All posts filed under: Science / Tech

VOX Goes From “junk” To “no good”: That’s a Bit of Intelligent Progress

I dislike writing responses to articles I feel need correction or clarification. As a journal editor, I do it frequently. In this case, I’m writing a response to a response about responses to a response. By way of introducing this piece, VOX published a critical article about a podcast discussion between Sam Harris and Charles Murray with a disparaging headline about “junk science.” The issue was whether any scientific data support the idea that group differences in average IQ scores might be partially explained by genes (a very minor part of the podcast). The VOX piece thought this possibility was junk. I submitted a response to VOX; they declined to publish it but Quillette did (June 11). VOX then published a second piece where the authors of the original piece responded to a number of online criticisms in considerable technical detail. That second piece had a headline of “still no good reason” to believe genes had anything to do with group differences. In my view, this article was much better than the first and the …

No Voice at VOX: Sense and Nonsense about Discussing IQ and Race

Sam Harris, a noted commentator, recently had a podcast discussion with Charles Murray about the reaction to the publication of The Bell Curve in 1994. It is an informative, respectful discussion and I urge you to listen to it. Shortly after this podcast, the popular online news site VOX.com, ran a piece with the headline: “Charles Murray is once again peddling junk science about race and IQ—Podcaster and author Sam Harris is the latest to fall for it.” The piece mostly restates old arguments that continue to misrepresent what The Bell Curve actually said about race and genetics. It is based on a selective reading of the research literature and the assertion of facts that are not supported by a weight-of-evidence. There is nothing new or original in the arguments and these arguments have been challenged many times by other experts in the field. Nonetheless, VOX gave new life to the false narrative that Murray is “peddling junk science” about average IQ score differences among racial/ethnic groups being genetic and therefore some groups are genetically inferior. The …

A Risk Not Worth Taking: An Open Letter to My Colleagues in The Academy

Dear Colleagues: What an interesting world we inhabit in 2017. On one hand, there has never been a better time to be alive. Violence has been declining for some time, vaccines ward off previously intractable diseases, and basic human rights have continued to creep into parts of the world where they were previously absent. Yet, at the same time, we find ourselves increasingly polarized in certain respects. What we do as scholars invariably becomes injected into the heart of many of these key societal debates. Basic empirical questions—such as “is the world getting warmer, and if so, are we humans causing it to happen?” can ignite strong feelings and heated rancor. You don’t have to study climate to find yourself swept up in the fray, either. Almost no corner of science is fully immune from stoking a controversy. It is because of this reality, that I write to you. Never in the history of our species have we understood so much about the world we inhabit. I mean that we truly understand it. We have …

Getting Voxed: Charles Murray, Ideology, and the Science of IQ

“The impulse to think that environmental sources of differences are less threatening than genetic ones is natural but illusory.” Charles Murray “Convictions are more dangerous enemies of the truth than lies.” Friedrich Nietzsche   Recently, the popular online political outlet Vox published an article in response to Charles Murray’s interview on Sam Harris’s “Waking Up”1 podcast that illustrates the insidious effect ideology can exert on science. The article, written by a group of esteemed scholars, Eric Turkheimer, Kathryn Paige Harden, and Richard E. Nisbett, contended that Murray is still “peddling junk science” about race and intelligence, thereby duping otherwise critical scholars like Harris with pseudo-scholarship and sophistry. The article attempts a moderate, scientifically sound criticism of hereditarianism (i.e., the contention that at least part of the Black-White IQ gap is genetic). Unfortunately, the result is a tendentious and ideologically skewed attack on Murray that forwards cherry picked studies, ignores copious data, and dismisses the impressive explanatory power of hereditarianism with a wagging finger of moral disapproval. Turkheimer et al did not dispute many of the most important points discussed …

Censorship, the Authoritarian’s Snake Oil

Of all the many world-changing inventions that have come from the field of particle physics, few are more prominent than the World Wide Web. Invented in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee as a tool for sharing data with other scientists at CERN, the Web was based on a simple yet powerful idea: that a single mouse click could take you from one page to another, anywhere else on the planet. Berners-Lee was remarkably forward-thinking, proposing not only rich content like images or video, but also that the Web should be an interactive and democratic medium, where every user has the power to speak as well as listen. The millennium gave us blogs, wikis, and social media, at which point Berners-Lee’s dream was (sort of) realised, and the internet grew from a toy for geeks into a public utility as ubiquitous as electricity or television. The rest, as they say, is history. But where science leads, lawyers and politicians inevitably follow. It didn’t take long for the self-appointed moral guardians to arrive on the scene, realise that …

