It’s only natural – let’s make it better

If we can improve, we should.

A bad few weeks, then, for misbehaving chromosomes. First, a Hollywood star draws attention to their errant ways. Next, laboratory scientists find a way to cut them out of the picture. And then, just a day later, camera-wielding researchers announce they can spot the miscreants a mile off.

We can only hope that the IVF pioneer Robert Edwards was given a special preview of the latter research before he died last month. IVF has always been criticised for raising too much hope and too much cash. A round can cost a couple £10,000 yet the chance of it ending in a live birth in the UK is still only 26 per cent. Now, however, a relatively straightforward technique of watching for misbehaving chromosomes might rocket that success rate up to 80 per cent.

The technique sidelines the entirely natural shortcomings of our chromosomes – the packages of DNA inside every cell nucleus. Even in normal circumstances, roughly half of all fertilised eggs carry some kind of abnormality. This predisposes the embryo to problems and usually ends the pregnancy before it begins. But in the sealed glass box where an IVF embryo begins, those chromosomal problems expose themselves in a way that allows doctors to choose the one with the best chance of survival.

The four-day process of turning into a blastocyst, the ball of cells that would normally be implanted in the mother’s womb, takes about six hours longer if there is a chromosomal problem. Using time-lapse photography, you can see which embryos have issues and which are ideal for implantation. The simplicity of the technique would no doubt have brought a smile to Edwards’s face.

He would have been less happy about this month’s press surrounding the breakthrough in human cloning. Scare stories abounded – the Daily Mail went with the headline “New spectre of cloned babies” – and much was made of how it is the same technique as produced Dolly the Sheep, who died prematurely due to abnormalities induced by the cloning process.

The breakthrough is not aimed at making new human beings, however: the idea is to make ill human beings feel like new. First, take a cell from the patient and fuse it with a human egg cell that has had its genetic information removed. The egg then develops into a source of embryonic stem cells that can be turned into bone, blood, heart or liver tissue, or anything else that might be necessary for the patient’s return to health. Such tissues would not be rejected by the immune system, because they would be a perfect match for the patient’s biology.

Until now, the only hope of doing this has been to use chemicals to turn back the clock on a cell, so that it rewinds to the state where it could become any kind of tissue. This chemical approach, however, creates a high chance of inducing abnormalities that elevate the risk of subsequent problems – cancer, for instance.

Cancer comes naturally, too: it has been our constant companion throughout human history. However, this natural phenomenon also suffered a setback this month. The actress Angelina Jolie announced that she had undergone a double mastectomy to counter an inherited genetic fault (on chromosome 17, but there’s a related fault that can appear on chromosome 13) that would almost certainly give her breast cancer. There’s a very strong chance the surgery will have saved her from a premature death, and her courageous broadcasting of the news will put many other women on the path to saving themselves. Take that, nature.

A nucleus being injected from a micropipette into an enucleated oocyte. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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"They’re turning the frogs gay": The psychology behind internet conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories are appearing on both the political left and right. 

They’re turning the frogs gay.

If you have ever watched a video by the internet’s premier conspiracy theorist, Infowars’ Alex Jones, you will know that this is an undeniable fact. Chemicals in the water are turning the (frigging) frogs gay.

The blatant absurdity of this conspiracy theory (which scientist is perving on homosexual amphibians, anyway? Stop them) makes it one of the most widely mocked and memed of Jones’ outbursts. Yet despite the ridiculousness of the red-faced ranter, he has a large and vocal fan base that even includes the 45th president of the United States himself.

We seem to be living in an era where conspiracy theories are booming. From Hillary Clinton’s paedophile pizza parlour, to Russian hackers, Red Pillers, Obama's communist coup and Trump’s 4D Chess – the internet has been flooded with conspiracies from both the Left and Right. Dr Robert Bartholomew, a sociologist who specialises in mass delusions, believes that social media has exacerbated conspiracy culture.

“We now live in a niche world, making it easier for people to construct their own reality - a world as they want it to be, not as it is,” he says. “A person who believes that Obama wasn’t born in the US can just visit sites that reinforce his or her beliefs." Batholomew explains that because of the internet, conspiracies can be passed on “at the speed of light”, while other experts have noted that emotions can also spread online, in a process known as “emotional contagion”. 

