Arrogant Mathematician Publicly Shames Her Psychology-Studying Boyfriend, Gets What She Deserves

Quora can be an awesome resource, a place where rational, intelligent people come together to have in-depth discussions about important and stimulating topics. However, like anywhere else on the web, it has it’s fair share of pretentious and arrogant contributors who can’t seem to get over themselves, like this “budding mathematician” for example.

The poor woman, obviously doing the superior science, found herself stuck with a boyfriend studying something as lowly as psychology, the science of the human mind and behavior. “I’m planning to be a mathematician and I can’t take his interest seriously,” she wailed. “It’s a joke compared to mine. We have chemistry but his profession/interest in that pop junk is annoying. I prefer intellectual discussions not junk talk.”

Now, whether this was a genuine post, or just a wind-up trying to get a reaction is open to question, but get a reaction it did, in the form of a glorious put down. Using pinpoint logic to defend the complexity and importance of psychology in relation to mathematics, the response eloquently describes the OP’s shortcomings, while suggesting that her psychologist boyfriend could find her as a useful subject for study, if nothing else.

She will no doubt learn, with time, to respect others choices and passions in life, even if they are different to her own. But for now, such a superior attitude is probably not going to stand this student in good stead for the duration of her studies, or her love life for that matter. Scroll down below to read how it unfolded for yourself, as well as see how others reacted to the post. What do you think? Let us know in the comments!

A “budding mathematician” took to Quora to share her embarrassment at her boyfriend’s choice of study, psychology

Image credits: Ion Chibzii

Here’s what answer she got

People were quick to react to the story

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A revolution in our sense of self | Nick Chater

Psychologists have tried to plumb the depths of human motivation to make sense of our behaviour. But our inner mental world is a fiction, sustained by constant improvisation

At the climax of Anna Karenina, the heroine throws herself under a train as it moves out of a station on the edge of Moscow. But did she really want to die? Had the ennui of Russian aristocratic life and the fear of losing her lover, Vronsky, become so intolerable that death seemed the only escape? Or was her final act mere capriciousness, a theatrical gesture of despair, not seriously imagined even moments before the opportunity arose?

We ask such questions, but can they possibly have answers? If Tolstoy says that Anna has dark hair, then Anna has dark hair. But if Tolstoy doesnt tell us why Anna jumped to her death, then Annas motives are surely a void. We can attempt to fill this void with our own interpretations and debate their plausibility. But there is no hidden truth about what Anna really wanted, because, of course, Anna is a fictional character.

Suppose instead that Anna were a historical figure and Tolstoys masterpiece a journalistic reconstruction. Now Annas motivation becomes a matter of history, rather than a literary interpretation. Yet our method of inquiry remains the same: the very same text would now be viewed as providing (perhaps unreliable) clues about the mental state of a real person, not a fictional character. Historians, rather than literary scholars, might debate competing interpretations.

Now imagine that we could ask Anna herself. Suppose the great train slammed on its brakes just in time. Anna, apparently mortally injured, is conveyed in anonymity to a Moscow hospital and, against the odds, pulls through. We catch up with Anna convalescing in a Swiss sanatorium. But, as likely as not, Anna will be as unsure as anyone else about her true motivations. After all, she too has to engage in a process of interpretation as she attempts to account for her behaviour. To be sure, she may have data unavailable to an outsider she may, for example, remember the despairing words Vronsky has left me forever running through her mind as she approached the edge of the platform. However, any such advantage may be more than outweighed by the distorting lens of self-perception. In truth, autobiography always deserves a measure ofscepticism.

What motivates Anna to take her own life? Keira Knightley in Anna Karenina, directed by Joe Wright. Photograph: Universal Pictures/Sportsphoto/Allstar

There are two opposing conclusions that one might draw from this vignette. One is that our minds have dark and unfathomable hidden depths. From this viewpoint, we cannot expect people to look reliably within themselves and compile a complete and true account of their beliefs and motives. Psychologists, psychiatrists and neuroscientists have long debated how best to plumb the deep waters of human motivation. Word associations, the interpretation of dreams, hours of intensive psychotherapy, behavioural experiments, physiological recordings and brain imaging have been popular options.

