30 Countries with the Most Economic Freedom


The 23rd (2017) edition of the Index of Economic Freedom was released, and the results are surprising. According to the website, “In economically free societies, governments allow labor, capital, and goods to move freely, and refrain from coercion or constraint of liberty beyond the extent necessary to protect and maintain liberty itself.” Feel free to take a minute to guess the top 5 countries… and then feel silly knowing that you were inevitably totally wrong.

Okay, maybe it’s not so surprising when you see the world already mapped out with the index’s scores, but if you had asked me before seeing the results, I would have guessed that Scandinavian countries would dominate the top 10. I am also surprised to see the US ranked #17 because I expected it to be much lower, and Japan ($40) much higher. Regardless, economic freedom is an interesting way to consider what it means to be free, and this is how they define it:

Economic freedom is the fundamental right of every human to control his or her own labor and property.

Without further ado…

The Rankings

The rankings below show the country name, the overall score, and the change from last year (in parentheses).

  • 1) Hong Kong 89.8 (+1.2)
  • 2) Singapore 88.6 (+0.8)
  • 3) New Zealand 83.7 (+2.1)
  • 4) Switzerland 81.5 (+0.5)
  • 5) Australia 81.0 (+0.7)
  • 6) Estonia 79.1 (+1.9)
  • 7) Canada 78.5 (+0.5)
  • 8) United Arab Emirates 76.9 (+4.3)
  • 9) Ireland 76.7 (-0.6)
  • 10) Chile 76.5 (-1.2)
  • 11) Taiwan 76.5 (+1.8)
  • 12) United Kingdom 76.4 (0.0)
  • 13) Georgia 76.0 (+3.4)
  • 14) Luxembourg 75.9 (+2.0)
  • 15) The Netherlands 75.8 (+1.2)
  • 16) Lithuania 75.8 (+0.6)
  • 17) United States 75.1 (-0.3)
  • 18) Denmark 75.1 (-0.2)
  • 19) Sweden 74.9 (+2.9)
  • 20) Latvia 74.8 (+4.4)
  • 21) Mauritius 74.7 (0.0)
  • 22) Iceland 74.4 (+1.1)
  • 23) South Korea 74.3 (+2.6)
  • 24) Finland 74.0 (+1.4)
  • 25) Norway 74.0 (+3.2)
  • 26) Germany 73.8 (-0.6)
  • 27) Malaysia 73.8 (+2.3)
  • 28) Czech Republic 73.3 (+0.1)
  • 29) Qatar 73.1 (+2.4)
  • 30) Austria 72.3 (+0.6)


People seem to always have strong opinions about these types of rankings, but you can find more information on the Heritage Foundation website. You can even see comparisons of specific countries, continents, or regions, on ratings of everything from property rights and government integrity to tax burden and freedom of business.

Their research is robust, so they most certainly have reasoning behind each and every number – none of it is frivolous. However, there is always the potential that certain factors may be overlooked; this is just one of the many ways in which we can quantify the freedom nationals can enjoy in their respective countries.

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The Scourge of Internet Memes, and Believing Everything You See

Have we become a society of gullibility? Anyone who has a large enough network on social media has been able to see an increase in recent years of pictorial internet memes, such as in the image above. Typically, this is with the face of the individual who said it, along with a quote, often used to inspire, make a joke, or simply make a solid and concise argument. However, it seems that we are beginning to believe things a little too easily nowadays; and in a time of rampant “fake news,” this is becoming a problem.

Memetic and Frenetic

In the video below – from his show “Last Week Tonight” – demonstrates, comedian John Oliver asserts that many common (and often very well-put) quotations have been unwarrantedly attributed to the wrong individuals, including himself:

Oliver explains that quotations and memes (especially pictorial internet memes) have become easily believed/accepted as factual among an increasingly gullible general population. Even with young people who are more internet-savvy than their older and less initiated counterparts, what one may call “factual news literacy” – the ability to discern fact from fiction in news – is not guaranteed, despite people’s access to vast amounts information.

In fact, this was further exemplified in another of Oliver’s episodes which just aired. In the context of how much less Americans would receive in tax credits under President Trump’s health insurance plan (as opposed to under Obamacare), Oliver said:

That is over two-thirds less. And it’s not one of those “two-thirds decreases” that you barely notice, like when Robin and Barry of the Bee Gees died.

I’m kidding – Barry is fine. Robin and Maurice are dead.

…Or are they?

The point is, they are. Although, to be fair… I have no idea. You don’t either, and I don’t see either of us Googling it anytime soon.

It is this final sentence that exemplifies a major problem – an intellectual laziness that precludes us from investigating further. But is this the only problem? Unfortunately, no. As one study suggests, people’s propensity to so easily believe such memes on social media is also related to the general increasing distrust of mainstream media.

Collective Decreasing Skepticism

It probably doesn’t help us to maintain our healthy skepticism that several sites (e.g. the Onion) are actually dedicated to reporting fake news – sometimes for satirical or less sinister reasons, and other times to influence public opinion by intentionally misleading people. Regardless, research suggests that there is a link between low intelligence and believing falsehoods online (as well as even being inspired by so-called “inspirational quotes”). It would therefore behoove us to exercise our intellectual curiosity and try to make sure we can discern facts from fiction.

After all, I used to hear “don’t believe everything you hear on the Internet” all the time, but it seems that we (as Internet users) have lost some of our initial skepticism.

Last year, I wrote an article about the quote “There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute” – a famous quote which is generally unwarrantedly attributed to P.T. Barnum (as the article explains). Indeed, everyone gets suckered into believing untrue things at some point, and we mustn’t delude ourselves into believing that we are infallible. Only fools believe in their own infallibility.

