An authoritative answer to the coffee/health question

November 16th, 2015

A question may be difficult (or impossible) to really answer, but that difficulty does not prevent authoritative people from supplying authoritative answers.

A November 16, 2015 press release brews up a new authoritative answer to the question “Is drinking coffee good or bad for your health”:

Moderate coffee drinking may lower risk of premature death

Boston, MA – People who drink about three to five cups of coffee a day may be less likely to die prematurely from some illnesses than those who don’t drink or drink less coffee, according to a new study by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health researchers and colleagues….

“Bioactive compounds in coffee reduce insulin resistance and systematic inflammation,” said first author Ming Ding, a doctoral student in the Department of Nutrition. “That could explain some of our findings. However, more studies are needed to investigate the biological mechanisms producing these effects.”

HuThe study is: “Association of Coffee Consumption with Total and Cause-specific Mortality in Three Large Prospective Cohorts,” Ming Ding, Ambika Satija, Shilpa N. Bhupathiraju, Yang Hu, Qi Sun, Walter Willett, Rob M. van Dam, Frank B. Hu [pictured here], Circulation, online November 16, 2015.

The authors and their institution made a video to inform the public that the coffee question has now been answered:

BONUS ACTIVITY: Read the entire press release, and also the entire study. Count the number of times you see the words “may” or “could“.

BONUS BONUS ACTIVITY: Read several press accounts of this study. For each press account, count the number of times you see the words “may” or “could“. Perhaps begin with these two news reports: “Drink up, coffee’s good for you. (Even decaf!)” and “Coffee could literally be a lifesaver“.

EXTRA BONUS BONUS ACTIVITY, FOR EXTREMELY NERDY READERS ONLY: In the space of one minute (60 seconds), list five reasons why it is difficult or impossible to find the real answer to the question “Is drinking coffee good or bad for your health?”

Algorithm predicts winner of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election

November 16th, 2015

In predicting the winner of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Eric Schulman and Daniel Debowy again demonstrate the power of statistics — and demonstrate that the power of statistics can be divorced from other qualities of statistics. They created an algorithm (in other words: a mathematical recipe) that accurately, thoughtlessly produces a possibly-meaningless prediction that’s based entirely on genuine facts.

Schulman and Debowy have prepared a new study, called “WHO WILL WIN THE 2016 U.S. PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION?” They have also created a related Facebook page, for everyone who would like to analyze or bloviate.


Here are key snippets of the new study:

The Annals of Improbable Research U.S. Presidential Election Algorithm (Debowy and Schulman 2003) correctly predicted the outcome of the 2004, 2008, and 2012 United States presidential elections. Now that the 2016 campaign for U.S. President has officially started, we apply our proven algorithm to 22 potential Republican candidates and 14 potential Democratic candidates for this election.

ABSTRACT. Our 2003 algorithm for determining the winners of United States presidential elections correctly ascertained the winner of each of the 56 U.S. presidential elections between 1789 and 2000 and correctly predicted the winners of the 2004, 2008, and 2012 U.S. presidential elections. In this paper we apply the algorithm to 22 potential Republican candidates and 14 potential Democratic candidates for the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The Republican candidate with the highest presidential electability is James R. Perry, who suspended his campaign on September 11, 2015. Two Democratic candidates are tied with the highest electability: Lincoln D. Chafee, who ended his campaign on October 23, 2015, and Edmund G. Brown, Jr., who has not declared that he is running.

Personal space gauges (one’s arms)

November 16th, 2015

Arm-LengthMuch has been written about the concept of ‘proxemics‘ and the notional invisible bubble that can be used to depict one’s ‘personal space’. But how big is the bubble? And is there a simple and reliable way to measure it? Italian researchers Nicola Bruno (Dipartimento di Neuroscienze, Unità di Psicologia, Università di Parma) and Michela Muzzolini (Dipartimento di Scienze della Vita, Unità di Psicologia ‘Gaetano Kaniza’, Trieste) suggest that there might be. The length of one’s arms. In what is believed to be the first experimental study to assess the effect of body size on proxemic personal space, the team found that :

“In same-­sex interactions, personal distance was modulated by arms length, independently of sex. The longer the arms of the participant, the larger the distance in both men and women. “

And/but with a previously undiscovered twist:

“In different-­sex interactions, however, personal distance was modulated by the similarity of participant and confederate arm length. Both men and women participants kept at closer distances when their arms were more similar to their confederate’s arms, and at longer distances when they were more different.”

See: ‘Proxemics Revisited: Similar Effects of Arms Length on
Men’s and Women’s Personal Distances’ Universal Journal of Psychology, 1(2): 46-­52.

Discovery: The park bench

November 15th, 2015

A discovery about park benches leaps from a press release from the University of Sheffield:

Researchers in the University’s Department of Landscape and the London-based think tank, found that sitting on benches allows people to spend longer outside

The press release goes on to explain that this property of benches  “is both beneficial for mental health and allows people to connect with others in their community.” Further details of the research appear in a study called “Benches for everyone,” by Radhika Bynon and Clare Rishbeth, published by The Young Foundation.


Here’s a snippet from that paper:

Fitz, a teenager, sitting up on the back of the benches with his friends said “if you spent longer than a week in Woolwich, yeah, you would see so much stuff, you’d just see everything”. By observing difference in this way, people spoke about how they develop an awareness of a broader range of behaviours and activities, helping to engender greater tolerance. This high-density location also plays host to a wide network of ‘loose ties’, flexibly accommodating the churn of neighbourhood population change, and allowing participation and a sense of belonging without making demands.

(Thanks to investigator John Pullin for bringing this to our attention.)

What is stupid(ity)?

November 13th, 2015

Despite many decades (or some might say centuries) of concerted scholarly effort towards answering the question ‘What is intelligence?’ there still isn’t an answer that everyone can agree on. Perhaps then, the time has come to tackle the problem from another direction and ask instead ‘What is stupid(ity)?’ ?


A team of researchers from the Institute of Psychology, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest,  Hungary and the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, Baylor University, Waco, US, ask, and attempt to answer, just such a question in the Nov-Dec 2015 issue of the scholarly journal Intelligence, see: ‘What is stupid?: People’s conception of unintelligent behavior’.

Lead researcher Dr Balázs Aczél [pictured] and colleagues asked experimental balazsaczelparticipants to fill in questionnaires and rate stories retrieved from popular internet sources found via searches of “stupid thing to”, “stupidity”, “it was stupid of”, “it was very stupid” and “stupid”. As a result of their analyses, the team conclude that

“[…] people use the label stupid for three separate types of situation: (1) violations of maintaining a balance between confidence and abilities; (2) failures of attention; and (3) lack of control. The level of observed stupidity was always amplified by higher responsibility being attributed to the actor and by the severity of the consequences of the action. These results bring us closer to understanding people’s conception of unintelligent behavior while emphasizing the broader psychological perspectives of studying the attribute of stupid in everyday life.”

But sadly, those hoping for a firm and succinct definition of the concept won’t find one here, and, (bearing in mind the comparative scarcity of stupidity research to date) the team note :

“As a first empirical exploration of this topic, this study naturally comes with a number of limitations and opens several questions to be answered. Since we collected stories from popular internet websites and only used local raters, it remains unanswered how much is the concept of stupid and to what extent are the monitoring functions culturally specific.”

A full copy of the paper may be found here.

Further explorations:

▪ Organization Studies and Stupidity

▪ Stupid stories and subsequent stupidity

▪ Stupidity – special issues

Bonus: Paul Sandby’s Coelum ipsum petimus stultitia, a giant exploding balloon; 1784