All posts filed under: Science / Tech

Elite Opinion vs the Wisdom of Crowds: The Intelligentsia’s Tendency to Get Things Wrong

The intelligentsia have a reputation for being out of touch and it’s easy to see why, given their stereotypical tendency to live in sheltered, affluent neighbourhoods. Therefore it should be no surprise if we turn on the TV news and see prominent, well-paid economists displaying a more relaxed attitude to uncontrolled, mass migration than those of us who live in disadvantaged neighbourhoods where the most dysfunctional migrants usually end up being accommodated. Likewise, it is only natural to expect heavily-guarded high court judges to have a more lenient attitude towards criminals than those of us who live in rougher, less protected localities. But the detachment of the urban elite is more than just a matter of living somewhere posh — it is also a matter of culture, as noted by George Orwell in 1941: ‘This is the really important fact about the English intelligentsia — their severance from the common culture of the country’. The cultural detachment of the metropolitan elite from the people was recently highlighted in the run up to the Brexit referendum, as a …

Why Sex (Really) Matters

There is no more important topic in the social sciences than sex. The truth of this assertion is linked to two indisputable facts: sex often produces babies, and babies are not born blank slates. Though remnants of the Tabula Rasa myth still haunt the periphery of developmental science, a large portion of the scientific community (and increasingly, the public) has finally squared with the fact that human individuality is partly governed by genes. Put differently, part of the reason people differ from each other on measures of personality, intelligence, and temperament is because they are genetically different from one another. Because people vary genetically, our choices about who to have children with are immensely important, both for our children, and for those who will share the planet with them. Yet for many, recognition of just how critical reproductive decisions are seems to shift into gear only after a child is conceived. At that point, many of us are concerned with the mother’s ability to secure an abortion safely and without duress (within certain parameters), if …

Five Stars or Nothing

Everyone rating everything out of five is a terrible idea and we are on a trajectory towards this. In April 2016 The Guardian podcast Tech Weekly explored how we are becoming a “rating society”. Uber was the focus. Uber drivers rate passengers out of five and vice-versa. As a passenger, you are apparently less likely to be picked up as quickly if you have a low star rating. And Uber drivers who slip in their ratings risk losing the ability to drive for Uber. Your personal rating is a form of currency. If your Uber driver rating slips “below average” you may need “to come into the office so [Uber] can provide you with some tailored feedback.” The problem is that “below average” would appear to be anything under 4.6 out of 5. On most historical measures a 4.6 out of 5 is excellent. One star out of a possible three under the century-old Michelin Guide is “a very good restaurant.” In the past, experts provided the ratings, not the consumers. Ratings were reserved to …

Risky Business: Public Health and the Culture of Crisis

I. Panic and payment: Funding Primary Prevention Public health work has become, by nature, reactive. From Ebola to Zika, human health has been sucked into the vortex of the 12-hour news cycle, the details of death by hemorrhagic fever as salacious and gripping as the latest celebrity divorce or gruesome murder. Yet, the real work of public health work is perhaps more sedate and complex than prime-time ratings during an outbreak would suggest. The goal of public health is ostensibly primary prevention: this means a focus on anticipating, (rather than treating), disease, disorder, and injury. In fact, venerable institutions like the American Public Health Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization at the United Nations exhort public health professionals to not simply eliminate disease or injury, but to actively create the conditions of living that promote a holistic and optimal atmosphere of human well-being, allowing individuals and communities to thrive. All very well-intentioned, if not somewhat oversimplified in the face of public horror as we knock about on the …

Why Universities Should Get Rid of PowerPoint and Why They Won’t

Do you really believe that watching a lecturer read hundreds of PowerPoint slides is making you smarter? I asked this of a class of 105 computer science and software engineering students last semester. An article in The Conversation recently argued universities should ban PowerPoint because it makes students stupid and professors boring. I agree entirely. However, most universities will ignore this good advice because rather than measuring success by how much their students learn, universities measure success with student satisfaction surveys, among other things. What is so wrong with PowerPoint? Overreliance on slides has contributed to the absurd belief that expecting and requiring students to read books, attend classes, take notes and do homework is unreasonable. Courses designed around slides therefore propagate the myth that students can become skilled and knowledgeable without working through dozens of books, hundreds of articles and thousands of problems. A review of research on PowerPoint found that while students liked PowerPoint better than overhead transparencies, PowerPoint did not increase learning or grades. Liking something doesn’t make it effective, and there’s …

Is Donald Trump a Narcissist and Is He Fit for Office?

