All posts filed under: Science / Tech

So This Is the (Real) Tale of Our Castaways: Lessons from Shipwrecked Micro-Societies

Survivor camps established after shipwrecks provide fascinating data about the societies that groups of people make when it’s left up to them, about how and why social order might vary, and about what arrangements are the most conducive to peace and survival. An archipelago of shipwrecks, formed over centuries, more or less at random, has resulted in people participating, unintentionally, in multiple trials of this experiment. Shipwreck survivors have had a special hold on the human imagination for thousands of years, beginning at least since Homer crafted the Odyssey and stretching through when Shakespeare penned The Tempest, Cervantes described Don Quixote’s marooning, and more modern authors wrote Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson, and Lord of the Flies. In fiction, the castaway narrative tends to feature an idyllic state of nature, following Jean-Jacques Rousseau, or a state of anarchy and violence, following Thomas Hobbes—two philosophers with rather conflicting ideas about human nature. Hobbesian examples abound in real-world shipwreck situations. Consider the crew of the Batavia, who in 1629 systematically planned the mass murder of women …

How Prophetic Was Gattaca?

Dystopian science fiction films often have the veneer of plausibility. For example, the premise of an overpopulated world (Soylent Green), or a deep freeze earth (The Day After Tomorrow), or an infertility epidemic (Children of Men), generate voyeuristic horror but rarely possess the credibility to elicit anxiety of a real world, highly probable outcome. The 1997 film Gattaca, written and directed by Andrew Niccol, is an exception. Technology has now caught up with Niccol’s dystopian vision of a society where every member is categorized and determined by their genetic origin. Last year a Chinese bioengineer announced the germline editing and live birth of twin girls using CRISPR technology. In the world of Gattaca, preimplantation screening and genetic engineering have generated a culture of discrimination based on genomic scores. The story’s hero, Vincent (Ethan Hawke), has the bad luck of being conceived the old-fashioned way, his genome left to the crapshoot of meiosis. His genome is read to his parents at birth: neurological condition: 60 percent; probability of manic depression: 42 percent; probability of heart disease: …

Deplatforming Won’t Work

Last year Robert Bowers shot up a synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing eleven people. Before committing this atrocity he wrote on Gab: “HIAS [Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” Gab is a Twitter alternative used by many neo-Nazis and alt-righters who have been (or know they would be) banned from actual Twitter. The unintended—but entirely predictable—consequence of throwing extremists off Twitter has been to create a large community of exiles on Gab. In Gabland, it is people who question Jewish conspiracy theories or the idea that the US should be a white ethnostate who are considered “trolls.” A similar community is developing on the YouTube alternative BitChute, whose Alexa ranking is rising quickly. Bowers’s threat of imminent violence (“Screw your optics, I’m going in”) didn’t alarm any of his fellow extremists on Gab. What if he had written the same thing on Twitter? Someone would have been much more likely to contact the …

The Academic Quarrel over Determinism

A Professor of biology at Williams College, Luana Maroja, recently wrote a piece for the Atlantic describing her great difficulty in getting students to accept the expert consensus on many issues in her field of study. Biology has been a great source of tension in intellectual spaces for a long time now, and this doesn’t seem due to change anytime soon. More often than not, biology seems to be the lynchpin upon which the fiercest disputes among intellectuals turn. Why does biology produce so much rancour? Sam Harris recently interviewed author Jarred Diamond on his podcast. During the course of that discussion, Diamond revealed that he had been forced to increase security at his personal residence when some colleagues threatened him 10 years ago. Additionally, he had two bodyguards accompany him to a university lecture after an “angry anthropologist” threatened to disrupt his remarks. Diamond hasn’t been an enthusiastic promoter of biological explanations for human affairs. On the contrary, his 1997 book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, vigorously disputed the notion that biology alone can explain …

Stonewall’s LGBT Guidance is Limiting the Free Speech of Gender Critical Academics

In 2015, the main trade union for UK academics, the University and College Union (UCU), objected to the government’s newly announced counter-terrorism strategy—specifically, the part concerned with universities’ legal duty to attempt to prevent student radicalisation. A central aspect of UCU’s highly critical response concerned the use of ill-defined, imprecise words in the strategy. One UCU briefing noted that (my italics): it is important that branches become familiar with how the government defines ‘extremism’.. as follows: ‘Vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.’ Branches should note the somewhat nebulous nature of so described ‘British values’ and the potentially very broad range of individuals and groups who may at some point fall foul of such a negatively constructed definition. In a similar vein, a Professor and a senior lawyer expressed their concern that that the vagueness and lack of definition of terms like “terrorism,” “non-violent extremism,” “radicalisation,” and “fundamental British values” could be understood to mean that…academics and …

Say It Ain’t So, Doc: How Should Martin Luther King Scholars Deal With the Rape Story?

