All posts filed under: Hypothesis

The Poverty of Cosmopolitan Historicism

When the Soviet Union fell, Marxist utopianism came to an end. In the decades since, a new breed of utopianism has gripped the collective imagination. Cosmopolitanism dreams of a borderless world united in peace and understanding, and it is underpinned by a powerful narrative of historical progress that has much in common with its Marxist cousin. Its name is cosmopolitan historicism. In The Open Society and its Enemies, Karl Popper wrote that “we may become the makers of our fate when we have ceased to pose as its prophets”. In Popper’s view, historicism was defined by its simplistic understanding of history, viewed as an unfolding of inexorable iron laws. Based on what they saw as their unique insight into these presumed laws, historicists issued wild prophecies about the future of human society. For this they were mercilessly critiqued by Popper. In his eyes, dogmatic attachment to a utopian blueprint provided by what was understood as history’s ultimate destination caused historicist zealots to doggedly push ahead toward the end of history while ignoring signs that their …

Against the Demonization of Drugs

For most of us, the word ‘drugs’ comes burdened with negative associations. Run a quick mental check: how many positive associations come to mind when you think of the term ‘drugs’? However, a ‘drug’ is simply any substance other than food that causes a physiological change when introduced into the body (inhaled, injected, smoked, consumed, absorbed, etc). As such, the term ‘drugs’ is so broad that any sweeping generalization about them is likely to be false. Drugs include a whole spectrum of substances ranging from the highly addictive, such as crack cocaine, to the life saving and pain relieving, such as anaesthetics, to the mind enhancing, such as caffeine, to the purely recreational, such as alcohol. Yet public discourse on the subject is usually limited to the narrow mantra that “drugs are bad.” Where are the people reminding us that “drugs can be good”? There is no doubt that most anti-drug campaigns have good intentions (such as protecting people from addiction), but the simplistic picture they provide makes it difficult to make useful distinctions between …

What is Mindfulness? Nobody Really Knows, and That’s a Problem

You’ve probably heard of mindfulness. These days, it’s everywhere, like many ideas and practices drawn from Buddhist texts that have become part of mainstream Western culture. But a review published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science shows the hype is ahead of the evidence. Some reviews of studies on mindfulness suggest it may help with psychological problems such as anxiety, depression, and stress. But it’s not clear what type of mindfulness or meditation we need and for what specific problem. The study, involving a large group of researchers, clinicians and meditators, found a clear-cut definition of mindfulness doesn’t exist. This has potentially serious implications. If vastly different treatments and practices are considered the same, then research evidence for one may be wrongly taken as support for another. At the same time, if we move the goalposts too far or in the wrong direction, we might lose the potential benefits of mindfulness altogether. So, what is mindfulness? Mindfulness receives a bewildering assortment of definitions. Psychologists measure the concept in differing combinations of acceptance, attentiveness, awareness, …

Is There a Biological Case for Criminal Justice Reform?

Tell a woman the story of Christ’s crucifixion, and if she doesn’t cry, she’s a witch. In the 1500s, women who failed this test were burned alive. The test—clearly and painfully faulty—was not publicly questioned until Dutch physician Johann Weyer wrote “De Praestigiis Daemonum” (or “On the Tricks of Demons”) in 1564. Weyer correctly argued that many older women couldn’t cry due to atrophy of their lachrymal glands. Prosecutors were presented with a dilemma: reform the witch trial system or potentially kill innocent women. A paltry sum of sanity was brought to the system, and hundreds of potential deaths were prevented. Stanford University neurobiology professor Robert Sapolsky believes that today’s U.S. criminal justice system has similar biological blind spots. Just as witch prosecutors didn’t know about the lachrymal glands’ connection to tears, we don’t fully understand an untold number of connections between DNA, the brain, hormones, and other dynamic aspects of the human body. In Sapolsky’s latest book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, he argues that our justice system falls …

What Sadomasochism Can Teach Us About Human Sexuality

Like all good husbands, I took my wife to see the latest instalment of the Fifty Shades of Grey movie series—Fifty Shades Darker­­—on Valentine’s Day weekend. Admittedly, this romantic gesture was not entirely altruistic. As it happens, I am currently doing research on the role of dominance and submission in human sexuality. Although neither of us is in the “scene,” we are nonetheless swept up in the current cultural fascination with consensual sadomasochism, albeit for different reasons. My fascination stems from my general interest in human sexuality and its evolution. My field, evolutionary psychology, has been at the forefront of exploring human behavior through the evolutionary lens for more than two decades, and has made immense advances over the years. Although its greatest accomplishments are in the realm of sex differences and mating behavior, it is not confined to the sexual realm, as is evidenced by the increasing output of research on the evolution of morality,1 religion,2 and politics.3 Indeed, E. O. Wilson’s dream of a consilience of knowledge across the biological sciences and humanities is …

