All posts filed under: Science / Tech

Genes, Environment, and Luck: What We Can and Cannot Control

Social justice activists have issued a challenge to “check your white privilege.” Inasmuch as I oppose the inherent racism ingrained in such expressions of Identity Politics, my initial replies were of a snarky nature, such as “It’s doing just fine, thank you.” But as I engaged the task more seriously it wasn’t my “white privilege” that I discovered so much as it was my good fortune. This led to my November 2017 column in Scientific American, in which I enumerated a few of the ways that luck has favored many people (myself included) that led to their success, much of which was not “earned” in the purist sense that conservatives conceive of it, in which the successful merited it and the unsuccessful deserved it. The deeper I looked into the matter of how lives turn out, in fact, the more I realized how much is out of our control. Let’s begin with a question: Why do some people succeed in life while others fail? Is it because they are naturally smarter and harder working, or …

How the Self-Esteem Myth Has Damaged Society and Us—An Interview with Will Storr

Will Storr is an award-winning journalist and novelist. His work has appeared in outlets such as the Guardian, the Sunday Times, the New Yorker, and Esquire. His latest book is Selfie: How We Became so Self-Obsessed and What it’s Doing to Us. As a psychologist who studies the self and related topics, I was excited to read the book and was not disappointed. I highly recommend it. Below is an interview I conducted with Mr. Storr about Selfie.  Clay Routledge: What made you interested in researching and writing a book focused on the self? Will Storr: My previous book, The Unpersaudables, was an investigation into how intelligent people come to believe crazy things. It focused on the ways we become intellectually stuck. I concluded that we don’t really choose the things we believe—at least not those things that are core to our worldview. What we believe is just part of the accident of who we are. In an important way, our core beliefs and our self are indivisible. But this was also a slightly unsatisfying …

Glimpsing Our Own Health Secrets: The Coming Revolution in Health-Care Transparency

It was a random flip through an old family binder that changed the course of Selina Brudnicki’s career. Brudnicki’s late mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer eight years earlier. A few months after her mastectomy, she complained to her doctors of new pain—a symptom that Brudnicki, a Program Lead of Digital Patient Experience based in Toronto, had assumed was being properly investigated. Brudnicki’s mother passed away of metastatic breast cancer shortly thereafter. It was in 2015, three years after her mother’s death, that Brudnicki came across that binder, which was tucked away with her mother’s belongings. There were medical test results, pathology and imaging reports, and a few oncologist notes. She also found a note her mother had written herself, commenting on a doctor’s report. It read: “[The doctor’s] report does not seem correct.  I always mention ‘pain’ not discomfort. I kept complaining about a new pain.” “While there are never guarantees, I always wonder: If [my mother] had access to her complete medical records and notes, would she have realized [sooner] that she …

Strange Bedfellows: The Peculiar Alliance Between Centrist Liberals and Radical Feminists

A peculiar new alliance appears to be emerging between trans-critical radical feminists and liberal centrists who are normally critical of radical feminism. Radical feminists’ insistence on the biological definition of “woman” seems to align them with the anxieties of those disturbed by activists’ redefinition of “female” and “male” from objective biological descriptors to self-reported perceptions, as well as with the concerns of non-radical feminists like Helen Joyce who has written cogently on the consequences of denying sex differences. However, radical feminists are beholden to a gender theory of their own, and it ought to be possible to reject the claims of trans extremists without entangling ourselves in another equally dubious ideology. Trans radicalism is not a war against feminism. It is a civil war within feminism, and it is not immediately obvious which side liberals should be rooting for. There is a risk of becoming trapped in radicals’ own mode of discourse. Trans activists advance dubious claims about gender behind a shield of the interests of trans people as a group. There is a temptation …

The Uncharted Territories of Medically Transitioning Children

In medieval times, maps warned adventurers away from unexplored territories with drawings of mythological beasts and a warning that read, “Here be dragons.” Are we venturing into dragon territory with the transitional therapies increasingly made available to transgender youth? 12-16-18 Twelve-sixteen-eighteen isn’t a date, it’s a program developed in Holland for treating children experiencing gender dysphoria, the condition of feeling there is a mismatch between one’s experienced gender and one’s biological sex. When Dr Norman Spack, pediatric endocrinologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, learned of the approach, he decided, “I’m going to do this.” And he did. In 2007, Dr Spack co-founded the hospital’s Gender Management Service (GeMS), the first clinic in North America devoted to treating transgender children. There, he implemented the 12-16-18 program, which has since been adopted by clinics nationwide. (Dr. Spack did not respond to an interview request.) Hormones are the tools of the endocrinologist’s trade, which is why, in 1985, a transgender Harvard graduate sought Dr. Spack’s assistance. The patient, born female, had lived as a male named “Mark” throughout his …

