All posts filed under: Social Science

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 …

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 …

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. …

The New Inequality: The Decline of the Working Class Family

The family has been called “the cornerstone of society” and for good reason. According to studies, children born to married parents are more likely to go to university and less likely to receive government benefits. Children raised in fatherless homes, however, appear more likely to face worse outcomes when it comes to well-being, education and mental health. Married people also appear to be healthier and happier. According to a report, before the 1970s there were no large class divides in American family life. Most people got married and stayed married and the children were raised in two-parent families. This trend eventually changed, with poorer and less educated people becoming less likely to get married and stay married. The decline of marriage is also correlated with the rise of single-mother households. A similar decline of the working class family appears to exist in the UK, with men from poor backgrounds being significantly more likely to be single in their forties than richer men. The Problem with Single Men Marriage is correlated with several positive outcomes for …

Science vs. Purpose: The College Board’s New Adversity Index

Recently, the College Board announced it was piloting a new Environmental Context Dashboard (referred to in the media as an “Adversity Index”), one which tries to quantify social challenges faced by students applying to college. As described here, the index uses publicly available data regarding a student’s neighborhood and high school, such as median income, unemployment levels, and crime rates, to generate a value between 0 and 100, with higher numbers indicating higher levels of adversity indexed students might face. Debate over the move has polarized around issues of fairness (why not provide college admissions officers data they can use to contextualize grades and test scores?) and independence (who is the College Board to lump me and everyone else in my neighborhood and school into a cohort summarized by a single numerical value?). Like arguments over the role of standardized testing, discussion of the Adversity Index is confused by a conflation of the scientific nature of assessment and the social purposes evaluations are supposed to serve. Professional test developers involved with creating tests that measure …

Happiness and Academic Malpractice

In two popular books about happiness, Professor Paul Dolan of the London School of Economics has established himself as a public scholar. Dolan writes very clearly—an unusual attribute for an academic—and brings a fresh approach to the study of happiness. Quillette founder Claire Lehmann captures it well in a review of Dolan’s first book, Happiness by Design: When we think about our “happiness” we may think about the goals we have achieved, how much money we have in the bank, or how prestigious our job is. We may not think about our commute to work, our dreary co-workers or the fact that days at the office seem to drag along, uninspiringly. In doing so, Dolan argues, we privilege our evaluative self over the experiential self. Dolan’s exploration of the experiential self isn’t intended just to be a theory: he presents statistical data from numerous sources in support of his hypothesis. Unfortunately, Dolan’s data provide very little support for his theory, and are marred by serious errors of both analysis and interpretation. Dolan first caught my …