I believe, though, that our reflections should lead us to a different conclusion: that the interpretation of real people is no different from the interpretation of fictionalcharacters. If Tolstoys novel had been reportage, and Anna a living, breathing member of the 19th-century Russian aristocracy, then, of course, there would be a truth about whether Anna was born on a Tuesday. But, I argue, there would still be no truths about the real Annas motives. No amount of therapy, dream analysis, word association, experiment or brain scanning can recover a persons true motives, not because they are difficult to find, but because there is nothing to find.

Evidence of a hoax

This is not a conclusion I have come to lightly. As a psychologist, I want to understand how people think and decide. It would be awfully convenient if the rich stories we tell about our own thoughts were at least roughly on the right track; if they just needed to be tidied, pruned and generally knocked into shape to get a true picture. It would be convenient, but utterly wrong. The weight of evidence against the reality of mental depth is simply overwhelming. Having resisted the evidence for years, Ive finally admitted defeat.

Now you see it: the 12 dots illusion. Photograph: Jacques Ninio

Perception provides some ominous clues. Consider Jacques Ninios wonderful 12 dots illusion. Twelve black dots are arranged in three rows of four dots each. The dots are large enough to be seen clearly and simultaneously against a white background. But when arranged on the grid, they seem only to appear when you are paying attention to them. Dots we are not attending to are somehow swallowed up into the diagonal grey lines. Interestingly, we can pay attention to adjacent pairs of dots, to lines of dots, to triangles and even squares although these are highly unstable. But our attention is in short supply and, where we are not attending, the dots disappear.

Remarkably, the limits of attention apply just as well as we scan our everyday environment: we can attend to just one object at a time the other objects are effectively invisible. Our sense that we can grasp the entire visual world in full detail and colour is, then, a hoax. Instead, we see through a remarkably narrow window of attention, grasping just one object, word or face at a time. But the hoax is sustained because, as soon as we wonder about, say, the colour of a vase or the identity of a word, our eyes and our attention can, almost instantly, flick into action, lock on the target and answer our question. And the answer is created so fluently that we imagine that it was there all along.

By extension, then, we may begin to doubt our phenomenology of a rich inner world, teeming with ideas and feelings. Indeed, it turns out that here, too, our brains have been inventing wildly. To pick one particularly striking example, let us consider the remarkable classic studies of cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga on patients with split brains, whose left and right brain hemispheres have been surgicallysevered.

Our brains have crossover wiring: the left hemisphere sees the right half of the visual world and controls the right hand, and vice versa. So this means that, for split-brain patients, the right and left hemispheres can be shown entirely different stimuli and make wholly independent responses. In a famous demonstration, Gazzaniga shows a snowy scene to the right hemisphere and a chickens foot to the left. The right hemisphere has to find a picture that matches what it sees (the snowy scene) and naturally enough chooses a picture of a shovel (with the left hand). How does the left hemisphere (the seat of language) explain this choice? It should be baffled, because it knows nothing about the real cause of the right hemispheres choice, because it cant see the snowy scene. Yet, quick as a flash, it has a ready answer: the chickens foot is associated with a chicken and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed. Elegant, but entirely wrong.

Our language system is continually generating a flow of plausible-sounding explanations of the reasons behind our actions but, suspiciously, the flow continues with the same speed and confidence when our language system cannot possibly know the truth. And it continues without balking. It was confabulating all along.

Our inner, mental world is a work of the imagination. We invent interpretations of ourselves and other people in the flow of experience, just as we conjure up those of fictional characters from a flow of written text. Returning to Anna, we can wonder whether she despaired primarily of her precipitous social fall, the future of her son or the meaninglessness of aristocratic life, rather than being tormented by love. There is no ground truth about the right interpretation, though some are more compelling and better evidenced in Tolstoys text than others. But Tolstoy, the journalist, would have nothing more than interpretations of the real Annas behaviour; she could only venture one more interpretation of her own behaviour.

The unfolding of a life is not so different to that of a novel. We generate our beliefs, values and actions in the moment. Thoughts, like fiction, come into existence in the instant that they are invented and not a moment before. The sense that behaviour is merely the surface of a vast sea, immeasurably deep and teeming with inner motives, beliefs and desires is a conjuring trick played by our own minds. The truth is not that the depths are empty, or even shallow, but that the mind is flat: the surface is all there is.

The improvised mind has an answer for everything. Each choice, preference or belief small and large can, when challenged, yield an easy flow of rationalisation. Why this sofa? Why Bach, not Brahms? Why this choice of career? Why children or not? Why evolution, not creationism? How does a bicycle work, or a violin, or a currency? And each justification can be buttressed with further justifications, caveats and clarifications, and each of these be defended further, seemingly without end. Our creative powers are so great, and so effortless, that we can fancy we must be consulting an inner oracle, which can look up preformed answers to eachquestion.

