Posts Tagged‘research’

Venus Express

Diving Into the Venutian Atmosphere.

Venus is probably the most peculiar planet that we have in our solar system. If you were observing it from far away you’d probably think that it was a twin of Earth, and for the most part you’d be right, but we know that it’s nothing like the place we call home. It’s atmosphere is a testament to the devastation that can be wrought by global warming with the surface temperature exceeding 400 degrees. Venus is also the only planet that spins in the opposite (retrograde) direction to every other planet, a mystery that still remains unsolved. Still for all we know about our celestial sister there’s always more to be learned and that’s where the Venus Express comes in.

Venus Express

Launched back in 2005 the Venus Express mission took the platform developed for the Mars Express mission and tweaked it for observational use around Venus. The Venus Express’ primary mission was the long term observation of Venus’ atmosphere as well as some limited study of its surface (a rather difficult task considering Venu’s dense atmosphere). It arrived at Venus back in early 2006 and has been sending data back ever since with its primary mission being extended several times since then. However the on board fuel resources are beginning to run low so the scientists controlling the craft proposed a daring idea: do a controlled deep dive into the atmosphere to gather even more detailed information about Venus’ atmosphere.

Typically the Venus Express orbits around 250KM above Venus’ surface, a pretty typical height for observational activities. The proposed dive however had the craft diving down to below 150KM, an incredibly low altitude for any craft to attempt. To put it in perspective the “boundary of space” (referred to as the Karman line) is about 100KM above Earth’s surface, putting this craft not too far off that boundary. Considering that Venus’ atmosphere is far more dense than Earth’s the risks you run by diving down that low are increased dramatically as the drag you’ll experience at that height will be far greater. Still, even with all those risks, the proposed dive went ahead last week.

The amazing thing about it? The craft survived.

The dive brought the craft down to a staggering 130KM above Venus’ surface during which it saw some drastic changes in its operating environment. The atmospheric density increased a thousandfold between the 160KM and 130KM, significantly increasing the drag on the spacecraft. This in turn led to the solar panels experiencing heating over 100 degrees, enough to boil water on them. It’s spent about a month at various low altitudes before the mission team brought it back up out of the cloudy depths, where its orbit will now slowly degrade over time before it re-enters the atmosphere one last time.

It’s stuff like this that gets me excited about space and the science we can do in it. I mean we’ve got an almost decade old craft orbiting another planet and we purposefully plunged it down, just in the hopes that we’d get some better data. Not only did it manage to do that but it came back out the other side, still ready and raring to go. If that isn’t a testament to our talents in engineering and orbital mechanics prowess then I don’t know what is.

Variance Due to Deliberate Practice

10,000 Hours of Deliberate Practice: A Necessary but not Sufficient Condition for Mastery.

It’s been almost 6 years since I first began writing this blog. If you dare to troll through the early archives there’s no doubt that the writing in there is of lower quality, much of it to do with me still trying to find my voice in this medium. Now, some 1300+ posts later, the hours I’ve invested in developing this blog my writing has improved dramatically and every day I feel far more confident in my abilities to churn out a blog post that meets a certain quality threshold. I attribute much of that to my dedication to writing at least once a day, an activity which has seen me invest thousands of hours into improving my craft. Indeed I felt that this was something of an embodiment of the 10,000 hour rule at work, something that newly released research says isn’t the main factor at play.

Variance Due to Deliberate PracticeThe  study conducted by researchers at Princeton University (full text available here) attempted to discern just how much of an impact deliberate practice had on performance. They conducted a meta analysis of 150 studies that investigated the relationship between these two variables and classified them along major domains as well as the methodology used to gather performance data. The results show that whilst deliberate practice can improve your performance within a certain domain (and which domain its in has a huge effect on how great the improvement is) it’s not the major contributor in any case. Indeed the vast majority of improvements are due to factors that reside outside of deliberate practice which seemingly throws the idea of 10,000 hours worth of practice being the key component to mastering something.

