All posts filed under: Social Science

Why White Privilege is Wrong—Part 2

Many people enjoy invoking race as an explanation for all sorts of things. It is a shared pastime for both the far-left and the far-right. The media expend vast sums of money and effort to ensure we don’t escape discussions about race as something that is or should be important. This vocal minority of political extremists and news broadcasters has directed our attention away from more powerful causal explanations that underlie group outcomes. Perverse incentives for these two groups have made race a more a prominent feature of our lives. As a consequence, white privilege has become the favoured explanation for differences in group outcomes among many educated people. But unintentional or otherwise, by attributing success to white privilege, affluent individuals who invoke this mistaken idea thwart the ambitions of those who are seeking success but who are also lacking in privilege. If we want to not only understand differences in group outcomes but also mend them, then we need a more robust and less ideological framework. The Pitfalls of One-Thing-ism   The presumption that …

The Dangerous Life of an Anthropologist

Limping in crutches, his broken leg shielded in plaster following a jogging accident, the distinguished biologist Edward O. Wilson made his way slowly toward the stage at a convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1978. Climbing the stairs, taking his seat, and shuffling his notes, a sudden burst of activity punctuated the silence as the entire front row of the audience leapt onto the stage hurling insults. They jostled Wilson and then poured iced water over his head. The protesters would turn out to be Marxists, incensed by the publication of Wilson’s book Sociobiology. This story has become a familiar feature of the nature/nurture debate, used to illustrate the vitriolic hostility expressed by ideological groups scrambling to silence what most people already take to be an incontrovertible fact: that humans, just like every other species on earth, have a nature. As crowds abandoned Wilson to evacuate the auditorium that day, one man at the back of the room tried to push his way forward against the multitude heading towards the …

The Case for Black Optimism

When was the last time you heard good news about the state of black America? Given the way the topic is reported in the media, you could be forgiven for not remembering. Most will be familiar with the standard portrayal: black people are disproportionately poor, incarcerated, born into single-parent homes, and harassed by cops. There’s the test score gap, which places black kids at a disadvantage when applying to college; the school-to-prison pipeline, which prepares black boys for prison by punishing them disproportionately in school; and the racial wealth gap, which won’t close for several centuries if current trends continue.  In an era when bipartisan agreement is scarce, the Left and the Right seem to be united in their somber assessment of black America, though they locate the blame in different places. Democrats tend to blame systemic racism and the legacy of white supremacy. Republicans, on the other hand, tend to blame Democrats. Recall President Trump’s infamous appeal for the black vote: “You’re living in poverty. Your schools are no good. You have no jobs,” …

No One Is Born in ‘The Wrong Body’

The idea that all people have an innate “gender identity” recently has been endorsed by many health-care professionals and mainstream medical organizations. This term commonly is defined to mean the “internal, deeply held” sense of whether one is a man or a woman (or, in the case of children, a boy or a girl), both, or neither. It also has become common to claim that this sense of identity may be reliably articulated by children as young as three years old. While these claims about gender identity did not attract systematic scrutiny at first, they now have become the subject of criticism from a growing number of scientists, philosophers and health workers. Developmental studies show that young children have only a superficial understanding of sex and gender (at best). For instance, up until age 7, many children often believe that if a boy puts on a dress, he becomes a girl. This gives us reason to doubt whether a coherent concept of gender identity exists at all in young children. To such extent as any …

Confessions of a Social Constructionist

If I had known, 20 years ago, that my side in the ideological wars over gender and sex was going to win so decisively, I would have been ecstatic. Back then, I spent many evenings at the pub or at dinner parties debating gender and identity with other graduate students; or, really, anyone who would listen—my mother-in-law, my relatives, or just a random person unlucky enough to be in my presence. I insisted that there was no such thing as sex. And I knew it. I just knew it. Because I was a gender historian. This was, in the 1990s, the thing to be in history departments across North America. Gender history—and then gender studies, more generally, across the academy—was part of a broader group of identity-based sub-disciplines that were taking over the liberal arts. History departments across the continent were transformed. When the American Historical Association surveyed the trends among major fields of specialization in 2007, and then again in 2015, the single largest field was women’s and gender history. This was right up …

