The death of Dr. No [lessons to be learned for prosthetic design and use]

The death of Dr. No in the respective James Bond movie may teach us valuable lessons for prosthetic design and for the role that we attribute to exploratory new attempts at new ideas, and how we may get confounded by what appears to be, but is not, proper display of grip performance.

  • New devices that are exploratory designs of a transitory or volatile nature should only be used cautiously and temporarily, for tentative exploration or for appreciation. 
  • New devices that are assumed to define a solid lifestyle and robust function require very hard testing. 
  • Confusion occurs if the first is mistaken for the second. In that realm of confusion, prominent display of assumed force, power or performance in form of playful theatric enactment are not to be confused with real testing. 

Serious test - mission critical prosthetic hand failure in James Bond - Dr. No

(C) MakeAGif / United Artists

Total failure of prosthetic hands to grip. Most serious consequences, even death.

These prosthetic hands that are demonstrated in that James Bond movie symbolize a type of aspiration, but also, social pressure, that is extremely noteworthy. 

This is also a modern reality and story, as on another note, the original book text of James Bond and Dr. Julius No describes him as having no hands as these were cut off by thugs1, after which he would later wear prosthetic hooks2 (not prosthetic hands, as in the movie). Subsequently, the original book story describes his death as suffocation from bird dung - a death that is unrelated to his prostheses or disability3.

Initial demonstration of alluded performance: hinting at, showing form, rather than dynamic or forceful essence

Despite the biographically determining failures of grasping as performed by a cinematic Doctor No, in what has to be the absolute ultimate in Cybathlon-type competitive testing, the initial outlook had been rather chipper and positive. Not that stuff that starts chipper but ends drab is new to us: just imagine the Cybathlon prosthetic arm race to end with a metal pole over some hot acid bath, and participants having to climb up, to save their lives. Just imagine the first fourteen competitors to enter that competition to die, bodies dissolved. Geez. Fortunately, that is all fiction. 

Is it? Let us for a moment stay in that fiction and see what of it may have connotations in real life. Inside the movie script, movie story, inside maybe what is also presented to be a coherent world of James Bond's Doctor No, it seems that no one saw this coming! No one saw his prosthetic design to be so fatally flawed, to be so fatally insufficient, prior to what then turned out to be this final fatal test. That, in essence, is what constitutes the core of the lesson here.

Intending, presenting, posturing is nothing like real testing. That constitutes the central element of this teaching point - it is a confusion with far fetching consequences if one allows it. So if you test, consider testing for the worst case. If you advertise for performance, people will go and do what you hint at, what you show, what you promote. Touch Bionics / Ossur advertised that their iLimb was fit for using a hammer - when it is not; so that is the type of real problem we are looking at. Such problems are in more detail covered by questions related to CE mark compliance. Conversely, we wrote in our JNER article in 2018, that once you have built and tested your prosthetic arm for serious mission-critical real work and hard use, then employing that arm for "the little things" such as news paper reading or coffee drinking will be mostly a total piece of cake. However it does not work the other way around - and that misconception, confusion, problem, tragic drama, is so illustratively shown here.

The demonstration of the alleged "power" of Dr. No's prosthetic hands suggests, promotes, indicates, but does not prove, excessive grip power in conjunction with adaptive gripping. And that is the relevant aspect to be consumed, noted, enjoyed, digested, to be processed and maybe, one day, perhaps, even understood.

It therefore has to be noted that the user of these prosthetic arms, Dr. No, should have considered training to climb metal structures, and metal poles, rather than squeezing minute fragile artifacts, in order to properly test, properly train and properly demonstrate proficiency. I did make a case for cogent prosthetic testing just to that effect a while ago, but, as years go by, the industry, R&D and academia do not move even an inch.

The larger picture: all "bionic" hands fail there

You will know that facts do not change our minds4 [link]. 

Question is, why is such a hype made with "bionic" hands? Why is that. According to Sherlock Holmes, "…when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth…". Here, if any rational explanation fails to explain why people apparently run after "bionic" hands, the answer is necessarily, forcedly, and logically, an irrational explanation. They do not test properly, they have logically no clue as to what to improve properly, they do not understand premises, and so anything after that must logically be anything but truly useful prosthetics. The answer must be elsewhere. 

From a few anecdotes of people one knows, it has become clear that many apparent aficionados of "bionic" hands do not seriously use them in their lives. All they do is pose, for a few weeks or months, only a few remain to pose for a few years. The incentives are often times industrial - like, Ossur or Otto Bock seem to have had or have their "brand ambassadors". Mostly, explorative  curiosity seems to behind the public display of these new devices that would thus be best termed exploratory devices, to not confuse them with prosthetic arms. 