Bach or Brahms? The improvised mind can justify any preference. Photograph: Stock Montage/Getty Images

One crucial clue that the inner oracle is an illusion comes, on closer analysis, from the fact that our explanations are less than watertight. Indeed, they are systematically and spectacularly leaky. Now it is hardly controversial that our thoughts seem fragmentary and contradictory. I cant quite tell you how a fridge works or how electricity flows around the house. I continually fall into confusion and contradiction when struggling to explain rules of English grammar, how quantitative easing works or the difference between a fruit and a vegetable.

But cant the gaps be filled in and the contradictions somehow resolved? The only way to find out is to try. And try we have. Two thousand years of philosophy have been devoted to the problem of clarifying many of our commonsense ideas: causality, the good, space, time, knowledge, mind and many more; clarity has, needless to say, not been achieved. Moreover, science and mathematics began with our commonsense ideas, but ended up having to distort them so drastically whether discussing heat, weight, force, energy and many more that they were refashioned into entirely new, sophisticated concepts, with often counterintuitive consequences. This is one reason why real physics took centuries to discover and presents a fresh challenge to each generation of students.

Philosophers and scientists have found that beliefs, desires and similar every-day psychological concepts turn out to be especially puzzling and confused. We project them liberally: we say that ants know where the food is and want to bring it back to the nest; cows believe it is about rain; Tamagotchis want to be fed; autocomplete thinks I meant to type gristle when I really wanted grist. We project beliefs and desires just as wildly on ourselves and others; since Freud, we even create multiple inner selves (id, ego, superego), each with its own motives and agendas. But such rationalisations are never more than convenient fictions. Indeed, psychoanalysis is projection at its apogee: stories of greatest possible complexity can be spun from the barest fragments of behaviours or snippets of dreams.

An experiment in artificialintelligence

Yet perhaps our thoughts and actions may be guided by commonsense theories that, though different from scientific theories, could be coherent nonetheless. This is a seductive idea. Starting in the 1950s, decades of intellectual effort were poured into a particularly sophisticated and concerted attempt to crystallise some of our commonsense theories. The goal was to systematise and organise human thought to replicate it and create machines that think like people.

Early attempts to create artificial intelligence followed this approach. Hopes were high. Over successive decades, leading researchers forecast that human-level intelligence would be achieved within 20 to 30 years. By the 1970s, serious doubts began to set in. By the 1980s, the programme of mining and systematising knowledge started to grind to a halt. Indeed, the project of coaxing the theories from our inner oracle failed in a particularly instructive way. Drawing out the knowledge, beliefs, motives and so on that underpinned peoples behaviour turned out to be hopelessly difficult.

Chess grandmasters, it turns out, cant really explain how they play chess, doctors cant explain how they diagnose patients and none of us can remotely explain how we understand the everyday world of people and objects. What we say sounds like explanation but really it is a barely coherent jumble. Perhaps the single most important discovery from the first decades of artificial intelligence is just how profound and irremediable this problem is.

Intelligence not required: a car assembled by robots at Jaguar Land Rover. Photograph: Matt Crossick/Empics

The project of modelling artificial on human intelligence has since been quietly abandoned. Instead, over recent decades, AI researchers have made advances by building machines that learn not from people but from direct confrontation with huge quantities of data: images, speech waves, linguistic corpora, chess games and so on. Much of AI has mutated into a distinct but related field: machine learning. This has been possible because of advances on a number of fronts: computers have become faster, data-sets larger and learning methods cleverer. But at no stage have human beliefs been mined or commonsense theories reconstructed.

The spectacular improvisation of the human mind is, I believe, the core of human intelligence and the ability that allows us to deal so successfully with the complex, open-ended challenges thrown at us by our physical environment and the social world. AI and robotics have succeeded precisely where those improvisational abilities are not required: in the pristine worlds of chess, Go and car assembly plants, for example. Dont be fooled: the rise of the robots is no more than super-sophisticated automation. The amazing creativity of your brain, as it helps us improvise our way through daily life, wont be replicated in silicon in the near future, perhaps never.

