All posts filed under: Top Stories

Is Sociogenomics Racist?

The publication of Blueprint (2018) by the behavioral geneticist Robert Plomin has revived the old debate about whether there’s something inherently racist or right-wing about looking for biological causes of human behavior. The subtitle of Plomin’s book—How DNA Makes Us Who We Are—makes it sound as if he’s a full-blooded hereditarian and that has led to a predictable outcry from long-standing opponents of this “dangerous” intersection where the natural sciences and the behavioral sciences meet. (To read an extract from Blueprint, click here.) To its opponents, sociogenomics—or social genomics—of which Plomin is a leading practitioner, sounds suspiciously like sociobiology. When the Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson published a book of that name in 1975, it was greeted with passionate opposition by a group of left-wing scientists who had assembled under the banner of ‘Science for the People,’ originally an anti-Vietnam War protest group. The biologists in that organization, several of whom Wilson had counted as friends up until this point, formed the ‘Sociobology Study Group’ and started firing off venomous letters to newspapers. For instance, a …

Keeping it Casual

Excerpted, with minor changes, from The Ape That Understood the Universe: How the Mind and Culture Evolve, by Steve Stewart-Williams (2018. Cambridge University Press). Consider the following joke – a favorite of the evolutionary psychologist Donald Symons. An Irishman, an Italian, and an Iowan are arguing about which bar is the world’s best. “The best bar in the world is Paddy’s Pub in County Cork,” says the Irishman. “After you’ve bought two drinks at Paddy’s, the house stands you to a third.” “That’s a good bar,” says the Italian, “but not as good as Antonio’s in Old Napoli. At Antonio’s, for every drink you buy the bartender buys you another.” “Now, those sound like mighty fine bars,” says the Iowan, “but the best bar in the world is Bob’s Bar and Grill in Des Moines. When you go into Bob’s you get three free drinks and then you get to go in the back room and get laid.” The Irishman and the Italian are astonished to hear this, but they are forced to admit that …

Moral Pollution In Place of Reasoned Critique

I was chief researcher and in-house editor for The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. In the book, we outline three misguided principles (“Great Untruths”) that form the foundation of the new moral culture we are seeing on some college campuses: The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.  The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people. We also trace six explanatory threads—cultural trends and practices that explain why this new moral culture, which we call “safetyism,” seemed to emerge so rapidly between 2013 and 2015: Rising teen depression and anxiety. The damaging effects of overprotection and social media. The loss of play in childhood. The polarization of the country. New ideas about justice. The bureaucratization of higher education. As we compiled story after story, we noticed that rather than making counterarguments to disfavored claims, students (and sometimes professors) seemed to focus on discrediting the speaker or writer instead. They …

Asian-Americans’ Unrequited Love of Harvard

Harvard is known as the Ivy League’s Ivy. It is toasted as the gold standard, not only in education, but in academic culture—in visibility as the pinnacle of academic achievement in the entire world. It’s the #1 best-endowed school in the world, with a 400-year history that has produced some of the world’s most powerful and influential people of all time. But to the United States’ 22 million Asian-Americans, Harvard means something even more.  Entire industries have been formed to tutor Asian kids to get into Harvard—and Princeton and Yale. Bestselling memoirs like Harvard Girl and Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother have commented on Asian parents’ ceaseless devotion to getting their kids to breathe the rarefied air of Cambridge, Massachusetts. To these Asian parents, deeply committed to ideas of competition and meritocracy, Harvard represents their ultimate prize. All this power, all this adoration, levelled upon one institution—Harvard is Asian-American culture’s king, and how does it treat its subjects? “Harvard never accepts Asian guys,” says Kenneth Xu (no relation to the author) says. Xu is …

Notes from the Eye of a State-Sponsored Social Media Storm

When Twitter finally decided to shutter the accounts of countless bots using its platform to manipulate the flow and integrity of information, the leaders of repressive regimes saw an immediate—not to mention revealing—drop in their follower counts. Javad Zarif, foreign minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran took to Twitter to demand that the company clamp down instead on users tweeting under the #IranRegimeChange hashtag: Hello @Jack. Twitter has shuttered accounts of real Iranians, incl TV presenters & students, for supposedly being part of an 'influence op'. How about looking at actual bots in Tirana used to prop up 'regime change' propaganda spewed out of DC? #YouAreBots https://t.co/dTs0diYrM4 — Javad Zarif (@JZarif) September 16, 2018 This hashtag—among others—has become popular since late December 2017, when Iranians throughout the country began a series of anti-regime protests, strikes, and other acts of civil disobedience. It has been the most widespread and sustained revolt against Iran’s theocratic tyranny since the 1979 revolution brought it to power. And so, naturally, Zarif at once declared anti-regime tweeters to be fakes …

