Wednesday, June 18, 2014

DG VIII: Celebrity

... consider Tom Cruise’s genuinely terrifying sense of intellectual rectitude. 'You don’t know the history of psychiatry. I do ... You’re glib. You don’t even know what Ritalin is ... You don’t know and I do.
These people are not curious: they are credulous. They exhibit a quite stunning lack of curiosity, yet they are given to declaring themselves - entertainers - the authority on complex matters of which they have the most tenuous grasp at best. 
Marina Hyde, Celebrity (Harvill Secker, 2009)

I’ve been rereading Celebrity of late. Rediscovering that while there aren’t many things in life that give you regular LOLs whilst simultaneously making you thoroughly miserable, Marina Hyde’s wonderful book is certainly one of them.

"Has the world really come to tolerating this?" you ask yourself page after page. Read of Bono badgering people to 'do more' on Africa whilst simultaneously limiting his government’s ability so to do by having his money become Dutch for tax purposes, read about Jude Law’s 'mission' to bring peace to Afghanistan, read abut Tom Cruise banging on about whatever the chuffing heck he was banging on about and you’ll decide (a) that it has and (b) the aforementioned world can jolly well go eff itself.

Ah, but Life Imitates Chess, don’t you know?

So let’s replace Tom Cruise with Garry Kasparov and switch in 'chess players' for 'entertainers'. What do we have now? Cut the line about Ritalin and I’d say we’re left with a pretty good summary of where the chess world is regarding the chess-dementia 'debate'. Where we actually are rather than where we should be, obviously.

For what is the subtext of Kasparov’s "There are many studies .... " tweet but 'You don’t know and I do'? Gazza’s message to the world: Your attitude to chess is glib. You think of chess as a game, but I know it can do things.'

Deserving of mockery in itself, for sure, but who does Kasparov cite as a 'great expert' when called out on his claims? Leonxto Garcia, that’s who.

We’ll come back to Garcia some other day. For now, suffice to say that he does at least carry the appearance of giving a bit of a shit about chess and dementia. Which is a good deal more than you can say for many other people mentioned in this post.

No, Garcia is not our story today. Rather, it’s the idea of the highest authority on the chess-dementia nexus being somebody who knows a lot about chess and dabbles in dementia rather than the other way around. Let that choice sink in for a moment and consider what it says about the self-regard of the man who proposed Garcia for his eminent position.

Not that Kasparov is alone in his delusions of authority. ChessBase and FIDE saw fit to reproduce the article that went out under Michael Ciamarra’s name - though he can hardly be said to have written it - which included the entirely unsupported claim that, "Chess seems like a treatment that works."

It’s hard to imagine that there’s something more stupid than cutting and pasting somebody else’s work without acknowledgement, but there is and it’s cutting and pasting somebody else's ludicrous words without acknowledgement. As EJH showed last Friday, the ’treatment that works' line had appeared on the Susan Polgar website long before it ever got to Fred Friedel or Kirsan.

Before we get tangled up trying to work out which of those three is the least reputable, let’s move on to Ray Keene. Ray of the chess fighting dementia tweet. Ray of the many other similarly dubious pronouncements. Ray who stated that it is a "fact" that "chess helps to keep your brain fit", before moving on to misrepresent the Verghese researchfor example.

All this nonsense, and yet it’s really not difficult to find material that leaves you questioning the validity of those articles that the chess websites are so keen to publish. There’s the research for a start - of which the Verghese study is just one piece - although if academic works are not your thing,there’s plenty else of a less formal nature out there. The National Institute of Health page that Dscaper gave us the link to in the comments box for Doctor Garry is in, say. Or the Alzheimer’s Society factsheet: Am I at risk of developing dementia?, which considers the issue of mental activity (after much else) and concludes:-

It is worth noting that 'brain training' games are not thought to improve 'mental fitness' in people under the age of 60 and there is currently no evidence that these games reduce dementia risk. However, this is a rapidly evolving area of study and research into the affects of brain training on people over the age of 60 is ongoing. Importantly, if people enjoy playing these games they should continue to do so.

If that reminds you of Joseph T. Coyle M.D. from last week, it only goes to show how easy it is to  find genuinely authoritative sources which arrive at this conclusion. If you bother your arse to look for them.

Kasparov, Chessbase, FIDE, Polgar and Keene do not bother their arses.

They lap up any bullshit that comes their way and regurgitate it without feeling the need to make even the most cursory of checks for accuracy. These people are not curious. They are credulous. They co-opt the fascinating and important subject of what role chess might have in our attempt to enrich our lives as we age, deciding that they - chess players - are the authorities on such difficult and complex matters. If they understand little, they care less.

The arrogance and lack of self-awareness of these people is hilarious. Well, it is until you take a moment to consider whether spreading nonsense about an incurable health condition might actually be a thoroughly vile thing to do. At which point you might feel the need to ask yourself a question: has the chess world really come to tolerating this?

Chess and dementia Index


Andrew Gelman said...

I want to make some joke like the following:

What's the difference between Tom Cruise and Garry Kasparov? One of them is a former top gun who will do any sort of publicity stunt to stay in the news, while the other is a Scientologist.

But it doesn't come off quite right. Maybe you can punch it up a bit.

Anonymous said...

I'm puzzled by the quote on "brain training". It is in quotes, so presumably refers to Ryuta Kawashima inspired games and not things like chess.

The dementia fact sheet also says: "Research suggests that people who take part in mental activities (such as reading, learning and doing puzzles) are less likely to develop dementia compared with those who do not engage in these activities."

I think chess can reasonably claim to be a mental activity of that type. I found the Foresight report on Mental Capital and Wellbeing encouraging in this respect, I don't think we need a research paper on chess to be comfortable promoting chess as beneficial.

Obviously some of the individuals named in the article have said foolish things, but I worry the reaction is an over-correction.

Paul C

Jonathan B said...

Thanks for your comment Paul.

That there is an association between certain types of behaviour - of the kind you mention - and a lower likelihood of developing dementia is not in dispute. The question of one of cause.

I would absolutely agree that providing opportunities for older people to play - and learn - chess is A Good Thing. What I’m less keen on is
(a) making baseless claims
(b) making vague claims (what does 'beneficial’ mean? how? in what way?)
(c) implying that chess is somehow special. It isn’t.

I don’t think 'foolish' is an entirely appropriate word, by the way. That implies a 'mistake' which I don’t think is correct.

I’ll leave that one for another day, though.

Jonathan B said...

Perhaps we can encourage our readers to have a go?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the response Jonathan.

I'm interested in what we can fairly say to promote chess, if we believe it is a good thing.

I don't agree with everything you say, but I don't think our positions are opposed.

Paul C

Matt Fletcher said...

Jonathan - just playing devil's advocate but on your c) is it absolutely certain that chess isn't special? Of course, there's no scientific proof that it is, and I'd be surprised if it was - but one could (and many do) make an argument that it's quite different (in terms of pattern recognition in particular) than other similar pursuits which could plausibly make it 'better'?

Jonathan B said...


No I don’t think our views are entirely opposed either. Nor are mine and Ciamarra’s for that matter.

It’s the bit where we go beyond want’s reasonable to say that worries me. If we’re not careful we end up like another bunch of homeopaths.


I’m prepared to believe chess is different. Whether it’s special or not is another thing.

Clearly chess is different to other games. That’s why we can’t simply lump it together with 'board games' and 'cards' as a category of activity. Is the 'difference’ that playing chess gives particularly useful in protecting against dementia? Maybe. Maybe not. Even if it is, it better than other activities that are of a different category (dancing, eating well or not being poor for instance)?

A longer response coming in some future post.