All posts filed under: Science / Tech

Steven Pinker: Counter-Enlightenment Convictions are ‘Surprisingly Resilient’

Steven Pinker is a cognitive scientist and is the author of several books including Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress published by Viking Press earlier this year. Editors at Quillette contacted Professor Pinker for a Q&A: what follows is a transcript of our Q&A, conducted via email. On Psychology Quillette: What are some of the classic experiments in psychology that you think an educated person should know about? Steven Pinker: Where to begin? I’d cite studies of illusions and biases, to remind people of the fallibility of our perceptual and cognitive faculties. These would include experiments on visual attention by the late Anne Treisman and others showing that people are unaware of visual material they don’t attend to, together with any experiment on memory showing how un-photographic our recollections are (for example, Elizabeth Loftus’s studies on the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, or even the low-tech study in which people are asked to draw a penny, an object they have seen thousands of times). Let’s add Slovic, Tversky, and Kahneman’s demonstrations of illusions in reasoning about …

Is the Internet Complete?

In 2013, a debate was held between friends Peter Thiel and Marc Andreessen, the thrust of which was to determine whether we are living through an innovation golden age, or whether innovation was in fact stalling. Thiel, of course, played the innovation sceptic, and it is interesting now with five years remove to look back on the debate to see how history has vindicated his position. In short all of those things that were ‘just around the corner’ in 2013 are, sure enough, still ‘just around the corner.’ One strand of Thiel’s argument at the time (and since) was that the ostentatious progress made in computing in the last 15 years has blinded us to the lack of technological progress made elsewhere. We can hardly have failed to notice the internet revolution, and thus we map that progress onto everything, assuming that innovation is a cosmic force rather than something which happens on a piecemeal basis. Certainly, this argument has gained more traction since 2013. However, in this piece I’d like to add an extra …

Social Media: The Case for Deactivation

In 2017, an article sub-titled “The More You Use Facebook, the Worse You Feel” appeared in my Facebook newsfeed. I found it scientifically rigorous and persuasive, and so, not wanting to feel worse, I deactivated my Facebook account. But then in the months that followed, I found scientific arguments that seemingly come to the opposite conclusion, namely, that social media are good for you. It turns out that I had only scratched the surface of a mountain of writing on this topic. So which is it? Should I re-activate my Facebook account? Should you deactivate yours? To answer these questions, we need a common currency for measuring the costs and benefits of using Facebook, and other major social media platforms like Snapchat and Instagram. Surprisingly, perhaps, the mountain of articles on this topic doesn’t yet include this kind of systematic cost-benefit analysis. One of my goals here is to provide one. Drawing on the last two decades of scientific research, I’ll show that major social media platforms do more harm than good, thereby increasing the …

The Scientific Importance of Free Speech

Editor’s note: this is a shortened version of a speech that the author was due to give last month at King’s College London which was canceled because the university deemed the event to be too ‘high risk’. A quick Google search suggests that free speech is a regarded as an important virtue for a functional, enlightened society. For example, according to George Orwell: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Likewise, Ayaan Hirsi Ali remarked: “Free speech is the bedrock of liberty and a free society, and yes, it includes the right to blaspheme and offend.” In a similar vein, Bill Hicks declared: “Freedom of speech means you support the right of people to say exactly those ideas which you do not agree with”. But why do we specifically need free speech in science? Surely we just take measurements and publish our data? No chit chat required. We need free speech in science because science is not really about microscopes, or pipettes, …

Sam Harris was Right; Ezra Klein Should Know Better

Earlier this week, Ph.D. neuroscientist turned pop-philosopher Sam Harris invited Vox Editor-at-Large Ezra Klein to debate Harris on his popular podcast. The topic: Harris’s decision to feature Charles Murray for the purposes of defending him— from charges of racism, on his show last year. Murray is famous in part for writing The Bell Curve, which included a controversial chapter which mentions racial differences in IQ. But this isn’t Klein’s first flirtation with character assassinations. In case you missed it, Harris and Klein have been feuding publicly since Murray appeared on Harris’s show last year. Vox published a piece attacking Harris for featuring Murray, accusing the two of participating in “pseudoscientific racialist speculation.” Vox then refused to publish a rebuttal written by Richard Haier, respected psychologist and editor-in-chief of the scientific journal Intelligence. (It finally found a home at this publication, here.) Next, Harris released his email correspondence with Klein, and that eventually led to this week’s heated podcast. Mid-way through the podcast, Harris says: you appear to be willing to believe people… are not speaking with real integrity about data because it serves political ends, …

