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Politics of proton smashing

The UK taxpayer has contributed around £500 million to the development of the Large Hadron Collider.

In a world of unlimited budgets, funding for the lavishly expensive Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN would be easy to justify. This justification is harder to sustain in our world of competing priorities. But honest debate about the politics and economics of CERN is not helped by a complaisant, nonsense-talking media, and nor is it helped by the wilful obfuscations of some of CERN’s defenders.

It would be churlish to deny that there is something intensely, if geekily, exciting about the activities of the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN). The idea of accelerating sub-atomic particles to almost the speed of light, and smashing them into each other deep under the French and Swiss countryside, has a Bond-villain grandeur that has manifestly caught the public imagination. If this leads to more genuine interest in science, and inspires more children to study physics at school, then this can surely only be a good thing.

But the money being poured into CERN is almost as mind-boggling as the velocities being achieved inside its new super-collider. The entire CERN budget is some $1bn per year, with the UK picking up over a sixth of the total. The UK taxpayer has contributed something of the order of £500 million to the development of the Large Hadron Collider. So, the question is, do we get the right kind of bang for our bucks?

The answer to this question is rather mixed. On the one hand, elementary particle physics has long been at an impasse, as increasingly sophisticated theoretical elaborations of the ‘standard model’ of the four basic physical forces flounder through lack of the right kind of experimental data. Only by building the LHC could particle physics be pushed forward, and recent theoretical work be given its long-needed experimental test.

Without the LHC, fundamental particle physics would have hit the buffers, with increasingly abstruse theoretical work floating free of the possibility of empirical confirmation. An important part of physics would have been in deep, existential trouble without the LHC.

So, if we want to satisfy the basic human curiosity about how the world works then, sooner or later, the LHC – or something like it – would have to be built. The question, though, is whether this really was the time to do it, and whether its very generous funding could have been better deployed elsewhere. The answer to this question is also important for how we should think about future funding of projects like this one.

A very basic line of argument would suggest that CERN’s budget could be better spent on the more basic functions of liberal democratic states – health, education, environmental policy, and the like. At the extreme, one could take the view that this kind of pure scientific research is simply not the role of government. But the case for diverting the LHC budget elsewhere does not have to be made in Philistine terms, or by questioning the value of scientific research. To be anti-LHC need not mean being ‘anti-science’. Instead, we may just think that we should be concentrating on alternative scientific priorities.

Sir David King, the government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, has recently argued that scientific research priorities should be redirected more pressing problems like climate change. The discovery of the Higgs boson won’t be much good to anyone if the planet has become too hot for human habitation; and it is especially difficult to justify the prioritisation of particle physics to the global poor who will bear the brunt of global warming.

Moreover, it is clear that there are much better returns, in terms of discoveries per unit of expenditure, to research in other areas of science, as opposed to CERN-type particle physics which, by its very nature – involving enormously complex machinery and massive energy outlays – is very expensive. Fields like genomics and bioinformatics are accelerating at a breakneck pace right now, in sharp distinction to the near-exhaustion of particle physics. And so it is hard to deny that there are other areas of science where research is both closer to practical human concerns, and where the scientific returns to investment are greater.

Even within the scope of physics itself, it is not clear that putting so much emphasis on funding the LHC makes good scientific sense. As disproportionate amounts of UK Physics funding are poured into CERN, more fertile areas of the subject such as condensed matter physics, biophysics and nanotechnology are being sidelined.

It is a significant fact that, as the UK has diverted physics funding increasingly towards particle physics, other parts of the subject have suffered. Despite comparatively high levels of funding, no UK-based physicist has won a Nobel Prize in Physics since Nevill Mott in 1977. (Anthony Leggett won in 2003, but he has worked at the University of Illinois for the past 25 years.) This compares very unfavourably with UK successes in Medicine, with more than a dozen UK Nobel laureates over the same period. As UK Physics funding pours into particle physics, more fertile and fast-moving areas of the subject have come to be dominated by the US and Germany.

So, putting the LHC first may not even be good for physics, let alone for scientific research in general. But one would not have the first inkling of this from the supine, hyperbolic and excitable coverage that the LHC’s launch has received from the British media.

There was an enormous amount of brouhaha in the British media on the 10 September “launch date” of the LHC, even though all that had happened was that a beam of protons had been sent in one direction around the LHC. Nothing had been collided, and so no collisions could yet have been detected. Yet the media coverage suggested that some kind of breakthrough had already taken place.

The media has nonsensically christened the LHC “the Big Bang machine” and the Higgs boson is bizarrely called “the God particle”. Neither term really means anything at all. We are told that the LHC will “discover the origins of the Universe” when all it can aim to do is to recreate conditions from the very early Universe, which is a completely different idea. We are told that the physicists “have no idea what they might find” when, in fact, they are looking for very specific results given a well-worked out background theory that stands in need of empirical confirmation.

Strangest of all, the LHC is heralded as having spin-off effects from finding cures to cancer to solving global warming, as if these – rather than raw scientific curiosity – were its real justification. But if we’re really interested in these sorts of applications of scientific research, there are likely to be more efficient ways of getting to them than hunting the Higgs boson.

Something very odd seems to have happened. The media would rather talk excited gibberish about the LHC than ask hard questions about support for science in a democratic society, or the proper priorities for research in physics. The CERN scientists are happy to meet the media’s demand for hyperbole, as it obscures the most important questions about funding for CERN.

This should not sound too negative. The LHC is a magnificent human achievement, a great feat of collaboration and logistics, and it will surely bring fascinating scientific advances. But, in a sane democratic society, the media and the scientists themselves need to do a better job about talking sensibly about its purpose, goals and justification.

Most importantly, given the competing demands for our tax pounds – from other areas of science as well as from broader social goals – we need to think long and hard about our priorities. My tentative suggestion is that, at least for the time being, and given the plethora of real problems humanity is facing, the LHC should be as far as we go for a generation or two in funding particle physics.

Human ingenuity will get us to the deepest foundations of particle physics eventually, but we may collectively have other more important things to do before we get there.

Martin O’Neill is a political philosopher, based at the Centre for Political Theory in the Department of Politics at the University of Manchester. He has previously taught at Cambridge and Harvard, and is writing a book on Corporations and Social Justice.
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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge