All posts filed under: Science / Tech

The Hard Problems of Vegetarianism

“We have to speak up on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves,” wrote the famous utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer in Animal Liberation, the book that converted me (and countless others) to vegetarianism more than 10 years ago. You don’t have to buy into Singer’s pain-and-pleasure calculus to find the moral force of his argument compelling: Humans are gratuitously inflicting pain and suffering on intelligent, sentient creatures for no other reason than because they enjoy the taste of their meat, the texture of their skin, or the softness of their fur. They do so even though they know they could, at a small cost to themselves, live without it, and even though they share a virtually universal conviction that it is wrong to cause harm for trivial reasons. And yet, vegans and vegetarians remain a small minority. Almost all of this meat, leather, and fur is being produced in factory farms that deprive animals of most of what would make their lives worth living. Driven by the relentless logic of profit-maximization, we curb the …

Interrogating Jane

Jane Austen, beloved English novelist of the Regency period, is now embroiled in the custody wars over the history and legacy of the British Empire. The Daily Telegraph has reported that the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire, is planning an “historical interrogation” of the Austen family’s connections to slavery and colonialism. Museum director Lizzie Dunford pointed out that the Austens consumed tea, sugar, and cotton, all of which were the products of Empire. One of the potential new exhibits is entitled “Black Lives Matter to Jane Austen.” Unsurprisingly, some Austen fans rejected this idea as decisively as Lizzie Bennet turning down a marriage proposal. During an interview about the row on TalkRadio, Welsh comedian Abi Roberts spoke for many appalled Austen fans when she declared that the museum’s curators had “gone completely bonkers.” “My father was a life-long lover of tea,” wrote one reader in a representative letter to the Telegraph‘s editor. “In addition, he spent four years in Burma and India, albeit as a private in the army … can anyone advise …

The White of the AI

“It is a truth little acknowledged that a machine in possession of intelligence must be white.” I do appreciate a Jane Austen reference and so I read on, hoping to find a stylish argument, only to be disappointed. The very next lines of the paper by Stephen Cave & Kanta Dihal in Philosophy and Technology said this: In this paper, we problematize the often unnoticed and unremarked-upon fact that intelligent machines are predominantly conceived and portrayed as White. We argue that this Whiteness both illuminates particularities of what (Anglophone Western) society hopes for and fears from these machines, and situates these affects within long-standing ideological structures that relate race and technology. The paper is entitled “The Whiteness of AI,” and the authors explain that they will use “white” and “black” for colour and “White” and “Black” for race. They go on to argue that AI is White on the basis that images of AI have a lot of white in them. This Whiteness, the authors suggest, discourages non-Whites from getting into AI. They say their article aims to …

When Sons Become Daughters, Part IV: Parents of Transitioning Boys Speak Out on Their Own Suffering

What follows is the fourth instalment of When Sons Become Daughters, a multi-part Quillette series that explores how parents react when a son announces he wants to be a girl—and explains why so many of these mothers and fathers believe they can’t discuss their fears and concerns with their own children, therapists, doctors, friends, and relatives. To find out more about how the author collected and reported information, please refer to his introductory essay in this series.   The Man Who Wouldn’t Be Queen Menno is a gay man in his early 40s—Dutch by birth and a Londoner by choice. He’s “gender critical,” meaning that he rejects the fashionable belief that self-declared gender overrides the reality of biological sex. His YouTube channel features a satirical listing of newly conceived pronouns, set to the tune of The Sound of Music’s Do-Re-Mi; a song about pop star Sam Smith’s non-binary identity, modelled on Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee from the musical Grease; and a reworked version of Kylie Minogue’s Locomotion, in which a pharmaceutical pied piper …

The Permanence of Segregation

[It] is sentimental and romantic to assume that any education or any example will ever completely destroy the inclination of human nature to seek special advantages at the expense of, or in indifference to, the needs and interests of others. ~Reinhold Niebuhr Spatial geographers and demographers tell us that segregation occurs whenever the proportions of two or more populations are not homogenous throughout a defined space. Plant and animal species are therefore usually—but not always—segregated; people, too, in societies throughout the world, are usually—but not always—segregated according to language, cultural difference, religion, nationality, educational background, political allegiance, and socioeconomic status. To be sure, none of this means that demographic patterns are fixed. Empirical evidence shows,1 for example, that American suburbs are more diverse than ever; recent evidence from England and Wales, too, suggests that ethnic mixing in neighborhoods and schools is increasing rather than decreasing.2 Rates of mixed marriages and cross-cultural exchanges, too, have everywhere increased. Yet one can acknowledge these demographic developments and still plainly observe that spatial configurations of segregation are everywhere recognizable; …

The Search to Explain Our Anxiety and Depression: Will ‘Long COVID’ Become the Next Gender Ideology?