The Bottom Line

We must strive to satisfy our intellectual curiosity by actively verifying information we hear, especially when we repeat them ourselves. Yes, this is more work for us, but it is important when we are making factual arguments to know exactly where our information comes from. This helps establish a record, so that we know exactly what happened, in order to know how we can best act in the future.

As John Oliver said:

We study the past to understand the present, and we understand the present to guide the future.

…Or did he?

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6 Ridiculous Fake News Stories of the Past Year

Donald Trump sends his own plan to transport stranded marines, ISIS endorses Hillary Clinton and she sold them weapons, and Rage Against the Machine gets back together. Yep, this year had more fake news than fact-checkers had ever seen before, thanks to the gullibility of the American public, the absurdity of Trump, and the efforts of people who have been working hard to create fake news for the purpose of exploiting those first two things. This article talks briefly about 6 brief stories that fooled enough people to cause a news-storm. It wasn’t pretty… but it was ridiculous.

  1. Pizzagate – Such a stupid conspiracy theory. Hillary Clinton and the case of the underground pedophilia ring… it was so stupid that one gullible idiot shot up a pizza place. Because he… wanted to protect children?
  2. Israel threatens Pakistan – A nonsense fake news article claims that Israel boasted that it could destroy Pakistan with a nuclear attack. The Pakistani Defense Minister responded with a tweet that said “Israeli def min threatens nuclear retaliation presuming pak role in Syria against Daesh. Israel forgets Pakistan is a Nuclear state too.” The Israeli Defense Ministry of course responded by saying that the news story was fake.
  3. Pope Francis endorses Trump – Pope Francis specifically said that he doesn’t discuss electoral campaigns, but that didn’t stop fake reports of him endorsing someone (some of them also claimed that he supported Clinton… whatever).
  4. Bernie Sanders Supporters Are Violent – In the Nevada State Democratic Convention, mainstream media perpetuated a rumour that Bernie Sanders’ supporters were incredibly dangerous, even throwing a chair. They lied for weeks that there was even video of the event. But it came to a point where they realized that every angle of the event was caught on camera, and the closest thing to throwing a chair was one individual who lifted a chair up, immediately put it down, and then hugged someone else. And of course, that was on camera. When the damage was already done, media outlets quietly apologized for getting the story wrong.
  5. Ted Cruz’s father was complicit in killing JFK – I watched the fictional account of an increasingly authoritarian political figure in the TV show “House of Cards,” and I was thinking that it was getting to be a bit far-fetched. Now, I’m sad to say that it is not outside the realm of possibility. This Trump-derived lie was one of the more absurd ones he said, but the list of ridiculous lies is too long to write here.
  6. Trump’s inauguration crowd was the biggest ever – Come on… does anyone believe this? I don’t even know if Trump himself really believes this. Just look at the pictures and know that if you believe him, then you are deluded.

It seems the past 12 month’s bout of fake news was dominated by American political stories. Considering that the US has such a major influence on cultures of countries around the world, this is not a good thing. But with a little bit of common sense, some of these stories should be easy to spot.

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2016 Absolutely Sucked

Pretty much once a year, I take a break from my usual articles of epic quality and write something personal, reflective, or otherwise far less-than-eloquent. So I am not going to pussy-foot around this… 2016 sucked. I mean… it really sucked. There were plenty of celebrity deaths, a fascist man-child became the most powerful man in the world, and “Brexit” became a reality. But that was just some of the biggest global news. I personally had a lot of heartache and heart-break; so rather than doing a standard year-in review, I just want to keep this short, and give you a video that makes it all better.

The last few years have been an insane rollercoaster ride for me. I have pretty much been working or studying non-stop since the end of 2014, basically doing 60, 70, or 80-hour work weeks. I did this because I decided to change career paths. Unfortunately, despite putting in about 5 or 6 years’ worth of work in 3 years, and joining one of the most prestigious institutions in the world, I actually ended up changing my career path yet again. In fact, this is why Skeptikai has changed from a blog where around 3 posts were published per week (for the first few years), to one where only one article is published per month. It is a matter of time and priority. I am not certain what the future of Skeptikai will be, but is a question I have been asking myself for a while.

I made these difficult decisions for many reasons, but changing my career for the second time in a short period was especially difficult and painful. Furthermore, my personal life was also met with disappointments of varying degrees. I won’t get into it, but let’s just say, 2016 was a very tough and stressful year.

A video skit that came out quite a while ago, from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, was really helpful to me. There was something beautiful about finding unity in my anguish. I felt a great deal of catharsis – a sense of not being alone – and I sincerely appreciated this video. It made me want to shout “fuck 2016!” from the rooftops. I share this with you now in the hopes that it helps you as well.

2016 was perhaps the most emotionally painful year of my life. So go to hell, 2016. And bring on 2017, which I am already calling early… an inevitably awesome year.

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The 10 Coolest Science Stories of 2016

There was a lot of interesting stuff that happened this year, from discoveries to developments of fancy new technologies. This article is all about the science of the last 12 months – the news that was overshadowed by the politics. Therefore, this is a subjective list, because some stories are just better than others. But by staying away from the stories that dominated the news, I am sure you will learn something new as well as find out how the science world is changing. The 10 stories are not ranked, just aggregated for being fascinating.

Quadriplegic Man Plays Guitar Hero, With Cybernetic Implant

This is an amazing story. Years after a spinal cord injury rendered an American man paralyzed from the neck down, this individual has regained some of his lost movement. However, this is not by some miracle of biology. It is because of a mix of a cybernetic implant, a computer that is linked to a complex sensor-sleeve on his arm, complicated software, and many hours of biofeedback-based physical exercises. He has regained enough physical movement to swipe credit cards, pick up a glass, pour bottles, and even play the video-game Guitar Hero. Furthermore, since he now has movement in his fingers, he is able to use a stick-based motorized chair, which means he can now move around unassisted.