To be clear though the research doesn’t mean that practice is worthless, indeed in pretty much every study conducted there’s a strong correlation between increased performance and deliberate practice. What this study does show though is that there are factors outside of deliberate practice which have a greater influence on whether or not your performance improves. Unfortunately determining what those factors are was out of the scope of the study (it’s only addressed in passing in the final closing statements of the report) but there are still some interesting conclusions to be made about how one can go about improving themselves.

Where deliberate practice does seem to help with performance is with activities that have a predictable outcome. Indeed performances for routine activities show a drastic improvement when deliberate practice is undertaken whilst unpredictable things, like aviation emergencies, show less improvement. We also seem to overestimate our own improvement due to practice alone as studies that relied on people remembering past performances showed a much larger improvement than studies that logged performances over time. Additionally for the areas which showed the least amount of improvement due to deliberate practice it’s likely that there’s no good definition for “practice” within these domains, meaning it’s much harder to quantify what needs to be practiced.

So where does this leave us? Are we all doomed to be good at only the things which our nature defines for us, never to be able to improve on anything? As far as the research shows no, deliberate practice might not be the magic cure all for improving but it is a great place to start. What we need to know now is what other factors play into improving performances within their specific domains. For some areas this is already well defined (I can think of many examples in games) but for other domains that are slightly more nebulous in nature it’s entirely possible that we’ll never figure out the magic formula. Still at least now you don’t worry so much about the hours you put in, as long as you still, in fact, put them in.

 

Milk Does Not Cause Autism

So Now Milk Causes Autism According to PETA (News Flash, It Doesn’t).

When you’re faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem you’ll likely do anything to fix it, especially if it’s for someone you care about. When my dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer I read through reams of literature to figure out what was going on and what the best course of action could be for him, making sure that the doctors didn’t miss anything. Thankfully it was caught very early on and surgery, combined with 6 months of chemotherapy, was all that was required to send him into remission. Still the amount of utter bullshit I had to sift through when looking for the best treatments was absolutely phenomenal and all I could do was hope that no one else would fall prey to it. Unfortunately it seems that the bullshit machine never stops turning and PETA is the latest offender,

Milk Does Not Cause Autism

An article linked on PETA’s website makes the dubious claim that milk is somehow causing children with Autism to experience worse symptoms and, by virtue of simply eliminating it from their diet, their conditions markedly improve. They then link to two different studies, surprisingly from PubMed (I had honestly expected some quack site), that apparently support their arguments. Indeed if you follow those links both of the articles make the assertion that diet has some effect on Autism Spectrum Disorder symptoms with one taking the rather large hypothetical leap of suggesting that diet is linked to all central nervous system conditions. As you can probably tell from my wording I’m not exactly thrilled with these studies especially after reading the numerous other articles that cite them.

For the first study I quickly found 2 systematic reviews of the literature on this subject that included that particular study. The first says outright that there’s insufficient evidence to make the assertion that a gluten has any effect on ASDs but also suggests that there are likely subgroups with gluten allergies that could benefit from it (seems reasonable enough). The second notes that many children with ASD are also on a wide range of complementary and alternative therapies whilst undergoing these trials which makes the results even more unreliable than what their small sample size already does. It then goes on to say that the evidence for efficacy is poor and that large scale, randomized trials (which the first study PETA linked to didn’t do) are required.

The second paper is less cited but even within the few references I could find there was another study that said the data is inadequate for recommending a diet change as a treatment option. It goes on to note that of the studies it included most of them were uncontrolled, with only one of them being blinded in any way. The second study PETA linked doesn’t mention any blinding or control for factors as far as I can see so the data really can’t be used to make strong inferences, especially if you were using this data as a basis for treating others.

The last nail in the coffin is a recent (as in last month) systemic review on the literature on this subject which notes that all the research done on this has been of extremely low quality, lacking the scientific controls to make the data valid. If you want to determine the relationship between autism and dairy, which currently doesn’t exist as far as we can tell, then the study needs to be broad, encompassing hundreds of individuals and with good control measures so you can understand what’s influencing the outcome. Until then any assertions you make are simply hearsay and should most definitely not be used as the basis for treating someone else.

