Sunday Linkasaurolophus: May 22, 2011

So, welcome back to Sunday Linkasaurolophus, the weekly feature where I point you towards things that I wish I had written. This week: Kate Harding, Dorothy Parvaz, and Tim Harford.

Kate Harding writes in the wake of the week’s news about Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dominique Strauss-Kahn. She eloquently makes the distinction between infidelity and sexual assault and takes the media to task not only for failing to understand this distinction, but for responding to the Strauss-Kahn allegations with a sanctimonious and hypocritical that-would-never-happen-here-in-America attitude. Highlights include:

There are certainly points of overlap between being a cad and being a criminal: An overblown sense of entitlement, an apparent lack of empathy for anyone you might hurt, an erection. But cheating on your wife is not a gateway drug to sexual assault. They are two different things, one of them a crime. If you’re a journalist, please take a moment now to repeat that to yourself a few times.

And then please consider this: A man who’s known for grabbing women’s breasts and asses without their consent (a crime) is not just some amusing, slightly pathetic Pepe Le Pew cartoon until the day someone accuses him of non-consensual penetration. He was actually already a sexual predator! And yet, inevitably, as soon as someone does accuse him of rape, friends who are familiar with his history of non-consensual groping will rush to tell the press that the accusations are absurd, insulting, inconceivable! Sure, everyone knew the lion liked to chase gazelles and pin them down and bat them around a bit for fun, but he would never eat one. That’s just not in his nature.

Do you see the difference? One guy treats women rather shabbily, and he should be ashamed of himself. The other guy treats women like inanimate objects he is entitled to do whatever the fuck he wants to, and he should be ashamed of himself and also held legally responsible for his crimes. The line between the two is really not all that fine or blurry, you guys! It’s actually pretty recognizable!

Dorothy Parvaz, a reporter for Al Jazeera recounted her experiences of being detained and interrogated, first in Syria, then in Iran. She was missing for a total of nineteen days.

One afternoon, the beating we heard was so severe that we could clearly hear the interrogator pummelling his boots and fists into his subject, almost in a trance, yelling questions or accusations rhythmically as the blows landed in what sounded like the prisoner’s midriff.

My roommate shook and wept, reminding me (or perhaps herself) that they didn’t beat women here.

There was a brief break before the beating resumed, and my first impulse was to cover my ears, but then I thought, “If this man is crying, shouldn’t someone hear him?”

Tim Harford has provided a couple of excerpts from his new book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, over at Slate. The book is about how critical it is for us to support creative, innovative, and even radical ideas. The first excerpt is about the push for innovation in the Royal Air Force that led to the creation of the Spitfire, the fighter plane that played a critical role in holding off the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain, thereby saving Britain from invasion and, arguably, saving the world.

When we invest money now in the hope of payoffs later, we think in terms of a return on our investment—a few percent in a savings account, perhaps, or a higher but riskier reward from the stock market. What was the return on Henry Cave-Browne-Cave’s investment of 10,000 pounds? Four hundred and thirty thousand people saved from the gas chambers, and denying Adolf Hitler the atomic bomb. The most calculating economist would hesitate to put a price on that.

Return on investment is simply not a useful way of thinking about new ideas and new technologies. It is impossible to estimate a percentage return on blue-sky research, and it is delusional even to try. Most new technologies fail completely. Most original ideas turn out either to be not original after all, or original for the very good reason that they are useless. And when an original idea does work, the returns can be too high to be sensibly measured. . . .

. . . . It would be reassuring to think of new technology as something we can plan. And sometimes, it’s true, we can: the Manhattan Project did successfully build the atomic bomb; John F. Kennedy promised to put a man on the Moon inside a decade, and his promise was kept. But these examples are memorable in part because they are unusual. It is comforting to hear a research scientist, corporation, or government technocrat tell us that our energy problems will soon be solved by some specific new technology: a new generation of hydrogen-powered cars, maybe, or biofuels from algae, or cheap solar panels made from new plastics. But the idea that we can actually predict which technologies will flourish flies in the face of all the evidence. The truth is far messier and more difficult to manage.

The second excerpt is about risk-taking in science, where he notes the importance of funding both safe, incremental research AND risky, blue-sky research. The problem is that the bureaucratic nature of agencies like the NIH and NSF means that they excel at the former, but fail at the latter.

Here’s the thing about failure in innovation: It’s a price worth paying. We don’t expect every lottery ticket to pay a prize, but if we want any chance of winning that prize, then we buy a ticket. In the statistical jargon, the pattern of innovative returns is heavily skewed to the upside; that means a lot of small failures and a few gigantic successes. The NIH’s more risk-averse approach misses out on many ideas that matter. . . .

. . . . We need bureaucrats to model themselves on the chief of Britain’s air staff in the 1930s: “firms are reluctant to risk their money on highly speculative ventures of novel design. If we are to get serious attempts at novel types … we shall have to provide the incentive.” That is the sort of attitude that produces new ideas that matter.

And here’s what you missed at Darwin Eats Cake this week. Eleonora and Handy Andy discussed the implications of new research showing parallels between neurological disorders and economic instability in The Economic Brain. And, Todd presented a guide to whether or not you should be reading the webcomic Darwin Eats Cake, based on your opinions on Tom the Dancing Bug, xkcd, and the Onion in Who should read Darwin Eats Cake?

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