June 30, 2009

My top 10 Frightening Scientific Papers

Dark TowerHere is my top 10 list of scientific papers that have frightened me. Some give unsettling insights in just how bad humans can be, others suggest that reason is helpless or that the world is dangerous in hard-to-fix ways. Perhaps a good list for a Halloween journal club meeting?

Honorable mention to Robin Hanson, who manages to get two papers onto the list!

  1. Stanley Milgram, Behavioral Study of Obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67: 371378 (1963). A psychology classic, describing how normal people can be convinced to give what they think are lethal electric shocks to another person just because a man in a lab coat says so. My dad vividly told me about the experiment when I was a kid, and I had nightmares about it afterwards.

  2. Haney, C., Banks, W. C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1973). Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison. International Journal of Criminology and Penology, 1, 6997. The infamous Stanford prison experiment. Another demonstration that it is quite possible to tease out cruelty from ordinary people.

  3. Christopher K. Hsee, Reid Hastie, Decision and experience: why don't
    we choose what makes us happy? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Volume
    10, Issue 1, January 2006, Pages 31-37
    . This is a review of studies in well-being and happiness that show that humans systematically fail to predict or choose what maximizes their happiness. This is bad news for autonomous choice and trusting one's own desires and decisions.

  4. Wolpert, D.H., Macready, W.G. (1997), "No Free Lunch Theorems for Optimization," IEEE Transactions on Evolutionary Computation 1, 67. (and related papers on the no free lunch theorem(s)) Shows that no algorithm is better than any other across all optimization problems. Since this includes practically any kind of rational thought (where we try to find the "best" solution) this is very depressing. Except of course that "all problems" covers an endless number of pathological and noisy problems - as long as we deal with the problems of a particular universe the theorems are not that bad.

  5. Dan M. Kahan, Paul Slovic, Donald Braman, John Gastil, Geoffrey L. Cohen. Affect, Values, and Nanotechnology Risk Perceptions: An Experimental Investigation. They demonstrated that people's attitudes to risks of new technology are not som much driven by knowledge about it but other cultural values, and polarize when given more information.

  6. Robin Hanson, Burning the Cosmic Commons: Evolutionary Strategies for Interstellar Colonization. A simple model of interstellar colonization that takes cultural evolution into account. The result is that colonizers will tend to evolve towards something akin to a locust swarm, using all resourcers for colonization and nothing for anything else.

  7. Robin Hanson, If uploads come first: The crack of a future dawn. Extropy 6;2 (1994). An analysis of the economic effects of copyable human capital. If it is possible to copy human minds into software, then there are strong economic reasons to suspect that there will soon be a population explosion of copies, pressing down wages while causing an economic expansion beyond anything seen before.

  8. John P. A. Ioannidis, Why Most Published Research Findings Are False, PLoS Medicine, August 2005. This paper quantifies the unreliability of scientific findings, showing that in some fields we should not trust individual papers at all.

  9. Tajfel, H. (1970). Experiments in intergroup discrimination. Scientific American, 223, 96-102. (and the subsequent papers on the minimal groups paradigm) By randomly placing people into groups, it is possible to get them to discriminate against outsiders (despite group membership being clearly arbitrary), discount information from outsiders and assume that they succeeded just because of luck.

  10. Ronald J. Jackson, Alistair J. Ramsay, Carina D. Christensen, Sandra Beaton, Diana F. Hall, and Ian A. Ramshaw. Expression of Mouse Interleukin-4 by a Recombinant Ectromelia Virus Suppresses Cytolytic Lymphocyte Responses and Overcomes Genetic Resistance to Mousepox. Journal of Virology, February 2001, p. 1205-1210, Vol. 75, No. 3. Describes an easy way to make a mousepox virus that overcomes resistance and is essentially 100% lethal. Could likely be adapted very easily to the human smallpox virus. While widely reported as a surprise, this paper argues that it could have been predicted - which would suggest that there might be different killer modifications for other viruses that can be predicted if one is so inclined.

Posted by Anders3 at June 30, 2009 10:28 PM