Another Flawed Flamboyant Genius

The NY Times reviewed Matt Ridley’s biography of Francis Crick today. He is an interesting character.

Crick refused to meet the queen when she visited Cambridge’s new Laboratory of Molecular Biology because he disapproved of royalty, and he declined a knighthood. He deeply disliked religion, saying once that Christianity was all right between consenting adults but should not be taught to children.

I like Matt Ridley’s writing (Genome is outstanding) and I am fascinated by men like Crick. How can you not like a man who invented a mine for blowing up minesweepers?

But that obstacle overcome, his devices worked splendidly, sinking more than 100 Sperrbrechers and stripping German waters of their defenses.

Amazon, here I come.

Psychology Experiments

Scott Adam’s blog is very, very funny. He is often thought provoking and usually hilarious on subjects ranging from the frivolous – such as the ethics of walking naked from the shower (and is it OK to twirl?) – to the serious – like the question of whether Iran is trying to build nukes.

A lot of the fun comes from reading the comments. He even has funny readers and Scott has a particular talent for riling them up by taking non-stands on issues where clearly, according to his readers, he should taking a stand.

Scott recently formulated an Adamesque set of rules for debating. The highlight was a rule that says, if someone asks a question and the respondent tries to change the question before answering, the questioner wins by a knockout. That was pretty funny until Scott started asking some questions of the form :

Hypothetical parody of a serious contemporary issue with only two possible responses

  • First answer is immoral
  • Second answer is illogical

The knockout rules preclude changing the question and so Scott provided a valuable service to psychology (and dictators) by demonstrating that most people would rather be seen as immoral than illogical. A few killjoys (including me, I am ashamed to say) missed the point and thought it was an exercise in debating or politics or philosophy or science.

A follow-up experiment to see whether people are willing to justify their immorality precisely because the only alternative is illogical would be interesting.

Since reading Opening Skinner’s Box, Jeff and I have often fantasized about a school science experiment that is ostensibly about one thing but is actually about another. A favorite idea would be a project that tests my theory that if an object is about to fall from a table, men are more likely to try to catch it and women are more likely to put their hands in the air and say “eek!” A few isolated experiments seem to confirm the theory but we need more data to be sure.

Monty Hall in Squeak

Over at, I wrote about the Monty Hall problem and how I was convinced of the answer by an unused variable in my Java simulation.

Markus wrote a nice simulation in Squeak (dunno what it will do if you don’t have squeak installed but it makes a good excuse for you to go get it).

I am always on the lookout for ideas for a science project for Dylan. For me, the ideal kid’s science project has a hypothesis that

  1. will almost certainly be wrong
  2. can be tested empirically
  3. can be proven mathematically

with extra credit if you can write a computer simulation of it. Dylan’s project last year was “What should you do if draw three cards to an inside straight in poker?”. He said you should raise. I usually beat him at poker 🙂