All posts filed under: Science

International Scholars Must Resist the American Campaign to Inject Racial Tribalism Into Science

“Schœlcher n’est pas notre sauveur,” declared protestors who toppled statues on the French territory of Martinique earlier this year—“Schœlcher is not our savior.” The reference is to Victor Schœlcher, the 19th-century politician who’s long been lauded for his role in abolishing slavery in France and its colonial holdings. French President Emmanuel Macron rightly condemned the act, as did cabinet minister Annick Giradin, who denounced the destruction of monuments that embody the nation’s “collective memory.” And the mayor of Martinique’s capital warned against la tentation de réécrire l’histoire—the temptation to rewrite history. Hier, alors que nous célébrions la date d’anniversaire de la célébration du 172e anniversaire de l’abolition de l’esclavage en Martinique, deux statues de Victor Schœlcher ont été détruites à Fort de France et à Schoelcher, en Martinique. — Annick Girardin (@AnnickGirardin) May 23, 2020 Unfortunately, the force of that temptation has been growing stronger recently, and not just within the progressive subcultures of English-speaking countries. On June 22nd, Parisian vandals threw red paint on a statue of no less a French intellectual icon than …

The Problems with Discrimination Research in Medicine

Like many professions in Western society, medicine is examining itself for the presence of racial inequities and strategies that can ameliorate these differences. Many publications have focused on the disproportionately poor outcomes of minorities in our healthcare system with an emphasis on systemic and structural forces that shape such inequities. As I concluded in my last article for Quillette, these discussions should proceed with the utmost scientific caution, as the answers and implications stand to affect the most vulnerable populations. With this in mind, there are limitations in the current literature on alleged medical discrimination and the associated health outcomes. In addition, much of the literature on this topic relies heavily on surveys and patient self-reports to assess bias and discrimination while downplaying or ignoring alternative hypotheses. The narrative that has emerged from the conclusions of these limited studies could inadvertently cause some populations to avoid medical follow-up and form an inaccurate view of healthcare practices. As background, the relevant literature appears to show that black and Hispanic patients tend to view medicine as more …

What Computer-Generated Language Tells Us About Our Own Ideological Thinking

Earlier this year, the San Francisco-based artificial-intelligence research laboratory OpenAI built GPT-3, a 175-billion-parameter text generator. Compared to its predecessor—the humorously dissociative GPT-2, which had been trained on a data set less than one-hundredth as large—GPT-3 is a startlingly convincing writer. It can answer questions (mostly) accurately, produce coherent poetry, and write code based on verbal descriptions. With the right prompting, it even comes across as self-aware and insightful. For instance, here is GPT-3’s answer to a question about whether it can suffer: “I can have incorrect beliefs, and my output is only as good as the source of my input, so if someone gives me garbled text, then I will predict garbled text. The only sense in which this is suffering is if you think computational errors are somehow ‘bad.’” Naturally, this performance improvement has triggered a great deal of introspection. Does GPT-3 understand English? Have we finally created artificial general intelligence, or is it just “glorified auto-complete”? Or, a third, more disturbing possibility: Is the human mind itself anything more than a glorified …

Why Have So Many American Conservatives Embraced COVID-19 Pseudoscience?

With almost 150,000 COVID-19 deaths, the United States, putative leader of the free world, now is competing with Brazil and Russia for global supremacy in pandemic mismanagement. Not only does the United States lack any kind of coherent federal leadership on this issue, but even state and city leaders have fallen into bickering—and even lawsuits—over the correct response. While many Western nations have all but extinguished COVID-19 within their borders, the American pandemic is raging with a new ferocity. Yet some conservatives continue to protest even basic public-health measures, including masks. How could some of America’s best and brightest abet their country’s collapse into dysfunction in the face of a once-in-a-century pandemic? The most obvious answer lies with their president, Donald Trump, who has continued to hold large rallies even into July. He and his most fervent supporters boosted the patchwork of conspiracy theories, crank medical science, and plain apathy that informed much of the American response. At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) conference in Washington, D.C. back in February, the president’s then acting …

On Steve Hsu and the Campaign to Thwart Free Inquiry

Academics who conduct research on intelligence and human differences, or who comment on it, are being removed from their positions, either as faculty or university administrators, at an accelerating rate. This development is clear to those who follow such things, but it deserves closer examination so we can better understand it. For young academics interested in this kind of study, it is a critical area of research, not a growing archive of misconduct. It is equally important to young professionals who are looking to innovate on education paradigms, which are informed by an expanding understanding of intelligence, the original driving force in pedagogy. The problem is that it is not easy for such a person entering the field to grasp from the many dismissals and demotions what is going on. Intelligence research and researchers are being categorized as racists, sexists, and eugenicists, but the reasoning and evidence offered in support of such serious charges is often unconvincing, certainly by the standards of publication peer review. Nonetheless, such claims are sometimes quickly and tacitly accepted by …

