All posts filed under: Social Science

“The Sense of an Ending” and Why We Are Wired to Produce False Memories

How much do you trust your memories? Do you consider the events and perspectives you remember as gospel truth, or as more malleable, fickle things that bend and warp with time and shifting context? The recently released film The Sense of an Ending, adapted from Julian Barnes’s Booker-winning novel, takes the second perspective. It explores the intriguing premise that our own views of our lives may be incomplete and even inaccurate. I research false memories, and so I was curious to see how the film matched up to my own understanding of how our views of our pasts do not always reflect what actually happened. Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent) is a grumpy retiree who owns a camera repair shop in modern day London. One morning he receives a letter explaining that he has been left the diary of his closest friend from school, Adrian, who committed suicide when they were at university. The diary has been left to him by the mother of Tony’s first college girlfriend, Veronica (Charlotte Rampling). Tony never gets to read …

Why Citing a Scientific Study Does Not Finish An Argument

“Actually Studies Show…” Chances are you’ve found yourself in a heated conversation among a group of friends, family, or colleagues when someone throws down the gauntlet: “Actually, studies show…” Some nod in silent agreement, others check their text messages, and finally someone changes the subject. It’s hard to know what to say when people cite scientific studies to prove their point. Sometimes we know the study and its relative merits. But most of the time we just don’t know enough to confirm or refute the statement that the study is supposed to support. We are floating in a sea of information, and all we can do is flounder around for the nearest buoy to support a view that’s vaguely related to the conversation. All of us lack the time to understand more than a small fraction of scientific research. For the most part, this works out well: scientists conduct research and publish papers, each new study adds another piece to the puzzle, and bit by bit we steadily increase the total stock of knowledge. Eventually, …

A Tale of Two Bell Curves

“The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic” ~ John F. Kennedy 1962 To paraphrase Mark Twain, an infamous book is one that people castigate but do not read. Perhaps no modern work better fits this description than The Bell Curve by political scientist Charles Murray and the late psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein. Published in 1994, the book is a sprawling (872 pages) but surprisingly entertaining analysis of the increasing importance of cognitive ability in the United States. It also included two chapters that addressed well-known racial differences in IQ scores (chapters 13-14). After a few cautious and thoughtful reviews, the book was excoriated by academics and popular science writers alike. A kind of grotesque mythology grew around it. It was depicted as a tome of racial antipathy; a thinly veiled expression of its authors’ bigotry; an epic scientific fraud, full of slipshod scholarship and outright lies. As hostile reviews piled up, the real Bell Curve, a sober and judiciously argued …

Cordelia Fine’s “Testosterone Rex” — A Review

A review of Testosterone Rex, by Cordelia Fine. W.W. Norton and Company (January 2017) 272 pages.  “Scientism”. “Orientalism”. “Historicism”. The trouble with inventing a belief system and ascribing it to your opponents is that you might inadvertently have built a straw man. After all, nobody actively signs up to these supposed philosophies: they’re terms of criticism or abuse. One such nebulous belief system is the topic of psychologist Cordelia Fine’s new book, Testosterone Rex. Unconcerned by the straw-manning risk, Fine introduces the eponymous “Testosterone Rex” as the “story of sex and society” that holds that there are male brains and there are female brains, programmed by evolution to be irreconcilably different, with testosterone explaining males’ greater risk-taking, promiscuity, competitiveness, and dominance. Fine argues that modern science is the asteroid that wiped out this T-Rex, revealing subtler cultural—not biological—explanations for the sex differences we see in society. Fine’s first target is the ‘Bateman Gradient’, a seminal (excuse the pun) finding on sexual selection from 1940s experiments on fruit flies. Geneticist Angus Bateman found that the link …

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 …