All posts filed under: Science / Tech

Does Suffering Provide Meaning and Purpose in Life?—A Reply to Freya India

A recent article in Quillette by Freya India raises the age-old problem of how to understand the connection between suffering and meaning in one’s life. India’s argument is that some suffering is unavoidable, but more suffering may be beneficial if one is able to understand its advantages. Generation Z—those born since 1997—are historically unique insofar as they arrived in the Internet and social media age. But is suffering experienced differently according to a person’s circumstances? And are today’s under-25s that much different from earlier generations in the way they respond to stressors? A key characteristic of the social climate in which today’s under-25s live is that they cannot afford to ignore the pressures of creating and maintaining an identity on social media, and of trying to avoid the many hazards presented by aggressive activism and what has become known as “cancel culture.” This environment brings its own anxieties, because what is done on the Internet is very difficult to undo. Arousing serious and/or widespread antipathy from others may ruin one’s life-chances with no means of …

Lockdown Scepticism Was Never a ‘Fringe’ Viewpoint

Whether or not lockdowns are justifiable on public-health grounds, they certainly represent the greatest infringement on civil liberties in modern history. In the UK, lockdowns have contributed to the largest economic contraction in more than 300 years, as well as countless bankruptcies, and a dramatic rise in public borrowing. This does not mean that lockdowns were the wrong policy, since they might have been necessary to prevent the National Health Service from being overwhelmed with COVID-19 critical-care patients. (And such measures are justified, proponents argue, on the grounds that they prevent infected individuals from harming others by inadvertently transmitting a deadly disease.) But as I will argue below, there’s plenty of evidence that supports those on the other side of this issue, notwithstanding the efforts of politicians, experts, and social-media companies to paint such dissent as marginal or even dangerous. * * * Throughout the pandemic, the British government has assured the public that it is being “led by the science.” However, a number of scientists and other commentators have disputed this claim. These “lockdown …

The Evolutionary Advantages of Playing Victim

Victimhood is defined in negative terms: “the condition of having been hurt, damaged, or made to suffer.” Yet humans have evolved to empathize with the suffering of others, and to provide assistance so as to eliminate or compensate for that suffering. Consequently, signaling suffering to others can be an effective strategy for attaining resources. Victims may receive attention, sympathy, and social status, as well as financial support and other benefits. And being a victim can generate certain kinds of power: It can justify the seeking of retribution, provide a sense of legitimacy or psychological standing to speak on certain issues, and may even confer moral impunity by minimizing blame for victims’ own wrongdoings. Presumably, most victims would eagerly forego such benefits if they were able to free themselves of their plight. But when victimhood yields benefits, it incentivizes people to signal their victimhood to others or to exaggerate or even fake victimhood entirely. This is especially true in contexts that involve alleged psychic harms, and where appeals are made to third-parties, with the claimed damage …

Can Governments Stop Bitcoin?

Since its creation more than 12 years ago, Bitcoin is undefeated. Its price has leaped from $5 to $50 to $500 to $5,000 to now past $50,000. The number of global users has eclipsed 100 million. The system’s network security, number of developers, and new applications are at all-time highs. Dozens of companies including Tesla and Square have started to add Bitcoin to their corporate treasuries. This worldwide success doesn’t mean that people haven’t tried to stop Bitcoin. The digital money project has in fact survived a variety of attacks which in some cases threatened its existence. There are two main vectors: network attacks on the software and hardware infrastructure, and legal attacks on Bitcoin users. Before we explore them and consider why they failed, let’s start at the beginning. In January 2009, a mysterious coder going by the name of Satoshi Nakamoto launched Bitcoin, an open-source financial network with big ambitions: to replace central banking with a decentralized, peer-to-peer system with no rulers. It would use a programmable, highly-fungible token that could be spent …

Environmentalism, Trumpism, and the Working Class

The inauguration of President Biden as the 46th US President hasn’t produced quite the catharsis that Democrats (and others) had hoped for. After only a few months of one-party rule in Washington, DC—and the sputtering finale of impeachment—there should be fear among Democrats that attention will return to the signs of real damage done to the progressive/liberal project in the wake of its collision with the Trump train. The shifting of both American political parties into one another’s former political spaces has been head-spinning. The trend of Republicans turning into the party of labor and Democrats becoming a party of capital looks to continue in the 2020s—something few people outside of Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot would have guessed 30 years ago. And it turns out that the promise of a Democrat-voting bloc made up of well-educated whites, blacks, and the growing Hispanic population delivering a decades-long progressive era in American politics is not coming to pass. For nearly 20 years, this promised “coalition of the ascendant” has coalesced but failed to ascend. In 2009, …