The only thing that makes bullshit like this worse is when large organisations like PETA get behind it, adding a level of credibility to an argument which just doesn’t exist. This is because the vast majority of the world won’t do the the things I did in order to see if they were right and, should they trust PETA as an organisation, take their word at face value and falsely believe it to be true. Whilst I’m sure you, dear reader, aren’t one of them I can’t say the same for the wider world and that’s exactly why malarkey like this needs to be dealt with head on. At the same time though I’d encourage you to do the investigation yourself as it shouldn’t be a savvy Internet blogger convincing you of the truth, let the facts do that instead.

Lab Mouse

The Fountain of Youth Might Just be The Blood of the Young.

Aging is one of the most complex and nuanced processes that our body goes through, radically transforming us over the course of several decades. Whilst some of the basic mechanisms are well understood, like accumulated damage to DNA during its reproduction, the rest remains something of a mystery. Indeed once we get into the extreme end of the spectrum the factors that seem to influence longevity become a lot more muddled, with many octogenarians engaging in behaviours that would appear to be the antithesis to living longer. Still our quest for the proverbial fountain of youth has had us searching through the many different mechanisms at play in the aging process and it seems that the blood of our young might hold the clues to a longer life.

Lab Mouse

Two pieces of recent research point towards some interesting evidence that shows the radical differences between the blood of the young and the elderly. Hendrikje van Andel-Schipper was once the oldest woman in the world, reaching the ripe old age of 115 in the year 2005. She was in remarkable condition for her age, remaining mentally aware and alert right up until her death. In a great boon to the greater scientific community she donated her body for study giving us unprecedented insight into what happens to us as we age. That, combined with some recent research data coming at this from a different perspective, shows that the contents of our blood changes dramatically as we age and, possibly, that we could reinvigorate ourselves with transfusions from our younger selves.

At the end of her life all of Hendrikje’s white blood cells, the ones responsible for fighting off infections, came from a mere 2 stem cells. It is estimated that we begin our lives with around 20,000 such cells with around 5% of them working at any one time to replenish our white cell supply. The fact that Hendrikje had only two function stem cells remaining points to an upper limit on the natural human age as once you stop producing white blood cells it wouldn’t take long for your body to succumb to any number of diseases. Curiously though this also hints a potential pathway to reinvigorate individuals whose white cell count has deteriorated, by injecting them with their own blood (or potentially someone else’s) taken from many years previous.

That part was mostly conjecture on the part of the researchers but recent results from a study  at Stanford University have shown that old mice injected with the blood of younger mice show significant improvement in cognitive function. Whilst this isn’t likely to be the same mechanism that the previous research may have indicated (blood plasma with the proteins denatured in it didn’t achieve the same result) it does point towards a potential therapeutic pathway for combating some age related maladies. Of course whether this translates into a human model remains to be seen and who knows if this kind of thing would get passed an ethics tribunal.

Indeed research of this nature opens up all sorts of ethical questions as if it’s shown that blood transfusions can improve the quality of life of patients then it becomes imperative for doctors to use it. With blood supplies always being in high demand the question of where they can do the most good comes to the forefront, a troubled area that really has no good answers. Still if you could better the life of another, most likely a relative, by simply giving blood I’m sure many of us would do it, but the larger question of voluntary donations still remains.

There’s also some potentially dark sci-fi film in here about people being bled dry in order to feed an underground transfusion market but I’ll leave that one up to your imagination.

Homeopathic Pills With Not Much In Them

NHMRC Rules Homeopathy “Useless For Human Health”.

You might not think it from reading this blog but I’ve actually been an advocate for some types of complementary medicine in the past. Predominantly this has been related to osteopathy which helped me tremendously with some back issues I had, especially when used in conjunction with more traditional physiotherapy. However that’s where my belief in them ends as whilst many practitioners would have you believe that their treatments can be effective for things other than what they’re directly influencing the science just isn’t there to support it. Indeed even the practitioners I use don’t believe that which is the reason I keep going back to them.

