All posts filed under: Science / Tech

Why Can’t a Woman be More Like a Man?

A fascinating paper about sex differences in the human brain was published last week in the scientific journal Cerebral Cortex. It’s the largest single-sample study of structural and functional sex differences in the human brain ever undertaken, involving over 5,000 participants (2,466 male and 2,750 female). The study has been attracting attention for more than a year (see this preview in Science, for instance), but only now has it been published in a peer-reviewed journal. For those who believe that gender is a social construct, and there are no differences between men and women’s brains, this paper is something of a reality check. The team of researchers from Edinburgh University, led by Stuart Ritchie, author of Intelligence: All That Matters, found that men’s brains are generally larger in volume and surface area, while women’s brains, on average, have thicker cortices. ‘The differences were substantial: in some cases, such as total brain volume, more than a standard deviation,’ they write. This is not a new finding – it has been known for some time that the …

‘Indigenous Ways of Knowing’: Magical Thinking and Spirituality by Any One Name

At a conference in British Columbia this month, a self-described “Indigeneer”—the word being a portmanteau of “Indigenous” and “engineer”—described the ways in which traditional Indigenous knowledge could be productively injected into contemporary science curricula. “All too often, Western science will make a so-called discovery after years of research really confirming what elders have been telling us for decades, for tens of thousands of years in some cases,” one of the conference hosts told the CBC. “The idea of bringing traditional ways of knowing together with empirical data and science is important.” Such conferences are part of a larger trend in Canada. From the University of Calgary to The University of Saskatchewan to Acadia University in New Brunswick, Canadian deans are pledging to infuse their curricula with a doctrine often described as “Indigenous Ways of Knowing” (IWK), which teaches that Indigenous peoples arrive at their understanding of the world in a unique way. The idea has been around in some form for many years. In a research paper prepared for the Canadian government in 2002, for instance, …

A Soldier’s Duty and Moral Injury

It’s tempting to say that the most important thing about US Marine veteran Christian Ellis is that he had an opera written about him. Few people can make that claim. Unfortunately, his story is far too complex and troubling to be reduced to any one factoid. Ellis is openly gay, did three tours of Iraq, fought both battles of Fallujah, and came home wracked with grief and guilt, sitting with his back to walls in restaurants scanning for hostiles and avenues of egress. The arc of his transformation from Marine to civilian to artist does more than operatically highlight the horrors of war. It also challenges much of the basic narrative that we’ve come to accept about the mental suffering of combat veterans, over half a million of whom have been diagnosed with PTSD in the United States alone following their return from Iraq, Afghanistan and other theatres of war since 9/11. At the same time, his story also deeply implicates the society on behalf of whom this suffering is endured, a civilian world that …

The Racism Treadmill

The prevailing view among progressives today is that America hasn’t made much progress on racism. While no one would argue that abolishing slavery and dissolving Jim Crow weren’t good first steps, the progressive attitude toward such reforms is nicely summarized by Malcolm X’s famous quip, “You don’t stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you’re making progress.” Aside from outlawing formalized bigotry, many progressives believe that things haven’t improved all that much. Racist attitudes towards blacks, if only in the form of implicit bias, are thought to be widespread; black men are still liable to be arrested in a Starbucks for no good reason; plus we have a president who has found it difficult to denounce neo-Nazis. If racism still looms large in our social and political lives, then, as one left-wing commentator put it, “progress is debatable.” But the data take a clear side in that debate. In his controversial bestseller Enlightenment Now, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker notes a steep decline in racism. …

Libel of Jordan Peterson by the Forward—A Story of Journalistic Failure

On Friday, a left-leaning Jewish magazine, the Forward, published an article by Ari Feldman titled “Is Jordan Peterson Enabling Jew Hatred?” accompanied by a picture of Adolf Hitler giving the Nazi salute next to Peterson. The Forward explains Vox-style: “Jordan Peterson is a public intellectual adored by neo-Nazis, white supremacists and conspiracy theorists. The neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer called [him] ‘The Savior of Western Civilization.’” What did Peterson do to become, according to the Forward, comparable to Hitler? In a recent blog post addressing anti-Semitism in the alt-right, Peterson “attributed [Jewish] influence to Jewish intelligence—an old anti-Semitic dog whistle”– Lipstadt said that Peterson’s statements on Jewish intelligence reminded her of Kevin MacDonald, a professor of psychology who the Southern Poverty Law Center has described as “the neo-Nazi movement’s favorite academic.” MacDonald has written several books criticizing Jewish intellectual culture. (Peterson links to a critique of one of MacDonald’s books at the end of his blog post on Jewish intelligence.) Lipstadt said that MacDonald’s academic language obscures the anti-Semitism behind his opinions. She worries the …

