All posts filed under: Science

Bad Data Analysis and Psychology’s Replication Crisis

In 2014, a study published in JAMA Pediatrics linked playing aggressive video games to real-life aggression in a large sample of Singaporean youth. The study attracted considerable news media attention. For instance, a sympathetic article in Time magazine breathlessly reported its findings and suggested that brain imaging research found aggressive games change kids’ brains. But was the evidence from the Singapore study reliable? In recent years, concerns about the Singapore dataset have grown. UK scholars Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein recently wrote that the way the dataset had been used by the primary authors was problematic. The analyses from the same dataset kept changing across published articles in suspicious ways. These shifting analyses can be a red flag for the data massaging that may produce statistically significant outcomes and hide outcomes that didn’t work out. Such practices may be unintentional or unconscious (scholars are only human after all). But they do suggest that the results could do with further scrutiny. When the dataset became available to my colleague John Wang and me, we re-analyzed the …

The Academic Quarrel over Determinism

A Professor of biology at Williams College, Luana Maroja, recently wrote a piece for the Atlantic describing her great difficulty in getting students to accept the expert consensus on many issues in her field of study. Biology has been a great source of tension in intellectual spaces for a long time now, and this doesn’t seem due to change anytime soon. More often than not, biology seems to be the lynchpin upon which the fiercest disputes among intellectuals turn. Why does biology produce so much rancour? Sam Harris recently interviewed author Jarred Diamond on his podcast. During the course of that discussion, Diamond revealed that he had been forced to increase security at his personal residence when some colleagues threatened him 10 years ago. Additionally, he had two bodyguards accompany him to a university lecture after an “angry anthropologist” threatened to disrupt his remarks. Diamond hasn’t been an enthusiastic promoter of biological explanations for human affairs. On the contrary, his 1997 book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, vigorously disputed the notion that biology alone can explain …

The Real Gender Gap in Heart Disease

Because I’m that guy, I took a poll at the recent family barbecue. “Heart disease—who has it worse? Men or women?” I asked. The answers came quickly. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law said, “Women.” My father-in-law, arms crossed, said confidently, “Men.” My mother-in-law remembered hearing about how heart disease affected women more than men during the February American Heart Association (AHA) “Go Red for Women” campaign. Apparently, the message wasn’t heard by the men at this family gathering. They were moved by stories of men—fathers, brothers, friends—they knew who died from heart disease. We are taught that facts should trump feelings, evidence should trump anecdotes, and at first glance it would appear the men are too in touch with their feelings. It is the mission of advocacy organizations like the AHA to raise awareness. Charts like this one are widely disseminated and used in countless presentations on the topic: The graph demonstrates that over the last few decades the number of women dying from heart disease has been significantly higher than men dying from heart disease. …

How ‘Limbic Capitalism’ Preys on Our Addicted Brains

One summer day in 2010, a Swedish graduate student named Daniel Berg approached me after a talk I gave at Christ’s College, Cambridge. During the talk, I had casually mentioned internet addiction. Berg told me that I had spoken a truth larger than I knew. Many of his male friends at Stockholm University had dropped out of school and were living in crash pads, compulsively playing World of Warcraft. They spoke an argot more English than Swedish. It was all raiding, all the time. “How do they feel about their circumstances?” I asked. “They feel angst,” Berg said. “But they keep playing?” “They keep playing.” This sort of behavior does seem like an addiction, in the sense of a compulsive, regret-filled pursuit of transient pleasures that are harmful to both the individual and society. For gaming, the personal cost was highest for Swedish men. “I am,” Berg reported, “now the only male in my graduate program in economic history.” Back home in Florida, I noticed digital distractions exacting a more even academic toll. The smartphones …

Origins and Exploration—An Interview with Dr. Lewis Dartnell

Dr. Lewis Dartnell is an award-winning research scientist in the field of astrobiology. In his most recent book, the Sunday Times bestseller Origins: How the Earth Made Us, Dartnell tells the story of how cosmic and geological forces have directed the evolution of humans and their civilizations. The following is an interview with Dr. Dartnell about Origins, as well as his field of expertise, astrobiology—the search for life in the universe. *     *     *  Logan Chipkin: Early in Origins, you describe a fascinating hypothesis which causally links the cosmic movements of Earth with the evolution of human intelligence. What is this hypothesis, in detail? Lewis Dartnell: One of the big questions in evolutionary biology is: what drove our evolution from tree-swinging apes to bipedal, highly intelligent homonins that went on to build civilization and inherit the world? Primarily, what needs to happen is that the land around you needs to dry out, the forests need to be replaced by grasslands, by savannah. And what was driving that process over 5–6 million years since …

Noah Carl: An Update on the Young Scholar Fired by a Cambridge College for Thoughtcrime

