All posts filed under: Science / Tech

Censorship-Free Social Media: the Next Big Thing, or Just Another Echo Chamber?

In July 2016, Breitbart Tech journalist and notorious right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was permanently banned from Twitter. It wasn’t his first run-in with the Twitter authorities, but this time the ban was permanent. The justification was that he had allegedly encouraged his 300,000-odd followers to harass Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones. But his fans took the view that Yiannopoulos, like others before and since, had been kicked off Twitter because his conservative politics offended the sensibilities of its left-wing CEO, Jack Dorsey. Four months later, Donald Trump — candidate of choice for Yiannopoulos and his alt-right fellow travellers — achieved a surprise victory in the US presidential election; a seismic political upheaval that, like the similarly unexpected Brexit vote, seemed to put the impotence of the establishment media beyond any doubt. If Twitter and other Democrat-supporting behemoths thought that policing online speech was going to carry Hillary Clinton to victory, they were mistaken. Censorship, however, is like alternative medicine: if it doesn’t work, you just need to do more of it. Social media purges have only intensified since …

Why British Academics are Guilty of Groupthink

According to recent studies, the majority of British and American academics are to be found on the left wing of the political landscape. It is estimated that up to 80% of professional academics are left-liberals, leading to warnings of the dangers of groupthink in universities. The current anti-Brexit, pity party mood within UK universities is part of this culture of academic groupthink prevalent in the higher education sector. Academic unions and senior university managers have, in a rare show of shared values, sought to console those seemingly traumatised by the result of a democratic referendum. One obvious possible reason for the apparent lack of EU naysayers within universities is the inverse correlation researchers have found between the level of educational attainment and the likelihood of voting to leave the EU. It is reassuring to think that ignorance and bigotry are the cause of all our woes. But what about the nonintellectual reasons why academics might support membership of the EU so uncritically? When experts are viewed with such famous disdain, perhaps academics should ask themselves …

Money Laundering for the Soul: The Unbearable Ease of Moral Self-Exoneration

Perhaps it was the recent steady trickle of headlines reporting banned refugees, gunned down immigrants, and desecrated graveyards that got me thinking about the human ability to do onto others what we would not at all want others to do onto us; the facility with which we come to hurt others in ways that a short time earlier would have seemed inconceivable, and will no doubt seem so again in the not-far future; our ability to suspend our moral principles and ignore — or worse yet, inflict — cruel conduct that is in clear violation of the moral principles we claim to espouse. We do this with surprising ease, often basing sustained bouts of deliberate nastiness on nebulous reasoning. To quote the writer Loren Eisley, humans “kill for shadowy ideas more ferociously than other creatures kill for food.” And we do it with relish. As the British philosopher Jonathan Glover has noted, “Our species’ fascination and preoccupation with inflicting brutality on itself, the sheer innovative effort dedicated to the task, and the visceral thrill of …

Sociology’s Stagnation

Emile Durkheim is the father of modern sociology; he is a titan. Over a century ago the great man issued an edict that would forever alter — or you could say, forever derail — the course of the discipline that he established. His proclamation, paraphrased loosely, was that any social occurrence was a product of other social occurrences that came before it. Society and culture were “prime movers”, an ultimate cause of things in the world that, for its own part, had no cause. Social facts orbited in their own solar system, untethered from the psychology and biology of individual humans. It’s almost as if this idea originated from a burning bush, high on some ancient mountain, as it would to this day steer the direction of much social science thought. Durkheim’s insight would be a hall pass for social scientists to spend decades ignoring certain uncomfortable realities. Let me try and give you an idea of just how fetid the waters really are. In 1990 (over two decades ago) the sociologist Pierre van den …