Homeopathic Pills With Not Much In ThemOne of my favourite dead horses to beat in this area is homeopathy, the practice of diluting something that causes the symptoms you’re experiencing in water to the point where none of that substance could remain. It’s practitioners then theorize that the water retains some “memory” of it which you body then recognises and somehow manifests a cure for ailments. Homeopathy has been scientifically proven to be no more effective than a placebo in numerous clinical trials yet it’s still a booming industry seeing on the order of $10 million worth of sales in Australia every year. You’d think that without any solid grounds for efficacy it wouldn’t be long for this world but it’s practitioners are an incredibly stubborn bunch.

Thankfully though the government commissioned the National Health and Medical Research Council to do a report on the efficacy of homeopathy for some 68 different clinical conditions and the results are, unsurprisingly, for the negative. The research was commissioned as part of a larger body of work concerning the government’s 30% rebate on complementary therapies which currently includes things like homeopathy. It’s quite possible that this will lead to the exclusion of such therapies from the rebate scheme, something which I wholly support. This won’t stop them from being sold though, they just won’t be subsidised as a complementary form of medicine.

On the flip side though I’m of the mind that people are more than welcome to put whatever they want in their bodies so long as they don’t harm anyone else. This research makes it clear that homeopathy can not treat clinical conditions and so anyone who advocates it as such is, in my mind, actively doing harm to that person. If you’re taking a homeopathic remedy for “general health reasons” and it seems to be working for you great, but consider that your experience is more than likely due to the nature of you thinking it was going to work rather than some magical properties of water that defies all scientific evidence to the contrary. In that case for it to work for someone else they too have to believe that and if they do they’ll likely find it without your help.

 

 

TranshumanMichelangelo

Australian, US Researchers Dramatically Reverse Aging in Mice.

I’m something of a quiet transhumanist, reveling in the ideas of elevating the human existence through the use of technology but staving off from raving about it whenever I get the chance. Whilst the idea of living longer appeals to many the idea of removing that inevitable end date, the one thing that has proved to be unavoidable for the vast majority of humanity to date, feels abhorrent to many and thus I leave the subject to one side. Still every so often a piece of science will make it into the mainstream media that brings with it some of the implications of transhumanist thinking and I feel compelled to comment on it.

TranshumanMichelangeloA collaborative research effort between scientists in Australia and the USA has discovered a compound which, when administered to 2 year old mice, makes them appear to be as youthful as their 6 month old counterparts. The time line for the dramatic effects was also impressive with the reversal taking just under a week to occur. The compound acts on mitochondria, the energy generators of our cells, and appears to act directly on the muscle tissue of the mice. Whether that extends to other aspects of aging isn’t made clear (at least not that I can see, the article is behind a paywall) but the results have been impressive enough to warrant approval for human trials next year. Of course that means that a proper human model is some years off (with commercial production further still) but we should have some preliminary results in the not too distant future.

If this compound does pretty much exactly as advertised then it could mean a lot for our aging populace. Restoring muscle function is a key aspect in leading a healthier life as we age (which is why regular exercise is so important) and this could go a long way to making our golden years that much more enjoyable. At the same time it could also potentially help keep us in physical peak condition much longer, enabling us to be more active for an extended period of time. Whether this will translate to a bump in life expectancy and, more importantly, total longevity though will be something we won’t know for decades but it does sound promising.

Of course such life extension technologies always beg the question of how we’d deal with a larger population that’s living longer. Currently the world’s population is expected to peak around 2050 at roughly 8.3 billion, about 1.3 billion above what it is today. Technology like this wouldn’t immediately mean everyone suddenly starts living an additional 20~30 years, due to cost and adoption rates, so it’s far more likely that you’d see a gradual increase in average lifespan over the course of a couple decades. Indeed I believe this is true for all life extending technologies and thus their effects would be far more subtle and would be highly unlikely to lead to an unsustainable population of people who live forever.

It’s my hope that this line of research paves the way for more studies into what causes aging and what we can do to treat it. Whilst I will always support people’s decisions to live their lives the way they choose I believe that medical science can do a lot to help improve it and, one day, make death a choice rather than an inevitability. 

 

Creepy Chilli Dude

Does Chilli Really Help With The Common Cold?

