All posts filed under: Science / Tech

Biosocial Criminology and the Lombrosian Paradox

Last October, Quillette published an article by Hal Conick, crisply abridging Robert Sapolsky’s biologically based argument for criminal justice reform. Sapolsky, a neurobiology professor at Stanford University, has spent his career researching a range of topics including neuronal degeneration, infraspecific dominance hierarchies, stress, and violence, especially in relation to the behaviour of primates.  Over the years, Sapolsky has found that much of the antisocial behaviour we see and criminalize in human beings manifests similarly, biologically speaking, in our hominid relatives. Coupled with his extensive training in neuroscience, Sapolsky has used the findings of this simian research to argue for shifts in criminal justice policy—from the current system, which relies on an esoteric conception of ‘free will’ that can be needlessly retributive, to a system emphasizing public safety. In his 2017 book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Sapolsky argues that “you can’t begin to understand things like aggression, competition, cooperation, and empathy without biology,” a caveat he quite rightly issues, “for the benefit of a certain breed of social scientist who …

Portugal Poised to Write Gender Fluidity into Law

On 13 April 2018, the Portuguese parliament approved Bill 75/XIII, the ostensible aim of which is to protect the rights of transgender and intersex individuals. Looking at the details, however, it’s difficult to say if it was really created to advance the rights of these people, or if it was simply cobbled together on some sort of whim. Portugal’s last parliamentary elections were held in September 2015, and a coalition of PSD (Social-Democrat Party) and CDS-PP (Party of the Social-Democratic Center) won the most votes, but failed to secure an overall majority. This allowed the country’s leftist parties (PS – Socialist Party; PCP – Portuguese Communist Party; PEV – Green Party; and BE – Leftist Block) to form a coalition government led by PS. The PS government has to make regular concessions to these parties because it needs their votes to pass new legislation. In the case of this bill, that wasn’t really the case, since Bill 75/XIII was originally proposed by the government itself. However, later drafts included recommendations from their far-Left coalition partners …

Racial Disparities and the High Cost of Low Debates

Ideological intolerance in academia and the media has dramatically narrowed the range of ‘acceptable’ ideas, beliefs, and even topics of discussion. This can have a particularly deleterious effect on discussions relating to public policy. An example of this phenomenon was recently provided by the release of a landmark new study on race and economic mobility entitled “Race and Economic Opportunity in the United States: An Intergenerational Perspective.” The study was published by the Equality of Opportunity Project and produced by Stanford economist Raj Chetty, Harvard economist Nathaniel Hendren, and U.S. Census Bureau researchers Maggie R. Jones and Sonja R. Porter. Using a uniquely wide-ranging dataset, the researchers examined the individual income rank of almost all Americans now in their late 30s and compared them to their parents’ household income rank at the same age. Their findings revealed significant disparities in income between racial groups, some of which substantially persisted across generations. More about the study and its key findings can be read here, but by far the most significant finding was the stark gap in …

Unconscious Bias Training as a Management Tool

A number of social scientists have pointed to a paucity of good evidence that such ‘unconscious bias training’ is effective in achieving its stated aims. However, I have little doubt that Starbucks’ new initiative will be effective, because it is clear to me that the desired effect is not to change minds but to deter conduct. Boring, uncomfortable training sessions are punishments, which send clear messages about what one must do to avoid further sanction. Frankly, if such punishments were only used to deter employees from calling the police on people waiting for friends before ordering drinks, I wouldn’t object. Alas, such training is far more commonly used to promote hiring quotas. In my workplace (a STEM department in a university), it is widely known that training on ‘unconscious bias’ is the punishment that hiring committees face for not hiring enough female and (non-Asian) minority professors. I have been in the room when an administrator said quite candidly that the latest round of faculty hires had not been sufficiently diverse, “So now everyone [emphasis in original] gets …

Canada’s Twitter Mobs and Left-Wing Hypocrisy

I grew up working class, and proud. My father was a Marxist who was active in the labour movement, campaigned for Canada’s left-wing New Democratic Party, and educated me about the harms of capitalism. Throughout my teen years and young adulthood, I never questioned which side I was on. To this day, I remain steadfast in my belief that everyone deserves access to affordable housing, free health care, and advanced education. I believe that poverty is unacceptable and that wealth is unethical. I believe racism and sexism are embedded within our society. I’m pink, through and through. But politics aren’t just about words and ideas. They’re also about ethics and action—both personal and political. And though I remain a leftist in my principles, I can no longer stand in solidarity with former fellow travellers whose ethics are dictated by social convenience, who prioritize retweets over free inquiry, democracy, and debate, and who respond to disagreement with calls for censorship (or worse). These feelings aren’t new for me. But they’ve recently come into sharper focus. *   *  …