Inventing our future selves

Dont despair. This does not mean there isnt something we can define as a self. Our brains are relentless and compelling improvisers, creating the mind, moment by moment. But, as with any improvisation, in dance, music or storytelling, each fresh thought is not created out of nothing, but built from the fragments of past improvisations. So each of us is a unique history, together with a wonderfully creative machine for redeploying that history to create new perceptions, thoughts, emotions and stories. The layering of that history makes some patterns of thought natural for us, others awkward or uncomfortable. While drawing on our past, we are continually reinventing ourselves, and by directing that reinvention, we can shape who we are and who we will become.

So we are not driven by hidden, inexorable forces from a dark and subterranean mental world. Instead, our thoughts and actions are transformations of past thoughts and actions and we often have considerable latitude, a certain judicial discretion, regarding which precedents we consider, which transformations we allow. As todays thought or action are tomorrows precedents, we are reshaping ourselves, moment by moment.

This viewpoint contradicts the Freudian inner depths, but it meshes naturally with the cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for which there is the best clinical backing. Reshaping our thoughts and actions is hard and requires establishing new patterns of thought and behaviour that overwrite the old opening up productive channels along which our thoughts may more happily and productively flow. CBT aims to do precisely this: to establish new behaviours (to approach, rather than avoid, a phobic object) and thoughts (shifting thoughts away from negative ruminations) and to create new precedents that may, slowly, come to dominate the old. Therapies of all kinds can help us rewrite the story of our past, to create traditions of thought and action that more constructively address the future. What therapy does not, and cannot do, is to reveal pathologies lurking in our innermost depths not because those depths are murky, but because they are nonexistent.

This is all very well, you may say. But surely we need beliefs and motives to explain why our thoughts and behaviour make sense, rather than being a completely incoherent jumble. Surely there are crucial inner facts about us, large and small, that set the course of our actions: the things we value, the ideals we believe in, the passions that move us. But if the mind is flat, despite the stories we tell about ourselves and each other, beliefs and motives cannot be driving our behaviour because they are a projection rather than a reality.

But layers of precedents the successive adaptation and transformation of previous thoughts and actions to create new thoughts and actions can provide a different, and more compelling, explanation for the orderly (and, on occasions, the disorderly) nature of thought. In particular, our culture can be viewed as a shared canon of precedents things we do, want, say, or think that create order in society as well as within each individual.

By laying down new precedents, we incrementally and collectively create our culture, but our new precedents are based on old, shared precedents, so that our culture also creates us. Considered in isolation, our selves turn out to be partial, fragmentary and alarmingly fragile; we are only the most lightly sketched of literary creations. Yet, collectively, we can construct lives, organisations and societies, which can be remarkably stable and coherent.

This is, I believe, a liberating thought. We are not driven by hidden motives, bound by unconscious forces or hopelessly imprisoned by our past. Each new thought and action is a chance to reshape ourselves, if only slightly. Our freedom has its limits, of course. Amateur saxophonists cant freely choose to play like Charlie Parker, new learners of English cant spontaneously emulate Sylvia Plath and physics students cant spontaneously reason like Albert Einstein.

Freedom has its limits: we cant choose to play like Charlie Parker. Photograph: Hulton Getty

New actions, skills and thoughts require building a rich, deep mental tradition; there is no shortcut to the thousands of hours needed to lay down the traces on which expertise is based. Each of us is a unique tradition from which our new thoughts and actions are created. So each of us will play music, write and think in our own way. Yet the same points arise in our everyday lives, our fears and worries, our sometimes bumpy interactions with other people. Our freedom consists not in the ability to transform ourselves magically in a single jump, but to reshape our thoughts and behaviours, one step at a time. Our current thoughts and actions are continually, if slowly, reprogramming our minds.

Does this viewpoint imply that we are blank slates, on which any mental patterns can be written? Not at all. Musical traditions build on the rhythmic pattern generators in our nervous systems, the way our brain groups sounds as voices and much more. Linguistic traditions are shaped by our vocal apparatus, how our brains generate and recognise complex sequences and so on. Human music and language can take many forms but not any form. Traditions of thought are no different; they, too, will be profoundly shaped by the biases and predilections of our brains and our genes.

So our thoughts and behaviour are influenced by, but not determined by, biology; and neither are we hemmed in by occult psychic forces within us. Any prisons of thought are of our own invention and can be dismantled just as they have been constructed. If the mind is flat if we imagine our minds, lives and culture we have the power to imagine an inspiring future and to make it real.

