All posts filed under: Science / Tech

The Free Speech Crisis on Campus Is Worse than People Think

Last month Samuel Abrams, a politics professor at Sarah Lawrence College, published an op-ed in the New York Times titled, “Think Professors Are Liberal? Try School Administrators.” Abrams, who describes himself as conservative leaning, pointed to the titles of some recent events put on by his campus’s Office of Student Affairs: “Stay Healthy, Stay Woke,” “Understanding White Privilege,” and “Microaggressions.” He described these events as politically lopsided and noted that this kind of highly politicized socialization of college students is occurring throughout the country. A lot of campus critics have pointed to the left-wing political skew of faculty, he said, and have worried about indoctrination in the classroom. But indoctrination is much more likely at campus events outside the classroom, and the political skew of administrators in charge of student life is even greater than that of faculty. (He surveyed a representative sample of 900 “student-facing administrators” and found a ratio of 12 liberals for every conservative, compared to 6 to 1 for academic faculty.) Remember, Abrams is a tenured professor commenting about a widely …

A World Without Animal Farming

A Review of The End of Animal Farming: How Scientists, Entrepreneurs, and Activists Are Building an Animal-Free Food System, by Jacy Reese (Beacon Press, November 6 2018, 240 pages).  In a world distressingly full of evil, we can discern moral progress by looking at the benighted past. Only two lifetimes ago educated people endorsed chattel slavery. The raises the sobering question: how might present arrangements appear to inhabitants of a more enlightened future civilization? Supposing that moral progress continues, there’s good reason to expect that our descendants will wince when they reflect upon our treatment of animals. Every year, tens of billions of land animals, and more sea creatures, are killed in so-called “factory farms,” having lived lives of unrelieved mental and physical anguish, because humans enjoy eating their flesh. A chilling line in Thucydides’ Peloponnesian Wars comes to mind. The Greek historian reports a dialogue between a group of Athenian emissaries and the representatives of Melos, a city-state that wanted to remain neutral in the war between Athens and Sparta. The emissaries bluntly assert that …

Blame Modern Life for Political Strife

It’s hard to argue against the comforts of modernity. Avocado toast, fiber optics, Roombas. What’s not to love? Technological innovation and trade liberalization have yielded prosperity and stability. Poverty, infant mortality, and global hunger have fallen. Human development, life expectancy, and food production have risen. Compared to our ancestors, we’re the glitterati. But there are always tradeoffs. While urbanization and personal accumulation have enriched the West, they have also produced a culture of narcissism and illusion of time scarcity. This self-preoccupation and feeling of lost leisure time has reduced our participation in civic organizations. We’re engaging less with one another. And as a consequence, societal trust has dissipated. This has inhibited the development of common interests and shared identities, prompting a return to an archaic tribalism which prioritizes salient features over ideological values. You People are All the Same Imagine you were speaking to someone you’ve never met. Both of you are separated by a dark curtain to conceal appearances and voices have been distorted to obscure genders. The first and only thing they mention …

What Can Artificial Intelligence Teach Us About Political Polarization?

It’s become increasingly difficult to ignore the exponential progress that’s been made in the field of artificial intelligence. From self-driving cars to nearly flawless speech synthesis, things most of us thought impossible only a decade ago are now a practical reality. Virtually all of these developments have exploited what has turned out to be one of the most fruitful analogies ever made: that of the human brain to a computer. In particular, the development of neural networks—arguably the most successful family of artificial intelligence models—was explicitly inspired by the structure and function of the brain. For about a decade, we’ve exploited the brain/computer analogy by drawing inspiration from the brain to build better and better AI systems. But now that our technology has in many respects caught up to, and even exceeded, human performance, it’s worth asking the question in reverse: what insights can we borrow from artificial intelligence, to better understand our own brains and reasoning processes, and how they can go wrong? As it turns out, there are quite a few, and they …

The Unspoken Homophobia Propelling the Transgender Movement in Children

When I was a Ph.D. student in sexology, I had a conversation with a colleague that forever cemented, in my mind, why I needed to speak out against the transitioning of children with gender dysphoria. Nowadays, every left-leaning parent and educator seems content to take a child’s word at face value if they say they were born in the wrong body, not realizing that by doing so, an important conversation is being brushed aside. On the day in question, our research lab had just finished our weekly meeting, and I chatted with my colleague as I packed up my things to head back to my office. He had told me previously about his son, who from the moment he was born, announced that a mistake had been made—“I’m a girl,” he would say. As a little boy, his son loved playing with dolls. He would wear his mother’s dresses and high heels, and wanted to grow his hair long like Princess Jasmine from the movie, “Aladdin.” At school, he preferred the company of girls to …

