oxytocin – is released by mothers during breast feeding, and by both sexes during sex. And that’s important. Actually, to put it bluntly: without a sense of touch, we simply couldn’t reproduce.

So oxytocin, whether produced by sex, breastfeeding or social interaction, helps the people involved to bond. It has also been scientifically shown to increase trust between strangers. And trust is needed for healthy, productive societies. The most productive economies are those with high levels of trust and trustworthiness. Touch begets trust.

And, when you think about it, touch is our greatest expression of love. From the moment we are first held in our mother’s arms, to those final minutes holding a loved one’s hand as life passes from their lips to another world. When no words will do, touch is there to ease the suffering.

At arrival halls and departure halls in airports around the world, how many embraces, how many kisses? On the streets: how many couples holding hands? In war zones, how many distraught mothers clinging to the broken bodies of dead children?

Touch gives us spirit. It gives us soul, empathy, trust. It helps the blind to see and the deaf to hear. We can talk to our loved ones on the phone, read a text message, send an email, but that’s no substitute for having them right here beside us, to have and to hold. More than any other sense, touch helps us to survive.

Touch is our most important sense.

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When I am a father

It’s one thing to like a girl only to find out she doesn’t feel the same way. It’s quite another for her to actually like you back but still not want to go out with you. And so continues my fruitless quest for love.

I recently met this wonderful Sikh girl – we’ll call her S – and we instantly hit it off. She admitted she liked me. We went on a date. We kissed. And she said she couldn’t see me again. The reason? Loyalty and guilt.

She came from a really close family with parents who loved her and had spent three weeks by her side in hospital as she’d drifted in and out of consciousness in a fight against pneumonia. Her father, whom she loved dearly, wanted her to find and marry a Sikh. I already knew this but had somehow persuaded her to go on a date. But the thought of letting her father down, and lying to him, was too much.

S was visibly upset by the decision she’d forced herself to make. She apologised profusely and kept asking if I was angry. I wasn’t. Frustrated? Yes. Disappointed? Maybe. Upset? Perhaps. But not angry. You can’t be angry about how someone feels. You can only accept it and try to understand it.

After all, it wasn’t S’s fault that she felt guilty. We can’t control who we fancy or how we feel. We can’t use logic to make someone love us. We can only use reason to come to terms with a relationship ending, or to help to end it. Love itself is illogical.

Perhaps I should be a little angry at her father for putting S in this position. I can’t. Like all fathers who love their children, I assume he only wants what is best for his daughter. And for whatever reason he believes he knows what is right. I think he wants to protect her.

My own father was strongly against my sister going away to become a ski instructor. He didn’t express himself very well. He told her she was making a mistake; that she was being stupid. He was certain she had a boyfriend who was making her leave a successful career to do this against her will.

After an emotional pub chat one afternoon, it became clear that he was scared for her safety although he couldn’t bring himself to say it. The very comfort of routine, the knowledge that she was in safe and familiar surroundings, made him happier. He wanted to protect her and didn’t know how.

It must be hard, but fathers can’t protect their children forever. To do so requires control, a control tantamount to possession. And possession is a pernicious expression of love.

And I hope that one day, when I am a father, I’ll be possessive, too. I hope I’ll worry about my children’s safety. I’ll want to control their lives to protect them from harm. Because then I’ll know I love them.

But I also hope I’ll have the courage to let them spread their wings, take risks and make mistakes. Parental love is unconditional. It shouldn’t demand respect, and neither should it command obedience. Parents should want what’s best for each son and daughter; should want them to be happy. But they shouldn’t assume to know how.

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Is doubt essential to faith?

Doesn’t all faith begin with doubt? In science as in religion, we often arrive at the answers starting from uncertainty. Often, the most ardent defenders of a belief are the people who’ve arrived at some conclusion themselves rather than just accept what they’ve been told; they’ve spotted uncertainty and sought understanding. I think this is because in these cases we feel we own the answer. By having to work for it, our opinion is more important to us and we’re more confident in it.

So, yes: doubt is essential to faith. Doubt is the seed of curiosity. However, fundamentalism isn’t an absence of doubt; it’s an absence of humility. Fundamentalism is what’s left when you forget that all belief started with doubt and therefore choose not to respect others’ opinions nor accommodate their personal liberties.