Stroke Patients Who Required Wheelchairs Able to Work After Stem Cells Injections

This is in a similar vein to the story above, but I found both of them so hopeful that I wanted to put them at the top. As described on Listverse:

A clinical trial held at Stanford University School of Medicine injected modified human stem cells directly into the brains of several chronic stroke patients. The procedures were all successful with no negative effects described from the injection and only mild headaches as a result of the procedure, which was performed on mildly anesthetized patients. All 18 showed significant healing long after any healing is expected following a stroke (a period of six months). This included increased mobility and actually allowed for patients who were previously limited to wheelchairs to walk again freely.

Baby Born with Three Biological Parents

Despite this being a controversial and ethically questionable technique using DNA from three people, this was amazing news. I am not ashamed to say that I had no idea this was even possible, but the baby is around 8 months old, so it’s not just theoretical. New Scientist reports:

A 5-month-old boy was the first baby to be born using a controversial technique that incorporates DNA from three people, we revealed in September. The method allows parents with rare genetic mutations to have healthy babies. The child’s Jordanian parents were treated by a US-based team in Mexico. Separately, in October, we discovered that the first babies made using a similar method to overcome infertility are due to be born in 2017.

“5D” Technology May Revolutionize Data Storage

A coin-sized glass disk has been developed to be able to store not only all those Game of Thrones episodes you downloaded illegally, but all of your music too! Joking aside, it’s much cooler than that. From a University of Southampton report:

Scientists at the University of Southampton have made a major step forward in the development of digital data storage that is capable of surviving for billions of years. [. . .]

The storage allows unprecedented properties including 360 TB/disc data capacity, thermal stability up to 1,000°C and virtually unlimited lifetime at room temperature (13.8 billion years at 190°C ) opening a new era of eternal data archiving. As a very stable and safe form of portable memory, the technology could be highly useful for organisations with big archives, such as national archives, museums and libraries, to preserve their information and records.

Rocket Landed Vertically …On a Drone Ship!

Do you have any idea how hard it is to land a rocket on a ship that’s floating on the water? In fact, it was a “floating autonomous drone ship,” no less. Reporting form the Verge:

The whole point of landing these rockets is to help save SpaceX money on launch costs. Right now, most rockets are destroyed or lost after they launch into space, meaning entirely new rockets must be built for each mission. SpaceX hopes to recover as many rockets as possible to cut down on cost of creating new vehicles. The Falcon 9 costs $60 million to make and only $200,000 to fuel. If a recovered rocket doesn’t need too much updating and refurbishment between launches, reusability could eliminate a good chunk of that manufacturing cost. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell expects reusable rockets to bring down launch costs by about 30 percent, according to Space News.

Menopause Might Not be the End of Fertility

We all know that menopause is the period at which women are (among other things) no longer able to give birth. But that may only be true for a short time longer. As New Scientist explains:

Menopause need not be the end of fertility. A team claims to have found a way to rejuvenate post-menopausal ovaries, enabling them to release fertile eggs, New Scientist can reveal.

The team says its technique has restarted periods in menopausal women, including one who had not menstruated in five years. If the results hold up to wider scrutiny, the technique may boost declining fertility in older women, allow women with early menopause to get pregnant, and help stave off the detrimental health effects of menopause.

The T-Rex Was Probably Just a Big Wuss

I know what you’re thinking, “but wait… they’re the scary ancient dinosaurs that chase after us in our jeeps and kill all the other smaller dinosaurs because they’re wusses.” Well not so fast, Indiana Jones. Whatever you know about the dinosaur is probably actually from Jurassic Park (probably not Indiana Jones). As Science Magazine explains:

A rare set of tyrannosaur footprints is giving researchers insight into the walking speed of the prehistoric beasts, and it’s possible that humans might have been able to outrun them. According to the new estimate, Tyrannosaurus rex may have ambled as quickly as 8 kilometers per hour (5 miles per hour), slower than a plodding amateur marathon runner or even a middle-aged power walker. [. . .]

The analysis doesn’t prove that T. Rex couldn’t have gone faster, however. Because trackways are records of single events—one walk along a lakeshore, for example—the odds are that any particular set of footprints doesn’t capture a dinosaur’s peak performance

But if that didn’t convince you, then you should see the exhibit reported in National Geographic. In case you didn’t know, T-rexes are going over somewhat of a retroactive make-over. Rather than looking like an bipedal alligator, they look more like… well… birds. With feathers.

Trees Might Actually “Sleep”, Kind of Like Humans

Researchers have observed that trees actually droop down, as if they’re resting, at night. The New Scientist reports:

For the first time, trees have been shown to undergo physical changes at night that can be likened to sleep, or at least to day-night cycles that have been observed experimentally in smaller plants.

Branches of birch trees have now been seen drooping by as much as 10 centimetres at the tips towards the end of the night.

“It was a very clear effect, and applied to the whole tree,” says András Zlinszky of the Centre for Ecological Research in Tihany, Hungary. “No one has observed this effect before at the scale of whole trees, and I was surprised by the extent of the changes.”

Life After Death is a Reality (for Genes)

Here comes the zombie uprising. Well, not really. But researchers did look at the cadavers of mice and zebrafish to track genetic changes that occurred after their deaths (for 2 and 4 days after dying, respectively). Science reports:

At first, the researchers assumed that genes would shut down shortly after death, like the parts of a car that has run out of gas. What they found instead was that hundreds of genes ramped up. Although most of these genes upped their activity in the first 24 hours after the animals expired and then tapered off, in the fish some genes remained active 4 days after death. [. . .] Researchers may be able to parlay this postmortem activity into better ways of preserving donated organs for transplantation and more accurate methods of determining when murder victims were killed.