Using Social Media Scientifically

It is often said that we need more science in our public debate. By this, it is usually meant that people should base their views on scientific facts, which have more authority than mere opinion. It is said that political leaders and public commentators should be both scientifically literate, and base their views on scientific findings where it is relevant to do so. While this is a noble goal, it is not what I’m proposing here. Instead, I’d like to argue that we should attempt, on a day-to-day basis, to approach social media and news consumption scientifically. What do I mean by ‘scientifically’? Social media, and the internet more broadly, have afforded us tremendous potential to access information, and to interact with people beyond our immediate social circles. Interacting with others helps us to develop our knowledge of the world by digesting information, disseminating it, or engaging in dialogue about it. We can test our views about the world—however informal or loosely formed they are—against the views of others. However, social media debates can often …

Why Powerful People Fail to Stop Bad Behavior by Their Underlings

Imagine you were recently promoted at work. You now command a higher salary, lead more people and control more of the organization’s resources. As such, you have more influence over strategy, more authority to hire and fire and more responsibility for your team’s outcomes. As you undertake your new role, however, you are also faced with evidence of an unethical business practice that plagues your organization. This practice is harmful, potentially embarrassing at best and possibly illegal at worst. In your new, more powerful position, would you be more or less likely to stop it than in your previous role? This situation is hardly unheard of and might even be common. Leaders often set goals but delegate responsibility for how they are achieved, providing leeway for unethical practices to creep in. Leaders also inherit business practices from their predecessors and gain visibility only as they achieve higher rank in the hierarchy. Unethical practices can become routine and taken for granted when embedded in the organization’s structures and processes. Consider the salespeople at Wells Fargo who …

Why Growth Most Often Occurs When We Fall Apart

In many ways, our current society is set up to avoid as much pain as possible. Whether it is new technology, new medical or pharmaceutical advancements, or the self help industry, everything is set up to make our lives easier, simpler, and more uniquely tailored to our every individual need. Even the names of products such as the iPhone and iPad nod to the symbiotic merger of products and people. But the question remains, does all of this avoidance of pain and seeking of pleasure really make us any happier or more resilient? Obviously, new technological and medical advancements have helped millions of people rise out of poverty or overcome disease, but overall our social levels of happiness haven’t risen. Indeed, studies have shown that use of social media such as Facebook is correlated to depression and unhappiness. Other studies have shown that there is some increase in levels of happiness when individuals rise out of poverty, but material possessions beyond that don’t make much of a difference. Anyway, this avoidance of pain isn’t just relegated …

How the Fall of the Berlin Wall Created Political Gridlock in the U.S.

The deeply divisive 2016 presidential election and its aftermath provide the clearest evidence to date of the bitterness that increasingly plagues American politics. Russia stands accused of attempting to influence the outcome and undermine faith in the election, but in fact their destructive impact on U.S. politics has been far more profound and pervasive than that. Russia has been steadily undermining U.S. political effectiveness simply by virtue of their decline over the past 25 years. Indeed, endemic Russian weakness has not only led to the gridlock, extreme partisanship, and toxic political climate that pervades the U.S., but has also made Putin one of the most popular politicians on the planet. Political commentators have explained the current American political climate in different ways, but most focus on political or societal events such as globalization, gerrymandering, Roe v. Wade, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and Gingrich’s Contract with America. Many also point to traditional and social media echo chambers, which exacerbate partisanship through their polarizing effects on group attitudes and the creation of parallel news-universes. …

Why Did Humans Evolve Big Penises But Small Testicles?

Humans have a much longer and wider penis than the other great apes. Even the largest of gorillas, more than twice as heavy as a human, will have a penis just two and half inches long when erect. However our testicles are rather small. A chimpanzee’s testes weigh more than a third of its brain while ours weigh in at less than 3%. The relative size of our penis and testes is all down to our mating strategies, and can provide some surprising insights into early human culture. Primates exhibit all sorts of mating behaviour, including monogamous, polygynous — where males have multiple mates — and multimale-multifemale. One indicator of which behaviour occurs in a species is the size difference between males and females. The greater this sexual dimorphism, the more likely the mating is either polygynous or multi-male to multi-female. This can be shown by observing chimpanzees and gorillas, our closest living relatives. Male chimpanzees are much larger than females, and they have a multi-male to multi-female mating system. Essentially, male chimps have sex all the …