Quillette has been unwavering in its support of Noah Carl, a young conservative scholar who was targeted by an outrage mob after getting a research fellowship at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge. After an “open letter” was circulated by a group of activist academics last December describing Noah’s work as “racist pseudoscience” and calling for an “investigation” into his appointment, we ran an editorial denouncing this witch-hunt. We published supportive comments by Jonathan Haidt, Jeffrey Flier, Cass Sunstein, Tyler Cowan, Jeff McMahan and Peter Singer, and asked people to sign a counter-petition which attracted over 1,400 signatories. Unfortunately, St. Edmund’s College did the bidding of the protestors, launched two separate investigations and last month terminated Noah Carl’s employment. We ran a follow-up piece, this time criticizing St. Edmund’s cowardly decision, and invited professors and lecturers to put their names to a letter of condemnation. That got over 600 signatures, more than the number of academics who signed the original “open letter.” Since then, Noah has received widespread support from a variety of sources. The Spectator has …

Memes, Genes, and Sex Differences—An Interview with Dr. Steve Stewart-Williams

Dr. Steve Stewart-Williams is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Nottingham, researching the evolution of altruism and human sex differences. The philosophical implications of evolutionary theory was the focus of his first book, Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life. The following is an interview with Stewart-Williams about his new book, The Ape that Understood the Universe. Logan Chipkin: Your book begins with an alien’s perspective on modern humanity. This alien has apparently never encountered typical human behavior. How did you come up with this idea, and how did you subsequently decide which aspects of humanity to include in the alien’s report? Steve Stewart-Williams: Like you say, I kick off the book by looking at human beings through the eyes of an alien scientist: a hyper-intelligent alien scientist from a species that doesn’t have males and females, doesn’t fall in love, doesn’t have families, and doesn’t have music or art or reality TV or anything else like that. And I ask: What would such a being make of us? The short answer is …

Against Scientism—A Rejoinder to Bo and Ben Winegard

In ancient Athens, shortly after the death of Socrates, word got out that Plato had come up with a definition of man. Man, according to Plato, was “a featherless biped.” Once he heard this, a philosopher by the name of Diogenes plucked the feathers from a fowl, brought it to Plato’s Academy, and declared, “Behold Plato’s man!” Plato’s definition, as Diogenes’s antics proved, had failed. In their essay “In Defence of Scientism,” Bo and Ben Winegard’s definition of scientism suffers from a similar lack of precision. Scientism, they insist, is simply “the view that scientific attitudes and methods can enhance all modes of empirical inquiry.” This definition is misleading because no one is arguing against the use of scientific methods in scientific pursuits. Critics of scientism worry about the application of scientific methods outside of empirical fields. The great Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, for example, wrote that scientism, “involves a mechanical and uncritical application of habits of thought to fields different from those in which they have been formed.” Simply put, scientism is the application …

Alessandro Strumia: Another Politically-Correct Witch-Hunt, or a More Complicated Story?

In recent and even not-so-recent years, the quest for gender balance in science and technology has taken some troubling turns—from the collection of male scalps over trifling offenses (such as the pillorying of British physicist Matt Taylor over a shirt adorned with comic-book-style scantily-clad babes) to the squelching of dissent on whether gender gaps in STEM are caused solely by discrimination (heresy that got software engineer James Damore fired from Google two years ago and cost Lawrence Summers his post as Harvard president in 2005). In this climate, it’s easy to see another “politically correct” witch-hunt in the recent drama surrounding Italian physicist Alessandro Strumia. Last month, CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, elected not to extend Strumia’s guest professorship after previously suspending him over a controversial presentation at a CERN gender diversity workshop in September 2018. From the start, the Strumia scandal elicited warnings about an orthodoxy that disallows questioning claims of pervasive anti-female discrimination in science. In a recent article in the French weekly Le Point (reprinted in translation in Quillette), science …

Why Are Women Under-Represented in Physics?

Six months ago CERN hosted a workshop on “High Energy Theory and Gender.” Nearly all the contributors to this and previous workshops on the same topic endorsed the view that gender imbalances in physics, particularly in the higher echelons, are predominantly due to sexual discrimination. The following phrases appeared in the presentations: “men mobilize their masculinity supporting…men in ways that advance careers,” “evaluators tend to favor men,” “scientific quality is a gender social construction,” “practically all women share the same kind of sad and unfair experiences since the beginning of their scientific career,” and physics is an “oppressive ambient.” One attendee claimed that only the military has a higher rate of sexual harassment, although she didn’t say which country’s armed forces she was thinking of. In an attempt to go beyond mere anecdotes and measure the amount of discrimination, I did a bibliometric analysis using a public database of publications, references, authors and hiring decisions in fundamental physics world-wide over the past 50 years. CERN maintains this database, but nobody had used it for this …