AlphaGo Beats Human Opponent

If you haven’t heard of the game “Go” (no, not Pokemon Go), then you probably aren’t Japanese; but think of it as a checkers-like game. AlphaGo is an artificial intelligence that beat a professional player a decade earlier than people were expecting, making both the Go and the AI communities something to think about. The final score was 4-1 for AlphaGo. From Science News:

AlphaGo’s design mimics the way human brains tackle problems and allows the program to fine-tune itself based on new experiences. The system was trained using 30 million positions from 160,000 games of Go played by human experts. AlphaGo’s creators at Google DeepMind honed the software even further by having it play games against slightly altered versions of itself, a sort of digital “survival of the fittest.”

These learning experiences allowed AlphaGo to more efficiently sweat over its next move. Programs aimed at simpler games play out every single hypothetical game that could result from each available choice in a branching pattern — a brute-force approach to computing. But this technique becomes impractical for more complex games such as chess, so many chess-playing programs sample only a smaller subset of possible outcomes. That was true of Deep Blue, the computer that beat chess master Garry Kasparov in 1997.

But Go offers players many more choices than chess does. A full-sized Go board includes 361 playing spaces (compared with chess’ 64), often has various “battles” taking place across the board simultaneously and can last for more moves.

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Top News Stories of 2016 (in comedy videos)

No two ways around it – 2016 was a big year. There were a lot of huge stories this year, including the refugee crisis, the Brussels bombings, the Zika virus, the Orlanda shooting, Black Lives Matter protests, a coup was attempted in Turkey but failed miserably, the Rio Olympics, Hurricane Matthew, the death of Thailand’s beloved king, and the ongoing destruction of Aleppo. And we haven’t even gotten to the worst news – “believe me.” But rather than reading depressing news that makes it even harder to get up in the morning, I decided to keep each story light and concise. So let’s look on the brighter side.

Most Hated Man to Ever Run For Office Becomes US President

This has to be the top story of the year – everyone is talking about it. In fact, I’m sure this is radically changing the content of not only political science textbooks, but journalism curricula and media studies as we speak. When I heard the news, I did not think it was funny, but I wasn’t depressed like many people who ended up crying on live TV. How did I feel about it? My opinion was pretty much completely summed up in a brilliant sketch on SNL, right after the election.

Britain Votes to Leave the EU, then Googles “What is the EU”?

If you thought electing Donald Trump was ill-informed, don’t forget about the shock that happened when the second most Googled thing in Britain was “What is the EU?” What’s even worse was the top search: “What is Brexit?” Jonathan Pie’s satirical take on it is refreshing and hilarious.

The DNC is Full of Dicks Who Making Fools of Themselves

Talking about all the ways the Democratic National Committee screwed up the election (e.g. by trying to get Hillary Clinton elected despite the fact that democratic voters actually wanted Bernie Sanders) could not possibly be summed up in one paragraph. Therefore, I would rather mention how Anthony’s wiener once again got someone in a lot of trouble. But in this case, it wasn’t just Weiner himself, but Hillary Clinton; because it made things worse in the so-called “email scandal.” Regardless, the funniest headline was the one that you can see in the image at the top of the post:

FBI pulls hard drive from Weiner, Reportedly felt 100 miles away…

But even better than that was Stephen Colbert’s take on the situation, earlier this month.

Pokèmon Go Catches Them All (or at least their attention)

You don’t get to a global phenomenon everyday. For months, people were walking to distant areas of their cities, and getting exposed to real-life sunlight. They were meeting people, talking to strangers, and aggregating in public spaces. Business establishments started to cash in by using lure to bring more customers inside. Dare I say, they made it “cool” to go somewhere and catch fake digital animals. Pokemon Go was temporarily the biggest video game in the world, and it wasn’t just for kids.

[April 3 edit: Apparently inside Japan’s “Suicide forest” – a popular spot near Mt. Fuji where Japanese people go for the purpose of committing suicide – there are actually rare Pokemon that visitors realized they could catch. Therefore, despite 16 suicides reported in the first three months in 2016, there haven’t been any in the first three months of 2017. I’m not convinced that Pokemon Go is actually responsible for this, but I hope it’s true.]

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Most Expensive and Successful Luxury Brands

We hear lots of brand names in the news, on TV, and in movies. Chances are, even without being particularly well-versed in fashion (or any other industry with various degrees in luxury), we likely have at least a small sense of what may be considered glamorous  or luxurious. However, which brands are really at the top of the chart? Rather than looking subjectively at what kinds of things I may personally like, this article shows what are the most expensive and successful brands, as well as the brand value.


Most Expensive Luxury Brands

  • 14) Marc Jacobs
  • 13) Fendi
  • 12) Hermès
  • 11) Ralph Lauren
  • 10) Versace
  • 9) Burberry
  • 8) Armani
  • 7) Dolce & Gabbana
  • 6) Gucci
  • 5) Dior
  • 4) Chanel
  • 3) Prada
  • 2) Louis Vuitton
  • 1) Oscar De La Renta


Top 10 Luxury Brands in Terms of Brand Value

  • 10) Coach – Brand Value: $3,2 Billion
  • 9) Fendi – Brand Value: $3,6 Billion
  • 8) Burberry – Brand Value: $4,1 Billion
  • 7) Cartier – Brand Value: $6,3 Billion
  • 6) Chanel – Brand Value: $7 Billion
  • 5) Rolex – Brand Value: $7,9 Billion
  • 4) Prada – Brand Value: $9,4 Billion
  • 3) Gucci – Brand Value: $12,7 Billion
  • 2) Hermès – Brand Value: $19,2 Billion
  • 1) Louis Vuitton – Brand Value: $28.4 Billion


Luxury Brands with the Highest Market Capitalization

This is not a ranking because I did not find all of the relevant for each of these, but what I can say is that Louis Vuitton’s market capitalization (followed by Prada) is definitely the highest (of the ones for which there was information).