Yet though social media helps conspiracies to spread, the psychology behind them is age-old.

“Conspiracy theories are a product of our psychology and our psychology doesn’t really change over time,” says Dr Robert Brotherton, author of Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories. “A certain proportion of people have always been receptive to conspiracy theories.” But who are these people – and what happens to make them fervently believe in gay frogs?

Brotherton emphasises that the psychological biases at work in conspiracy theorists’ minds are biases that we all possess to some extent. The “proportionality bias” means that if something big happens, we intuitively assume that something big must have caused it. Some of us can accept when this isn’t the case – when a lone gunman, for example, is responsible for assassinating the president from a grassy knoll – but others go looking for alternative explanations.

Humans also have a propensity to seek patterns, so we bend over backwards to connect unrelated facts (side note: why do the two psychologists thus far in this piece have remarkably similar names? Is there a psychologist Illuminati?).

“Confirmation bias” also means that we accept information that confirms our beliefs and ignore that which doesn’t. Once these biases lead someone towards a conspiracy theory, they might develop a “conspiracy worldview”, whereby everything becomes suspicious. Brotherton explains, for example, that after the Watergate scandal was exposed, conspiracy theorists weren't vindicated like you would expect - but instead believed that the official narrative was a cover-up and that Nixon was set up. 

A Pizzagate post on 4Chan, outlining alleged patterns and meanings

Yet though the psychology behind conspiracies is timeless, Brotherton does note that certain factors exacerbate our willingness to believe. And this credibility is not limited to right-wing Americans.

“One of the things I think that is most revealing is how quickly conspiracy fears have shifted to the Left, especially in the States, since the election,” he says. The night before the election, videos spread on right-wing social media profiles claiming to show that electronic voting machines were rigged to vote for Clinton. When Trump won, Democrats began to believe that Russians had hacked the voting machines in favour of Trump (though claims Russia manipulated the election are rooted in fact, there is no evidence they tampered with the actual count).

 

A Pizzagate meme

Brotherton explains that cognitive dissonance is to blame.  “In an election, if you voted for the losing candidate, that makes you feel kind of bad because it’s not what you wanted, and makes you look kind of silly, like why would you vote for the loser?"

The most obvious way to reason this out is to accept the candidate wasn't so good, and agree more with the other side.

"Obviously that’s not what happens at all," says Brotherton. Instead, he argues, we tend to go in the other direction. Instead of admitting that our candidate lost because they had flaws, we theorise about hacking and rigging in order to feel as though we were right all along.

A false claim about Donald Trump's administration

Yet conspiracy theories do continue to spread among the far right as well as the left, despite their electoral gains. Dr Mike Wood, a psychology lecturer and expert in the techniques used by conspiracy theorists online, explains that those with extreme political views might still be drawn towards conspiracy theories, even when they gain some power.

This is because their extreme position means they are still unlikely to get to accomplish what they want to do. "They have to rationalise that in some way," Wood says. "Often that leads to conspiracy theories.”

A Pizzagate meme

Alienation, a lack of control, and uncertainly are all facts that lead someone towards a conspiracy worldview, explains Wood. As he puts it: “basically conspiracy theories are a way to try and make sense of the world that in that moment doesn’t particularly make sense.” According to Wood, victims of social exclusion do tend to take conspiracy theories more seriously.

“If the world seems like a very random and kind of capricious place where things don’t particularly make sense and you can’t really control what's going on, that's when conspiracy theories are at their strongest," he says. Conspiracy theories "allege that things that are happening are basically controllable". 

It is hard to say whether any of this is at work in the mind of Conspirator-in-Chief Donald Trump. The President has previously spread information from Jones’ Infowars, most notably when he claimed three million votes in the election were cast illegally. “I won the popular vote,” he tweeted alongside this alleged fact, perhaps attempting to explain away his own cognitive dissonance. Yet whether or not Trump believes the conspiracies he spreads, the psychologists I speak agree on one thing. Having such a high-profile figure spreading conspiracies means they're not going away any time soon.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.