No precision grip there: Open Bionics

The apparently natural appearance of a hand with less than ideally coordinated fingertip thumb tip approximation obviates a predictable permanent presence of a precision grip. A really exploratory foray into the realms of cosplay as bimanual person is Open Bionics, a serious setup that allows amputees to examine their own views against such offerings. But a drawback of advanced attempts in that directions may be that once they attempt to make this thing look cool, via avoidance of a fixed precision grip, you cannot expect any of the avoided features there, and thus there are no grip performance wonders. But wear one and see who hits you up in public, maybe, who knows, this snow white arm is the ultimate ice breaker? I tried to once use a mannequin arm with a similar intent, and the results of that exploratory use were surprising [link]. 

(C) Copyright MakeAGif / Open Bionics

Questionably stable precision grip design there: DARPA

Conversely, I would assume generally that robot hands that are specifically designed for robot space or military use probably need to implement a reliable precision grip. It is no surprise that DARPA thus seems to focus on such grip elements - a lot more than devices that have a more exploratory character. So the exploration there is totally different, there, the army tests their stuff on users that are willing to try all that out. Currently, the price for such is not know but assumedly extremely high. 

(C) Copyright DARPA / MakeAGif

No reliably repeatable precision grip there: iLimb

The iLimb combines another exploratory design of a human shape approximation with a light weight, and thus with an absence of heavy actuators and technology, so it seems to me that a lot of parts are absent that would also help to coordinate the grip better. As is, the iLimb has some funny grip aspects when playing with clothespins for example. But I feel also this model was designed to explore a hand shape, tentatively and temporarily, more than it ever was intended as serious tool for work or such. And for that, it is extremely expensive. They should have sold it for 8000 bucks, tops. 


While I was just playing around with clothespins at home (image series above), the following image shows a more serious attempt at getting a precision grip right with an iLimb.

It is one of the key points of this post that it may be a rather debatable or questionable use to employ exploratory new devices for a prosthetic device to enter serious risks, serious expenses, or serious tests such as here, particularly without proper prior testing. 

(C) Copyright SRF

The attempt to perform a serious precision grip with an iLimb is thwarted by its technical design, as the motor performances of thumb and index finger are not coordinated. They should have dropped that stuff and directly have gone for the drinks. 

(C) Copyright SRF

The future with "bionic" arms: posing, gesturing - not manipulating items or objects, leave alone real work

"Bionic" arms may be here to stay, or so it seems, but if interpreted as real solution, as final product, as something of an own kind, and not as temporary exploratory fidget to go through, rather than to adopt, they seem to even define, carve out, lay down, a new lifestyle in their own right. A new lifestyle not different from Doctor No allowed us to learn about in his admittedly short episode at the end of his life. Such a new arm amputee life thus seems to be, seems to better be, not an overly "active" one, not one that uses overly dynamic modes of expression or use. It is technically severely resigned and restricted, in a very conventional and retro way as well: after all, the ancient idea of wearing a hand shape for replacement or prosthetic device is outdated and stale, whereas a split hook or other prehensor shape is the newer, more modern development, that also better approximates transhumanist ideals [link].  Such a new arm amputee life, were one to adopt it for real, were one to follow its signs and hints, seems to clearly not express any interest in heavy use, such as real work, like, lumber jack activities or even just sweating. Just as in the famous James Bond movie, where Dr. No also did not seem to exert himself too much. 

One serious indication for this as an actually adopted lifestyle by arm amputees seems to be the fact that to this day, no one (so far / elsewhere) documented a bike change or modification instruction set, that modified it for very reliable and useful one-handed use, for the totally ubiquitous Shimano Ultegra road bike brake / shifter setup. If a road bike setup that is as widely popular and ubiquitous as Shimano Ultegra is, and as such an adaptation for one-handed use seems to be not once visibly and demonstrably installed / used elsewhere, particularly in a community such as arm amputees where on an average, general health usually appears to allow for activities such as sport, this then constitutes a very clear sign. As one technical aspect, once one starts to sweat profusely, myoelectrodes may tend to cease working or cause other problems [link]. So, not a single arm amputee that modified their serious use road bicycle? What's up. Instead, we see increasing illustration or demonstration of posturing or intending, hinting, posing, demonstrating, rather than actually using, manipulating or performing. If anything I wonder if I should interpret that as a resignation.

Someone termed this show case of prosthetic hand posing "making a difference" (image from [link]).