Paradoxes of Probability and Other Statistical Strangeness

You don’t have to wait long to see a headline proclaiming that some food or behaviour is associated with either an increased or a decreased health risk, or often both. How can it be that seemingly rigorous scientific studies can produce opposite conclusions? Nowadays, researchers can access a wealth of software packages that can readily analyse data and output the results of complex statistical tests. While these are powerful resources, they also open the door to people without a full statistical understanding to misunderstand some of the subtleties within a dataset and to draw wildly incorrect conclusions. Here are a few common statistical fallacies and paradoxes and how they can lead to results that are counterintuitive and, in many cases, simply wrong. Simpson’s paradox This is where trends that appear within different groups disappear when data for those groups are combined. When this happens, the overall trend might even appear to be the opposite of the trends in each group. One example of this paradox is where a treatment can be detrimental in all groups …

Is It Ever Better Not to Know?

“What wretched doings come from the ardor of fame; the love of truth alone would never make one man attack another bitterly” –Charles Darwin, 1848 (in a letter to his friend, Joseph Hooker) “An awful privilege, and an awful responsibility, that we should help to create the world in which posterity will live.” –William K. Clifford in The Ethics of Belief  Is it sometimes better not to know certain things? Yes, that seems obvious. Very few people would tell a religious parent on their death bed that they have decided to reject the faith their mother or father valued so deeply. We all have illusions we’d prefer to cling to, and sometimes we respect other people’s beliefs, even when we think they’re misguided, because they bring comfort or meaning to that person. Still, we want to argue that over the long run it is better for humanity to know as much as we can about every possible question that might be asked. We think that the intrinsic beauty and instrumental benefits of the accumulated knowledge that …

“The Sense of an Ending” and Why We Are Wired to Produce False Memories

How much do you trust your memories? Do you consider the events and perspectives you remember as gospel truth, or as more malleable, fickle things that bend and warp with time and shifting context? The recently released film The Sense of an Ending, adapted from Julian Barnes’s Booker-winning novel, takes the second perspective. It explores the intriguing premise that our own views of our lives may be incomplete and even inaccurate. I research false memories, and so I was curious to see how the film matched up to my own understanding of how our views of our pasts do not always reflect what actually happened. Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent) is a grumpy retiree who owns a camera repair shop in modern day London. One morning he receives a letter explaining that he has been left the diary of his closest friend from school, Adrian, who committed suicide when they were at university. The diary has been left to him by the mother of Tony’s first college girlfriend, Veronica (Charlotte Rampling). Tony never gets to read …

Why Citing a Scientific Study Does Not Finish An Argument

“Actually Studies Show…” Chances are you’ve found yourself in a heated conversation among a group of friends, family, or colleagues when someone throws down the gauntlet: “Actually, studies show…” Some nod in silent agreement, others check their text messages, and finally someone changes the subject. It’s hard to know what to say when people cite scientific studies to prove their point. Sometimes we know the study and its relative merits. But most of the time we just don’t know enough to confirm or refute the statement that the study is supposed to support. We are floating in a sea of information, and all we can do is flounder around for the nearest buoy to support a view that’s vaguely related to the conversation. All of us lack the time to understand more than a small fraction of scientific research. For the most part, this works out well: scientists conduct research and publish papers, each new study adds another piece to the puzzle, and bit by bit we steadily increase the total stock of knowledge. Eventually, …

Denying Encryption To Terrorists Is A Fantasy

The script for responding to Western terror attacks is now so predictable that they might as well publish a schedule in the TV listings. First we get the platitudes: “praying for” the affected city, liking Facebook statuses, and projecting flags onto buildings. Next there is the denial stage, where the commentariat implore us not to make assumptions about the attacker’s motives, because for all we know this was actually the work of Buddhist monks or the National Farmers’ Union. Then comes the hand-wringing over the potential racist backlash at the hands of the unstable, knuckle-dragging public, whose desire for an anti-Muslim pogrom can only be kept in check by loudly proclaiming that Islamic terrorists are not Real Muslims. Finally, once the emotion has died down, politicians can get on with doing what they do best — demanding more control over the internet. After Khalid Masood murdered four people in London last month, Home Secretary Amber Rudd wasted no time in laying the blame at the feet of WhatsApp, insisting that secure messaging apps must not …