Nick Chater is the author of The Mind Is Flat (Allen Lane) and professor of behavioural science at Warwick Business School and co-founder of Decision Technology Ltd.

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Why do we see so many different things in Rorschach ink blots?

Devised as a method of psychiatric assessment over a century ago, the reason people see so many shapes and figures in the blots may finally be explained

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Here’s just how early gender stereotypes start to affect kids

Image: Christopher Mineses/mashable

Who is “really, really smart?” Boys or girls?

A new study found that young U.S. girls are less likely than boys to believe their own gender is the most brilliant.

While all 5-year-olds tended to believe that members of their own gender were geniuses, by age 6 that preference had diminished for girls a difference the researchers attributed to the influence of gender stereotypes.

“We found it surprising, and also very heartbreaking, that even kids at such a young age have learned these stereotypes,” said Lin Bian, the study’s co-author and a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

A girl looks through a microscope during the 2016 Russian Festival of Science in Moscow.

Image: Vladimir Trefilov/Sputnik via AP

“It’s possible that in the long run, the stereotypes will push young women away from the jobs that are perceived as requiring brilliance, like being a scientist or an engineer,” she told Mashable.

A growing field

The study, published Thursday in the journal Science, builds on a growing body of research that suggests gender stereotypes can shape children’s interest and career ambitions at a young age.

A global study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that girls “lack self-confidence” in their ability to solve math and science problems and thus score worse than they would otherwise, which discourages them from pursuing science, engineering, technology and mathematics (STEM) fields.

A 2016 study suggested a “masculine culture” in computer science and engineering makes girls feel like they don’t belong.

Students work on a Youth Media project at a STEM-focused public school in Astoria, New York.

Image: AP Photo/The Christian Science Monitor, Ann Hermes

Thursday’s research looks not at specific skills but at the broader concept of high-level intellectual abilities. In short, can girls be geniuses, too?

Sapna Cheryan, a psychology professor at the University of Washington who was not involved in the study, said the results were “super important” because they’re among the first to show us how young children not adults or high-schoolers respond to gender stereotypes.

But she said the findings are just as revealing for young boys as for girls.

“It’s not that girls are underestimating their own gender it’s that boys are overestimating themselves,” she told Mashable. Cheryan was the lead author of last year’s masculine culture study.

What we want as a society is for people to say boys and girls are equal,” she added.

Stereotyping starts early

Andrei Cimpian, a co-author of Thursday’s study, said his earlier research with adults showed that the fields people associate with requiring a high level of smarts also tend to be overwhelmingly represented by men.

“Across the board, the more that people in a field believe you need to be brilliant, the fewer women you see in the field,” Cimpian, an associate professor of psychology at New York University, told Mashable.

This same idea burrows itself into our brains as children, the study suggests.

Researchers worked with 400 children ages 5, 6 and 7 in a series of four experiments for the new study. (Not every child participated in every experiment for the study.)

In the first experiment, the psychologists wanted to see whether children associate being “really, really smart” with men more than with women.

To answer that question, a researcher told each child an elaborate story about a person who was brilliant and quick to solve problems, without hinting at all at the person’s gender. Next, the children looked at a series of pictures of men and women and were asked to guess who from the line-up was the character in the story.

During a series of similar questions, researchers kept track of how often children chose members of their own gender as being brilliant.

Among 5-year-olds, boys picked boys a majority of the time, while girls picked girls.

“This is the heyday of the ‘cooties’ stage,” Cimpian said. “It’s consistent with what we know about in-group biases in this young age group.”

But among 6- and 7-year-olds, a divide emerged. Girls were significantly less likely to rate women as super smart than boys were to pick members of their own gender.

The age groups were similarly split in a second prompt. Researchers asked kids to pick from activities described as either suited for brilliant kids, or kids who try really hard.

Five-year-old boys and girls both showed interest in the smart-kid activities. But by age 6, girls expressed more interest in the games for hard workers, while boys kept on with the “brilliant” games.

Why is this happening?

Researchers said it’s not entirely clear how these stereotypes form. Certainly marketing towards children lab sets are for boys, dollhouses are for girls plays a role.

And history books are filled with the achievements of white men who, generally speaking, did not face the same systemic discrimination that kept women and people of color out of classrooms and laboratories.

Cimpian and Bian said they are planning a larger, longer-term study to explore how these stereotypes form and stick, and how we can correct them.