Accommodating Trans Athletes Without Rejecting the Reality of Human Biology

“As a social psychologist, I understand why using women’s sports to argue against transgender rights works,” tweeted behavioral scientist Matt Wallaert this week. “But it is tough to imagine a more morally bankrupt position: ‘I’m going to make you sit in a gender that doesn’t fit you so my daughter can win her soccer game.’” And when that tweet predictably attracted scathing criticism, he doubled down on his claim that women need to do their part in accommodating trans rights by becoming more graceful losers: “This really is it: I’d rather teach my kid how to lose well than how to win through oppression.” Walleart, best known for a Malcolm-Gladwellian 2019 business book called Start at the End: How to Build Products That Create Change, describes his approach as “a science-based process to create behavior change.” And so he offers a fitting stand-in for all the many other grandiloquent progressives who posture as rigorous scientists, even as they demand that sports leagues cast aside the plain biological reality of sexual dimorphism. The condescending, more-disappointed-than-angry tone …

Do Lockdowns Work? Only If You Lock the Borders Down, Too

For almost a year, the central policy debate in most Western countries has been whether—and for how long—to impose lockdowns. Advocates of stringent lockdowns argue that measures such as stay-at-home orders and forced closures of businesses are necessary to save lives and prevent health-care systems from being overwhelmed. So-called “lockdown sceptics,” on the other hand, argue either that such measures are ineffective, or that their benefits are outweighed by the associated social and economic costs; and that a focussed protection strategy is preferable. (The term “lockdown,” as I am using it, does not encompass all non-pharmaceutical interventions. In particular, I am excluding non-onerous, common-sense measures like asking symptomatic individuals to self-isolate, encouraging vulnerable people to work from home, and restricting large indoor gatherings.) The evidence suggests that lockdowns have been effective, but only when they were combined with strict border controls. Looking across the Western world—Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—just five countries have kept the rate of confirmed COVID-19 deaths below 300 per million. Those five are: Iceland, Norway, Finland, Australia, …

COVID-19 and the Ongoing Global Workplace Revolution

For most of the recent past, economic geography has shifted to ever-larger cities across the globe. By the end of the last decade, many were convinced that we were entering a supreme era of the glittering, high-rise “superstar” city that would inevitably swallow all the best bits of the economy, and serve as unparalleled centers of tech, culture, political activism, and global trade. Globally, the ranks of city-dwellers more than doubled over the last 40 years, from 1.5 billion in 1975 to 3.5 billion according to data from the OECD. Yet now this urban-centric pattern may be slowing, and even reversing. Three critical factors are at play here. First, of course, the pandemic has weakened the appeal of urban life by the very logic of social distancing and higher levels of infections and fatalities. The second factor has been an alarming uptick in urban crime and disorder, particularly in the United States but elsewhere as well. Finally, there has been a move to dispersed and online work, which enables people and companies to shift their …

Man vs. Wall: Solitary Sport and Surviving the Pandemic

This is the second instalment in Simple Pleasures, an occasional Quillette series about some of the new joys that our writers have discovered as a result of the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Writers interested in contributing may contact Quillette at pitch@quillette.com. The benefits of exercising with friends are compelling. For instance, people who make a habit of social sports like tennis and golf seem to live longer than those who don’t. Such findings have influenced me over the years, reinforcing lots of participation in my local tennis league. Then, COVID-19. Back in March, many of my hitting partners went on hiatus from the sport, honestly admitting their fears of getting sick, or blaming close family—they were the ones who were worried, refusing to let them play. Others rediscovered their inner teenage rebel. I heard about and saw esteemed members of the professional class—doctors and lawyers—ripping red tape, cutting locks, scaling fences, and squeezing through service gates to access public courts closed by the government. I was invited on these excursions but chose to …

Suicide Prevention and the Social Science Cargo Cult

When white people began visiting the islands of the Pacific Ocean, the native peoples, fascinated by the abundance of good things coming to them, assiduously observed the visitors’ behaviour. They concluded that the great birds in the sky, filled with packing cases bearing the inscription “cargo,” were gifts from the gods. So, they began to imitate the newcomers, building runways in the middle of the jungle, lighting fires based on the pattern of airport landing lights, and constructing small control towers out of wood and bamboo. Then they awaited the benevolence of the gods, but the gods were not compliant. The planes did not land on their runways, despite the enormous effort they had put into building them and the meticulousness with which they copied the buildings and equipment of the white people. Even today, this cargo cult persists in some corners of Oceania. In a speech delivered at a degree ceremony at the California Institute of Technology, Richard Feynman, a noted physicist and Nobel Prize winner in 1974, compared the social sciences to the …