This blog post was inspired by a thought-provoking TED Talk by Lezley Hazleton on the importance of doubt in religious faith and how its absence is linked to fundamentalism.

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What does analytical scrutiny teach us about compassion?

Dr Attia is a surgeon who heads up a group of researchers investigating the causes of obesity and diabetes. In this TED Talk, he questions whether some of the complications we see in obesity could actually be the triggers. More importantly, because of our current assumptions about obesity, are we too quick to spot the criminal rather than the victim?

It was tempting to respond to this video with defiance and regurgitate all the scientific evidence that disputed his central theory. However, a) that wouldn’t make a particularly interesting blog post and b) it would have required digging out research papers I haven’t looked at for close to ten years, reviewing them critically, and begrudging the fact I wouldn’t be able to throw any more recent research into the proverbial hopper.

Instead, it got me thinking of Malcolm Gladwell’s TED Talk ‘Choice, Happiness and Spaghetti Sauce‘. He opens with a story about the market researcher Howard Moskowitz who was trying to find the right level of sweetness for Diet Pepsi. The data came back a mess. There was no clear trend and no obvious concentration of sweetener that would make the perfect Pepsi.

A little while later, Moskowitz realised he’d been trying to answer the wrong question. They were looking for the perfect Pepsi when they should have been looking for the perfect Pepsis – different people prefer different degrees of sweetness. Moskowitz later got to test this theory by researching pasta sauces for Campbell’s. He found that a third of consumers wanted chunky vegetables in their sauce, something no company was selling. Campbell’s duly brought out such a sauce and saw a huge growth in sales.

Just as there’s no such thing as the perfect Pepsi or spaghetti sauce, there’s no such thing as a singular cause for diabetes and obesity. There are metabolic, hormonal, biochemical, physiological and genetic triggers like there are for so many other illnesses. And that’s why it’s important to search for these triggers and to avoid being blinkered by scientific dogma.

That doesn’t mean there has to be, needs to be or can be a pill to treat every cause. No one said life is fair and people may need to make lifestyle changes as a result. In some cases, these lifestyle changes may actually be the cure. In other cases, they may be no more than palliative; obesity could indeed be masking something more sinister. And if there’s money to be made from finding new therapies based on this research, then there probably will be. For this you will need to look to the pharmaceutical companies that many seem to malign.

So the question becomes: just because you can create a drug, should you? Does it make more economic sense to help someone manage their condition than pay out thousands of dollars, pounds or euros for every patient? And what is the morally just thing to do?

Regardless of your views on NICE in the UK, or ‘death panels’ as they were described by some in the US, Dr Attia’s mission isn’t necessarily a waste of time. It is right to repeatedly question assumptions and dogma. We seem willing enough to do it in the name of religion (or atheism) so we shouldn’t be scared of doing the same for science and medicine. Indeed, it was questioning prevailing opinion that identified an increased risk from cot death from letting babies sleep on their fronts. And who knows what additional discoveries the research team may make along the way?

But while the point of the speech was about questioning scientific conclusions, there was an underlying and far more powerful point Dr Attia made: we should learn to be more compassionate. We should be especially careful of making judgements about strangers.

In his book ‘Adapt’, Tim Harford tells the story of the Scottish epidemiologist and doctor Archie Cochrane. At one stage he worked in a hospital for prisoners of war and a Russian soldier was brought to him, screaming out loud. Knowing little Russian, and lacking any suitable medicine, Cochrane could do nothing but hug his patient. This act of tenderness stopped the soldier’s screams almost instantaneously.

So what does it mean to be compassionate? In my opinion, dangernate said it best in one of his blog posts:

Being compassionate doesn’t have to mean giving the homeless guy your spare change or donating canned-goods to a food drive. In its truest form, it’s curiosity towards other people’s stories and understanding that they have value, just the same as you. Viewing the world through this lens doesn’t just help those around us, it also makes us happier, more deeply satisfied people.

If my experience as a scientist and analyst has taught me anything, it’s that we should have the humility to accept that we could be wrong. Even if we understand everything else there is to know about a subject, it only takes one bit of evidence to disprove a hypothesis. Therefore, we should reflect this same humility to the world around us. There’s a time for criticising and there’s a time for caring.


Edit: video embedded

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