In the meantime, they suggested a few ways that parents and teachers of young children could work to dispel the biased idea that men are inherently more prone to brilliance than women.

Bian noted that previous research has shown that girls respond better to what psychologists call a “growth mindset” the idea that studying, learning and making an effort are the key ingredients for success, not a stroke of genetic luck.

“We should recommend the importance of hard work, as opposed to brilliance,” she said.

A news clipping for Katherine Johnson, a NASA mathematician who was the lead figure in the movie ‘Hidden Figures.’

Image: Joseph Rodriguez /News & Record via AP

Sharing and touting the achievements of women can also help counter the stereotypes that genius is reserved for men. Cimpian cited the book and movie Hidden Figures, about the women scientists who helped NASA astronauts get to space for the first time, as a prime example.

Cheryan, the UW psychologist, said including young boys in such efforts is critical.

“There’s a societal message that if there’s a gender gap, it’s the girls we need to fix,” she said. “We have to be careful with that message, because it just reinforces the similar hierarchy that the boys are always doing the right thing. In reality, there’s probably things that could happen on both sides.”

BONUS: 5 Gender Stereotypes That Used To Be The Opposite

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Paintings reveal early signs of cognitive decline, claims study

Psychologists believe they can identify progressive changes in the work of artists who went on to develop Alzheimers

The first subtle hints of cognitive decline may reveal themselves in an artists brush strokes many years before dementia is diagnosed, researchers believe.

The controversial claim is made by psychologists who studied renowned artists, from the founder of French impressionism, Claude Monet, to the abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning.

While Monet aged without obvious mental decline, de Kooning was diagnosed with Alzheimers disease more than a decade before his death in 1997.

Alex Forsythe at the University of Liverpool analysed more than 2,000 paintings from seven famous artists and found what she believes are progressive changes in the works of those who went on to develop Alzheimers. The changes became noticeable when the artists were in their 40s.

Though intriguing, the small number of artists involved in the study means the findings are highly tentative. While Forsythe said the work does not point to an early test for dementia, she hopes it may open up fresh avenues for investigating the disease.

I dont believe this will be a tool for diagnosis, but I do think it will trigger people to consider new directions for research into dementia, she said.

William de Koonings Woman 1, 1950 and Untitled XXVIII, 1983. Composite: Alamy

The research provoked mixed reactions from other scientists. Richard Taylor, a physicist at the University of Oregon, described the work as a magnificent demonstration of art and science coming together. But Kate Brown, a physicist at Hamilton College in New York, was less enthusiastic and dismissed the research as complete and utter nonsense.

Forsythe and her colleagues used digital imaging software to calculate how a mathematical feature called fractal density varied in artists paintings over their careers. The seven artists included Monet, Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall, who all aged without obvious brain disease; Salvador Dali and Norval Morrisseau, who developed Parkinsons; and de Kooning and James Brooks, another abstract expressionist who was diagnosed with Alzheimers in 1985, seven years before his death.

Fractals are geometric patterns that repeat themselves at different size scales. They are seen in nature in the branching of trees and rivers, and in the craggy contours of coastlines. In paintings, fractals appear when patterns made by the tiniest brush strokes repeat on larger scales. The fractal dimension is a measure of fractal complexity, where an artwork with a large fractal dimension has a high ratio of fine to coarse fractal patterns.

Forsythe found that paintings varied in their fractal dimensions over an artists career, but in the case of de Kooning and Brooks, the measure changed dramatically and fell sharply as the artists aged. The information seems to be like a footprint that artists leave in their art, Forsythe said. They paint within a normal range, but when something is happening the brain, it starts to change quite radically.

Writing in the journal Neuropsychology, the scientists claim that the fractal dimensions of paintings by Monet, Picasso and Chagall tended to rise as they aged. For Dali and Morrisseaus work, the fractal dimension followed an upside-down U-shape over time, at first rising and then falling. The most stark result was seen in the works of de Kooning and Brooks, where the fractal dimension started high and dropped rapidly from the age of 40.

The work has echoes of previous studies that revealed early signs of dementia in the language used by the former US president Ronald Reagan, and the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch. Telltale hints of future dementia have also been spotted in autobiographical essays written by nuns in their 20s.

Taylor pioneered the use of fractals to study and even authenticate drip paintings by the late US artist Jackson Pollock. He believes Forsythes research could do the same for other artists and save museums from being conned into buying fake artworks. But he also saw more important applications. This work could hopefully be used to learn more about conditions such as dementia, he said.