Via Reddit:

These amputees are all friends and all have bionic arms


(C) Copyright Reddit / Users / Angel Giuffria

Of these, I really liked the red arm best. "Red arm"? See, one commenter on Reddit wrote, "Love the clear arm". There is no clear arm there, they're all black. But that is exactly the type of vibe that seems to connotate this discourse. I like red. This is noteworthy in that back in 2009, skin colored prosthetic arms were all the rage. Then, 2008/9, I single-handedly introduced the Red Arm, over a series of red colored prosthetic socket and hands [link to Red Hand post series]. That clearly seemed to change the perception, everywhere. But as arm amputee, you have to try it out as part of a path that leads further, as part of a path that continues and that goes past that. It is society, and there, a certain part of it, that appears to impose the norm how we should look, and they are the ones that are really interested in how an arm amputee looks, than whether we can in fact function on an active level. On top of that, they often want us to pay for it ourselves. After wearing such a device, hand shaped, "bionic", brightly colored and all, only then one also may realizesjust how little may be gained in any overall experience of wearing such a device. And then can one move on, leave this in the past or trailing on the side. But do not confuse exploratory nonsense with what really should be sought - your own attitude and independence of overly projective societal norms. 

Of course, if one keeps stalling at the looks, perception, visual and externality of things, stalling is what happens. Only a few get eaten up by their "bionic" life which really isn't. Keep moving!! Keep at it! Do not give up staying on course. Fear is your only (inner) obstacle - and do not for one moment forget that others play your fear as an instrument.

Extreme ironing

If anything, "bionic" arms are to prostheses what "extreme ironing" is to ironing: extreme posing. I even bought the calendar that had this image in it, back in the days. It was, still is, my all time high favorite of great visionary ideas.

(C) Extreme Ironing

Extreme ironing apparently was invented to combine the training that sports provides with the "satisfaction of a well-pressed shirt" [link]. With that said, many installments of Extreme Ironing never resulted in well-pressed shirts simply because the iron is not at all hot. So really, Extreme Ironing has become a photographic series of posing in absurd situations - making it no less funny than if it ever was about really pressing shirts. I am not opposed to great posing in great situations - no!!! I am a staunch fan of trying out outlandish stuff, particularly to see how it feels. But why not use cosplay all the way, to further a cause, why not play this through, all the way?

Because a similar tension field applies to "bionic" hands. They are built to gesture and wave, pose, show, hint at and intend. They may be great at conveying, and overall, presenting a theatrical aspect to wearing prosthetic limbs that hooks do not have. They are the way of the future, I guess, to show that arm amputees can act out appearances in a way that was not there before. But in any conventionally blue collar and labor type work environment, these devices totally tank. They are an insult to whoever wants to work with a prosthetic arm. But that is not their goal. They are not to be misunderstood as a real prosthetic arm in any way!

Extreme posing

To illustrate this, I feel that three gestures are paramount that hooks do not convey:

1. Fist

The fist in its popular understanding appears to convey an aggressive power. This appears to lend itself to gesturing and posing in a time when the actual exertion of fist delivered mechanics may be somewhere between frowned upon to possibly illegal, probably unless it is carried out correctly, within the boundaries of some sports activities. Last thing I know, fist against head was still accepted under certain circumstances for boxers.

(C) Copyright Open Bionics

2. The flat hand

The flat hand has no power to convey - it may hold, caress, soothe, stroke, rest. It exudes a portrayed, depicted, illustrated, presented gentleness. Of course, the context here is that of a prosthesis that is not so much a really useful device as it is based on a video game. How much more pop culture can things get!  

(C) Copyright Open Bionics

3. The Dr. No Power Crush

A most effective way to pose for suggested strength by hand, by will, by personality and even by domination seems to be the demonstration that one totally masters and forces into submission a less resistant or robust object, to the point of its damage, destruction or even total annihilation.

The apple being eaten, in its entirety, the figurine symbolizing something else altogether getting crushed - these are symbols that allow for a rather effective display of power. It seems no surprise that Apple computer has an eaten apple as symbol of their brand.

(C) Copyright Open Bionics

Here we have Doctor No to achieve the unthinkable - shows the cultural context though. 

But be careful in real life with exploratory plastic devices. 

(C) Copyright Open Bionics

4. Social gestures

Some people quite clearly verbalize the "costume" potential for these "bionic" hands as being mainly for "cross-dressing" "as" bi-manual people. And they look fabulous, great, stunning, perfect! 

That also means that if you are not in the game as someone to look perfect, stunning, great and hip as these, like me, I recommend to forget about it ; ) no one really thinks it is that cute. 