  • Burberry
  • Cartier
  • Chanel
  • Fendi
  • Gucci
  • Hermès
  • Louis Vuitton
  • Prada
  • Ralph Lauren
  • Rolex


Brand Tourism

I’ll leave you with an interesting 2014 study on luxury brands out of the Journal of Consumer Research:

When people purchase luxury items like expensive watches and high-end automobiles, they often consider themselves members of a select group of consumers. According to a new study, when outsiders show an interest in a luxury brand, they help improve its overall value. The authors use the terms ‘brand immigrant’ and ‘brand tourist’ to differentiate between consumers who either claim group membership (brand immigrants) or do not claim group membership (brand tourists). They explain that while brand immigrants pose a threat to the image and distinctiveness of selective brands, brand tourists can actually reinforce the brand’s prestige.

[April 3 edit: Last night’s episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” had an interesting demonstration of this, when he put on an apparently $6,000 Gucci jacket for the sole purpose of attempting to lower its value.]

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The Weapons Effect – Does the Mere Presence of a Gun Increase Aggression?

Anime girl with a gunA provocative question indeed: Do we seeing lots of gun deaths in America because of people’s aggression? Or is it possible that aggression is actually increased because there are so many guns in the country? The “weapons effect” is the theory that just by being in the mere presence of weapons, aggression levels increase. It’s a controversial theory, but there is of course a lot of research that has been published on it. In this article, let’s look at the studies that shed light on this area, and I will give my take on the research literature.

The Mere Presence of a Gun

Hormones and Aggressiveness

Let’s start in 1998, when researchers Jennifer Klinesmith, Tim Kasser, and Francis McAndrew measured the effects of interacting with an object on testosterone levels and aggressive behavior. Testosterone is of course linked to aggression, and this study found what it expected to find:

We tested whether interacting with a gun increased testosterone levels and later aggressive behavior. Thirty male college students provided a saliva sample (for testosterone assay), interacted with either a gun or a children’s toy for 15 min, and then provided another saliva sample. Next, subjects added as much hot sauce as they wanted to a cup of water they believed another subject would have to drink. Males who interacted with the gun showed significantly greater increases in testosterone and added more hot sauce to the water than did those who interacted with the children’s toy. Moreover, increases in testosterone partially mediated the effects of interacting with the gun on this aggressive behavior.

So just the brief interaction with the gun resulted in higher testosterone levels and more aggressive behavior than with the toy. And if that’s just a simple interaction, imagine what this might mean for someone near a gun who was actually provoked. This suggests that simply passively interacting with a gun has a testosterone-raising, aggression-inducing quality. A 2005 study by Bartholow, Anderson, Carnagey, and Benjamin, looked into this research, saying “Recent research (Anderson, Benjamin, & Bartholow, 1998) indicates that the presence of guns increases the accessibility of aggressive thoughts via automatic priming. Our research examined whether this ‘weapons priming effect’ differs depending on the structure of an individual’s knowledge about guns, and if so, whether that difference results in corresponding differences in aggressive behavior.” For each of Bartholow and colleagues’ three experiments, they used male introductory psychology students at a large midwestern university. Here are their findings:

Experiment 1 revealed that individuals with prior gun experience (hunters) have more detailed and specific information about guns than do individuals with no direct gun experience (nonhunters), and that hunting experience interacts with gun type (hunting versus assault) in predicting affective and cognitive reactions to guns.

Experiment 2 revealed that pictures of hunting guns were more likely to prime aggressive thoughts among nonhunters, whereas pictures of assault guns were more likely to prime aggressive thoughts among hunters. Experiment 3 showed differences in aggressive behavior following gun primes that correspond to differences in affective and cognitive responses to gun cues.

The main takeaway from this is that people who are familiar with guns get aggressive thoughts more from assault weapons than from hunting rifles. The fact that the type of gun that experienced gun users feel more aggressive when seeing (i.e., assault weapons) is better at killing people than a hunting gun does not bode well for the US. It’s no wonder that, despite the lucrative business of assault weapons, the majority of Americans want to see assault weapons off the shelves and out of public reach. That is, Americans are beginning to understand what science has suggested all along. So let’s talk science.

What’s the Deal with Aggression Studies?

In many aggression experiments, like the 1998 one above, participants are often measured for their malicious behavior on a certain task. For example, participants may do things like blast painfully loud noise into another room with someone else inside, or do some other relatively harmless but momentarily negative behavior (in actuality, no one is there to receive this punishment, but the participants is lead to believe so). So that could mean, for example, the participant thinks they are blasting noise, and the degree to which they intensify that noise is called “aggression.” There are of course problems with this – the obvious one being that blasting noise doesn’t necessarily translate to dangerous behavior outside the laboratory setting. But the reason for these types of procedures is because of ethical considerations. If we didn’t have to worry about ethics, we could conduct the “best” study in the world.

For example, give people guns – even if pistols for airsoft, and see how far you can provoke someone until they pull the triggers. What factors effect that? How much does prior experience matter?… Well, there’s no point in even thinking much about this, because such a study will never happen – ethical guidelines are too important. Therefore, this is the best we have. Otherwise, you get research such as the Dutch shooting club paper of 2009, responsibly covered by the British Psychological Society (BPS). It was reported that members of a shooting club were actually less aggressive than an age-matched controls who were not affiliated with a shooting club.