To me, the most inspiring message to come out of this work is that beautiful artworks can result from pathological conditions, he said. When de Kooning was diagnosed with Alzheimers, some critics argued that he should stop painting, but as he slipped into dementia, his artwork changed and became more simple, Taylor said.

To me, these more simple works conveyed a peacefulness that wasnt present in his nurture-dominated earlier work. It all goes to show that sometimes you can think too much about art. Sometimes you just need to tune into your inner self, the nature part, he said.

But Brown disagreed. In 2006, she co-authored a paper in Nature that disputed Taylors research. She said that sketches dashed out on her computer had the same fractal dimensions as a Pollock drip painting and might be authenticated as the real thing.

The whole premise of fractal expressionism is completely false, Brown said. Since our work came out, claims of fractals in Pollocks work have largely disappeared from peer-reviewed physics journals. But it seems that the fractal zealots have managed to exert some influence in psychology.

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Our nine-point guide to spotting a dodgy statistic

Brexit is just the latest instance of politicians bending figures to match their agenda

I love numbers. They allow us to get a sense of magnitude, to measure change, to put claims in context. But despite their bold and confident exterior, numbers are delicate things and thats why it upsets me when they are abused. And since theres been a fair amount of number abuse going on recently, it seems a good time to have a look at the classic ways in which politicians and spin doctors meddle with statistics.

Every statistician is familiar with the tedious Lies, damned lies, and statistics gibe, but the economist, writer and presenter of Radio4s More or Less, Tim Harford, has identified the habit of some politicians as not so much lying to lie means having some knowledge of the truth as bullshitting: a carefree disregard of whether the number is appropriate ornot.

So here, with some help from the UK fact-checking organisation Full Fact, is a nine-point guide to whats really going on.

Use a real number, but change its meaning

Theres almost always some basis for numbers that get quoted, but its often rather different from what is claimed. Take, for example, the famous 350m, as in the We send the EU 350m a week claim plastered over the big red Brexit campaign bus. This is a true National Statistic (see Table 9.9 of the ONS Pink Book 2015), but, in the words of Sir Andrew Dilnot, chair of the UK Statistics Authority watchdog, it is not an amount of money that the UK pays to the EU. In fact, the UKs net contribution is more like 250m a week when Britains rebate is taken into account and much of that is returned in the form of agricultural subsidies and grants to poorer UK regions, reducing the figure to 136m. Sir Andrew expressed disappointment that this misleading claim was being made by Brexit campaigners but this ticking-off still did not get the busrepainted.

George Osborne quoted the Treasurys projection of 4,300 as the cost per household of leaving the EU. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Make the number look big (but not too big)

Why did the Leave campaign frame the amount of money as 350m per week, rather than the equivalent 19bn a year? They probably realised that, once numbers get large, say above 10m, they all start seeming the same all those extra zeros have diminishing emotional impact. Billions, schmillions, its just a Big Number.

Of course they could have gone the other way and said 50m a day, but then people might have realised that this is equivalent to around a packet of crisps each, which does not sound soimpressive.

George Osborne, on the other hand, preferred to quote the Treasurys projection of the potential cost of leaving the EU as 4,300 per household per year, rather than as the equivalent 120bn for the whole country. Presumably he was trying to make the numbers seem relevant, but perhaps he would have been better off framing the projected cost as 2.5bn a week so as to provide a direct comparison with the Leave campaigns 350m. It probably would not have made any difference: the weighty 200-page Treasury report is on course to become a classic example of ignoredstatistics.

Recent studies confirmed higher death rates at weekends, but showed no relationship to weekend staffing levels. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

Casually imply causation from correlation

In July 2015 Jeremy Hunt said: Around 6,000 people lose their lives every year because we do not have a proper seven-day service in hospitals. and by February 2016 this had increased to 11,000 excess deaths because we do not staff our hospitals properly at weekends. These categorical claims that weekend staffing was responsible for increased weekend death rates were widely criticised at the time, particularly by the people who had done the actual research. Recent studies have confirmed higher death rates at weekends, but these showed norelationship to weekend staffinglevels.

Tom Blenkinsop and David Cameron on nurse numbers at PMQs, December 2014

Choose your definitions carefully

On 17 December 2014, Tom Blenkinsop MP said, Today, there are 2,500 fewer nurses in our NHS than in May 2010, while on the same day David Cameron claimed Today, actually, there are new figures out on the NHS there are 3,000 more nurses under this government. Surely one must bewrong?