These are difficult days for students of Martin Luther King, Jr. The man many of us have dedicated long months and years to researching, often out of a profound sense of respect, is facing an allegation of laughing and even offering advice while a fellow Baptist minister raped a woman in a Washington, D.C. hotel room in January 1964. The source of this explosive claim is a trove of newly released FBI surveillance documents unearthed by the dean of MLK historians himself, David J. Garrow, author of The FBI and Martin Luther King: From “Solo” to Memphis and the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography on King, Bearing the Cross. Since the article detailing Garrow’s new findings came out at the end of May in the British magazine Standpoint, Garrow has taken more of a pounding in the press than King. No surprises there, perhaps. Like those now criticizing Garrow, I desperately want to believe that the 55-year-old allegation is a trumped-up product of the FBI’s “viciously negative attitude” toward King, as Garrow described it in “Solo” to …

How Free Speech Dies Online

Last year, I explained why it is wrong to consider weakening speech protections to allow bans on speech by the alt-right, neo-Nazis, or other far-Right groups: it is safer to let Nazis speak in a society that places high value on individual rights and has strong legal protections for those rights than it is to risk letting Nazis take control of institutional power in a society where protections on individual rights have been eroded. I explained, with specific examples, how easy it would be for a far-Right regime to turn restrictions on violent or hateful speech against its enemies. However, since then, while free speech has remained a controversial topic, the focus of the debate has moved away from restrictions on speech by state actors, and toward the question of how corporate entities that privately control the platforms which host a great deal of our speech and debate should regulate and moderate their users. These platforms are not bound by the US Constitution or by other legal regimes that protect private speech from state coercion, …

What Do the Oligarchs Have in Mind for Us?

There seems to be no good reason why a thoroughly scientific dictatorship should ever be overthrown. ~Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited The recent movement to investigate, and even break up, the current tech oligarchy has gained support on both sides of the Atlantic, and even leapt across the gaping divide in American politics. The immediate concerns relate to such things as the control of key markets by one or two firms, the huge concentration of wealth accruing to the tech elite and, increasingly, the oligarchy’s control over and manipulation of information pipelines. What has not been discussed nearly as much is the end game of the oligarchs. What kind of world do they have in mind for us? Their vision of what our society should look like is not one most people—on the Left or Right—would like to see. And yet, unless unchecked, it could well be the world we, and particularly our children, will inhabit. Almost 40 years ago, in his book The Third Wave, the futurist Alvin Toffler described technology as “the …

A Black Eye for the Columbia Journalism Review

Ideological polarization has become a growing problem in many sectors of society. But it is especially corrosive to public discourse when it infects organizations whose traditional role has been to hold everyone else to account for the integrity of their reporting. We need those organizations to act as a sort of referee when journalists of any description—including those at Quillette—fail to exhibit high standards. This becomes impossible when they instead act as combatants in the culture wars. Earlier this month, for example, the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), which describes itself as “the national voice of Canadian journalists,” “committed to protecting the public’s right to know,” and “dedicated to promoting excellence in journalism,” signed on to the claim that Canada is perpetuating an ongoing “genocide” against Indigenous people, and encouraged journalists to take on an activist role by promoting “decolonizing approaches to their work [and] publications in order to educate all Canadians about Indigenous women, girls & 2SLGBTQQIA people.” It hardly needs pointing out that this sort of explicit activist agenda—however well-intentioned—is completely incompatible with …

Conformity: The Power of Social Influences—A Review

A review of Conformity: The Power of Social Influences by Cass Sunstein, NYU Press, 176 pages (May, 2019) “It’s often a good idea to adopt the practices and beliefs of the people around you. For one thing, the people around you aren’t dead. If you do what they do, you might continue not being dead as well.” -Steve Stewart-Williams You’re sitting at a machine. A serious-looking experimenter holds a clipboard nearby. In another room, there is a man with electrodes attached to his arms. You ask questions, the man responds. For each incorrect answer he gives, you press a switch, delivering what you believe are increasingly higher voltage electric shocks. The man cries out in pain, shouting about his heart condition. You express concern, but the experimenter tells you to continue the experiment. You have probably heard of this well-known study as the Milgram Experiment. Prior to the study, Stanley Milgram had asked 40 psychiatrists to estimate how many participants they thought would continue to the end of the experiment, delivering the final 450-volt shock. …