(C) Copyright Open Bionics

Marketing symbolism

There is a brand new breed of what seems to be the forefront of desperate, hard, unnegotiable marketing - and never have I encountered a harder attitude than in these individuals: when arm amputees go under the contracts of manufacturers to "sell" these "bionic" arms, or when they feel that they need to go into that direction. There really were a number of so-called "ambassador" users, or "brand ambassadors", where in fact, the question is whether what appeared to be their all encompassing lack of playful approach ever was an expression of product worth, or something else altogether. When they tried to let the world know that we all had to wear a BeBionic or iLimb hand, they were serious, and I mean: se-ri-ous. While these devices sucked great time from view of real use, they are lovely when treated as playful exploratory temporary somethings. They should have left things there - and all would be cool. 

A commenter of a Reddit "bionic" arm thread wrote "No matter how cool a bionic arm is (and it is pretty cool) it doesn't make the wearer cool". Yeah, well, we knew that beforehand. Someone asked, "would they be efficient enough for hand jobs?" - No, but they won't be for a long while - robotic industry has their best researchers trying to address this application since years, and they have not solved it. As negative as some people view such associations - the true financial market potential of a robot hand being able to very successfully master sexual gratification is immense.

As I said: these are "just" for show. But their hard selling point is that: it is the symbolism that they stand for. If one regards the role of such a product from a purist view then that can only be leveraged through absent action [link]. The robustness of an Omega watch is never to be tested by actually hammering on it. The luxus 4x4 SUV is not to be tested on a real slippery muddy snowy icy forest road - it is to be driven to shopping malls only, because it symbolizes (not enacts) hard work in rural areas; if you want something that delivers such, buy something that is built for scratches, that has high torque and low speeds, serious ground clearance, normal wheels and normal tires (not these oversized rims with marginal rubbers), and that offers reasonable gas mileage. So, if you sell a "bionic" hand, sell it for looks and posturing, for gestures and for fun and stay clear of hard testing and hard testers - because we are out there, and we know the term "destroyed in seconds" from every second of our own lives. We get the tests done if necessary, but don't tempt us. 

In that, the James Bond Dr. No movie sets a standard by visually setting limits. It is as if the character wanted to say, that if they had to climb that metal structure in the end, they rather die than not wearing these (otherwise) impressive and almost aggressively looking "bionic" hands. And that is a clear confession to a hard assed lifestyle that bases on absent function for the price of assumedly good looks. Besides, what we are really looking at in these above images may be something different altogether - as one other commenter so eloquently stated: "Being young and good looking makes everything look awesome. If it was a picture of me with one of these sweet bionic arms, you'd still be like, That poor guy. Life must be hard for him." So, young attractive people with anthropomorphic overpriced technology posing, are, well, young attractive people with anthropomorphic overpriced technology.

There is no risk they go and start working for FedEx, no risk they start to refurbish their bathrooms, or do serious garden work. Not with these prostheses.

Precision grip problems

There are indications of physical testing being taken too far: the posing with precision grips have it that users then think the hand really performs these well, and maybe even, in repetitive series.

(C) Copyright Open Bionics

The Brunel hand, for example, has the same precision grip inconsistency as these hands all have. The slight tilt of the card or coin trying to grip that object  - mind you, this is as good as they could get this to look on advertising - shows the precision grip won't be much use for real sewing, repairing wrist watches or such, at all. It is a need for precision grips to allow planar surfaces - or at least parallel configurations - to be so rigid that the user can maneuver them into position, and apply them, reliably.

(C) Copyright Open Bionics

(C) Copyright Open Bionics

(C) Copyright Open Bionics

A core focus on symbolism with active rejection of hard work is new

Nevertheless, this built-in dichotomy is ground breaking, new, and it is making a difference. It is different and ground breaking precisely because these arms and hands, given any concise hard to solve manipulative grasp or work task, tank. So it is not ground breaking the way it was intended originally, but the way it turned out to be.

The people that are in these pictures, wearing these exploratory new design appearance type prosthetic hands, in real life, may have very sophisticated and elaborate and differentiated views and activities and they really could pose with these, were they to make a point for "big impact", showing what arm amputees can be up to, regardless of industries trying to grab some bucks from us. But that is not what this is about. It is far more profound.

These prosthetic hands are technological showpieces. Not "use pieces", but "show"-pieces. Their design demand, their commandment, is not that they grasp, but that they must be respected in their desire to grasp.

These "bionic" devices command our admiration, and we must submit to the grasp promise, to the announced, intended, projected, and pretended grasp, to the hoped for functionality, that aspires to be so great. It is the ultimate territorial act to say, 'reserve this seat for me", and never come back. They pose to be admired for their promise, not to be criticized for their absent actual function.

There is triumph and domination. The arms are consequentially black.