Steven Pinker: Counter-Enlightenment Convictions are ‘Surprisingly Resilient’

Steven Pinker is a cognitive scientist and is the author of several books including Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress published by Viking Press earlier this year. Editors at Quillette contacted Professor Pinker for a Q&A: what follows is a transcript of our Q&A, conducted via email. On Psychology Quillette: What are some of the classic experiments in psychology that you think an educated person should know about? Steven Pinker: Where to begin? I’d cite studies of illusions and biases, to remind people of the fallibility of our perceptual and cognitive faculties. These would include experiments on visual attention by the late Anne Treisman and others showing that people are unaware of visual material they don’t attend to, together with any experiment on memory showing how un-photographic our recollections are (for example, Elizabeth Loftus’s studies on the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, or even the low-tech study in which people are asked to draw a penny, an object they have seen thousands of times). Let’s add Slovic, Tversky, and Kahneman’s demonstrations of illusions in reasoning about …

Is the Internet Complete?

In 2013, a debate was held between friends Peter Thiel and Marc Andreessen, the thrust of which was to determine whether we are living through an innovation golden age, or whether innovation was in fact stalling. Thiel, of course, played the innovation sceptic, and it is interesting now with five years remove to look back on the debate to see how history has vindicated his position. In short all of those things that were ‘just around the corner’ in 2013 are, sure enough, still ‘just around the corner.’ One strand of Thiel’s argument at the time (and since) was that the ostentatious progress made in computing in the last 15 years has blinded us to the lack of technological progress made elsewhere. We can hardly have failed to notice the internet revolution, and thus we map that progress onto everything, assuming that innovation is a cosmic force rather than something which happens on a piecemeal basis. Certainly, this argument has gained more traction since 2013. However, in this piece I’d like to add an extra …

Social Media: The Case for Deactivation

In 2017, an article sub-titled “The More You Use Facebook, the Worse You Feel” appeared in my Facebook newsfeed. I found it scientifically rigorous and persuasive, and so, not wanting to feel worse, I deactivated my Facebook account. But then in the months that followed, I found scientific arguments that seemingly come to the opposite conclusion, namely, that social media are good for you. It turns out that I had only scratched the surface of a mountain of writing on this topic. So which is it? Should I re-activate my Facebook account? Should you deactivate yours? To answer these questions, we need a common currency for measuring the costs and benefits of using Facebook, and other major social media platforms like Snapchat and Instagram. Surprisingly, perhaps, the mountain of articles on this topic doesn’t yet include this kind of systematic cost-benefit analysis. One of my goals here is to provide one. Drawing on the last two decades of scientific research, I’ll show that major social media platforms do more harm than good, thereby increasing the …

The Scientific Importance of Free Speech

Editor’s note: this is a shortened version of a speech that the author was due to give last month at King’s College London which was canceled because the university deemed the event to be too ‘high risk’. A quick Google search suggests that free speech is a regarded as an important virtue for a functional, enlightened society. For example, according to George Orwell: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Likewise, Ayaan Hirsi Ali remarked: “Free speech is the bedrock of liberty and a free society, and yes, it includes the right to blaspheme and offend.” In a similar vein, Bill Hicks declared: “Freedom of speech means you support the right of people to say exactly those ideas which you do not agree with”. But why do we specifically need free speech in science? Surely we just take measurements and publish our data? No chit chat required. We need free speech in science because science is not really about microscopes, or pipettes, …

Sam Harris was Right; Ezra Klein Should Know Better

Earlier this week, Ph.D. neuroscientist turned pop-philosopher Sam Harris invited Vox Editor-at-Large Ezra Klein to debate Harris on his popular podcast. The topic: Harris’s decision to feature Charles Murray for the purposes of defending him— from charges of racism, on his show last year. Murray is famous in part for writing The Bell Curve, which included a controversial chapter which mentions racial differences in IQ. But this isn’t Klein’s first flirtation with character assassinations. In case you missed it, Harris and Klein have been feuding publicly since Murray appeared on Harris’s show last year. Vox published a piece attacking Harris for featuring Murray, accusing the two of participating in “pseudoscientific racialist speculation.” Vox then refused to publish a rebuttal written by Richard Haier, respected psychologist and editor-in-chief of the scientific journal Intelligence. (It finally found a home at this publication, here.) Next, Harris released his email correspondence with Klein, and that eventually led to this week’s heated podcast. Mid-way through the podcast, Harris says: you appear to be willing to believe people… are not speaking with real integrity about data because it serves political ends, …