All posts filed under: Social Science

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 …

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 …

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 …

How The Intercept Abandoned Its Truth-Seeking Mission—And Lost Its Best Journalist

Journalist Glenn Greenwald shocked his global readership on Thursday, when he abruptly announced his resignation from the Intercept, the six-year-old site that became famous after publishing documents released by Edward Snowden. The incident that sparked Greenwald’s departure was the Intercept’s refusal to publish in whole an article he’d written criticizing much of the US media for failing to seriously cover allegations by a former business associate of Hunter Biden—son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden—that the Biden family had used its name to profit from business deals in foreign countries where the United States has important foreign-policy interests. Since his early days at the Intercept, which Greenwald co-founded in 2014 with left-wing journalist Jeremy Scahill and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, he operated under an agreement stipulating that his columns would be published without the requirement that they be edited by colleagues. In a lengthy statement posted to his new Substack page, Greenwald argues that politically motivated Intercept editors violated this agreement in regard to his latest article, by “refusing to publish it unless I remove all …

Time and Perceptions of Trustworthiness—the Row over a Novel Study

So here you are, head down, truffling along cheerfully towards your morning flat white at the local, lost in thought, wondering what kind of poem Catullus might have written about you, had fortune arranged it so, when some geezer calls out, “cheer up, love, it may never happen.” So infuriating. We make fast and frugal snap judgements about each other all the time and they are often wrong. Much pain in human life is caused by our being over-confident about what she/he meant, intended, thought, or felt. We don’t have direct access to each other’s minds. What we have is language—a frosted or sometimes stained-glass window on to others’ minds—and behaviour. Behaviour includes facial expressions. But their interpretations are error prone. A paper interpreting facial expressions has sparked a recent rumpus. A September 2020 paper in the prestigious journal Nature Communications has been savaged on Twitter. Small potatoes to those who don’t use the platform, but the authors received tens of thousands of hateful, jeering, or abusive comments that attacked their work, intentions, and characters. The …

The Misguided Campaign Against Journalistic Objectivity

Locked down in a northern Ontario cottage over the summer, I found myself listening to CBC Radio’s Sunday Edition, an eclectic three-hour weekly morning show hosted, until his recent retirement, by veteran journalist and broadcaster Michael Enright. On this particular Sunday in July, guest host Anthony Germain interviewed Candis Callison, a University of British Columbia professor who teaches in both UBC’s Journalism department and its Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies. The subject of conversation was her recently published book, co-authored with fellow UBC professor Mary Lynn Young, Reckoning: Journalism’s Limits and Possibilities. “Objectivity is ‘the view from nowhere’ and potentially harmful,” announced CBC headline-writers when the interview was aired. “Is objectivity an outmoded value in journalism?” Later, it was asserted that “more and more people, including many journalists, are questioning the sanctity of objectivity—especially when the arbiters of what’s objective truth and what’s opinion are largely the mostly-white, mostly-male people who run most newsrooms. [Prof. Callison] argues that objectivity in journalism is illusory and that it reaffirms the outlook of a white male-dominated world.” Prof. …

The Bias that Divides Us

As we sit here over six months after the initial lockdown provoked by COVID-19, the United States has moved out of a brief period of national unity into distressingly predictable and bitter partisan division. The return to this state of affairs has been fuelled by a cognitive trait that divides us and that our culture serves to magnify. Certainly many commentators have ascribed some part of the divide to what they term our “post-truth” society, but this is not an apt description of the particular defect that has played a central role in our divided society. The cause of our division is not that people deny the existence of truth. It is that people are selective in displaying their post-truth tendencies. What our society is really suffering from is myside bias: People evaluate evidence, generate evidence, and test hypotheses in a manner biased toward their own prior beliefs, opinions, and attitudes. That we are facing a myside bias problem and not a calamitous societal abandonment of the concept of truth is perhaps good news in …

The Futility of the Conservative War on Pornography

As we head into a tumultuous US election season, it is worth remembering that political parties can get trapped in partisan frameworks that cater to the loudest sections of their base, but which prevent them from appealing to a wider range of voters. Ideological litmus tests not only narrow appeal, but they cause politicians to pander, to disregard evidence, and to reject compromise in favor of rhetorical stridency. Social conservatives’ endlessly sputtering crusade over pornography is unusual in that it brings them into alliance with many radical feminists on the Left. Nevertheless, of the two main parties, it is the moral majoritarians in the Republican Party who have most frequently attempted to generate political capital by inveighing against pornography. This movement’s foundational moment was President Reagan’s Meese commission established to investigate the potential harms caused by pornography. The Meese Report, however, badly over-reached—even those who worry about the effects of pornography acknowledge it made unsubstantiated claims about its effects. Recent US presidential election years have seen promises to strengthen anti-pornography laws included as part of …

The Myth of Pervasive Misogyny

Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition. ~Timothy Leary Many feminists and progressives argue that the West is plagued by pervasive misogyny. In fact, this claim is made with such frequency, and is so rarely challenged, that it has become part of the Left’s catechism of victimhood, repeated by rote without a second thought. The only real question is how powerful and pernicious the misogyny is. Real-world data, however, suggest a different narrative, complicated by the fact that men have worse outcomes in many domains. For example, they are much more likely to be incarcerated, to be shot by the police, to be a victim of violent crime, to be homeless, to commit suicide, and to die on the job or in combat than women. Furthermore, they have a shorter life expectancy and are less likely to be college educated than women. Although these (and similar) data can be reconciled with the pervasive misogyny theory, they should at least give pause to the open-minded. The best data from contemporary social science tell …

Denunciation Staged as ‘Dialogue’: A Review of Claudia Rankine’s ‘Help’

On March 10th, just days before the lockdown would shut down the theater business in New York City (and most other places), I had the opportunity to see the premier of Claudia Rankine’s new play, Help. Based in part on the acclaimed poet’s 2019 New York Times magazine article, I Wanted to Know What White Men Thought About Their Privilege. So I Asked, the play was presented as an “investigation into whiteness.” Given the events that have unfolded since the death of George Floyd, it’s obviously a timely subject. And it’s unfortunate for Rankine and her venue, The Shed in Hudson Yards, that COVID-19 shut down her production until further notice. I know of no other artistic production that better captures the theoretical underpinnings of progressives’ well-intentioned but flawed approach to tearing down “whiteness.” “Help is a play in which the Narrator inhabits the category of the Black woman in order to be in dialogue with the category of the white man,” Rankine explained in a writer’s note. She is careful to say “category” because …