Let us toast to pose

These prostheses are used to take on mighty poses and the posture here, as much as the coverage of these "bionic" arms otherwise, hint at a domain of social role that prosthetic arms have not played before: this device type now aspires to monopolize party talks, it wishes to attract attention like a super magnet, and it paves a way for automated gesturing and theatric expression. People are "bionic" now, they are not also or in part "bionic" and it is not something they also do. This is in fact profound. 

The typical "bionic" hand therefore is irritingly noisy, which manufacturers treat as selling point, as feature, not as a bug or problem. If you are not suitably impressed, you will be conquered. Their grips, their manipulative powers, are promised, suggested, they are hinted at, and these grip promises are aspired and promoted, promised, told and hoped to lie in the object manipulation domain whereas really, if at all, they lie in the social realm.

If anything, practically, a leisure life style, or at least a more quiet or sedentary life void of exertion is supported. One where bike riding or use of power tools is hinted at, gestured, illustrated but certainly never actually performed in any extensive or real sense of usage. And we can certainly drink to that!


(C) Copyright BeBionic 

Beyond Thorstein Veblen

What we really see here is the dawning of a new social class: a new arm amputee "leisure class" that conforms to many aspects laid out by Thorstein Veblen in his seminal work [link]. There, regardless of good or bad as in James Bond versus Dr. No, the relation to manual labor is what sets off the upper class.

This type of prosthetic arm's social symbolism by far outweighs its actual manual capacity. For that, it seems to be entirely sufficient to suggest - not prove - its grasp-related usefulness.

To then go, and actually test these devices, means to embarrass them.

It is a misunderstanding if people use these to actually cut up salad or mow the lawn. Sure, crack an egg. But then be careful. If you wash your car, boom, 800 USD glove, gone [link]. Stay away from grasping activities and real use! These "bionic" hands are only built for gesturing and hinting at! The Cybathlon 2016 provided such a display of performance which ended up being a deep embarrassment for the non-body powered prosthetic arm performers - not because real use is where these arms suck: that was known to all arm amputees decades before that, we all were totally clear on that, the ones among us with really good prostheses and experience did not even consider showing up. But the embarrassing thing was that they tried, and advertised, and made big TV shows about it, how much they wanted to learn, and whatnot else could be hinted at, gestured, pretended.

\But not even at the Cybathlon 2016 "after event Swiss TV show" did the iLimb perform much better, much rather, it was proudly demonstrated just how easily a plastic cup was crushed.

(C) Copyright SRF Swiss Television

Conversely, a body-powered Toughware Equilux, as far away from "bionic" prostheses as one can ever get, totally outperforms this iLimb: fine control, drink from cup. All contained in one affordable robust unit, light weight and all. Cheers, guys! 

So, why are these "bionic" devices that expensive? We need to understand that this symbolism must have a price.

  • Devices such as these cannot be cheap or affordable, if their symbolic role wants to be maintained. So 3D printed hands at actual production prices are not doing it. Instead, even 3D printed hands are now offered at at least twice the cost it requires to produce them.
  • We also need to realize that to live a life as arm amputee with such an exploratory "bionic" arm - that technically is far more of an impediment than true orthopedic support - is something one has to be able to afford. And that is what is also behind that symbolism: in order to be able to show off this type of glorious "bionic" device, one needs the wherewhithal to lean back, live off convenience food rather than spending every night chopping veggies and stuff, have a job where nothing repetitive or straining ever happens, and generally be affluent, supported and social. You need a powerful position in society in order to be able to keep up this role.
(C) Copyright Open Bionics

Testing implications

The prosthetic device testing implications of the Dr. No scenes are like wise: to be sure a prosthetic device actually works for a given application, one needs to test it there, with excessive exposure. Do not believe that well crafted demonstrations, suggestions, posturing with a tool or sports instruments, or hints, are sufficient.

How to test a prosthetic device for its social powers is not established yet. But I guess we could use Instagram, Facebook and Twitter "like" counts for starters.

Material (C) Copyright Swiss Television (C) Copyright Open Bionics (C) Copyright DARPA


