Not so new: K-pop band Big Bang perform in Seoul, March 2012. (Photo: Getty)
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The Big Bang theory is not as modern as you think

We have fooled ourselves into thinking that modern science began with Newton but Grosseteste wrote his treatise in 1225.

The first principle of science, the physicist Richard Feynman once said, is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool. This month, two very different publications illustrated the importance of Feynman’s point.

The first was a report by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) called Engineering Our Future. This repeated the common complaint that Britain faces a future skills crunch and needs to train more scientists, engineers and mathematicians.

It is ironic that anyone should have to point out the law of supply and demand to the CBI, which seems to have fooled itself into thinking that government-subsidised training is the answer. The reality is that young people aren’t tempted by poorly paid, unrewarding positions. If filling these roles matters so much, making wages in the sector more competitive would surely be more effective (though it might hurt profits).

The second report, which was far more interesting, illustrated why we should let students study whatever they find engaging. It came from a project, based at Durham University, analysing the writings of Bishop Robert Grosseteste.

Grosseteste wrote the treatise De Luce (“on light”) in 1225. It seems to be the first attempt to apply a set of laws – the laws of physics – to describe the structure of the known universe. Grosseteste postulated, centuries before Newton, that light’s interaction with matter is central to giving substance to things and he used sophisticated (for his time) mathematical arguments to describe how light fills space. He didn’t stop there: he went on to apply his theories to the creation of the universe.

Grosseteste suggested that an explosion of primordial light caused the universe to expand into a huge sphere, with the expansion gradually reducing the density of matter in the universe. As the Durham scholars have pointed out, it seems that the basic elements of our cherished Big Bang theory have been around for almost eight centuries.

Analysing Grosseteste’s work required collaboration between Latinists, philologists, medieval historians, physicists and cosmologists – illustrating that science training is not the only source of intellectual progress.

Furthermore, the project demonstrated how effectively we have fooled ourselves into thinking that modern science began with Newton. On the contrary, even through the so-called Dark Ages, human beings have always been inquisitive, deductive and skilled at using their observational powers to advance their understanding of nature and science.

The project highlighted the value of intellectual curiosity and creative flair. These may even be more valuable than scientific training. Looking back to the CBI report, perhaps we don’t need more science-themed education but a drive for schools to nurture “soft skills” such as critical thinking and collaboration alongside pupils’ formal training. Then, wherever students end up, they will thrive.

The CBI has also convinced itself that Britain’s prosperity lies in tempting people into narrow science and technology careers. Yet the best opportunities often come when disciplines are crossed.

Take the British film industry. Here we have artists, scientists, programmers and cinematographers working together to create something that reflects our humanity – and producing multimillion-pound profits, too.

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 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

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Did your personality determine whether you voted for Brexit? Research suggests so

The Online Privacy Foundation found Leave voters were significantly more likely to be authoritarian and conscientious. 

"Before referendum day, I said the winners would be those who told the most convincing lies," Paul Flynn, a Labour MP, wrote in these pages. "Leave did." The idea that those who voted for Brexit were somehow manipulated is widely accepted by the Remain camp. The Leave campaign, so the argument goes, played on voters' fears and exploited their low numeracy. And new research from the Online Privacy Foundation suggests this argument may, in part at least, be right. 

Over the last 18 months the organisation have researched differences in personality traits, levels of authoritarianism, numeracy, thinking styles and cognitive biases between EU referendum voters. The organisation conducted a series of studies, capturing over 11,000 responses to self-report psychology questionnaires and controlled experiments, with the final results scheduled to be presented at the International Conference on Political Psychology in Copenhagen in October 2017.

The researchers questioned voters using the "Five Factor Model" which consists of five broad personality traits - Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. They also considered the disposition of authoritarianism (it is not considered a personality trait). Authoritarians have a more black and white view of the world around them, are more concerned with the upkeep of established societal traditions and have a tendency to be less accepting of outsiders. 

So what did they uncover? Participants expressing an intent to vote to leave the EU reported significantly higher levels of authoritarianism and conscientiousness, and lower levels of openness and neuroticism than voters expressing an intent to vote to remain. (Conscientiousness is associated with dependability, dutifulness, focus and adherence to societal norms in contrast to disorganisation, carelessness and impulsivity.)

Immigration in particular seems to have affected voting. While authoritarians were much more likely to vote Leave to begin with, those who were less authoritarian became increasingly likely to vote Leave if they expressed high levels of concern over immigration. These findings chime with research by the Professors Marc Hetherington and Elizabeth Suhay, which found that Americans became susceptible to "authoritarian thinking" when they perceived a grave threat to their safety. 

Then there's what you might call the £350m question - did Leave voters know what they were voting for? When the Online Privacy Foundation researchers compared Leave voters with Remain voters, they displayed significantly lower levels of numeracy, reasoning and appeared more impulsive. In all three areas, older voters performed significantly worse than young voters intending to vote the same way.

Even when voters were able to interpret statistics, their ability to do so could be overcome by partisanship. In one striking study, when voters were asked to interpret statistics about whether a skin cream increases or decreases a rash, they were able to interpret them correctly roughly 57 per cent of the time. But when voters were asked to interpret the same set of statistics, but told they were about whether immigration increases or decreases crime, something disturbing happened. 

If the statistics didn't support a voter's view, their ability to correctly interpret the numbers dropped, in some cases, by almost a half. 

Before Remoaners start to crow, this study is not an affirmation that "I'm smart, you're dumb". Further research could be done, for example, on the role of age and education (young graduates were far more likely to vote Remain). But in the meantime, there is a question that needs to be answered - are political campaigners deliberately exploiting these personality traits? 

Chris Sumner, from the Online Privacy Foundation, warns that in the era of Big Data, clues about our personalities are collected online: "In the era of Big Data, these clues are aggregated, transformed and sold by a burgeoning industry."

Indeed, Cambridge Analytica, a data company associated with the political right in the UK and US, states on its website that it can "more effectively engage and persuade voters using specially tailored language and visual ad combinations crafted with insights gleaned from behavioral understandings of your electorate". It will do so through a "blend of big data analytics and behavioural psychology". 

"Given the differences observed between Leave and Remain voters, and irrespective of which campaign, it is reasonable to hypothesize that industrial-scale psychographic profiling would have been a highly effective strategy," Sumner says. By identifying voters with different personalities and attitudes, such campaigns could target "the most persuadable voters with messages most likely to influence their vote". Indeed, in research yet to be published, the Online Privacy Foundation targeted groups with differing attitudes to civil liberties based on psychographic indicators associated with authoritarianism. The findings, says Sumner, illustrate "the ease with which individuals' inherent differences could be exploited". 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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