All posts filed under: Science / Tech

Rethinking Gender, Sexuality, and Violence

Over the past two weeks, America has been rocked by the revelation that the Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein has engaged in numerous instances of sexual harassment and possibly even sexual assault. In response, the actress Alyssa Milano began a social media campaign to raise awareness of these forms of abuse in the world at large, tweeting: While Milano may have had the admirable goal of drawing attention to a serious issue, the subsequent narrative that has been presented has not been entirely accurate, and a non-trivial amount of ugliness has also been unleashed. In the mainstream and on social media, we’ve been told that that all women live under constant threat and that all men are part of the problem.1 If a man had the audacity to say #MeToo and point out that he had also been a victim, he might have been ridiculed for being insensitive to women: One columnist admonished “nice guys” that they were most likely responsible for the bulk of the problem and bore the responsibility for fixing it.3 The …

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, …

Why Liberals Are Turning Against the Internet

Following the news of late might lead one to conclude that Mark Zuckerberg is America’s Public Enemy Number One, and that the World Wide Web is destroying the foundations of the country’s democratic system. “Silicon Valley Is Not Your Friend,” cried a recent headline in The New York Times. Perhaps surprisingly, the long article below called for federal regulation of the destructive and arrogant information high-tech companies now being blamed for the election of President Donald Trump and much else besides. Having spent years telling its readership that Zuckerberg was a revolutionary innovator and boy genius, The New York Times has had second thoughts. If you believe that the most pressing danger facing the American Republic is sitting in the White House, the author explained, then think again. Apparently, it’s hidden in Silicon Valley. So, let us go back to the early days of the 21st century, when celebrating the promise of the Internet was just another way of asserting your commitment to liberal principles, democratic ideals, human rights, and political and cultural freedom. Innumerable opinion pieces were penned, studies …

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 …

Beware the Emerging Field of ‘Trump Studies’

In a recent article at the usually excellent Washington Post “Monkey Cage” blog, Thomas Wood attempts to argue that, “Racism motivated Trump voters more than authoritarianism.” To make his case, Dr. Wood leads with a chart showing that, contrary to popular narratives (like this one), Trump voters actually seem less supportive of authoritarianism than those who voted for Romney or McCain. He then turns to racism—and in particular, data exploring partisan differences in endorsements of “symbolic racism” among whites. Here is the chart: Now, for the sake of intellectual charity we’ll set aside questions about the extent to which his authoritarianism and symbolic racism scales are accurate measures of respondents’ mental states. We’ll just grant, for the sake of argument, that these are accurate measures of racist and authoritarian tendencies, and that the survey population is sufficiently representative that one could make sound generalizations about Trump and Clinton voters on the basis of his study. With these concessions in mind, what does the data show us? One thing readers may notice about the second chart, …

Sex and the Seductions of Social Explanation

A review of Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, by Angela Saini. Beacon Press (May 30 2017) 224 pages. I saw a funny cartoon: a man lies hopelessly drunk in a gutter while, slumped next door, his bulbous-nosed friend utters the punchline: “He’s been celebrating not having the alcoholism gene again.” This was a long time ago, when I was a researcher in a university psychology department, and the cartoon was pinned to the door of a senior colleague working on the social psychology of alcoholism. He was a man, it’s safe to say, who didn’t like genetic explanations for human behaviour. Over the years I’d largely forgotten about the cartoon, as well as most of what I once knew about psychology. The memory came back to me in recent months, however, as the long-simmering question of what kind of explanations we should give when we turn our attention to ourselves, to questions of human behaviour, has boiled over. Once again there is a partisanship for certain types …

Universal Basic Income and the Threat of Tyranny

Much praise has been heaped on the idea of a universal basic income in recent years. Experiments have begun in many countries, some mainstream politicians are starting to advocate it, and if we listen to many thinkers, especially among the Internet and tech crowds, it seems like our inevitable future. This is quite understandable, as the idea attempts to solve a real problem: with the advance of technology, fewer and fewer people are required to produce the amount of wealth required to sustain more and more people. Rather than invent more and more artificial jobs and scarcities, why not just accept the reality of this changing world, where not all people are needed for working, and instead release them to pursue their hobbies, studies, or charity? There has been criticism of the idea, but so far the debate tends to focus on two issues: the economic reasoning behind a universal basic income, and the ethics of allowing a majority of non-workers to live off the fruits of the labour of a small minority. What is …