Donald Trump and his alleged narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) have been all over the political media. Recently a Democratic Congressman started a petition calling for Mr. Trump to be psychologically diagnosed because of the risk that he has NPD and that this makes him unfit for office. As someone who has spent a good deal of time researching narcissism, I am asked about Mr. Trump constantly by journalists, friends and even strangers who find out what I do. As much as I appreciate the work professional journalists do, I wanted to address three important questions about Mr. Trump and narcissism without an editorial filter. Is Mr. Trump narcissistic? Does Mr. Trump suffer from NPD? Would narcissism and NPD — if present — disqualify Mr. Trump from being a U.S. President? Is Mr. Trump narcissistic? Mr. Trump’s persona, or public image, has clear elements of grandiose narcissism. That is, he appears grandiose and in possession of a strong ego; he is willing to act aggressively to others and can appear emotionally callous rather than warm; and he is …

On the Reality of Race & the Abhorrence of Racism Part II: Human Biodiversity & Its Implications

If you observe the residents of Japan and compare them to residents of the rural southern United States, you’ll note some differences. Some differences will be stark, others less so, yet they will not be isolated to religious and cultural practices. The differences that emerge will bleed into psychological and temperamental traits that also vary in noticeable ways across populations. The reason for the existence of these differences, though, admits of no simple answer. Prevailing wisdom holds that the cultural and psychological differences that exist across human population groups were shaped largely by a confluence of history, sociological forces, and pure chance. This is likely true to some degree, but the prevailing wisdom — from my point of view — is incomplete. In Part I, we argued that human races exist, meaning that humans can be meaningfully classified into coherent groups based on genetic ancestry. If we’re going to take seriously the existence of meaningful racial variation we also have to at least consider that the genetic differences that exist across racial and ethnic groups …

The Future of Genetic Enhancement is Not in the West

Would you want to alter your future children’s genes to make them smarter, stronger or better-looking? As the state of the science brings prospects like these closer to reality, an international debate has been raging over the ethics of enhancing human capacities with biotechnologies such as so-called smart pills, brain implants and gene editing. This discussion has only intensified in the past year with the advent of the CRISPR-cas9 gene editing tool, which raises the specter of tinkering with our DNA to improve traits like intelligence, athleticism and even moral reasoning. So are we on the brink of a brave new world of genetically enhanced humanity? Perhaps. And there’s an interesting wrinkle: It’s reasonable to believe that any seismic shift toward genetic enhancement will not be centered in Western countries like the U.S. or the U.K., where many modern technologies are pioneered. Instead, genetic enhancement is more likely to emerge out of China. Attitudes toward enhancement Numerous surveys among Western populations have found significant opposition to many forms of human enhancement. For example, a recent …

When Bad Ideas Refuse to Die: the Denial of Human Individuality

It is generally thought that science helps good ideas triumph over bad. The weight of evidence eventually pushes false claims aside. But some ideas march onward despite the evidence against them. The discredited link between vaccines and autism continues to cause mischief and climate change skeptics continue to resurrect dead science. Why, then, are some bad ideas so hard to kill? A striking example of such a “zombie theory” comes from personality psychology. Personality psychologists study human individuality – how and why individuals differ in their patterns of behaviour and experience, and how those differences influence our lives. For almost 50 years, an idea with a vexing immunity to evidence has needled this field. This idea is called situationism. Is personality an illusion? Introduced in the 1960s by American psychologist Walter Mischel, situationism is the idea is that human behaviour results only from the situation in which it occurs and not from the personality of the individual. In his 1968 book Personality and Assessment, Mischel claimed that the whole concept of personality is untenable because …

How Sexual Dominance Influences Politics

The link between sex and dominance is age-old and pervasive. From the works of the Marquis de Sade to Vladimir Nabokov, literature is suffused with its ecstasies and tortures. Its depictions in popular cinema and print, from 9½ Weeks to Fifty Shades of Grey, suggest that this inseparable link is more than a fringe fetish, and that its dark fantasies haunt even the dungeons of respectable minds. This popular fascination also suggests that the influence of sex on dominant political movements such as fascism deserves a closer examination. The Sexual Origins of Fascism Fascism is a political movement or form of government marked by the complete control of individuals and military and economic institutions by a single dominant leader or ruling party. Although totalitarian communist regimes often lack the nationalistic sentiments associated with fascist regimes, their reliance on dominance and complete control of personal and social life as a political strategy often make them indistinguishable from fascism. Steven Pinker suggests that even the philosophy of National Socialism is no different from Marxism save for its …