Biosocial Criminology and the Lombrosian Paradox

Last October, Quillette published an article by Hal Conick, crisply abridging Robert Sapolsky’s biologically based argument for criminal justice reform. Sapolsky, a neurobiology professor at Stanford University, has spent his career researching a range of topics including neuronal degeneration, infraspecific dominance hierarchies, stress, and violence, especially in relation to the behaviour of primates.  Over the years, Sapolsky has found that much of the antisocial behaviour we see and criminalize in human beings manifests similarly, biologically speaking, in our hominid relatives. Coupled with his extensive training in neuroscience, Sapolsky has used the findings of this simian research to argue for shifts in criminal justice policy—from the current system, which relies on an esoteric conception of ‘free will’ that can be needlessly retributive, to a system emphasizing public safety. In his 2017 book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Sapolsky argues that “you can’t begin to understand things like aggression, competition, cooperation, and empathy without biology,” a caveat he quite rightly issues, “for the benefit of a certain breed of social scientist who …

Portugal Poised to Write Gender Fluidity into Law

On 13 April 2018, the Portuguese parliament approved Bill 75/XIII, the ostensible aim of which is to protect the rights of transgender and intersex individuals. Looking at the details, however, it’s difficult to say if it was really created to advance the rights of these people, or if it was simply cobbled together on some sort of whim. Portugal’s last parliamentary elections were held in September 2015, and a coalition of PSD (Social-Democrat Party) and CDS-PP (Party of the Social-Democratic Center) won the most votes, but failed to secure an overall majority. This allowed the country’s leftist parties (PS – Socialist Party; PCP – Portuguese Communist Party; PEV – Green Party; and BE – Leftist Block) to form a coalition government led by PS. The PS government has to make regular concessions to these parties because it needs their votes to pass new legislation. In the case of this bill, that wasn’t really the case, since Bill 75/XIII was originally proposed by the government itself. However, later drafts included recommendations from their far-Left coalition partners …

Racial Disparities and the High Cost of Low Debates

Ideological intolerance in academia and the media has dramatically narrowed the range of ‘acceptable’ ideas, beliefs, and even topics of discussion. This can have a particularly deleterious effect on discussions relating to public policy. An example of this phenomenon was recently provided by the release of a landmark new study on race and economic mobility entitled “Race and Economic Opportunity in the United States: An Intergenerational Perspective.” The study was published by the Equality of Opportunity Project and produced by Stanford economist Raj Chetty, Harvard economist Nathaniel Hendren, and U.S. Census Bureau researchers Maggie R. Jones and Sonja R. Porter. Using a uniquely wide-ranging dataset, the researchers examined the individual income rank of almost all Americans now in their late 30s and compared them to their parents’ household income rank at the same age. Their findings revealed significant disparities in income between racial groups, some of which substantially persisted across generations. More about the study and its key findings can be read here, but by far the most significant finding was the stark gap in …

Unconscious Bias Training as a Management Tool

A number of social scientists have pointed to a paucity of good evidence that such ‘unconscious bias training’ is effective in achieving its stated aims. However, I have little doubt that Starbucks’ new initiative will be effective, because it is clear to me that the desired effect is not to change minds but to deter conduct. Boring, uncomfortable training sessions are punishments, which send clear messages about what one must do to avoid further sanction. Frankly, if such punishments were only used to deter employees from calling the police on people waiting for friends before ordering drinks, I wouldn’t object. Alas, such training is far more commonly used to promote hiring quotas. In my workplace (a STEM department in a university), it is widely known that training on ‘unconscious bias’ is the punishment that hiring committees face for not hiring enough female and (non-Asian) minority professors. I have been in the room when an administrator said quite candidly that the latest round of faculty hires had not been sufficiently diverse, “So now everyone [emphasis in original] gets …

Canada’s Twitter Mobs and Left-Wing Hypocrisy

I grew up working class, and proud. My father was a Marxist who was active in the labour movement, campaigned for Canada’s left-wing New Democratic Party, and educated me about the harms of capitalism. Throughout my teen years and young adulthood, I never questioned which side I was on. To this day, I remain steadfast in my belief that everyone deserves access to affordable housing, free health care, and advanced education. I believe that poverty is unacceptable and that wealth is unethical. I believe racism and sexism are embedded within our society. I’m pink, through and through. But politics aren’t just about words and ideas. They’re also about ethics and action—both personal and political. And though I remain a leftist in my principles, I can no longer stand in solidarity with former fellow travellers whose ethics are dictated by social convenience, who prioritize retweets over free inquiry, democracy, and debate, and who respond to disagreement with calls for censorship (or worse). These feelings aren’t new for me. But they’ve recently come into sharper focus. *   *  …