After a long weekend of staying up late, drinking merrily and enjoying the company of many close friends I found myself being a little under the weather. This is pretty atypical for me as I’ve only ever had the flu twice and I usually pass through the cold season relatively unscathed. Whilst there’s thousands of possible reasons for this I’ve always found that should I find myself in the beginnings of an infection a strong dose of chilli seems to make it subside, or at least take my mind off it long enough to start feeling better. I realised yesterday that whilst I might have some anecdotal evidence to support this I hadn’t really looked into the science behind it and the stuff I uncovered in my search has been pretty intriguing.

Creepy Chilli Dude

For starters there are some strange experiments out there that have used chilli (well the chemical that gives it the burn, capsaicin) as an apparently reliable method to induce coughing in test subjects. The first one I came across was testing whether or not coughing is a voluntary action and the results seem to indicate that the coughing we get with the common cold is a mixture of both. Other experiments showed that people with an upper respiratory tract infection (which includes things like the common cold) are more prone to coughing when exposed to a capsaicin/citric acid mixture. None of these really helped me in understanding whether or not chilli aids in reducing the symptoms of the common cold or helping to cure it but a couple other studies do provide some potential paths for benefits.

Subjects with perennial rhinitis, a permanent allergic reaction to stimulus that doesn’t vary by season, showed a marked decrease in nasal complaints when treated with a solution of 0.15mg of capsaicin per nostal every 2nd or 3rd day for 7 treatments. The benefits lasted up to 9 months after the treatment and incredibly there were no adverse effects on cellular homeostasis or overall neurogenic staining (which sounds rather impressive but is a little out of my league to explain).  Whilst this doesn’t directly support the idea that consumption helps the common cold it does provide a potential mechanism for it to relieve symptoms. However how much capsaicin ends up in your sinuses while eating it isn’t something I could find any data on.

Other studies have found similar effects when capsaicin solutions have been sprayed into the nasal cavity with the improvements lasting for up to 6 months. That particular study was a little on the small side though with only 10 patients and no controls present but the result do fall in line with the previous study which had much more rigorous controls. The theme appears to resonate through most of the other studies that I could find: topical application in the sinuses is good, inhaling it will cause you to erupt in a coughing fit.

Anecdotally that seems to line up with the experiences I’ve had and it’s good to see it backed up by some proper science. As for consumed chilli helping overall however there doesn’t appear to be any studies that support that idea but there are potential avenues for it to work. So like many scientists I’ll have to say that the results are interesting but require a lot more research to be done. Whether it’s worthy of investigating is something I’ll leave up as an exercise to the reader, but I’m sure we’d find no shortage of spice loving test subjects who’d be willing to participate.

 

The HPV Vaccine is Safe, Don’t Be Shit and Not Vaccinate Your Kids.

Vaccines are the most effective form of disease prevention as they train our bodies to respond to them long before we encounter them in wild. They’re responsible for systemically wiping out several diseases that caused countless numbers of deaths around the world and have saved people from the life long consequences that survivors of said diseases would have to struggle with. You’d think with proven benefits like that the choice to use them, especially for the most vulnerable groups of people (I.E. children and the elderly), would be a no-brainer. Unfortunately it seems that as more time passes the more often I come across articles detailing the increase prevalence of anti-vaxxers and I’m struggling to understand why.

Whilst the anti-vaxxer movement isn’t exactly new, indeed as long as there has been vaccines there have been those who have been opposed to them, this current wave can trace its origins back to Andrew Wakefield’s long since discredited research linking the MMR vaccine to autism spectrum disorders in children. Even though he has since been very publicly shamed over the matter people still seem to link vaccines with all sorts of disorders they are simply incapable of producing. Worse still is the fact that this baseless fear is now spreading to other vaccines, modern ones with impeccable safety and efficacy records.

4.0.4

This little bastard is the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) which is responsible for nearly all cervical cancers found in women today. Thankfully we have a vaccine for it now and all it requires is 3 shots over the course of 6 months to eliminate the risk of ever getting it. The vaccine is most effective when delivered to children when they’re young or in their early teens but it is still effective in older individuals (my wife had hers when she was in her early twenties). Recent studies show that despite its proven track record of efficacy and safety parents are becoming increasingly worried about it with many stating that they’ll never vaccinate their children for HPV:

A rising percentage of parents say they won’t have their teen daughters vaccinated to protect against the human papilloma virus, even though physicians are increasingly recommending adolescent vaccinations, a study by Mayo Clinic and others shows. More than 2 in 5 parents surveyed believe the HPV vaccine is unnecessary, and a growing number worry about potential side effects, researchers found. The findings are published in the new issue of the journal Pediatrics.