Training the Masculinity Out of Children

With the recent school shootings, the rise of Donald Trump, and the recent exposure of sexual assault in Hollywood and the wider media, articles about something called ‘toxic masculinity’ are doing the rounds once again. ‘Toxic masculinity,’ we are told, takes many forms in contemporary life and discourse. For example, in an (unfortunately serious) article for NBC, Marcie Bianco describes Elon Musk’s groundbreaking rocket launch as evidence of men’s patriarchal entitlement to conquer. (At the Clayman Institute for Gender Reseach, Bianco manages “the only university fellowship in the nation that aims to train students how to become feminist journalists.”) All the menz are freaking out about this article. Mission complete https://t.co/Wf0x80uMvF — Marcie Bianco (@MarcieBianco) February 21, 2018 More subtle but equally specious rhetoric, generally derived from the French postmodern tradition, analyzes the socialization of boys through an analytical prism of dominance or systems of power and knowledge. A recent article in the Washington Examiner reported that a kindergarten teacher named Karen Keller was preventing boys in her class from playing with Lego in an attempt to compensate …

How the Science Wars Ruined the Mother of Anthropology

Part I: Margaret Mead’s Original Sin When I was about 23, I embarked on a lone trip around the Vanuatu Islands. I eventually wound up on the isolated Maskelyne Island, quite a few days away from civilization in the Western sense of the word. A man had just died and many suspected that witchcraft was involved in cursing his food. For a week I attended the extensive funeral ceremonies, dove on the reef in my spare time, and drank kava with the locals at night. It all sounds very romantic, but the truth is that there was something quite off-putting about being surrounded by hundreds of people from a different culture; an unusual state of loneliness begins to creep in, accompanied by a deep desire to connect with something – anything – from Western culture. Climbing aboard the cargo vessel Big Sista to hitch a ride to Espiritu Santo, I remember hearing a Taylor Swift song on the radio. I’ve never appreciated Taylor Swift so much. However, my journey did leave me with a newfound and abiding …

Becoming a Man

“In the puberty rites, the novices are made aware of the sacred value of food and assume the adult condition; that is, they no longer depend on their mothers and on the labor of others for nourishment. Initiation, then, is equivalent to a revelation of the sacred, of death, sexuality, and the struggle for food. Only after having acquired these dimensions of human existence does one become truly a man.” – Mircea Eliade, Rites and Symbols of Initiation: The Mysteries of Birth and Rebirth, 1958 “To be a man in most of the societies we have looked at, one must impregnate women, protect dependents from danger, and provision kith and kin.” – David D. Gilmore, Manhood in the Making, 1990 “Keep your head clear and know how to suffer like a man.” – Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea, 1952 There are commonalities of human behavior that extend beyond any geographic or cultural boundary. Every known society has a sexual division of labor – many facets of which are ubiquitous the world over. …

The Case for Sustainable Meat

I. Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics Meat, we are told, is bad for the planet. It causes global warming, destroys forests, diverts substantial proportions of the world’s grain for feed, all to produce meat which only wealthy Westerners can afford. The iniquity of the situation led George Monbiot to declare in 2002 that “Veganism is the only ethical response to what is arguably the world’s most urgent social justice issue.” Monbiot later recanted but, since then, we are told with increasing regularity that to save the planet we must radically reduce our consumption of meat. In the face of what seems to be universal agreement on the sins of meat eating, is there really a green argument for meat? I think there is, and I think we should be talking about it. Not only is the public discourse heavily one-sided, but the anti-meat message risks destroying the very environment is claims to be protecting. Let’s start with one of the most repeated statistics used to argue for reduced meat consumption: the claim that 100,000 litres of water …

A Plea To Trans Activists: We Can Protect Trans Rights Without Denying Biology

International Transgender Day of Visibility falls annually on March 31, though even the most casual observer must wonder if we still need a day to mark it. In the three years since Caitlin Jenner transitioned there has been an explosion of transgender visibility. What might be lacking is an International Day of Transgender Understanding. Western society has been keen to affirm trans people, and that is to be welcomed, but it has been slower to think critically about the wider impact of legislative change, and particularly the effect on women and their right to organise and associate as a biological sex. Muddled thinking about sex and gender, and what it means to be male or female, also threatens the credibility of transsexual people who transition to escape the chronic and debilitating effects of gender dysphoria. I know that struggle first hand. I can recount the standard trans narrative of discomfort with my sex from a very early age. Throughout childhood I yearned to be female but concrete reality displaced my wishful thinking, and instead I …