Thursday, 7 November 2019

On Electoral Pacts

So I heard that the Lib Dems, Greens and Plaid Cymru are to have a 'remain' pact in 60 seats. One of the seats where this pact will take effect is the constituancy I live in, Cheltenham.

Cheltenham has been a marginal Lib-Dem Conservative seat since 1992, when the Lib-Dems won it after it had been a safe Conservative seats for ages.

I had moved to Cheltenham before that election and was in the town during that campaign. John Taylor stood for the Conservative party. It caused controversy with some of the local Conservative members (who later were thrown out) saying they would not vote for him. The Lib-Dems took full advantage of this, with their dogwhistle racism campaign; their 'local' man beating the man from 50 miles up the road.

So I kept voting Labour, gradually becoming disillusioned with them during the Blair years, not because of the Iraq invasion, but because they were a centralising and authoritarian force. Following the Brown government I filled out one of those online surveys that matched what I felt was important to the party's manifestos, I scored roughly equal for Labour, Lib Dem and the Greens.

In 2010 I voted Lib Dem, because my views matched equally well with their manifesto as Labour and the Greens. Of course they quickly repudiated their manifesto and happily spread the lies about the need for 'Austerity' which they enthusiatically supported as part of the coalition. They also proved just how easy they were to outmanoeuvre. The price for giving up their principles was a referendum on proportional representation, David Cameron agreed, as long as he could choose which system, and he promptly chose the worse possible alternative.
So still not impressed with Labour, and knowing that the Lib Dems do not mean what they say I jointed the Green party.

Now the Green party has agreed a limited electoral pact with the Lib Dems. I am thus disenfranchised, and not at all happy.

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

The age of unreason - a role playing game I won't run

Inappropriate Illustration

I was reading an article about the EU and it kept referring to it as a technocratic project. 

For people who have played the game Mage the Ascension that sets off a particular resonance, the Technocracy, for most players, are an antagonist. The players in the game have characters who do magic(k), known as Traditional Mages, the Technocracy are trying to eliminate magic from the world. Although members of the Technocratic Union have the ability to do magic themselves they have been trained not to see their abilities in that way.

The Technocracy in Retreat
The idea for the game is that despite almost wiping out the Traditional mages, and probably all sorts of other areas of the supernatural, since the start of the 21st century all around the world the Technocracy is in retreat. The player characters are young members of the Technocratic Union trying to keep the world from, perhaps literally crashing and burning to the ground.

Two possible antagonists

A- The antagonists in the game are unreasonable humans. Some of them may be extremely wealthy, some of them may be politicians, some might run corporations, but they are human. The only supernatural bit is the player characters, magicians who do not believe in magic.

B - The antagonists are the Syndicate.

The threats
The climate crisis. For some time now the scientific consensus has been there is a problem with human created climate change. While there had been some progress at a world level perhaps twenty years ago that seems to be over now as many governments care more about protecting their home based fossil fuel industries than planning for the challenges ahead. Amongst the public some people have just given up. Can the young technocrats help the current grass roots movements make a positive impact, or can they find another way to ameliorate the effects.
The wellness industry. From popular presentations of mindfulness, positive psychology, useless ‘supplements’, goop, to new age crystal healing, homeopathy all the way through to the anti vaccination movement. How can the young technocrats help get people to follow stop indulging in modern quackery.
 Ghost hunters and other popular presentations of the supernatural. In the fictional universe the Technocratic Union have taken care of all the genuine supernatural threats that there were. Yet people seem to profess belief in ghosts, or astronomy or whatever floats your boat as ST.
Popular politicians. Some of them are already in power, and are not beyond using the mechanisms of their state to combat anyone who would interfere. Others have backing from rich individuals, that they can use to hire security consultants, or are only a few steps away from street thugs. This is the most physically dangerous threat (especially if the players are facing a state actor happy to send assassins to poison the player’s characters.

Why I will never run this game

I quite like mage, and have run a couple of campaigns, one set in the modern world and one set in the Renaissance, but is down on the list of games I probably don’t want to run (a list headed by Art Magica because of the preparation time needed).
So what is wrong with mage.

The paradigm problem. When someone plays a mage who belongs to one of the magical traditions there is some guidance about how magic works for them, but it is up to the player to add details to this, their paradigm of magic. When this works well it a joy to play in the game. However it can be hard work to do that, and takes some head space outside of the session. For players who are playing member of the Technocratic Union there is a further twist. Officially they do not do magic, they use advanced science. In game mechanic terms they roll the same dice pool as Traditional Mages to do special effects, but need a none magical explanation. This gets even more difficult if Agent Q has a ray gun, but because no one else has that type of magic it is a inert rod for any other member of the group.