Naturally, this study has several problems (one of which the BPS didn’t mention). For one thing, we don’t know why the aggression was rated as lowered, but it’s certainly likely that another factor (unrelated to guns) was the true cause of the low aggression measurements. For example, as BPS quickly mentions that “most of them became a member for relaxation, or to socialise.” It’s certainly possible that the real cause of the lowered aggression was simply because the club members were part of a club in which they could socialize in a community of people with similar interests (or at least one similar interest); or that another factor caused this altogether.

Furthermore, the study relied entirely on self-reports, which is notoriously unreliable, especially if the subjects have something to prove. The researchers tried to keep results valid by manipulating the questionnaires (in a good way; see the BPS article for more), but you can probably see the problem with such research. So you might be tempted to argue that such studies are totally useless. I agree that they are in large part meaningless on their own, but science doesn’t work by saying “we proved this by getting these results.” It works by reviewing the research in the context of other studies that dealt with the same issue, and how convincing their evidence is. This brings us to a classic study on the “weapons effect.”

Does the Gun Pull the Trigger?

The Classic Study

Sometimes the most interesting evidence comes from the classic studies. The first time I ever understood what an “interaction effect” was came from this research by Leonard Berkowitz and Anthony LePage from 1967. I’m not sure if this would have passed an ethical review board today (ethical standards were not nearly as strict back then as they are now) because in this experiment, participants actually did receive (albeit mild) shocks:

An experiment was conducted to test the hypothesis that stimuli commonly associated with aggression can elicit aggressive responses from people ready to act aggressively. 100 male university students received either 1 or 7 shocks, supposedly from a peer, and were then given an opportunity to shock this person. In some cases a rifle and revolver were near the shock key. These weapons were said to belong, or not to belong, to the available target person. In other instances there was nothing near the key, while for controls 2 badminton racquets were on the table near the key. The greatest number of shocks was given by the strongly aroused Ss (who had received 7 shocks) when they were in the presence of the weapons. The guns had evidently elicited strong aggressive responses from the aroused men.

So the researchers manipulated a few things: How many unpleasant shocks each participant received (to anger them) and the stimuli that was present in the room (guns vs. badminton racquets). The variable the researchers were interested in was how many shocks the subjects attempted to give in return. In general, neither the seven shocks nor the “aggressive stimuli” (gun) had caused the participants to try to shock their peer. However, when the two of those variables were together (i.e., when they interacted) the subjects were indeed more likely to try to return the shock to their peers. This makes a lot of sense when you think about aggression. Sure, some people may “snap” because something or someone triggered their aggression (like seven shocks), but it’s more likely that there was a predisposing factor (like the gun in the room), without which the trigger would not have had any effect. As the authors wrote in their article:

It has been observed… in field settings as well as the psychological laboratory…. It is clear that the presence of a weapon—or even a picture of a weapon—can make people behave more aggressively. In essence, the gun helps pull the trigger.

But there are several problems with this research. At least, that’s according to Paul Gallant and Joanne Eisen, two Senior Fellows at the Independence Institute – a conservative think tank.

Harsh Critics

Gallant and Eisen published a very well-researched paper in 2004, arguing, among other things, that replications of Berkowitz and LePage’s research have not been met with consistent findings. In fact, the meta-analysis they cite to make this point says that the weapons effect was “true for the overall analysis and for name-mediated cues, but confirmation of the weapons effect was restricted to cases wherein subject sophistication and evaluation apprehension were low.”   (((やっぱまだ駄目だ。。。)))   Indeed they claim that some replications contradicted their results, but I haven’t seen a study that has done so. They also, in the following excerpt, rebut what Berkowitz and LePage said, and then dismiss a later study.

The authors, however, cited no evidence to support their claim that the weapons effect has been observed “in field settings,” or that people behave more aggressively in the presence of a weapon outside the artificiality of a laboratory setting. They simply identified research that was done in the outdoors instead of in a laboratory room. In a 1975 experiment, for example, Turner, et al, had a confederate stop his pick-up truck at an intersection and remain stationary after the traffic light had turned green. The subjects in the experiment were the drivers stuck behind the immobile truck. Sometimes the truck had a rifle mounted on a gun rack plainly visible to the driver of the car, and sometimes there was no rifle present. Aggression was measured by the amount of horn-honking that ensued when the driver of the car was unable to proceed. While this may technically be classified as an experiment conducted in a “field setting” since it was conducted outside of a conventional laboratory, to claim that the outcome had any relation to the “weapons effect” is scientific sleight-of-hand and outright misrepresentation. All the horn-honking in the world does not translate to a real-world manifestation of the “weapons effect” as defined by Berkowitz and LePage

They do make a very good point at the end, despite neglecting to mention that the results of that 1975 study were consistent with Berkowitz and LePage’s findings. Nevertheless, they write a conclusion that suggests the weapons effect is bogus:

Researchers who say they are “measuring aggression,” and then perform a bait–and–switch to redefine what they measured as a “weapons effect,” are fooling themselves. Having aggressive thoughts does not translate into the lethal kind of “weapons effect” that Berkowitz and LePage hypothesized.

A new generation of weapons effect proponents would have us believe that ordinary American gunowners are like Pavlov‘s dogs learning to salivate upon hearing a bell: put them near a gun, and they will shoot themselves or some other innocent. As Leonard Berkowitz put it, “Gun control may not be too effective in protecting ordinary citizens against criminals or Presidents against assassins, but it may, nevertheless, save some ordinary citizens from other ordinary citizens like themselves.”

