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Awkward Questions

Ten years after the publication of The Blank Slate, The Daily Telegraph’s Ed West asks some awkward questions:

…The blank slate doctrine affects almost every area of our lives. Take, for example, recent moves in Ireland to set quotas on women in politics, a move that is moderate compared to quota systems already implemented in Scandinavia. Whether one thinks this is right or not, what is wrong is that the starting premise is a totally pseudoscientific view of human nature – gender feminism.

As Pinker wrote, there are two types of feminism: “Equity feminism is a moral doctrine about equal treatment that makes no commitments regarding open empirical issues in psychology or biology. Gender feminism is an empirical doctrine committed to three claims about human nature. The first is that the differences between men and women have nothing to do with biology but are socially constructed in their entirety. The second is that humans possess a single social motive – power – and that social life can be understood only in terms of how it is exercised. The third is that human interactions arise not from the motives of people dealing with each other as individuals but from the motives of groups dealing with other groups – in this case, the male gender dominating the female gender.

“In embracing these doctrines, the genderists are handcuffing feminism to railroad tracks on which a train is bearing down.”
Gender feminism is no more scientific than astrology, yet the idea of total equality of outcomes is still some sort of vague official goal among the European elite, largely because “people’s unwillingness to think in statistical terms has led to pointless false dichotomies”, between “women are unqualified” and “fifty-fifty absolutely”…

…But just as the good name of feminism has been stigmatised by its radical wing, the whole of the social sciences have been damaged by the blank-slate orthodoxy, which has led to widespread anti-intellectualism, since the public at large come to view academia as a font of convenient untruths and agenda-driven nonsense (or to use the popular phrase, political correctness). Worst of all it has actually made it harder to help the most vulnerable, because we fail to take account of the fact that some people are less smart than others or, as Savulescu pointed out, more prone to vice or violence; and it has even made society less sympathetic to people who, because they have been less blessed by nature, lose out in the rat race.

A decade after The Blank Slate, why is human nature still taboo?

Mr. West effectively answers his own question here:

I don’t agree with Pinker about everything…His belief that there is no soul – “the ghost in the machine” – I find too awful to contemplate.

And that’s just why so many people cling to the belief in the blank slate.

Others, more sinister, find it politically useful.

Read the whole thing.




Treating Woo-Woo

Jules Evans over-worries:

I had evangelists either side of me at dinner. The woman on my right was beautiful, charming and, technically speaking, psychotic. I mean that in the nicest possible way. Her eyes grew wide as she told me how God regularly spoke to her, cared for her, entered her. She believed she had witnessed many miracles, that her eyes had been opened to a hidden level of reality.

A western psychiatrist would nod and tick off the classic symptoms of psychosis: hearing voices, feeling guided by spirits, feeling singled out by the universe, believing you have magical abilities to save the world. Our psychiatric wards are full of people locked up for expressing such beliefs.

We define ourselves, as a culture, by our attitude to such experiences. Before the modern age, they were very common and were categorised as heavenly or demonic visitations. Some of the founding figures of civilisation were, technically speaking, psychotic: Socrates, the father of western rationalism, had a daemon who gave him orders.

But since the 17th century such phenomena have been shifted to the margins of our secular, scientific, post-animist culture and defined as pathological symptoms of a physical or emotional disease. Today, if you tell your doctor about such experiences, you are likely to receive a diagnosis of schizophrenia and be prescribed debilitating anti-psychotic drugs.

And yet such experiences are very common. A new paper by Heriot-Maitland, Knight and Peters in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology (BJCP) estimates that 10-15 percent of the population encounter “out-of-the-ordinary experiences” (OOEs) such as hearing voices. By automatically pathologising and hospitalising such people, we are sacrificing them to our own secular belief system, not unlike the Church burning witches.

Actually, it’s completely “unlike”. There were no (true) witches, while the pathological conditions are real. That they are far from rare that doesn’t make them any less of a disease.