From South American Anthropology to Gender-Crit Cancel Culture: My Strange Feminist Journey

I’m one of the many academics who’ve been “canceled” for having the wrong sort of opinion—or quasi-canceled, at least. As of this writing, I remain an associate professor of Anthropology at the University of Alberta. Since July 2019, I had also served as the department’s undergraduate programs chair. It was supposed to be a three-year appointment. But in late March, I was dismissed from that position due to informal student complaints to the effect that I had made them feel “unsafe” by articulating feminist critiques of current theories of gender. Earlier this month, my colleague Carolyn Sale wrote up an account of my case for the Centre for Free Expression blog at Ryerson University. As tends to be the case with these controversies, this in turn caused students and colleagues to scour my social media accounts in search of yet more “gender-critical” commentary. When they found it, they demanded that I be fired from my tenured position and charged with hate speech. Articles of the type you are now reading typically channel great anger, resentment, …

A Bolt in the Dark

The scene is of the world falling apart: It is the late spring of 1942. We are in the city of Turin in the north-west of Italy, near the border of Nazi-occupied France. Mussolini’s Blackshirts march through the streets. Every few days the anxiety and senselessness of the moment is cracked by the whine of British bombers, who have made their way from the Allied invasion of North Africa. On occasion, they fly over the city, releasing their cargo as families scramble to their basements, despite the risk of being trapped beneath the rubble of their precarious homes—the fate of so many. Amid this chaos, along one ordinary street within a quite common home, there is a young Jewish-Italian woman at work. She is tall, probably 30, with dark hair and hawkish features. She is toiling away at her bedroom desk, her eyes fixed on the task before her. She is holding make-shift micro-scalpels that she has ground from sewing needles. To her left, there is a powerful Zeiss microscope and a syringe filled with …

Capitalism or the Climate?

Can environmentalism and capitalism sustainably coexist? An influential movement of climate activists view capitalism and environmentalism as antithetical. According to the title of an article in the Guardian, “Ending Climate Change Requires the End of Capitalism.” An article in Foreign Policy, meanwhile, is subtitled, “New data proves you can support capitalism or the environment—but it’s hard to do both.” And in her bestselling book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Naomi Klein writes, “By posing climate change as a battle between capitalism and the planet, I am not saying anything that we don’t already know.” These are just a few of countless prominent examples. This view dwells not just in newsrooms, but in the halls of government as well. US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, author of the 2019 Green New Deal resolution and surrogate to Bernie Sanders in the 2020 democratic primary, told a 2019 SXSW audience, “Capitalism, to me, is an ideology of capital. The most important thing is the concentration of capital, and it means that we seek and prioritize profit and the …

Human Challenge Trials—A Coronavirus Taboo

The idea is as simple as it is apparently repulsive: allow human challenge trials (HCTs) under which “low risk” and healthy young adult volunteers in double-blind studies would be given trial vaccines (or a placebo) and then intentionally exposed to the novel coronavirus. This would accelerate the assessment of the trial vaccine’s safety and efficacy and more generally expand our understanding of this virus in a controlled setting. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 70 vaccines are currently under development, five of which are already moving to clinical trials. Notwithstanding these Herculean efforts, the earliest we can realistically expect a readily available vaccine is in 12 to 18 months. This is in large part due to constraints imposed by traditional vaccine validation methods, which rely on large test groups and chance exposure to the virus by participants to assess the vaccine’s safety and efficacy. HCTs, using a relatively small low-risk group of volunteer participants, could potentially accelerate the release of a safe and effective vaccine by many months. While conducting coronavirus HCTs …

Declining Med School Standards in a Time of Pandemic

In the beginning were the Medical College Admission Tests, or MCATs, a time-honored means of ascertaining worthiness for medical school. Formulated by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the MCATs assessed an applicant’s cognitive heft and baseline acumen in such no-nonsense disciplines as anatomy, biology, kinesiology, chemistry, and other precincts of hard biophysical science. Then, around the turn of the millennium, early social-equity advocates began insisting, in essence, that the MCATs unfairly limited med school to people who showed significant potential as doctors. Specifically, the pool of physicians being churned out each year was judged insufficiently diverse. A chief concern was that African Americans, 13 percent of the US population, represented barely six percent of medical school enrollees. Efforts were made; the numbers ticked up incrementally. Then in 2009 the body that accredits medical schools, the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME), touched off a parity panic across the med school landscape by issuing stern new guidance on diversity. In order to remain accredited, declared LCME, medical schools “must” have policies and practices in place …