Consent Isn’t Everything and Sex Is Not Like Tea

“Whether it’s tea or sex, consent is everything.” This we learn from the closing statement of a video entitled “Tea and Consent,” created by the Thames Valley Police. Over the last few years, this short and clever educational video has made its way around the internet, and Baylor University even began showing it to incoming freshmen. The video analogises an offer of tea with seduction. You only make someone tea if that person explicitly expresses a desire for tea and—the video tells us—sex is no different. While the video aims to educate men on the importance of receiving explicit verbal consent for sexual activity, it does so via a clumsy and unhelpful characterization of sex as a simple transaction. The video’s conclusion, “Consent is everything,” and the subtitle, “Consent, it’s simple as tea,” are both false: the complex human activity of sex cannot simply be reduced to matters of consent and it is nowhere near as simple as tea. To pretend otherwise is to endorse a crudely transactional view of sex that favors men and, …

What Good Is Evolutionary Psychology?

An ability to hold our instincts up to the light, rather than naïvely accepting their products in our consciousness as just the way things are, is the first step in discounting them when they lead to harmful ends. Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature Big ideas often rock the boat, but few have rocked it as thoroughly as the idea of evolution by natural and sexual selection. The notion that humans evolved from non-human ancestors, through the survival of some mutations at the expense of others, offends countless cherished ideologies. Natural selection insults the religious conviction that our existence is divinely sanctioned, disturbs the progressive belief that selfish competition is a modern aberration, and disorients the widespread desire to find purpose and morality in the natural world. Given these transgressions, it’s no wonder that evolution has serious public relations issues. Evolution stirs up its strongest opposition when used to interpret the human mind in the field of evolutionary psychology. Ever since Alfred Russel Wallace (co-discoverer of natural selection) first argued that evolution could …

Is Sociogenomics Racist?

The publication of Blueprint (2018) by the behavioral geneticist Robert Plomin has revived the old debate about whether there’s something inherently racist or right-wing about looking for biological causes of human behavior. The subtitle of Plomin’s book—How DNA Makes Us Who We Are—makes it sound as if he’s a full-blooded hereditarian and that has led to a predictable outcry from long-standing opponents of this “dangerous” intersection where the natural sciences and the behavioral sciences meet. (To read an extract from Blueprint, click here.) To its opponents, sociogenomics—or social genomics—of which Plomin is a leading practitioner, sounds suspiciously like sociobiology. When the Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson published a book of that name in 1975, it was greeted with passionate opposition by a group of left-wing scientists who had assembled under the banner of ‘Science for the People,’ originally an anti-Vietnam War protest group. The biologists in that organization, several of whom Wilson had counted as friends up until this point, formed the ‘Sociobology Study Group’ and started firing off venomous letters to newspapers. For instance, a …

Keeping it Casual

Excerpted, with minor changes, from The Ape That Understood the Universe: How the Mind and Culture Evolve, by Steve Stewart-Williams (2018. Cambridge University Press). Consider the following joke – a favorite of the evolutionary psychologist Donald Symons. An Irishman, an Italian, and an Iowan are arguing about which bar is the world’s best. “The best bar in the world is Paddy’s Pub in County Cork,” says the Irishman. “After you’ve bought two drinks at Paddy’s, the house stands you to a third.” “That’s a good bar,” says the Italian, “but not as good as Antonio’s in Old Napoli. At Antonio’s, for every drink you buy the bartender buys you another.” “Now, those sound like mighty fine bars,” says the Iowan, “but the best bar in the world is Bob’s Bar and Grill in Des Moines. When you go into Bob’s you get three free drinks and then you get to go in the back room and get laid.” The Irishman and the Italian are astonished to hear this, but they are forced to admit that …

Moral Pollution In Place of Reasoned Critique

I was chief researcher and in-house editor for The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. In the book, we outline three misguided principles (“Great Untruths”) that form the foundation of the new moral culture we are seeing on some college campuses: The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.  The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people. We also trace six explanatory threads—cultural trends and practices that explain why this new moral culture, which we call “safetyism,” seemed to emerge so rapidly between 2013 and 2015: Rising teen depression and anxiety. The damaging effects of overprotection and social media. The loss of play in childhood. The polarization of the country. New ideas about justice. The bureaucratization of higher education. As we compiled story after story, we noticed that rather than making counterarguments to disfavored claims, students (and sometimes professors) seemed to focus on discrediting the speaker or writer instead. They …