  1. Source: Julius_No(Literary) - "No stole a million dollars in gold from the Tongs and disappeared. But the Tongs tracked him down and tortured him to find the location of the gold. When No did not tell them, the Tongs cut off his hands, shot him through the heart and left him for dead. No survived, due to a condition called dextrocardia, in which his heart was on the right side of the body."
  2. Source: - "As in the film, No fitted himself with metal (..) simple pincers (..), and judging by the lack of descriptive detail, they presumably lacked the articulation of human hands"
  3. Source: - "Bond managed to escape after he was plunged into the sea, climbing back onto the mountain and following a path to where Dr. No was. Dr. No was supervising the shipment of bird dung which was to be used as fertilizer. A crane was controlling a pipe with a continuous flow of the dried bird dung. Bond killed the crane driver and took over, swinging the crane around until the pipe was over Dr. No's head. Dr. No choked as the horrible dust clogged his lungs and he was then covered with a twenty foot high pile of dung."
  4. From (C) Copyright New Yorker - Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds - New discoveries about the human mind show the limitations of reason. By Elizabeth Kolbe - February 20, 2017- In 1975, researchers at Stanford invited a group of undergraduates to take part in a study about suicide. They were presented with pairs of suicide notes. In each pair, one note had been composed by a random individual, the other by a person who had subsequently taken his own life. The students were then asked to distinguish between the genuine notes and the fake ones. Some students discovered that they had a genius for the task. Out of twenty-five pairs of notes, they correctly identified the real one twenty-four times. Others discovered that they were hopeless. They identified the real note in only ten instances. As is often the case with psychological studies, the whole setup was a put-on. Though half the notes were indeed genuine—they’d been obtained from the Los Angeles County coroner’s office—the scores were fictitious. The students who’d been told they were almost always right were, on average, no more discerning than those who had been told they were mostly wrong. In the second phase of the study, the deception was revealed. The students were told that the real point of the experiment was to gauge their responses to thinking they were right or wrong. (This, it turned out, was also a deception.) Finally, the students were asked to estimate how many suicide notes they had actually categorized correctly, and how many they thought an average student would get right. At this point, something curious happened. The students in the high-score group said that they thought they had, in fact, done quite well—significantly better than the average student—even though, as they’d just been told, they had zero grounds for believing this. Conversely, those who’d been assigned to the low-score group said that they thought they had done significantly worse than the average student—a conclusion that was equally unfounded. “Once formed,” the researchers observed dryly, “impressions are remarkably perseverant. ” A few years later, a new set of Stanford students was recruited for a related study. The students were handed packets of information about a pair of firefighters, Frank K. and George H. Frank’s bio noted that, among other things, he had a baby daughter and he liked to scuba dive. George had a small son and played golf. The packets also included the men’s responses on what the researchers called the Risky-Conservative Choice Test. According to one version of the packet, Frank was a successful firefighter who, on the test, almost always went with the safest option. In the other version, Frank also chose the safest option, but he was a lousy firefighter who’d been put “on report” by his supervisors several times. Once again, midway through the study, the students were informed that they’d been misled, and that the information they’d received was entirely fictitious. The students were then asked to describe their own beliefs. What sort of attitude toward risk did they think a successful firefighter would have? The students who’d received the first packet thought that he would avoid it. The students in the second group thought he’d embrace it. Even after the evidence “for their beliefs has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs,” the researchers noted. In this case, the failure was “particularly impressive,” since two data points would never have been enough information to generalize from. The Stanford studies became famous. Coming from a group of academics in the nineteen-seventies, the contention that people can’t think straight was shocking. It isn’t any longer. Thousands of subsequent experiments have confirmed (and elaborated on) this finding. As everyone who’s followed the research—or even occasionally picked up a copy of Psychology Today—knows, any graduate student with a clipboard can demonstrate that reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational. Rarely has this insight seemed more relevant than it does right now. Still, an essential puzzle remains: How did we come to be this way? In a new book, “The Enigma of Reason” (Harvard), the cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber take a stab at answering this question. Mercier, who works at a French research institute in Lyon, and Sperber, now based at the Central European University, in Budapest, point out that reason is an evolved trait, like bipedalism or three-color vision. It emerged on the savannas of Africa, and has to be understood in that context. Stripped of a lot of what might be called cognitive-science-ese, Mercier and Sperber’s argument runs, more or less, as follows: Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to coöperate. Coöperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain. For any individual, freeloading is always the best course of action. Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups. “Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves,” Mercier and Sperber write. Habits of mind that seem weird or goofy or just plain dumb from an “intellectualist” point of view prove shrewd when seen from a social “interactionist” perspective. Consider what’s become known as “confirmation bias,” the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them. Of the many forms of faulty thinking that have been identified, confirmation bias is among the best catalogued; it’s the subject of entire textbooks’ worth of experiments. One of the most famous of these was conducted, again, at Stanford. For this experiment, researchers rounded up a group of students who had opposing opinions about capital punishment. Half the students were in favor of it and thought that it deterred crime; the other half were against it and thought that it had no effect on crime. The students were asked to respond to two studies. One provided data in support of the deterrence argument, and the other provided data that called it into question. Both studies—you guessed it—were made up, and had been designed to present what were, objectively speaking, equally compelling statistics. The students who had originally supported capital punishment rated the pro-deterrence data highly credible and the anti-deterrence data unconvincing; the students who’d originally opposed capital punishment did the reverse. At the end of the experiment, the students were asked once again about their views. Those who’d started out pro-capital punishment were now even more in favor of it; those who’d opposed it were even more hostile. If reason is designed to generate sound judgments, then it’s hard to conceive of a more serious design flaw than confirmation bias. Imagine, Mercier and Sperber suggest, a mouse that thinks the way we do. Such a mouse, “bent on confirming its belief that there are no cats around,” would soon be dinner. To the extent that confirmation bias leads people to dismiss evidence of new or underappreciated threats—the human equivalent of the cat around the corner—it’s a trait that should have been selected against. The fact that both we and it survive, Mercier and Sperber argue, proves that it must have some adaptive function, and that function, they maintain, is related to our “hypersociability.” Mercier and Sperber prefer the term “myside bias.” Humans, they point out, aren’t randomly credulous. Presented with someone else’s argument, we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses. Almost invariably, the positions we’re blind about are our own. A recent experiment performed by Mercier and some European colleagues neatly demonstrates this asymmetry. Participants were asked to answer a series of simple reasoning problems. They were then asked to explain their responses, and were given a chance to modify them if they identified mistakes. The majority were satisfied with their original choices; fewer than fifteen per cent changed their minds in step two. In step three, participants were shown one of the same problems, along with their answer and the answer of another participant, who’d come to a different conclusion. Once again, they were given the chance to change their responses. But a trick had been played: the answers presented to them as someone else’s were actually their own, and vice versa. About half the participants realized what was going on. Among the other half, suddenly people became a lot more critical. Nearly sixty per cent now rejected the responses that they’d earlier been satisfied with. This lopsidedness, according to Mercier and Sperber, reflects the task that reason evolved to perform, which is to prevent us from getting screwed by the other members of our group. Living in small bands of hunter-gatherers, our ancestors were primarily concerned with their social standing, and with making sure that they weren’t the ones risking their lives on the hunt while others loafed around in the cave. There was little advantage in reasoning clearly, while much was to be gained from winning arguments. Among the many, many issues our forebears didn’t worry about were the deterrent effects of capital punishment and the ideal attributes of a firefighter. Nor did they have to contend with fabricated studies, or fake news, or Twitter. It’s no wonder, then, that today reason often seems to fail us. As Mercier and Sperber write, “This is one of many cases in which the environment changed too quickly for natural selection to catch up.” Steven Sloman, a professor at Brown, and Philip Fernbach, a professor at the University of Colorado, are also cognitive scientists. They, too, believe sociability is the key to how the human mind functions or, perhaps more pertinently, malfunctions. They begin their book, “The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone” (Riverhead), with a look at toilets. Virtually everyone in the United States, and indeed throughout the developed world, is familiar with toilets. A typical flush toilet has a ceramic bowl filled with water. When the handle is depressed, or the button pushed, the water—and everything that’s been deposited in it—gets sucked into a pipe and from there into the sewage system. But how does this actually happen? In a study conducted at Yale, graduate students were asked to rate their understanding of everyday devices, including toilets, zippers, and cylinder locks. They were then asked to write detailed, step-by-step explanations of how the devices work, and to rate their understanding again. Apparently, the effort revealed to the students their own ignorance, because their self-assessments dropped. (Toilets, it turns out, are more complicated than they appear.) Sloman and Fernbach see this effect, which they call the “illusion of explanatory depth,” just about everywhere. People believe that they know way more than they actually do. What allows us to persist in this belief is other people. In the case of my toilet, someone else designed it so that I can operate it easily. This is something humans are very good at. We’ve been relying on one another’s expertise ever since we figured out how to hunt together, which was probably a key development in our evolutionary history. So well do we collaborate, Sloman and Fernbach argue, that we can hardly tell where our own understanding ends and others’ begins. “One implication of the naturalness with which we divide cognitive labor,” they write, is that there’s “no sharp boundary between one person’s ideas and knowledge” and “those of other members” of the group. This borderlessness, or, if you prefer, confusion, is also crucial to what we consider progress. As