In December, I wrote a detailed report for Quillette about the race-based social panic that had recently erupted at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. One of the reasons why the meltdown seemed so surreal, I noted, is that this elite school appears to the outside world as picturesque and serene. The average annual cost of attendance is about US$76,000. And most of these students live extremely privileged lives, insulated (physically and otherwise) from what any normal person would regard as suffering. Nor is there much in the way of substantive political discord on campus. According to survey results released in late 2019, 79 percent of Haverford students self-identify as politically liberal, while only 3.5 percent self-identify as conservative. It’s as close to an ideological monoculture as you can find outside of a monastery or cult. On paper, it resembles one of those utopian micro-societies conceived by science-fiction writers or 19th-century social theorists. The survey results I’m alluding to originate with Haverford’s “Clearness Committee,” an excellent resource for anyone seeking to understand the attitudes of students at …

When Sons Become Daughters, Part III: Parents of Transitioning Boys Speak Out on Their Own Suffering

What follows is the third instalment of When Sons Become Daughters, a multi-part Quillette series that explores how parents react when a son announces he wants to be a girl—and explains why so many of these mothers and fathers believe they can’t discuss their fears and concerns with their own children, therapists, doctors, friends, and relatives. To find out more about how the author collected and reported information, please refer to his introductory essay in this series.   Coral’s story starts earlier than those of the other parents I’ve profiled, even if it contains familiar themes. While her prodigiously intelligent, literal-minded son wanted to talk about the science of black holes, his friends were still playing with Lego. Once he hit age 12, things got rough: All his friends left his school in one hit; the remaining kids took to bullying him; a close family member died. He was just beginning to realize how different he was, but not how he was different. He’d also just been given his first computer. The first declaration that …

How Will Decolonizing the Curriculum Help the Poor and Dispossessed?

On February 8th, 2021, the Students of Color Liberation Front at the University of Michigan made a series of anti-racist demands, including a call to “Decolonize the University of Michigan’s pedagogies and campus broadly.” This is a recent manifestation of the “decolonize the university” movement, which has been making similar demands over the past few years at most Western academic institutions. The movement has called for universities to decolonize curricula and math, to privilege “other ways of knowing,” and to #DisruptTexts from the Western canon, among other demands. The Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford (RMFO) campaign explains that decolonization aims to “remedy the highly selective narrative of traditional academia—which frames the West as sole producers of universal knowledge—by integrating subjugated and local epistemologies” thereby creating “a more intellectually rigorous, complete academy.” Demands for decolonized epistemology stem from legitimate grievances about colonial era atrocities. Some activists propose helpful suggestions for improving access to higher education for students in the global South, especially in STEM fields. For example, in Decolonise the University (2018), Pat Lockley promotes open …

The Fear and Fantasy of COVID-19 Vaccination

This article has been expanded and adapted from prepared remarks delivered at the Researchers.One panel “The Science and Social Impact of COVID-19 Vaccines” on March 25th, 2021. The current state of COVID-19 vaccine administration in the United States, with its high levels of vaccine hesitancy and skepticism, can be explained by a model composed of three layers of interconnected system(s) malfunction. Disconnect between scientists’ interests and the public’s concerns, the erosion of trust in the peer review process, and politicization of “narrative” around the novel coronavirus. The stakes for a strong and legitimate public health response have not been higher in our lifetime. With novel coronavirus strains on the way to becoming endemic globally, it is crucial that we re-evaluate our systems and institutions with an eye to making the improvements necessary for robust coordinated operation in the future. Layer one: scientific interest vs. general interest There is an asymmetry between the interests and incentives of the scientific community and those of the lay public. Scientists maintain a culture in which claims without evidence are …

The Transhumanist Case for Liberty

Circa 441 BCE, Sophocles set down on papyrus (most likely) his famous “Ode To Man,” a countdown of human masteries: He navigates. He cultivates. He domesticates. He preys on all but is prey to none. He crafts words for thoughts, constructs shelters, and forms states. “He has made himself secure from all but one; in the late wind of death, he cannot stand.” That last line resonates across time and circumstance, faith and culture, the rise and fall of civilizations. What joins us to homo sapiens, past and present, is not merely the fact, but the recognition, that our days are numbered, that our expiration date is real, that we’re careening headlong toward the end of the line. What if it were not so? As I write these lines, scientists, theorists, technicians, entrepreneurs, and even a few kooks are laboring independently toward radical life extension, with an eye on the ultimate prize: the eradication of death. Their approaches vary wildly. From gene-editing, to growing organs for transplant, to 3D-printing nonvascularized tissue, to implanting brain-computer interfaces, …