Population and Policy—A Rejoinder to Szurmak and Desrochers

I cannot imagine an event that could cause a ship to founder. Modern ship building has gone beyond that. ~E.J. Smith, captain of Titanic In a recent essay in Quillette, I criticized the one-sided view of global development in the Roslings´ Factfulness. In their response, Joanna Szurmak and Pierre Desrochers (hereafter S&D) whose new book Population Bombed! is published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, the UK’s most high-profile climate denier group, disparage my critique by branding me an “eco-pessimist,” and present themselves as clear-eyed optimists. This dichotomy is a poor guide to analysis. Captain Smith of Titanic was obviously also an “optimist.” Were his critics mere “pessimists”? Three aspects of the S&D-paper require particular scrutiny: 1. The Contradictory View of Technological Development S&D argue that market economies will fix all negative side-effects of technological development spontaneously because of the commercial value of the effluents. This claim ignores all the research and policy-making related to external economics, where the cost of emitting hazardous substances is negligible for the producer but dire for society.1 If the LA or …

In Defense of Male Stoicism

I dealt with the most stereotypically feminine of mental illnesses in the most stereotypically masculine way. After acknowledging that I was anorexic, and deciding that I had no wish to be, I put my head down and tried to recover with the minimum of fuss. I told almost nobody about my condition, and almost never discussed it with the people I had told. I had two sessions with a therapist—almost missing the first after getting myself lost and terrifying pedestrians by running up to them, wild-eyed, to ask for directions to the mental health center—and then abandoned them out of embarrassment and reticence. I did not want to talk, and I did not cry, and I had no wish to hold anyone’s hand or be hugged. As a means of recovery, I would not recommend this. I was fortunate enough to have a family who supported me as I recovered, and someone less privileged would need additional support. Had I been more open to professional help, meanwhile, I might have made a quicker and more comprehensive recovery, …

The Children of the Revolution

“Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart,” wrote James Baldwin, “for his purity, by definition, is unassailable.” This observation has been confirmed many times throughout history. However, China’s Cultural Revolution offers perhaps the starkest illustration of just how dangerous the “pure in heart” can be. The ideological justification for the revolution was to purge the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and the nation more broadly, of impure elements hidden in its midst: capitalists, counter-revolutionaries, and “representatives of the bourgeoisie.” To that end, Mao Zedong activated China’s youth—unblemished and uncorrupted in heart and mind—to lead the struggle for purity. Christened the “Red Guards,” they were placed at the vanguard of a revolution that was, in truth, a cynical effort by Mao to reassert his waning power in the Party. Nevertheless, it set in motion a self-destructive force of almost unimaginable depravity. The Cultural Revolution commenced in spirit when Mao published a letter indicting a number of Party leaders on May 16, 1966. But it was a seemingly minor event nine days later …

Aristophanes’ Orphans: A Disabled Trans Woman Surveys the Grey Zone Between Love and Fetish

Since I first read Plato’s Symposium, I have been fond of Aristophanes’ account of the origin of love. The tale goes something like this. Human beings used to be spherical creatures with four legs, four arms, and two faces divided evenly between each side. We also used to come in three distinct varieties. Men were those composed of two male halves, women were those composed of two female halves, and the androgynous were those composed of both a male and a female half. Everything was going swell for us, you might say, until the gods meddled, as they were wont to do. Fearing the power of humanity, Zeus sliced every human into two and had Apollo sew up the opening, with our belly buttons serving as a reminder not to test the power of the gods. Everyone found themselves feeling empty and longing for their other half, be it the woman you were attached to or the man you were attached to. Love was born out of the search to be whole. I’m fond of …

Video Games and the (Male) Meaning of Life

Virtual worlds give back what has been scooped out of modern life . . . it gives us back community, a feeling of competence, and a sense of being an important person whom people depend on. —Jonathan Gottschall When I was seven, my parents bought me and my brother an Atari 2600, the first mass game console. The game it came with was “Asteroids.” We played that game an awful lot. One night, we snuck down in the middle of the night only to discover my Dad already playing. My brother and I loved going to local arcades and try to make a few quarters last as long as possible. It was the perfect set of incentives—you win, you keep playing. You lose, you’re forced to stand there and watch others play, hoping that someone is forced to leave their game in the middle so you can jump in. We became very good at video games. My favorite was “Street Fighter II.” I memorized the Mortal Kombat fatalities to inflict graphic harm on defeated enemies. …