Tuesday 7 October 2014

Luminant Victorians: The Battle of the Bulbs


You will remember young Woodley, who used the fact that reaction times have slowed up since Victorian times to argue that the quality of the species is going downhill, and that British seed is deteriorating, a fact currently obscured by the liberal application of fertiliser, but dysgenics will be the end of us in the end.

Up pops Scott Parker with a counter argument, though couched with scholarly diffidence and understatement “Were the Victorian clever than us? Maybe, maybe not”. I do not know Scott, but he seems to need the assertiveness training which I thought was guaranteed to all US citizens by the Constitution, so that he can come out as a firm “Maybe not” enthusiast.


What Parker avers is that the snappiest reaction times were probably due to the extremely bright and noisy lamps used by Victorians, as opposed to duller and quieter bulbs in more recent times. His  paper launches a luminescence skirmish, the Battle of the Bulbs.

the observations that are crucial to the Woodley et al. (2013) finding are the earliest ones—those from Galton (as reported in Johnson et al., 1985) and Thompson (1903).
Both of those data sets report very short reaction times and contribute greatly to the correlation between RT and year of report. Do those short reaction times betoken a high level of intelligence among the Victorians? In one of those cases, another factor may have contributed. Thompson (1903) generated her stimuli, flashes of purple light, using a Geissler tube—an ancestor of the fluorescent tube (Hick, 1952). But Dunlap and Wells (1910) chose to use a different light stimulus generator, explaining (p.320) that, “A Geissler tube could not be used, on account of the noise accompanying its flash.” Auditory RTs, like visual RTs, grow faster with increasing stimulus intensity (Luce, 1986). We would need to know both the auditory and visual intensities of the Geissler tube to know if Dunlap and Wells's concern was well-founded. But we cannot rule out the possibility that Thompson's subjects were reacting to a noise functionally more intense than the flash she intended as the stimulus, thereby resulting in shorter RTs than her light stimulus alone might have
produced. The magnitude of any such shift cannot be estimated.

Parker then somewhat goes against this speculation, by showing two more recent studies where the reaction times are not faster with the brighter lamp. Undaunted, he says this might be due to the greater size of the stimulus showing the faster reaction time.

we can see some indication of the power of other factors by looking again at some details of the data reported by Minucci and Connors (1964) and Cardello (1979). One of Minucci and Connors's stimuli was about double the luminance of one of Cardello's. Nonetheless, comparing the results across the studies at those two stimulus intensity levels, Minucci and Connors's subjects' mean RT was 235 ms whereas Cardello's subjects' mean RT was only 207 ms. Minucci and Connors's
stimuli subtended a visual angle of 1° whereas Cardello's stimuli subtended a visual angle of 6°; Teichner and Krebs (1972) indicate that larger stimuli produce shorter RTs, so perhaps that contributed to the faster RTs reported by Cardello. Of the studies inventoried in Woodley et al. (2013) only Reed, Vernon, and Johnson (2004) specify the size of their stimuli. All their stimuli were smaller than 1°, and their mean reported RT was not notably long.

He echoes the Dodonova and Dodonov conclusion that: many details of experimental procedure influence the size of visual RT, and that makes it very difficult to draw firm conclusions about the source of differences in RT found by studies that differ in procedural details as well as year of data collection.

His conclusion: The Victorians may well have been cleverer than us, but the visual
RT data do not suffice to prove the point.

I have had enough of this. Why haven’t these reaction time people ever standardised their research instruments? When I went to psychological conferences I imagined these experimentalists were real scientists who used proper techniques, unlike us arty clinical psychologists, who measured humanity in the round, with paper and pencil tests, and a bleary clinical eye. I trusted experimentalists their black boxes (both conceptual and electronic) their flashing lights, and their results precise to three decimal places. If their actual results were so sensitive to lamps, timers, response keys and software as to be incapable of comparison from one decade to the next, and one experimentalist to the next, then late in the day I find that my idols have clay feet. They are in almost as much of a mess as psychometricians, who can show good predictability of results one cohort at a time, but have more difficulty calibrating the achievements of one generation against the next.

Lytton Stachey’s  (1918) “Eminent Victorians” was championed in my school days as the apotheosis of wry commentary over hagiography, a sharp and irreverent hatchet job on the brightly illuminated heroes and heroines of Victorian times. He is judged to have destroyed for ever the Victorian age’s pretensions to moral superiority. Of course, since Victoria had died in 1901, Strachey is only partly Victorian, having lived only the first 21 but most impressionable years under her reign. I think you can judge from which era his prose style derived by looking at the first paragraph of his Preface:

THE history of the Victorian Age will never be written; we know too much about it. For ignorance is the first requisite of the historian—ignorance, which simplifies and clarifies, which selects and omits, with a placid perfection unattainable by the highest art. Concerning the Age which has just passed, our fathers and our grandfathers have poured forth and accumulated so vast a quantity of information that the industry of a Ranke would be submerged by it, and the perspicacity of a Gibbon would quail before it. It is not by the direct method of a scrupulous narration that the explorer of the past can hope to depict that singular epoch. If he is wise, he will adopt a subtler strategy. He will attack his subject in unexpected places; he will fall upon the flank, or the rear; he will shoot a sudden, revealing searchlight into obscure recesses, hitherto undivined. He will row out over that great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up to the light of day some characteristic specimen, from those far depths, to be examined with a careful curiosity.

Forget reaction times: the Prose has it. The Victorians were (probably, and only some of them) cleverer than us.


  1. A decent chunk of RT research was/is aimed at uncovering the causes of intra-individual variability. Inter-individual variability has, I understand it, often been viewed as a nuisance, and the idea of using RTs for between-cohort comparisons is very new. I guess there's just been not much of an incentive to standardise given the mismatch between the concerns of differential psychologists and the chronometricians.

    Possibly sufficient detail is available from the 1940s onwards for us to recreate the chronometric devices of that era and then test some modern subjects? Comparison could be valid if the machines could be rebuilt to a very high degree of fidelity. Sadly it does not seem as though enough detail is available for us perfectly to reconstruct Galton's devices, though I know the Dodonovs made a good fist of it.

  2. Today, people believe in equality. In victorian times, they believed in natural unequality among human populations.

    The power of social conformism could be greater than what we are imagining.

    Appearence and convenience are the two most important pieces of social theatre. People adapt their externalized assumptions (but, necessarily not their internal assumptions) like chameleon (or hypocrisy), many times, they will convince himself about the ''veracity'' of their point of views socially externalized, voluntarily modified to adapt to social contextual demands.

    Industrial revolution could have accelerated eugenic trends when substantially higher exploitation of the lower classes happens in Britain and this macro-event can be increase average intelligence of population, if expectancy of life to born was only to 20 years or less for prole people.

    In this time, poor people are used like tree trunk in the fire.

    The first stage of industrial revolution was ''savage capitalism'', literally or strong natural selection.

    Many of social and technological changes was thinking and executed first during the begining or first-half of XX century and reverberate today.

    Seems obviously intelligence decrease but not so intense as some researcher is thinking.

    My hypothesis.

  3. guess we'll have to break out the geissler tubes and see how modern subjects do...

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