Nerds of prey

How reading the wild ramblings of everyday people on blogs is the cheapest way to get a doctorate in psychology

Although thankfully my regular jottings here have escaped the attention of folk who like to disrupt other people’s ramblings in blogs and newsletters, this is something of a rarity.

A friend of mine who writes a regular blog is endlessly being attacked when he talks about, well, most things.  Football, politics, leaving the EU, cats, religion… anything in fact.

In view of some of the really awful things that are said back to him, I asked him why he keeps at it.

“In fact,” he told me, “writing a blog on contentious subjects has become the simplest way of doing a doctorate in psychology.  If I write a little piece about why Jeremy Corbyn is like a blast of fresh air, then I get this torrent of abuse.  If I write a piece about why it is a good thing that Mrs May should continue to run the country, I get a torrent of abuse.  If I write something about why the Liverpool manager should retain his job, I get a torrent of abuse.  If I write about the need for stronger legislation on sugar, I get a torrent of abuse.  If…”

I managed to stop him at this point fearing he might go on for months with the same theme, and instead interjected a question.

“Don’t you find this all a bit depressing?” I asked.

“Not at all,” he replied.  “It gives me access to the inner workings of these people’s minds which would otherwise take me years to obtain through interviews and even then I would have to get everyone’s permission to use them in my thesis.  But when someone posts something openly on an internet forum such as a blog under a pseudonym, as most of them do, they are effectively giving everyone else the right to quote their words.”

Now I must admit I do follow a few blogs and have seen the sort of febrile rubbish that my friend is referring to, but I still didn’t quite get where he was going with this.   “What on earth do you learn from these rants?” I asked.

“It gives a real insight into these people’s minds,” he said.   “They are revealing their real selves in a way that most people never do in an interview.  Gather enough examples and clear patterns start to emerge.”

I asked for some examples.

“First off, what becomes clear is that for these people, opinion is everything and evidence is nothing.  When a person says that Politician X is a total idiot, that is all there is: opinion.   I have challenged a few bloggers to give me evidence to support their views and the reply (when it comes at all) is ‘the evidence of my own eyes.’

“That is to say, in their world, there is no notion of independent analysis or the gathering of data.  One hears a politician say one thing, or a footballer make a mistake and that is that.  A total judgement can be made.

“One can also of course make judgements based on the way these people write.  For example, as I believe Terry Pratchett once said, ‘Five exclamation marks at the end of a sentence is a sure sign of an unstable mind’.”

“So these people have no understanding of the notion of evidence,” I said, “but that seems a bit harsh as a way of making judgements on their psychological well being.”

“But that is only the start,” my friend said.  “These people lurk on the internet all day and night.  They will read an article that might be quite an erudite exposition of an issue over maybe 1000 words and then reply, ‘Sadly the writer seems to have no understanding of this issue.  ’.

“When I first spotted this sort of phrase I thought that maybe the writer had actually read the piece and really thought it was a second rate work, but then by chance I found him positing this self-same comment all over the internet, no matter what the subject.

“And all this is before we get to those people who get angry with the fact that the article was written at all.  These are the ones who start out by saying, ‘Not another idiotic pro-Corbyn article’, (or whatever the subject matter is) and then say what a total waste of time reading the article was.”

“So why do these people keep reading the article?” I asked.

“Exactly the point.  If you meet someone who watches a TV programme that they don’t like, and then instead of turning the TV off, or changing channels, they start shouting at the TV set, you might wonder about them.   These people on the internet are doing the same thing only to an audience who often shout back.”

“And what do you call these people?” I asked.

“Nerds of prey,” he said.  “Sadly I didn’t think of that phrase, but it is what they are called.”

“And you are analysing their rantings to get your PhD?” I checked.

“That’s right.  The thesis goes in next week.”

Which means, I suppose, a lot of people who have been ranting on line are going to find their words examined by psychologists and used as a basis for considering the way certain minds work.  I wonder what they’ll make of that.

Admiral Document Storage
Bloxwich Lane
Tel: 0800 810 1125


It seems that one of the biggest industries in the world of literature is making up quotes from Einstein.

I have a customer who has space in our storage facility for what he calls his Einstein collection – autographs, first editions, rare original copy photographs, letters, lecture notes with handwritten corrections on them – I am sure you know the sort of thing.

As I am not much of a physicist I have not really had the nerve to delve into conversation with my client, but recently over a coffee we finally got to talking, as one does, and I discovered that within the collection is a set of notes on things that Einstein did not say.

“You see the problem is,” my client reported, “that what with Einstein being dead, and much of his work (not to say his handwriting) being impenetrable to the average reader, there is a great temptation for people who want to promote a crazy idea to call upon Einstein’s name as the source.

“One of the early statements attributed to the great man was, ‘If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would have only four years left to live.’  It seems an unlikely statement since the man was not a biologist or an ecologist and besides no one can cite where or when he said or wrote it.  And that’s apart from it not being true.

“Another highly prevalent saying is, ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.’  Again with Einstein not being a psychiatrist it seems a strange field for him to drift into, and likewise no evidence exists that he ever said this.

“Indeed it turns out that even on his own territory, it seems Einstein didn’t say much of what has since been attributed to him.  Even one of his most famous supposed sayings isn’t him either: “God does not play dice with the universe” (a put down of the theory of quantum mechanics).  No one is quite sure who said it first, but it wasn’t Einstein.