people invented new tools for new ways of living, they simultaneously created new realms of ignorance; if everyone had insisted on, say, mastering the principles of metalworking before picking up a knife, the Bronze Age wouldn’t have amounted to much. When it comes to new technologies, incomplete understanding is empowering. Where it gets us into trouble, according to Sloman and Fernbach, is in the political domain. It’s one thing for me to flush a toilet without knowing how it operates, and another for me to favor (or oppose) an immigration ban without knowing what I’m talking about. Sloman and Fernbach cite a survey conducted in 2014, not long after Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. Respondents were asked how they thought the U.S. should react, and also whether they could identify Ukraine on a map. The farther off base they were about the geography, the more likely they were to favor military intervention. (Respondents were so unsure of Ukraine’s location that the median guess was wrong by eighteen hundred miles, roughly the distance from Kiev to Madrid.) Surveys on many other issues have yielded similarly dismaying results. “As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding,” Sloman and Fernbach write. And here our dependence on other minds reinforces the problem. If your position on, say, the Affordable Care Act is baseless and I rely on it, then my opinion is also baseless. When I talk to Tom and he decides he agrees with me, his opinion is also baseless, but now that the three of us concur we feel that much more smug about our views. If we all now dismiss as unconvincing any information that contradicts our opinion, you get, well, the Trump Administration. “This is how a community of knowledge can become dangerous,” Sloman and Fernbach observe. The two have performed their own version of the toilet experiment, substituting public policy for household gadgets. In a study conducted in 2012, they asked people for their stance on questions like: Should there be a single-payer health-care system? Or merit-based pay for teachers? Participants were asked to rate their positions depending on how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the proposals. Next, they were instructed to explain, in as much detail as they could, the impacts of implementing each one. Most people at this point ran into trouble. Asked once again to rate their views, they ratcheted down the intensity, so that they either agreed or disagreed less vehemently. Sloman and Fernbach see in this result a little candle for a dark world. If we—or our friends or the pundits on CNN—spent less time pontificating and more trying to work through the implications of policy proposals, we’d realize how clueless we are and moderate our views. This, they write, “may be the only form of thinking that will shatter the illusion of explanatory depth and change people’s attitudes.” One way to look at science is as a system that corrects for people’s natural inclinations. In a well-run laboratory, there’s no room for myside bias; the results have to be reproducible in other laboratories, by researchers who have no motive to confirm them. And this, it could be argued, is why the system has proved so successful. At any given moment, a field may be dominated by squabbles, but, in the end, the methodology prevails. Science moves forward, even as we remain stuck in place. In “Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us” (Oxford), Jack Gorman, a psychiatrist, and his daughter, Sara Gorman, a public-health specialist, probe the gap between what science tells us and what we tell ourselves. Their concern is with those persistent beliefs which are not just demonstrably false but also potentially deadly, like the conviction that vaccines are hazardous. Of course, what’s hazardous is not being vaccinated; that’s why vaccines were created in the first place. “Immunization is one of the triumphs of modern medicine,” the Gormans note. But no matter how many scientific studies conclude that vaccines are safe, and that there’s no link between immunizations and autism, anti-vaxxers remain unmoved. (They can now count on their side—sort of—Donald Trump, who has said that, although he and his wife had their son, Barron, vaccinated, they refused to do so on the timetable recommended by pediatricians.) The Gormans, too, argue that ways of thinking that now seem self-destructive must at some point have been adaptive. And they, too, dedicate many pages to confirmation bias, which, they claim, has a physiological component. They cite research suggesting that people experience genuine pleasure—a rush of dopamine—when processing information that supports their beliefs. “It feels good to ‘stick to our guns’ even if we are wrong,” they observe. The Gormans don’t just want to catalogue the ways we go wrong; they want to correct for them. There must be some way, they maintain, to convince people that vaccines are good for kids, and handguns are dangerous. (Another widespread but statistically insupportable belief they’d like to discredit is that owning a gun makes you safer.) But here they encounter the very problems they have enumerated. Providing people with accurate information doesn’t seem to help; they simply discount it. Appealing to their emotions may work better, but doing so is obviously antithetical to the goal of promoting sound science. “The challenge that remains,” they write toward the end of their book, “is to figure out how to address the tendencies that lead to false scientific belief.” “The Enigma of Reason,” “The Knowledge Illusion,” and “Denying to the Grave” were all written before the November election. And yet they anticipate Kellyanne Conway and the rise of “alternative facts.” These days, it can feel as if the entire country has been given over to a vast psychological experiment being run either by no one or by Steve Bannon. Rational agents would be able to think their way to a solution. But, on this matter, the literature is not reassuring.

Cite this article:
Wolf Schweitzer: - The death of Dr. No [lessons to be learned for prosthetic design and use]; published 04/12/2017, 20:19; URL:

BibTeX: @MISC{schweitzer_wolf_1653028362, author = {Wolf Schweitzer}, title = {{ - The death of Dr. No [lessons to be learned for prosthetic design and use]}}, month = {December}, year = {2017}, url = {} }