But Mr Blenkinsop compared the number of people working as nurses between September 2010 and September 2014, while Cameron used the full-time-equivalent number of nurses, health visitors and midwives between the start of the government in May 2010 and September 2014. So they were both, in their own particular way,right.

Indicator hopper: Health secretary Jeremy Hunt. Photograph: PA

Use total numbers rather than proportions (or whichever way suits your argument)

In the final three months of 2014, less than 93% ofattendances at Accident and Emergency units were seen within four hours, the lowest proportion for 10 years. And yet Jeremy Hunt managed to tweet that More patients than ever being seen in less than four hours. Which, strictly speaking, was correct, but only because more people were attending A&E than ever before. Similarly, when it comes to employment, an increasing population means that the number of employed can go up even when the employment rate goes down. Full Fact has shown how the political parties play indicator hop, picking whichever measure currently supports their argument.

Is crime going up or down? Dont ask Andy Burnham. Photograph: PA

Dont provide any relevant context

Last September shadow home secretary Andy Burnham declared that crime is going up, and when pressed pointed to the police recording more violent and sexual offences than the previous year. But police-recorded crime data were de-designated as official statistics by the UK Statistics Authority in 2014 as they were so unreliable: they depend strongly on what the public choose to report, and how the police choose to recordit.

Instead the Crime Survey for England and Wales is the official source of data, as it records crimes that are not reported to the police. And the Crime Survey shows a steady reduction in crime for more than 20 years, and no evidence of an increase in violent and sexual offences lastyear.

Exaggerate the importance of a possibly illusory change

Next time you hear a politician boasting that unemployment has dropped by 30,000 over the previous quarter, just remember that this is an estimate based on a survey. And that estimate has a margin of error of +/- 80,000, meaning that unemployment may well have gone down, but it may have gone up the best we can say is that it hasnt changed very much, but that hardly makes a speech. And to be fair, the politician probably has no idea that this is an estimate and not a headcount.

Serious youth crime has actually declined, but thats not because of TKAP. Photograph: Action Press / Rex Features

Prematurely announce the success of a policy initiative using unofficial selected data

In June 2008, just a year after the start of the Tackling Knives Action Programme (TKAP), No 10 got the Home Office to issue a press release saying the number of teenagers admitted to hospital for knife or sharp instrumentwounding in nine police force areas fell by 27% according to new figures published today. But this used unchecked unofficial data, and was against the explicit advice of officialstatisticians. They got publicity, but also a serious telling-off from the UK Statistics Authority which accused No 10 of making an announcement that was corrosive of public trust in officialstatistics. The final conclusionabout the TKAP was that serious youth violence had declined in the country, but no more in TKAP areas thanelsewhere.

Donald Trump: Am I going to check every statistic?
Photograph: Robert F. Bukaty/AP

If all else fails, just make the numbers up

Last November, Donald Trump tweeted a recycled image that included the claim that Whites killed by blacks 81%, citing Crime Statistics Bureau San Francisco. The US fact-checking site Politifact identified this as completely fabricated the Bureau did not exist, and the true figure is around 15%. When confronted with this, Trump shrugged and said, Am I going to check every statistic?

Not all politicians are so cavalier with statistics, and of course its completely reasonable for them to appeal to our feelings and values. But there are some serial offenders who conscript innocent numbers, purely to provide rhetorical flourish to theirarguments.

We deserve to have statistical evidence presented in a fair and balanced way, and its only by public scrutiny and exposure that anything will ever change. There are noble efforts to dam the flood of naughty numbers. The BBCs More or Lessteam take apart dodgy data, organisations such as Full Fact and Channel 4s FactCheck expose flagrant abuses, the UK Statistics Authority write admonishing letters. The Royal Statistical Society offers statistical training for MPs, and the House of Commons library publishes a Statistical Literacy Guide: how to spot spin and inappropriate use ofstatistics.

They are all doing great work, but the shabby statistics keep on coming. Maybe these nine points can provide a checklist, or even the basis for a competition how many points can your favourite minister score? In my angrier moments I feel that number abuse should bemade a criminal offence. But thats a law unlikely to be passed bypoliticians.

David Spiegelhalter is the Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge and president elect of the Royal StatisticalSociety

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