All posts filed under: Science / Tech

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 …

Misunderstanding a New Kind of Gender Dysphoria

A year ago, as a result of a blog post I wrote, I began offering consultations to parents of teens who had announced “out of the blue” that they were transgender. Each week, several new families made contact with me, and their stories are remarkably similar to one another. Most have 14 or 15-year-old daughters who are smart, quirky, and struggling socially. Many of these kids are on the autism spectrum. And they are often asking for medical interventions – hormones and surgery – that may render them sterile, affect their liver, or lead to high blood pressure, among other possible side effects. The parents are bewildered and terrified, careful to let me know that they love their child and would support any interventions that were truly necessary. They speak to me of dealing with their fear for their child in terrible isolation, as friends and family blithely celebrate their child’s “bravery.” I am overwhelmed by the sheer volume of parents who call me. I find it difficult to listen to their stories – each …

Universalism Not Centrism

The notion of “centrism” aims to stake out ideological ground between the extremes of contemporary left and right. But the centrism-extremism distinction fails to get at essential differences. Finding those means going deeper into Western intellectual history. Ideologies are like organisms, and tracing their origins back to common ancestors starts with a system of classification based on careful observation and comparison. Our goal is ultimately to unravel the DNA of ideological movements. However before DNA, you need Darwin and Linnaeus. So let’s start with some actual specimens of “centrism.” Here I mean ‘neo-Enlightenment’ thinkers like Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, George Will, Maajid Nawaz, Scott Alexander, Christina Hoff Sommers, Christopher Hitchens, Bret Stephens. And their ideas have a clear line of descent from core Enlightenment values, which are under attack from factions on the left and right today. Anti-Enlightenment ideas are springing up from the left in: attempts to shut down speech in the academy, increasing toleration of violence in “anti-fascist” and “anti-racist” protests, and rhetorical strategies aimed at opponents’ racial or sexual attributes rather than …

Were Trump Voters Irrational?

In September 2016, in collaboration with my colleagues Richard West and Maggie Toplak, I published a book titled The Rationality Quotient. In it, we described our attempt to create the first comprehensive test of rational thinking. The book is very much an academic volume, full of statistics and technical details. We had expected our academic peers to engage with the statistics and technical details, and they did begin to do just that after its publication. But then the November 8, 2016 United States presidential election intervened. The nature of my email suddenly changed. I began to receive many communications containing gallows humor, like “Wow, you’ll sure have a lot to study now” or “We sure need your test now, don’t we?” Many of these emails had the implication that I now had the perfect group to study—Trump voters—who were obviously irrational in the eyes of my email correspondents. Subsequent to the election, I also received many invitations to speak. Several of these invitations came with the subtle (or sometimes not-so-subtle) implication that I surely would …