Five years ago, 40 percent of parents surveyed said they wouldn’t vaccinate their girls against HPV. In 2009, that rose to 41 percent, and in 2010, to 44 percent.

Let’s tackle the idea that the vaccine is unnecessary first as this means parent’s believe their children simply don’t need it, something which should be easy to prove by looking up cancer rates. I’d accept that it’d be unnecessary if the incident rates were low but the fact of the matter is that cervical cancer is the second most common form of cancer in women and the fifth most deadly. The rates might look statistically low however if you could eliminate that risk with a simple (and usually free) vaccination course I think you’d do it if it was any other form of cancer. Calling it unnecessary simply shows your ignorance of how prevalent it really is.

The side effects of the HPV vaccine are also well known and for the vast majority (we’re talking 99.9999% here, and I’m not exaggerating) are mild and easily treatable with over the counter analgesics. In those rare cases where there are severe reactions doctors are trained in how to respond to them and patients will fully recover in short order. All of the other reported side effects, everything from waking comas to deaths, can not be casually linked to the vaccine. Indeed in the 20 or so cases of deaths reported as adverse reactions to the vaccines none of them were found to be caused by the vaccine and were explained by other factors. Considering some 40 million people have been vaccinated with it so far and we can’t attribute anything but eradication of cancer and some mild side effects I think its fair to assume its safe.

I know I’ve been beating this horse (which seems to keep reviving itself) for some time now but it does really get to me that people are being wilfully ignorant of the facts behind vaccines about how effective, safe and necessary they really are. Sadly whilst it didn’t take me long to find all this information it was shown right alongside a whole treasure trove of anti-vaxxer bullshit which is why I continue to write things like this. It’s my hope that someone looking for good information on the subject will stumble across my posts like these and hopefully be convinced that vaccines really are worth it.

 

Herd Immunity Demonstration

Visual Representation of The Effects of Herd Immunity (Or Anti-Vaxxers: Listen Up)

Arguing with facts on your side can sometimes feel like a Sisyphean task, especially on the Internet. For the most part when I claim something on this blog I try to back it up with reputable information sources if I haven’t done the research myself and if I’m talking completely out my ass I try to make that known so you can take that information with the required grain of salt. However when people comment on here I feel obliged to reply to them, even if what they’re saying has no basis in any kind of fact or reality. This can feel like a form of asymmetric warfare at times as the amount of time taken to disprove something is usually an order of magnitude more than what it took to write it in the first place.

Now I don’t usually like to pick on people who make comments here, if you’ve taken the time to post here I feel it’s better to respond to you directly on the post, but some of them simply demand more attention than I’ve already given to them. The one I’m thinking of in particular is this comment where they claim that herd immunity has been debunked, something that’s never been brought forth in any research paper that I’ve been able to track down. As far as I can tell it all comes down to the opinion of a one Dr. Blaylock who’s opinions have always been radically different from the scientific norm. He’s not a scientific dissenter either as many of his claims have been thoroughly debunked by other research but the herd immunity claim seems to remain.

Herd Immunity Demonstration

 

Whilst it would be all well and good for me to simply link to research papers which show case this fact quite well I thought it’d be better to point to something that demonstrates the point visually. The picture above is from this simulation tool which shows the results of what happens when a disease moves through a population. The first couple are interesting to get a feel for how an uncontrolled infection can spread even if only a single person is infected. The latter ones deal with some real life situations and demonstrate quite aptly why herd immunity works and why we’ve started to see small epidemics in isolated populations where they don’t vaccinated their children.