Why Social Scientists Should Not Participate in the March for Science

Many social scientists are excited about and poised to participate in the upcoming March for Science, which is being described by the organizers as a “celebration of our passion for science and a call to support and safeguard the scientific community.” I realize that this will be a controversial position, but I believe the best way social scientists can contribute to the March for Science is to quietly sit this one out. I am very much pro-science and share some of the concerns people have about cultural and political threats to science. That being said, in my opinion, the social sciences are currently too compromised to help the cause. Even those who have the best intentions risk doing more harm than good. Why? For one, there is very little political and ideological diversity in the social sciences. It is true that many academic fields lean left, but this especially the case within the social sciences. Check out Heterodox Academy for details. In many social science departments it is easier to find a Marxist than a …

Our Age of Empathy

In 2009, the primatologist Frans de Waal published a bestseller called The Age of Empathy, in which he suggested that humanity might be rediscovering its propensity for cooperation and kindness. No longer would we be fooled by the myths of politicians and economists about our apparently selfish nature. He cited as evidence for this the recent election of a man who seemed to speak about empathy more than any other, Barack Obama. As Wordsworth famously wrote about the start of the French Revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!” How much older and sadder the West seems today — its conversations about politics and ethics bitter and polarized, all basis for rational disagreement evaporating before our eyes. And yet, de Waal’s claim that we are “pre-programmed to reach out” has not been dispensed with — in fact, many continue to believe that the world is awash with empathy. Only there is now a growing suspicion that this might actually bear some responsibility for our discord. In 2012, a …

How Social Constructionism Created the Sex Addiction Model

Imagine it is the year 1965, in frozen Winnipeg, Manitoba. Two twin boys are scheduled for routine circumcisions. Using an unconventional practice known as cauterization, one of the boy’s penises was accidentally burned beyond repair. Dispirited and confused, the boys’ parents were watching late night television one evening when a charming, well-spoken psychologist appeared on the air.  Sexologist John Money claimed he had discovered, through his “theory of gender neutrality,” that gender was a complete social construct, created entirely through social learning. Emboldened, the parents contacted Dr. Money, who ordered sex reassignment surgery for the injured boy, and instructed his parents to raise him as a girl. Because this surgery occurred at such as young age, the (now) girl would never realize she had once been a boy and would live her life as a normal female. Money touted the success of his work, publishing extensively on his triumphant results. However, eventually the truth came out. The young boy never acclimated to being a girl, and eventually as an adult sought to transition back to being a …

Galapagos Giant Tortoises Make a Comeback, Thanks to Innovative Conservation Strategies

The Galapagos Islands are world-famous as a laboratory of biological evolution. Some 30 percent of the plants, 80 percent of the land birds and 97 percent of the reptiles on this remote archipelago are found nowhere else on Earth. Perhaps the most striking example is the islands’ iconic giant tortoises, which often live to ages over 100 years in the wild. Multiple species of these mega-herbivores have evolved in response to conditions on the island or volcano where each lives, generating wide variation in shell shape and size. Over the past 200 years, hunting and invasive species reduced giant tortoise populations by an estimated 90 percent, destroying several species and pushing others to the brink of extinction, although a few populations on remote volcanoes remained abundant. Now however, the tortoise dynasty is on the road to recovery, thanks to work by the Galapagos National Park Directorate, with critical support from nonprofits like the Galapagos Conservancy and advice from an international team of conservation scientists. Together we are advancing a broad multiyear program called the Giant …

Is Crime Genetic? Scientists Don’t Know Because They’re Afraid to Ask

The U.S. has made unprecedented strides in the fight against crime. Both violent and non-violent crime are way down from their highs in decades past. This is great news, of course, but the success could easily lull us into a false sense of security, believing that we have the problem solved. Indeed, what if much of what we know about the causes of crime is either deeply flawed or flat out wrong? Imagine the trial of a new drug for an ailment that is as intractable as it is lethal. Researchers find 100 people with the disease and give the new drug to the first 50 patients who show up to the clinic. The next 50 trial participants are placed into a control group and given no treatment. The drug has a truly shimmering success rate. As you may have guessed, problems abound with this experimental design. For starters, because it isn’t randomized and because preexisting differences among the participants aren’t taken into account, the study can’t answer the question: Did the new drug cause …

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 …