All posts filed under: Science

Why Climate Science Is Like the Rest of Science

Recent White House initiatives suggest that addressing climate change has risen to the policy forefront of government at the presidential level for the first time in US history. Last week President Biden convened an online international meeting of heads of state on the issue and committed the US to a dramatic effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a level of 50 percent of emissions in 2005 by the year 2030, which will require unprecedented action and cooperation between government and major industries. By and large, the public’s mood has shifted from one of skepticism to support, but because the issue is so deeply embedded in scientific predictions whose details are often absent in popular discussions, statements from prominent scientists have great potential to influence the debate. As a theoretical physicist whose primary research has been in what is often called “fundamental physics” I am acutely aware that my colleagues can project an air of superiority in being dismissive of other disciplines and the scientists who labor in them. My late friend and colleague Freeman …

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 …

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 …

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 …

Taboo: Why Is Africa the Global COVID ‘Cold Spot’ and Why Are We Afraid to Talk About It?

The first COVID-19 case in Africa was confirmed on February 14th, 2020, in Egypt. The first in sub-Saharan Africa appeared in Nigeria soon after. Health officials were united in a near-panic about how the novel coronavirus would roll through the world’s second most populous continent. By mid-month, the World Health Organization (WHO) listed four sub-Saharan countries on a “Top 13” global danger list because of direct air links to China. Writing for the Lancet, two scientists with the Africa Center for Disease Control outlined a catastrophe in the making: With neither treatment nor vaccines, and without pre-existing immunity, the effect [of COVID-19] might be devastating because of the multiple health challenges the continent already faces: rapid population growth and increased movement of people; existing endemic diseases… re-emerging and emerging infectious pathogens… and others; and increasing incidence of non-communicable diseases. Many medical professionals predicted that Africa could spin into a death spiral. “My advice to Africa is to prepare for the worst, and we must do everything we can to cut the root problem,” Tedros Adhanom …

The Campaign to Thwart Paleogenetic Research Into North America’s Indigenous Peoples

One of the major North American archaeological discoveries of the 20th century was made in 1967 by a bulldozer crew preparing a site for a movie theater in the small fishing village of Port au Choix (PAC), on Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula. It was a vast, 4,000-year-old cemetery created by a complex maritime culture known among researchers as the Maritime Archaic. The graves contained beautifully preserved skeletons covered in a brilliant red powder called red ocher (powdered specular hematite). Buried with the skeletons were many finely crafted artifacts. A few similar ones had previously turned up in earlier field surveys on the island, but no archaeologist had suspected that such a large and magnificent ceremonial site existed in the North American subarctic. Had the discovery been made only a few years earlier, it is likely that no trained archaeologist would have taken over from the bulldozer crew. But fortunately, Memorial University in St. Johns had just added archaeologist James (“Jim”) Tuck (1940–2019) to its faculty. The American-born scholar set out to explore the cemetery, eventually excavating …

Sex, Drugs, and Antiquity

A review of The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion with No Name by Brian C. Muraresku. St Martin’s Press, 480 pages. (September 2020) A growing appreciation of plant medicines over the past few decades has allowed the media to shine a favorable spotlight on the previously proscribed use of ayahuasca, psilocybin, and other lesser-known plant allies in the “Age of Entheogens.” In the Entheogenic (“manifesting god within”) Era, for the first time since Nixon declared a “War on Drugs” 50 years ago, not only are entire universities and medical schools like Johns Hopkins conducting studies on these plants, but advocates are coming out of the most unlikely corners of the sober professional class to advocate for their proper use. One such professional is Brian Muraresku, a Jesuit-educated classics scholar, DC lawyer, and graduate of Brown University and Georgetown Law. He remains a “psychedelic virgin” but has nonetheless penned what will likely become a classic study of the ancient use of drugged beer and wine in the Near East and Europe, and the …

The Campaign of Lies Against Journalist Jesse Singal—And Why It Matters

One of the odd-seeming aspects of progressive cancel culture is that many of the figures targeted by mobs aren’t especially conservative in their views. Rather, the victims tend to be heterodox liberals who simply offer a dissenting opinion on one or more compartmentalized issues—since these liberal targets tend to operate in left-leaning professional and social milieus through which a mob can exercise leverage and demand concessions. There are numerous popular writers and broadcasters who promote deeply conservative themes without attracting any notice from cancel mobs—even as lifelong leftists within such niche genres as Young Adult fiction, LGBT theatre, and knitting-trade journalism are excommunicated on the basis of minor verbal infractions. In some notable mobbings chronicled by Quillette, in fact, the targeted dissenter wasn’t even offering an opinion per se, but merely highlighting facts we’re all expected to ignore. James Damore wasn’t fired by Google because he gratuitously insulted women, but because he pointed out real differences between the sexes. In Canadian literary circles, Margaret Atwood became reviled among a progressive fringe when she argued (correctly, …

Standing on the Shoulders of Ogres

There is neither merit nor justice in the posthumous dishonouring of the eminent biologists Francis Galton, who coined the phrase “nature or nurture,” and Ronald Fisher, who advised that “correlation is not causation.” In a recent article in the Journal of Physical Anthropology, Adam Rutherford, author of How to Argue with a Racist, provides reasons for supporting the recent “de-naming” of Galton and Fisher by various institutions. These reasons are historically inaccurate and morally dubious. Standing on the shoulders of bastards: I wrote a paper about cancel culture, accusations of the erasure of history, on how we deal with great scientists who also held outmoded and baleful views. https://t.co/PKr1KNP3xO pic.twitter.com/gQ9u100R4M — Dr Adam Rutherford (@AdamRutherford) December 18, 2020 The crimes of Galton and Fisher, as vaguely framed by Rutherford, seem to be conducting research on eugenics (inventing “pseudoscience”) and making recommendations about eugenic policy. Rutherford tars Galton with the Nazi brush even though he died 32 years before Hitler came to power in 1933. He argues that eugenics was a causal factor in the emergence of …