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Exporting American Values

There is no doubt that the majority of psychology research worldwide happens in the USA. If psychology was a science this would be of minor concern.

The minor concern is that those funding research, the state, large corperations, and in some medical areas, large charities, fund the research first that is important to them. So some areas get more attention than others. With science, however, the findings add to human knowledge, and over time, as theories and hypotheses are tested, theories made better, it makes little difference the impetus to do research.

So, for example, Germany in the period between the world wars, became interested in rocket science as that technology was not covered under the Versailles treaty. Both the USA and USSR recognised the potential of missiles as weapons of war after world war two, this becoming even more important as a weapons delivery system for nuclear war heads. Famously the USA recruited Wernher von Braun the designer of the V2 missile, SS officer and user of slaver labour, for their development of ICBMs, which as a side effect led to the moon landings. This grisly history has no effect though on the actual rocket science, it is not Nazi science, or American science (or Soviet science) it is science.

As a side note I have little patience with those who apologise for psychology and its lack of progress in almost 200 years by bleating that it is a young science. Rocket science is a young science and rocket scientists have put a person on the moon.

These concerns may become of more pressing importance if a major country, like the USA, were to start defunding science that the President disagrees with, and banned federal agencies from even referring to the issue. How that plays out with regard to the climate emergency we will have to wait and see.

So of course across science, development is uneven as societies have particular cocerns, however for natural sciences, most of the time, these peturbations become less important across time.

Psychology is different, because the academic discipline of psychology changes it subject matter, the psychology of individuals. Psychology is not unique in this, it is probably true of the social sciences more broadly.

As a phenomenon I first became aware of it not in psychology, but in sociology, from the work of Stanley Cohen, specifically Moral Panics. Like many people who played D&D in the 1970s and 80s I became aware of the accusations made that D&D led to all sort of bad things, including  satanism.  Given I have almost always been in an academic environment I read up on Moral Panics, I remember writing a fanzine  piece on it. I also gave a guest lecture on the topic in an introductory sociology class, which ironically led to a complaint about me because I did not believe that certain activities, like role playing games, listening to certain music, reading certain fiction opened the door to satanism. The complaint was not upheld. When a student of mine, Yvonne Adiar, did her dissertation on rave culture, the reaction of the media was referred to by those supportive of rave as a 'moral panic'. The notion was also used by some of the ravers we interviewed for a follow up study to contest the idea that drug use within the rave scene was dangerous. This is a looping effect, what Jones & Elcock, and Tyson, Jones & Elcock call reflexivity (a term with too many other meanings to remain useful) and what Giddens called the ‘double hermeneutic’ ( a term misued in IPA).

Now it is likely that there are some aspects of psychology not open to these looping effects, but it is difficult to know which bits may not be. Kurt Danziger in 2008 wrote a history of memory, noting that particular analogies for memory have gained in popularity with the rise of experiemental and later neuropsychology. That our understanding of memory has changed, but that this has had applied consequences. Edwards and Potter (1992) studied, amongst other topics, how people create memory in their interactions. I argue that one of the resources for this is how the academic discipline describes memory. However memory is also a good example of how other institutions within society, for example the judicial system, resists changes in how reliant we should be on the memories of eye witnesses.

In areas like personality tests, where some aspect of human action, and the reasons for human actions are simplified into a notion that there are different personality types or traits the holders of which act differently the looping effects become more obvious. It may be that certain types or traits are given a higher value than others, or it may be that once a person is told that they have certain traits or types that these become self fulfilling prophecies, in a similar way that some people interact with asrology. This also has the broader effect of individualising human activity, rather than seeing human action within the social environment that influences it.

In aspects of social psychology too these looping effects can be seen, prejudice becomes primarily a problem of individuals rather than issue about social structures. Also when one examines the psychological literature around inequality there appears to be a blind spot when it comes to prejudice directed to working class people.

In Jones & Elcock (2001) we write about how, in an American context, psychology became a prestigious profession because of the work of psychologists for the government of the USA during World War Two. The reconstruction work done by the USA in post war Germany and Japan had an influence on how universities in those countries were organised. Of course since then the economic preeminence of the USA has continued this influence.

I would argue the dicipline of psychology has become a cultural apologist for the USA.

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Refashioning Psychology

I have had a couple of ideas that just keep going round in circles so I am going to try to make sense of them by writing about them.

Some of the impetus for this come from the ideas around decolonising the curriculum and how this might impact on psychology. Some of it comes from the ways that potential therapies became reshaped within societies, from psychoanalysis to mindfulness, the reshaping has often been to promote changing the individual and ignoring social change.

I am imagining that this will be a short series of blog posts rather than one long post. My attention wanes with longer posts, and I imagine the same is true of readers. So the purpose of this post is to sketch out the major things I think I need to cover.