Brotopia—Analysis and Review

A review of Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley by Emily Chang. Portfolio (February 2018) 320 pages.  Brotopia: Breaking up the Boy’s Club of Silicon Valley by Emily Chang subjects the software business to vigorous criticism. The dust jacket claims Silicon Valley is a “Brotopia” where “men hold all the cards and make all the rules.” Women are “vastly outnumbered” and face “toxic workplaces rife with discrimination and sexual harassment” where apparently “investors take meetings in hot tubs and network at sex parties.”  Her call to action is to break up the “boy’s club” and establish gender parity in software. Alas, such argument as the book offers is colourful mud-slinging on the basis of anecdotes. The book does not support its claims with any statistical or causal analysis. When such analysis is done Chang’s claims can be dismissed as lurid gossip based on harmful stereotypes. Employment Complaint Statistics in California Every year the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) publishes an annual report that gives figures on employment and housing complaints within the …

Linda Gottfredson’s Scientific Keynote Cancelled: Why?

Linda Gottfredson, Professor Emerita at the University of Delaware, has been disinvited from giving a keynote talk at the International Association of Educational and Vocational Guidance meeting in Sweden this October. She had accepted the invitation a year ago. This disinvitation is disappointing. What was she going to talk about? Why was it cancelled? Who is Linda Gottfredson? Let’s start with Dr Gottfredson. She is a little unusual in being a renowned, award-winning scholar in two distinct fields: occupational or counseling psychology, and intelligence research. The title of her planned talk was “What should I do? Ethical challenges in helping youth navigate career choices in a world where family expectation, ingrained stereotypes, social engineers and genetic proclivities compete for influence.” I haven’t seen the talk, but the title indicates its likely content: young people must find their way into jobs, how should counseling specialists advise them, given all the sound and fury? Why was such an unremarkable keynote talk cancelled? The talk was dropped following four letters of complaint. Written no doubt by well-meaning scholars, the …

Do Advocacy Groups Belong in Academia?

A few months ago, The Washington Post published an opinion piece by Suzanna Danuta Walters. Its title was: “Why can’t we hate men?” Walters’s byline, printed before the body of the article, read: Suzanna Danuta Walters, a professor of sociology and director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Northeastern University, is the editor of the gender studies journal Signs. As the byline suggests, Walters isn’t a layperson sharing an opinion; she’s a social scientist writing within her field of expertise. Her position as programme director at a prestigious university and as editor of an academic journal further underscore her academic credentials. Walters begins the article by describing incidences of abuse of women by men and notes that “it seems logical to hate men.” Although acknowledging the value of institutional analyses of power, she describes the “universal facts” of various forms of male domination (as opposed to citing examples of men abusing power within various structures and frameworks). Since men “have gone low for all of human history,” she writes, “maybe it’s time …

Righteous Among the Nations: The Rescued Tribe of Colonel Jose Arturo Castellanos Contreras

“When you grow up in a country where war is the order of the day, the bullets are flying all around you, it is only normal that once you get to a safe place like Canada, it may actually be a good thing to leave your country’s history behind, at least for a while,” Alvaro Castellanos tells me over coffee in midtown Toronto. “And so that is what my brothers did when we got here.” But in time, the past caught up with the Castellanos family. With the release of their extraordinary documentary film The Rescue, Alvaro and his younger brother Boris haven’t just faced up to their clan’s history. They have turned it into high art. Alvaro and Boris came to Canada as immigrants during the height of the civil war in native El Salvador. Their first home was in Pickering, a predominantly white, middle-class Toronto suburb. This was a household run by their mother and aunt. The boys’ estranged father remained in El Salvador, an almost entirely unknown figure in their lives. “You …

Single Issue Campaigning and the Polarisation Problem

In their new book, The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff argue that a polarisation cycle exists at US universities. First, a progressive professor does or says something provocative in response to a real or perceived injustice caused by conservatives. Next, the right-wing press picks up the story, and it is shared and retold to amplify conservative outrage. Then, people are encouraged to email or tweet at academics. Finally, the university, which isn’t used to being attacked, makes a badly thought-through decision in order to make the problem go away, which too often means that someone leaves an institution when they probably shouldn’t. As progressive campaigners working outside of college campuses, the cycle Haidt and Lukianoff describe felt worryingly familiar. We began to wonder whether well-intentioned progressive campaigns were contributing to the same kind of polarisation in wider society. Polarisation is one of the few remaining political topics upon which there seems to be something approaching a consensus. There is widespread agreement that our political identities increasingly preclude us from listening …