Such a profoundly pessimistic view of human nature presumes that most of us are incapable of controlling our actions. If we are to believe that simply seeing a firearm will cause us to think about murdering one another and make us more likely to commit the act, we must also concede that we are gravely lacking of free will—mere slaves to our environment—and that we can easily and completely be dominated by mind-control tactics like subliminal advertising and frenzied propaganda. Doesn‘t mankind deserve more credit?

So they do make an excellent point – is this really aggression? And even if it is, does that really translate to the same types of killing sprees that worry us today? But they also seem to be largely missing the point of the interaction effect. Their opening line of the article is “The ‘Weapons Effect’ hypothesis suggests that guns can psychologically control people and cause them to be violent.” Well… that may be true, but only to the extent that it’s only one factor among many complex factors.

They also pull up some straw men arguments, suggesting that Berkowitz and LePage, were saying that seeing a firearm will cause us to think about murdering one another. They clearly said “the presence of a weapon [. . .] can make people behave more aggressively.” Nothing about seeing a firearm will cause us to think about murder. Furthermore, the tone of their concluding paragraph seems to betray their bias, because a) no one is suggesting that people are utter slaves to their environment, completely hypnotically dominated by mind-control from inanimate objects; and b) subliminal influence is real, and the environment affects behavior, emotions, and even perception, all the time; and we are generally oblivious to it. The notion that we have complete free will has been contested and largely dismissed by scientists and philosophers alike. That doesn’t mean that most people believe we have no free will (a much smaller number of scientists take that position, and I am not among them) but clearly, the environment influences us without our awareness.


The most well-researched paper I could find on the subject suggested that the evidence to support the Weapons Effect is weak, to the extent that it doesn’t have much to say about generalization outside the laboratory. This is basically true, and we have to be careful when looking at what aggression really is. However, this does not mean that we should dismiss all of the research as useless – it’s all a matter of context. So let’s talk about the context.

The 2004 study was done by a conservative think-tank. Conservative Americans are more likely to be gun owners and want to protect their rights to own guns. They are also, according to research published in 2012 by Brittany Liu and Peter Ditto, more likely to spin reality and make up facts to suit their arguments. This all makes sense when you see gun-proponents arguing that the research on guns is bogus, and in the same breath, arguing that the real causes of gun violence are violent TV, movies, and especially video games – which they say teaches children to kill by having them act out violence. By the way, America’s National Rifle Association – the world’s biggest, loudest gun-proponent organization – recently released their very own gun-wielding first-person-shooter video game. It is recommended for children aged four and up. We can only assume the game is called “Call of Hypocrisy.”

The Bottom Line

As I mentioned above, we’ll never get the “perfect” study on aggression and guns, because it would never be ethical to conduct it. But if you’re only going to throw away the research that refutes your argument, you’re not really debating in the first place. All the research on aggression should be considered, from guns, to blasting sound, to playing violent video games. So is the weapons effect real? It’s hard to say. The research does seem to suggest that there may be cultural associations we have psychologically made with guns and aggression. It’s possible that, for example, movies – in which guns are used because they are a simple story-telling tool to elicit action in a story – have reinforced the notion that when you see a gun onscreen, it will be used. And that usually means aggression. But an important question is just what does aggression mean? The answer will probably influence the definition of the “weapons effect.” But regardless of whether or not it’s because of an increase in aggression due to the mere presence of a gun, or other factors such as the perception of a lack of security, the simple truth is that gun ownership is negatively correlated with safety.

Posted in Culture, Legal Issues, Media, Psychology, Science, Technology | 1 Comment

Top Travel Destinations and Most Visited Places of 2016

Since it’s summer, it’s a good time to look at the world’s top travel destinations. Of course, there are a lot of ways to look at what might be considered a “top destination,” and below are several rankings that look at destinations around the world in terms of different metrics. For example, one ranking shows self-reports of tourist favourites, another shows specific sites in terms of popularity, and yet another shows the hard numbers, looking at how many visitors stayed overnight inside the country’s borders. Whatever you consider to indicate a “top” destination, the rankings are below.

Top Destinations

This list is what Trip Advisor called the “top 25 destinations” – a general ranking for popular cities.

  • #1: London, UK
  • #2: Istanbul, Turkey
  • #3: Marrakech, Morocco
  • #4: Paris, France
  • #5: Siem Reap, Cambodia
  • #6: Prague, Czech Republic
  • #7: Rome, Italy
  • #8: Hanoi, Vietnam
  • #9: New York City, USA
  • #10: Ubud, Indonesia
  • #11: Barcelona, Spain
  • #12: Lisbon, Portugal
  • #13: Dubai, UAE
  • #14: St. Petersburg, Russia
  • #15: Bangkok, Thailand
  • #16: Amsterdam, The Netherlands
  • #17: Buenos Aires, Argentina
  • #18: Hong Kong
  • #19: Playa del Carmen, Mexico
  • #20: Cape Town, South Africa
  • #21: Tokyo, Japan
  • #22: Cusco, Peru
  • #23: Kathmandu, Nepal
  • #24: Sydney, Australia
  • #25: Budapest, Hungary


“Travellers’ Favourites” List

This list refers to what travellers reported as their favourite places to visit. This is naturally completely subjective, but it is still valuable to see the results of aggregated self-reports.