Anti-Pornography Campaigners’ Pseudo-Scientific Treadmill

Recently it was reported that Pornhub had made a short adult film featuring a couple having sex on a polluted beach. If this seems like an odd (and frankly unsexy) idea, then bear in mind that every time the video is watched, Pornhub will donate money to Ocean Polymers, a non-profit company that seeks to remove plastic waste from the ocean. Porn companies aren’t generally known for their charitable giving, but if pornography is going to make buckets of money, why not siphon some of that off to good causes? As if to prove that no good deed goes unpunished, two columnists in the Spectator announced that they were entirely opposed to this idea. The authors are not entirely clear about what’s wrong with Pornhub donating part of its profits to charity, other than that they think pornography is bad and shouldn’t exist in the first place. This is a bit of a non-sequitur, but it is one that relies on dubious claims about pornography’s range of negative causal effects. Do the data support the …

Preventable Deaths and the Need for Data-Driven Journalism

In the wake of the recent mass shootings in Texas and Ohio that claimed the lives of more than 30 people, Neil deGrasse Tyson drew significant controversy by posting a tweet which compared the death toll from the shootings to the (larger) numbers of people who died from other preventable causes over a 48-hour time period. Dr. Tyson concluded his message with a warning: “Often our emotions respond more to spectacle than to data.” In the past 48hrs, the USA horrifically lost 34 people to mass shootings. On average, across any 48hrs, we also lose… 500 to Medical errors300 to the Flu250 to Suicide200 to Car Accidents40 to Homicide via Handgun Often our emotions respond more to spectacle than to data. — Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) August 4, 2019 The negative responses to his tweet were swift and numerous, with many users voicing outrage, disappointment, and disgust. The next morning, he issued an apology on his Facebook page and acknowledged that he “got this one wrong.” But did he? I don’t disagree that his timing …

Why White Privilege Is Wrong—Part 1

“White privilege” is a term often invoked as a causal explanation for the success of whites relative to other groups. But the problem with white privilege isn’t its assumptions about racial discrimination, but its causal disposition. White privilege suffers from a bad case of mono-causality, or “one-thingism” as Jonah Goldberg puts it. Rarely does a single explanatory variable account for a complex phenomenon. Instead, complex outcomes are best explained by a confluence of factors. In the case of white privilege, there are a number of variables which, together, better explain differences in group outcomes. Moreover, there is a bevy of countervailing evidence that calls its validity into question. This is not to suggest that racial discrimination cannot or does not play a role in differential outcomes. Nor is it to suggest that privileges do not exist in some form or another. Where you live and who your parents are can be privileges. But to posit white privilege as the only or a predominant explanation for differences in group outcomes is, based on the empirical evidence, …

Why We Shouldn’t Bet on Having Free Will—A Reply to William Edwards

It’s hard to discern the main point of William Edwards’s article The Academic Quarrel over Determinism, as his argument is discursive, confusing, contradictory, and sometimes misleading. In a first reading you may dimly perceive that he has a problem with determinism, and sees the negation of determinism as evidence for free will. But what does he mean by “free will”? He’s not explicit about it. Since he contrasts it with determinism, it appears that for Edwards free will means our physically uncaused ability to change our decisions so that, at a given moment, we could have done something other than what we did. And what does Edwards mean by “determinism”? He seems fixated on biological determinism—the view that all our actions are coded in our genes, a “DNA-driven view of the social world,” as well as a vision that “our future…is written in our DNA.” Edwards sees little or no influence of the environment on our actions: “Our trials and triumphs…are encoded in our DNA sequence.” But no biologist is a determinist in this sense, …

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 …