All posts filed under: Must Reads

Politics Are Not the Sum of a Person

In a letter to his wife Abigail during America’s War of Independence, John Adams described the necessity of politics: I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain. For a country fighting for independence and a man risking his life for the cause, there is little to life beyond politics of the moment. Every marginal decision is a matter of survival. But that momentary imperative is only in pursuit of higher humanistic goals. Politics is important, but it is only a means to an end. Human flourishing, or the good life, is the proper end of social life. Government plays but a part in laying the foundation for people to flourish in society. Like Adams, we want a relatively stable and effective regime so we can be free to pursue better, …

The Crucible of the Application Process

[Note that this was written in its entirety before hearing any admissions decision on my applications this year] Over the past two years, I’ve applied for some of the most prestigious academic positions in the world: for numerous scholarships including the Rhodes, Fulbright, and Marshall, as well as for Master’s and PhD positions at Harvard, MIT, Cambridge, and other top universities. A large part of the application process has been working with applications reviewers, primarily from the university where I studied for my undergraduate degree. In total, I’ve worked with five essay reviewers, a dozen mock interview panellists, and the university’s scholarship advisor. Even though it’s part of their job description to assist students in applying for these positions, it’s extremely clear to me that everyone I worked with went far above what was required of them, and I feel the most appropriate way to start this essay is by expressing my deep and sincere gratitude for their advice and mentorship. This essay is about my experience with the application process—specifically how I was repeatedly …

Diversity for the Sake of Democracy

“Stand up if you identify as Caucasian.” The minister’s voice was solemn. I paused so that I wouldn’t be the first one standing, and then slowly rose to my feet. “Look at your community,” he said. I glanced around the auditorium obediently. The other students looked as uncomfortable as I felt, and as white. ¨Thank you,” the minister said finally. After we sat down, he went on to repeat the exercise for over an hour with different adjectives in place of “Caucasian”: black, wealthy, first-generation, socially conservative. Each time he introduced a new label, he paused so that a new group of students could stand and take note of one another. By the time he was finished, every member of Princeton University’s freshman class had been branded with a demographic. This mandatory orientation event was designed to help us appreciate our diversity as a student body during the first week of classes. But what did it really accomplish? In compressing us into isolated communities based on our race, religion or gender, the minister belittled every …

The Josiah Effect: How Moderate Religion Fuels Fundamentalism

For years, my response to the most vocal critics of religion was to say, “By all means, rail against the extremists, but leave the moderates alone. They haven’t done any harm.” I was unconvinced that moderate religion gave shelter to fundamentalism, and I could find no justification for criticizing those familiar, comforting forms of the Abrahamic faiths that play a prominent role in the lives of even the most peaceful citizens of modern society. But then I looked in the mirror. It was after the attack on Charlie Hebdo. A pair of brothers, Said and Cherif Kouachi, had stormed the magazine’s offices and executed unarmed cartoonists, shouting, “Allahu Akbar!” The incident reminded me of another pair of brothers: Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who perpetrated the Boston Marathon bombing. In each case, I saw myself in the younger sibling. Cherif and Said Kouachi While the rest of the world was holding up signs saying, “I am Charlie,” I was thinking, I am Cherif. I was not, nor had I ever been, a terrorist. But I saw …

The Unbearable Asymmetry of Bullshit

Science and medicine have done a lot for the world. Diseases have been eradicated, rockets have been sent to the moon, and convincing, causal explanations have been given for a whole range of formerly inscrutable phenomena. Notwithstanding recent concerns about sloppy research, small sample sizes, and challenges in replicating major findings—concerns I share and which I have written about at length — I still believe that the scientific method is the best available tool for getting at empirical truth. Or to put it a slightly different way (if I may paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous remark about democracy): it is perhaps the worst tool, except for all the rest. In other words, science is flawed. And scientists are people too. While it is true that most scientists — at least the ones I know and work with — are hell-bent on getting things right, they are not therefore immune from human foibles. If they want to keep their jobs, at least, they must contend with a perverse “publish or perish” incentive structure that tends to reward flashy …

Herd Mentality

At primary school, I rarely played with other children. For me, playtime usually meant a walk around the edges of the playground, observing others and thinking to myself. There were lots of reasons why I found it difficult to connect with my childhood peers, none of them particularly interesting or unusual, but I do sometimes wonder whether my early experiences have defined my temperament; I’ve never been much of a joiner, and I find many people frankly depressing. Large scale groups make me feel particularly uncomfortable and I hate the idea of “losing myself” in a crowd. A crowd takes on a mind-set and a force of its own, one that’s both independent from and beyond the control of the individuals it contains. It gave us looting and destruction during what started as a protest about the death of a young man in Tottenham; it gave us the devastating online lynching of Justine Sacco for a misguided and poorly-worded tweet; it gave us the Salem witch trials. Herd mentality – in all its forms, both …

How a Rebellious Scientist Uncovered the Surprising Truth About Stereotypes

The Sydney Symposium At the back of a small room at Coogee Beach, Sydney, I sat watching as a psychologist I had never heard of paced the room gesticulating. His voice was loud. Over six feet tall, his presence was imposing. It was Lee Jussim. He had come to the Sydney Symposium of Social Psychology to talk about left-wing bias in social psychology. Left-wing bias, he said, was undermining his field. Graduate students were entering the field in order to change the world rather than discover truths.1 Because of this, he said, the field was riddled with flaky research and questionable theories. Jussim’s talk began with one of the most egregious examples of bias in recent years. He drew the audience’s attention to the paper: “NASA faked the moon landing – therefore (climate) science is a hoax.” The study was led by Stephan Lewandowsky, and published in Psychological Science in 2013. The paper argued that those who believed that the moon landing was a hoax also believed that climate science was a fraud. The abstract …

Why Parenting May Not Matter and Why Most Social Science Research is Probably Wrong

I want you to consider the possibility that your parents did not shape you as a person. Despite how it feels, your mother and father (or whoever raised you) likely imprinted almost nothing on your personality that has persisted into adulthood. Pause for a minute and let that heresy wash across your synapses. It flies in the face of common sense, does it not? In fact, it’s the type of claim that is unwise to make unless you have some compelling evidence to back it up. Even then it will elicit the ire of many. Psychologists especially get touchy about this subject. I do have evidence, though, and by the time we’ve strolled through the menagerie of reasons to doubt parenting effects, I think another point will also become evident: the problems with parenting research are just a symptom of a larger malady plaguing the social and health sciences. A malady that needs to be dealt with. In terms of compelling evidence, let’s start with a study published recently in the prestigious journal Nature Genetics.1 …

The Great Statistical Schism

What is probability? This sounds like a discussion question for a philosophy class, one of those questions that’s fun to think about but that doesn’t have many practical consequences. Surprisingly, this is not the case. As it turns out, different answers to this question lead to completely different views of how to do statistics and data analysis in practice. In the early 20th century, this led to a split in the field of statistics, with intense debates taking place about whose methods and ways of thinking were better. Unfortunately, the wrong side won the debate and their ideas still dominate mainstream statistics, a situation which has exacerbated the reproducibility crises affecting science today [1]. Here’s a common, standard statistical inference problem. An old drug successfully treats 70% of patients. To test a new drug, researchers give it to 100 patients, 83 of whom recover. Based on this evidence, how certain should we be that the new drug is worse than, identical to, or better than the old one? If you think it is legitimate to …