Mainstream psychology is a colonising force

 By mainstream psychololgy I mean the core of academic discipline as taught in psychology degrees in the English speaking world. The strong claim that I am making is that this psychology is a particularly USA psychology (and comes from a particular consituancy within the USA), however it is sold as a univerisal psychology. This has had many and varied impacts and I am going to try to give evidence that is has changed the way we think about ourselves, and was one of the forces that led to late 20th century neoliberalism, or the ways that capitalism represents itself currently.

The psy-complex as an amplifier of this colonisation

The psy-complex refers to all the various professions that try to treat and regulate the human psyche. I first came across the term in the writing of Ian Parker, and he cites Nikolas Rose. I am including the bits of psychology taught as if they were true found in other disciplines that deal with people, from business studies to teaching in the psy-complex.

Popular psychology is also complicit

 The relationship between the academic discipline and popular psychology is, at best, fraught with difficulty. Even if popular psychology does not reflect academic psychology, however, the focus on individual change rather than social action does.

Methodological mutterings

I do not believe that quantification is bad, and qualitative methods are good. There are, however, some questions to answer, for example given that the two main statistical tools, linear regression, and ANOVA were invented by eugenicists to what extent does this infect the whole discipline with a particular world view?

Should we try to be scientists

I am a big fan of science, but is psychology a suitable subject for scientific understanding?

My alternatives

Finally my refashioned psychology.

So that is, at least, six parts, although if any post needs a couple of thousand words I might split the post over two or more posts.


Saturday, 7 September 2019

On brain scans and data visualisations

A friend shared this image on their FB newsfeed.

Under the image was the following text

"This is the world’s first ever magnetic resonance image showing a mother and child’s bond.
The image is of neuroscientist Rebecca Saxe kissing her two month old son.
The child’s brain appears to be smoother and darker. This is because it has significantly less white matter. White matter is comprised of myelin, which is fatty tissue that acts as insulation for the wires that communicate messages inside your brain."

It looked wrong to me. It is unusual for an magnetic resonance image (MRI) to show activity. So I did a Google reverse image search, Google is not my search engine of preference I use one that doesn't track you for marketing purposes, but there is functionality in Google  not available elsewhere. I found several links to the same story.

Follow the link above and it is the scientist who made the image giving her account, she is also the mother in the image. Note the difference, no activity graph.

This is one of the most famous activity graphs from fMRI. This Wired article explains the story (note the website tracks you and only allows 4 free article views a month).

The researchers scanned the dead salmon's brain as the salmon "reacted" to various images of people interacting. They then compared blood flow as the fish 'looked' at different images. The graph above shows the statically significant differences they found.

The researchers deliberately did not use any techniques for doing multiple comparisons within a set of data, which is what gave the false positive result. This was done some time ago, and it was meant to be a wake up call to researchers in the field to do their statistics more carefully.


A data visualisation is not a scan. By calling it a 'scan' it makes (at least some) people think it is an unmediated picture of reality. When I used the dead salmon in a seminar at least one student could not see beyond the image, she asked if the researchers were sure the salmon was dead, as the 'picture' of the brain clearly showed activity.

I strongly believe that people in general have a bias towards biological explanations rather than psychological explanations. The image without the fake activity graph is cute, showing a proud scientist and her young child. The picture with the fake activity shows "a mother's and child bond" as biological reality.

The mixing of fakery with more factual text (everything after the first line, although the biological bias continues) seems like a particularly pernicious way of lying.

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Historical and real world settings in role playing games

Illustrated with dragons, dragons make everything better

I like historical settings for role playing games. I enjoy Cthulhu games, the campaign games I have played have been set in the 1920s and 1930s; I really enjoyed running a Mage Sorcerers Crusade game, set in Francis Drake's round the world voyage. I have an idea for a War of the Roses setting game. One of the reasons I like Ars Magica is the historical setting. There are, however, things that need to be thought about with using historical settings.

History breaks if player's characters can have an impact

In different games characters will have different levels of impact on the game world. In Cthulhu games characters begin as fairly ordinary people. In games like Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu if the indescribable horrors fulfill their plan then the world will be destroyed, or all humans will become slaves. The players try to prevent this disaster, and their characters may become quite powerful during the campaign, but there focus is on stopping the horror. In the current Cthulu game my character is an advocate for civil rights, and has become a staunch opponent of colonial powers, but his focus is on stopping the monster induced apocolypse(s) not changing the human world.

In games where the characters have more power they can have more impact on the world, and while they will have other concerns, and most of the games include some mechanism for shielding every day folk from the power that they have, they should have the potential to change history. For me this is a feature not a bug.