“Like many a genius Einstein wasn’t much involved in politics either, and so didn’t say, “International law exists only in textbooks on international law,” a phrase much seized upon by politicians tending away from what the United Nations says.

“In fact when it comes down to it Einstein didn’t even write (or say) E=mc².  He actually concluded that m=L/V².”

Thus, I learned, Einstein seems to have suffered from being one of those men whom everyone wants to have said something that boosts their cause.  I asked for more examples and was given a few.

“’Evil is the result of what happens when man does not have God’s love present in his heart’,” I was told with a shake of the head.  “Or, ‘It’s like the cold that comes when there is no heat or the darkness that comes when there is no light.’  Definitely not Einstein, it seems.

I also learned that some quotes given to Einstein come from sources that one might not at first imagine. “Information is not knowledge” turns up in all sorts of places, with Einstein endlessly quoted, but in this case the source is well known. It was Frank Zappa, the progressive rock musician much beloved by people who thought that it was possible for popular music to have more (or fewer) than four beats in a bar.

Here’s another that arose in our conversation, “Drinking a decent bottle of red wine will help everybody to understand general relativity.”  I actually wish that could be Einstein, my client said, adding quickly, “not that I over indulge, of course.”

“But some of them,” my customer went on, “are actually rather encouraging, especially for people who will never understand Einstein in a million years.  Take for example, “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”  That can make people feel good.

“And then there is ‘Two things inspire me to awe: the starry heavens and the moral universe within’.”

“So what did he say?” I finally asked in desperation.

“That’s the great irony,” I was told, “because what he said was generally far more inspiring that the sort of things people make up.

“Give me a few,” I urged, anxious to take something positive out of the conversation.

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school,” my client said.  “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”

“Did he really say that?” I asked.

“Sort of,” came the reply which was, I must admit, a little less convincing a comment than I had hoped for.

As my customer rose to take his leave I asked, “what do you call your collection of things that Einstein didn’t say?”

“General errortivity,” I was told, and I guess you can’t go further than that.

I’m not a doctor but…

Storing things you want is good for you.  Becoming obsessed with keeping things isn’t.  Same with vitamins!

Now I hope you will forgive me if that headline above seems more confusing than most of my headlines (if that is possible) but please allow me a couple of moments to explain.

I run a storage facility and over the years I have tried (among other things) to convey the notion that storage is not just a case of putting things that you don’t have room for, somewhere else.

Storage of the type my company offers has a multiplicity of purposes ranging from keeping original copies of manuscripts as a security against someone else copying your work, to keeping old photographs in an environment that is a lot more conducive to preservation than the average attic.

But, of course, for a tiny minority it can become an issue in itself.  Storing thus is good; too much storing is not so good.

It was that thought that reminded me of a couple of articles I recently wrote here on the topic of popular misconceptions relating to staying healthy.

You might recall (if you are a regular reader) that I questioned the notion about drinking a gallon of water a day, the notion that sugar makes children hyper, and that the occasional detox is good for staying healthy.

All of these have been advocated as medically sound when at best the evidence suggests that they are irrelevant and at worst can lead to all sorts of secondary issues.

At the time I thought that was enough about health, and that it was now time to go onto other topics, but one reader recently reminded me of another great health myth which was actually propagated by a Nobel prize winning chemist without any evidence at all.

This story surrounds antioxidant pills, which are supposed to make people live longer.

Now let me confess from the start that I have a great interest in people living longer, not just because I am a nice guy, and actually don’t go around hoping that people will pass away, but also because some of my clients are of the older variety.  I don’t want to lose them either as friends or as customers.

And so it was when I saw one of my valued customers, not yet properly within the classification of being “older”, taking some antioxidant pills with his coffee.  I asked him what they did.

He explained that the food we eat is self-evidently broken down and used by the body to help us stay alive and well.  But as a by-product some nasty items (apparently called free radicals, although I don’t know why) are released into our systems.  They build up in our bodies and cause all sorts of nasty effects.

But there is a way out – eating vegetables seems to reduce the risk of getting the diseases, so by and large most people who started reading this who have had the occasional carrot will survive long enough to get to the end.

Then Linus Pauling, the Nobel prize winner, said that if antioxidants are good, it must be a good idea for us to swallow pills full of antioxidants.  Especially if we don’t like veg.

It was 20 years before the results of proper studies of this idea came in, and they found that not only did these pills have no benefit at all, but on the contrary, they also increased mortality.  In short quite a few of the people who were taking these pills every day, died younger than might otherwise have been expected.

The reason seems to be our defence against free radicals has nothing to do with vegetables as such.  But rather it is the free radicals themselves which tell the body to build up our own defences.  When the body has its free radicals removed by taking antioxidant pills this mechanism is switched off and the body stops building up defences against poisons.

Worse, since there are poisons in tiny levels within all natural products (vegetables seem to be a particular source) the body needs a solid, working anti-poison agent to keep mopping the nasty bits up.  But for people taking antioxidants, the mechanism for building up our own defences has been permanently removed.

All of which tells us that sudden fads, even if backed up by a Nobel Prize winner, may not always necessarily be the right thing to follow.

On the other hand, storing things for a good reason is not a sudden fad, and therefore is clearly good for you.

Admiral Document Storage
Bloxwich Lane
Tel: 0800 810 1125