Probably the most shocking revelation I got from this simulation was the existence of Waldorf schools who’s official stance on vaccinations is “we have no official stance” but then immediately goes on to recommend parents don’t vaccinate their kids against a wide spectrum of diseases. Apart from the giant hypocrisy of saying one thing but then encouraging the other this kind of behaviour is inherently dangerous because it will mean there’s a cluster of unvaccinated people in constant contact with one another, a hot bed for a potential epidemic. It’s one thing to claim that but it’s already happened once and there was potential for another outbreak to occur due to the incredibly low vaccination rate. Considering that doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world where vaccination rates are above a certain threshold it’s a timely reminder that herd immunity is real and when its broken the consequences can be devastating.

I would go on but I think I’m preaching to the choir here as whilst the number of comments I get disagreeing with me out numbers those who do I know that if that reflected reality us humans would be in a far worse state, health wise, than we are today. The fact of the matter is that herd immunity is real and works beautifully for protecting those precious few who can not be vaccinated for one reason or another. Failing to vaccinate is not only a bad decision personally it also puts others at risk and that’s the only reason I need to support the current standard of mandated vaccinations.

I Thought We’d Won (The R18+ Guideline Requiem).

3 years. That’s how long I’ve been writing about the R18+ rating in Australia. I had thought that I was pretty much done with it when the rating sailed through the lower house 6 months ago but a week ago the guidelines for the new rating were released by the Australian Classification Board and the gaming community collectively sighed in dismay at what was presented. Taking a look over the guidelines it’s clear that the idea of a unified classification scheme for all forms of media will never come into reality in Australia as apparently games must be treated differently to all other mediums of expression. Their reasoning for this might look sound on the surface (games are interactive and thus more impactful) but their thinking isn’t based on any science I can find and we all know how angry that makes me.

The guidelines themselves are short and concise which makes them rather easy to compare to their previous iterations. Whilst the R18+ rating does open the doors to games that are adult in nature there are some pretty severe restrictions when compared to it’s sister medium of film. Indeed if you look at the guidelines for film’s version of R18+ and then look at the one for games the number of justifications, limits and “in context” qualifiers the comparison is quite stark which shows that the classification board believes that games are more impactful due to their interactive nature. I’ve heard this line before but never actually did some research into whether it was true or not.

Today I found out that it’s not.

Whilst it’s hard to find causative links between video games and any sort of trend in behaviour due to the impossibility of doing proper control testing there is some decent data out there. However meta-analysis of previous studies can show data trends that we can get correlations from. Before you repeat the “correlation is not causation” mantra at me don’t forget that correlation is required for causation¹ so any time you see it pop up the relationship almost always warrants further investigation. In this case whilst the research suggests that violent media may lead to increased aggression that does not directly translate to increased violence and violent media is never the sole factor responsible.

What the research does show however is that the tendency towards aggressive behaviours is no more influenced by interactive games than it is passive consumption of other forms of media. Indeed more research shows that contextual justification of violence is by far more influential than the interactivity or quantity of violence present. Thus the idea that games have to be somehow held up to a different standard than that of other mediums due to its interactivity is at best an emotional argument and not one we should be basing laws around.

Of course since these are a set of guidelines it ultimately comes down to the reviewers to enforce them and there’s a chance that they won’t do so literally. Indeed many games that got slapped with R18+ ratings in other countries previously were waved through under the MA15+ here in Australia and it’s quite possible that with the introduction of the R18+ rating that many of the games that fell under the NC banner previously will get waved through in much the same way. This is pure speculation on my part however and we shall have to wait for the first lot of R18+ games to come through the ACB before we’ll know if there’s any credence to that theory.

It makes me incredibly angry to see policy based around emotional arguments rather than solid research. If I can find the right articles in the couple hours I spend on researching these things then I’d expect nothing less from public servants who are paid to do the same in order to advise their politicians. I can only hope that the government takes the advice of the ALRC seriously and looks towards unifying the classification scheme so we can abandon these silly schemes of differing levels of classification for different types of media. It’s another long shot for sure but after 3 years of shouting to get to this point I’m not about to give up now.

¹And for those smart asses out there who will then tell me that you can have causation without correlation I’ll tell you to go back to your data and have a good hard look at it. If SPSS tells you that there’s no correlation in the data when you somehow know there is then there’s a problem with your data or hypothesis.