  1. Marrakech, Morocco
  2. Siem Reap, Cambodia
  3. Istanbul, Turkey
  4. Hanoi, Vietnam
  5. Prague, Czech Republic
  6. London, United Kingdom
  7. Rome, Italy
  8. Buenos Aires, Argentina
  9. Paris, France
  10. Cape Town, South Africa
  11. New York City, New York
  12. Zermatt, Switzerland
  13. Barcelona, Spain
  14. Goreme, Turkey
  15. Ubud, Indonesia
  16. Cusco, Peru
  17. St. Petersburg, Russia
  18. Bangkok, Thailand
  19. Kathmandu, Nepal
  20. Athens, Greece
  21. Budapest, Hungary
  22. Queenstown, New Zealand
  23. Hong Kong
  24. Dubai, United Arab Emirates
  25. Sydney, Australia


Best Sites to See

Rather than a simple “top city” or “top country” ranking, this one looks at specific sites, which may give you a tiny flavour of what these locations have to offer.

  1. Angkor Wat – Siem Reap, Cambodia
  2. Machu Picchu – Machu Picchi, Peru
  3. Taj Mahal – Agra, India
  4. Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque– Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
  5. Basilica of the Sagrada Familia – Barcelona, Spain
  6. St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, Italy
  7. Milan Cathedral (Duomo) – Milian, Italy
  8. Alcatraz – San Francisco, California
  9. Corcovado – Cristo Redentor – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  10. Golden Gate Bridge – San Francisco, California
  11. Eiffel Tower – Paris, France
  12. Church of the Saviour on Blood – St. Petersburg, Russia
  13. Notre Dame Cathedral – Paris, France
  14. The Alhambra – Granada, Spain
  15. Hagia Sophia Museum and Church (Ayasofya) – Istanbul, Turkey
  16. Charles Bridge (Karluv Most) – Prague, Czech Republic
  17. Great Wall at Mutianyu – Beijing, China
  18. Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool – Washington DC, District of Columbia
  19. Burj Khalifa – Dubai, United Arab Emirates
  20. The National September 11 Memorial & Museum – New York City, New York
  21. Temple of the Reclining Buddha (Wat Pho) – Bangkok, Thailand
  22. Chichen Itza –  Chicken Itza, Mexico
  23. Sydney Opera House – Sydney, Australia
  24. Petronas Twin Towers – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
  25. Panama Canal – Panama City, Panama


Most Visited Countries

Here’s a list that looks at the most popular cities, in terms of how many million visitors stayed overnight this year. The nice thing about this list is that it eliminates the subjectivity – it is a ranking based on facts. It appears that Japan and Italy (and China, if you include Hong Kong as part of China) are the only countries with two cities in the top 20.

  1. Bangkok, Thailand (21.47 million visitors)
  2. London, England (19.88 million visitors)
  3. Paris, France (18.03 million visitors)
  4. Dubai, United Arab Emirates (15.27 million visitors)
  5. New York City, USA (12.75 million visitors)
  6. Singapore (12.11 million visitors)
  7. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (12.02 million visitors)
  8. Istanbul, Turkey (11.95 million visitors)
  9. Tokyo, Japan (11.7 million visitors)
  10. Seoul, Korea (10.2 million visitors)
  11. Hong Kong (8.37 million visitors)
  12. Barcelona, Spain (8.2 million visitors)
  13. Amsterdam, the Netherlands (8 million visitors)
  14. Milan, Italy (7.65 million visitors)
  15. Taipei, Taiwan (7.35 million visitors)
  16. Rome, Italy (7.12 million visitors)
  17. Osaka, Japan (7.02 million visitors)
  18. Vienna, Austria (6.69 million visitors)
  19. Shanghai, China (6.12 million visitors)
  20. Prague, Czech Republic (5.81 million visitors)
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The REAL Story Behind the Quote “There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute”

“There’s a sucker born every minute” – P.T. Barnum’s most famous words. He is widely considered to be one of the best purveyors of entertainment in history – a genius in sales and marketing – and these words have become somewhat of a legacy. But did he ever really say them? As it turns out, we may be suckers for believing this after all.

The Quote Heard ’round the World

Rochester Institute of Technology professor Nicholas DiFonzo described in his 2008 book The Watercooler Effect, that Barnum’s biography could not verify this attribution at all. Rather, it was likely that a banker named David Hannum from Syracuse, New York who actually said it. As described by DiFonzo (p. 124):

This strange story begins with a surreptitious cigar manufacturer named George Hull, who sculpted the giant from a ten-foot-long block of gypsum, buried it in Cardiff, New York, “discovered” it, and put it on display (charging admission, of course). Crowds of spectators journeyed from all over the state of New York to see the “petrified American goliath.” Hull’s hoax was hugely successful.

Most people who were fascinated by the Giant were convinced that it was a petrified man (which was not considered so far-fetched in the 19th century), or a statue made by Jesuit fathers, over three centuries prior. The fact that Hull went to great lengths to make the statue look realistic (including chiseling tiny holes in the statue to imitate pores in his skin) evidently helped.

Cardiff Giant

As the story goes, Hannum purchased the “Cardiff Giant” in 1869 and displayed it for even higher admission fees. When this caught the eye of Barnum, he tried and failed to convince Hannum to sell it. This motivated Barnum to create his own version – a simple replica – and claim it to be the one true Giant, asserting that Hannum’s was a hoax. It is alleged that, at this point, Hannum said “There’s a sucker born every minute,” referring to the gullible customers of Barnum’s more successful exhibit.

P.T. Barnum’s sign to see the “original” Cardiff Giant

The fascinating end to this story leads to the courtroom, since Hannum sued Barnum for defamation. As it turns out, Hull confessed to having created the sculpture himself, and fabricating the whole original story, so the judge ruled in Barnum’s favour. Indeed, the best defence against defamation is proving that what you said is true.

The Bottom Line

Hannum was correct – Barnum’s customers were “suckers” for believing his bogus story. But so was Hannum, who paid a handsome fee for a phoney sculpture in the first place. It seems that everyone believes things a little too eagerly, especially if they want to believe it.

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