Some players find history a barrier

I did not do 'O' level history at my comprehensive school because I did not like my history teacher. I did pick it up at sixth form college, and still remember details about Russia before world war one that I have yet to have a use for (although it might come in useful in a game at some point). Because of my interest in table top war gaming, and board gaming, I developed an interest in military history. Of course later in my academic career I co-wrote books on history of psychology. I like history. Some of the people I have played with do not, knowing little about recent history in modern setting games, and feeling uneasy about playing in an historical setting. There is an easy fix for this in Ars Magica, the person can play characters who before the campaign starts have had little to do with the world outside of the Mage's covenant. It might be worth making more of a fuss about this, in a AM game the players do not need to know history, they can play characters for whom the world of mortal society is a unknown.

Some players really get into the history

One possible source of tension around the table is when players know more than their characters. With fictional settings I find it relatively easy to distinguish between what I know and what the character should know. Until fairly recedntly I never owned any Cthulhu game books, and I have read one H.P Lovecraft short story. So most of the time my knowledge of the evil monsters characters were facing was the same as the character.

When I design a character for an historically set game I will do some reading up on the period, and the type of person the character is based on. One possible difficulty is managing the knowledge a player has; this can be modeled by making a player buy particular knowledge abilities, although the other side of that coin is trying to establish what any member of a particular communnity might know.

In general I prefer not being told what my character would think, so I try to ignore any anachronisms in how other's characters act and what they believe.

Real world attrocities

One of the Trail of Cthulhu games I ran (a series of scenarios rather than a campaign) had an adventure with a setting of 1937 China, with the characters USA citizens based in Shanghai for the adventure. The story had nothing to do with that, but the approaching Japanese army created an end point, by which time the player's characters needed to have left Shanghai.  I am very uneasy with  explicit links between real world attrocities and the fictional aspects of role playing games. Nazis should be horrific human beings, not the puppets of none human monsters. Provided it is done with care I am more laid back about the sweep of history affecting the characters.
Nonsense on stilts

 Most of the games I have played that use real world or historical settings use one of the histories of the world up until the point the game starts. This can be easily handwaved for Cthulhu games, there can be ineffective cultists keeping traditions alive, but it is only when the stars align that the great evil begins to affect the world. It makes less sense in other games, the games have mechanisms whereby the player characters (and others) should try not to have too much of an effect on mortal society. However they very often do have an impact. If mages existed the world would not be like the historical world. This is something that as long as I do not dwell on it does not break my suspension of disbelief,

Language use

One of the things that interested me when writing about the history of psychology is the way that words have been invented, or their meanings changed by psychologists. There are a bunch of Freudian terms, some terms and concepts from Humanistic psychology, as well as neologisms like motivation, that now appear to be just a natural part of our human world. We are current humans pretending to be characters in a different time. As long as no one's sense of their character is not being spoiled by our less than perfect knowledge of history that probably the best we can hope to achieve.

Monday, 26 August 2019

Imagine if Psychology was a Science

Katherine Johnson who led the female 'computers' for Nasa

One of the reasons, I think, that I'm finding it hard to write about this is that there is so much to say, so I am going to try doing this from a different starting point.

Imagine Psychology as Science

You are feeling a bit off, you cannot quite put your finger on why. You take a test, listing your feelings and behaviours and receive an accurate diagnosis. You take another test, about the type of person you are, and receive an accurate typology of you as a person with regard to therapeutic intervention. Knowing these two pieces of information you can find the correct interventions (which may be a mixture of psychological and medical) to get back to who you want to be.

The secondary school I went to, it was Thorns Comprehensive then    
Throughout your education accurate diagnostic tools are able to identify any difficulties you may have, and depending on what type of person you are, tested ways to ameliorate the difficulties can be used so that you are not disadvantaged. There are no longer fads in how to teach people, because there is instead a body of psychological knowledge about how to teach people, depending on the type of person they are, to maximise their potential.

It would be possible, at an early age, to predict the sorts of careers you would be best suited for, with an acknowledgement that this can change as you get older. Once at work the work can be designed so that it is not overly stressful, that it is rewarding, so that it allows you, if you wish, to change as a person.

Leg spin bowlers would never get the 'yips'; in fact no athelete would ever have a bad day because of their psychological state because they would always be in the perfect state to do their best.

Slot machines, and other forms of gambling would be utterly enthralling. The major gambling companies already employ psychologists, and give research grants to psychologists, to improve how 'entertaining' people find the experience of gambling.

People could be taught to fight in wars in such a way that they never have psychological distress, no matter what horrors they witness or that they inflict upon the enemy.

Advertisers could craft perfect adverts to make particular products amazingly attractive to specific groups of people.

I would not want to live in a world if psychology was a science. Of course if I was living in such a world I would think it was the best of all possible worlds.