But that doesn’t mean that the treatment always has to be medical in the conventional sense of the word, and here Mr. Evans makes a good point:

Perhaps we need to find a more pragmatic attitude to revelatory experiences, an attitude closer to that of William James, the pioneering American psychologist and pragmatic philosopher. James studied many different religious experiences, asking not “Are they true?” but rather “What do they lead to? Do they help you or cause you distress? Do they inspire you to valuable work or make you curl up into a ball?”

We can evaluate the worth of a revelatory experience without trying to find out if the experience “really” came from God or not.

Fair enough, therapeutically speaking, but keep the pills handy….

H/t: Andrew Sullivan



Getting Skinny with Skinner

The Atlantic recently ran a piece on the use of smartphone apps as behavioral trainers. It is an interesting enough topic in its own right but it was a good reintroduction to B. F. Skinner too. I hadn’t thought about him for ages. The description of the angry response he generated made me think that I should:

In 1965, When Julie Vargas was a student in a graduate psychology class, her professor introduced the topic of B. F. Skinner, the Harvard psychologist who, in the late 1930s, had developed a theory of “operant conditioning.” After the professor explained the evidently distasteful, outmoded process that became more popularly known as behavior modification, Vargas’s classmates began discussing the common knowledge that Skinner had used the harsh techniques on his daughter, leaving her mentally disturbed and institutionalized. Vargas raised her hand and stated that Skinner in fact had had two daughters, and that both were living perfectly normal lives. “I didn’t see any need to embarrass them by mentioning that I was one of those daughters,” she says.

Vargas is a retired education professor who today runs the B. F. Skinner Foundation out of a one-room office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a block away from Harvard Yard. The foundation’s purpose is largely archival, and Vargas spends three days a week poring over boxes and shelves full of lab notes, correspondence, and publications by her father, who died in 1990. A prim but engaging woman, Vargas can’t seem to help seething a bit about how her father’s work was perceived. She showed me a letter written in 1975 by the then wildly popular and influential pediatrician Benjamin Spock, who had been asked to comment on Skinner’s work for a documentary. “I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t read any of his work,” Spock wrote, “but I know that it’s fascist and manipulative, and therefore I can’t approve of it.”

The other, greater (if fictional), Spock would have found that most irrational…

Behaviorism exploded in prominence in the 1950s and ’60s, both in academic circles and in the public consciousness. But many academics, not to mention the world’s growing supply of psychotherapists, had already staked their careers on the sort of probing of thoughts and emotions that behaviorism tends to downplay. The attacks began in the late 1950s. Noam Chomsky, then a rising star at MIT, and other thinkers in the soon-to-be-dominant field of cognitive science acknowledged that behavior modification worked on animals but claimed it did not work on people—that we’re too smart for that sort of thing.

You have to laugh at that.

While Skinner’s argument that behavior modification techniques could be used to improve society raises quite a few quis custodiet issues to say the least, that controversy has no relevance to the question of whether these techniques actually work. Soft machines that we are, they seem to…

And you have to laugh at that too.

It’s not referred to in the article, but the good doctor also claimed that it was possible to create ‘superstitions’ in pigeons (his test species of choice). To be sure, those findings have since been challenged, but, consider their implications and…

Yes, you are laughing again.

Good work, Dr. Skinner.





From a WSJ review of a new book chronicling the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart:

The Minnesota study’s IQ results hit a nerve years before their publication in 1990, overshadowing other controversies that might have been. Many of its findings are bipartisan shockers. Take religion, which almost everyone attributes to “socialization.” Separated-twin data show that religiosity has a strong genetic component, especially in the long run: “Parents had less influence than they thought over their children’s religious activities and interests as they approached adolescence and adulthood.” The key caveat: While genes have a big effect on how religious you are, upbringing has a big effect on the brand of religion you accept. Identical separated sisters Debbie and Sharon “both liked the rituals and formality of religious services and holidays,” even though Debbie was a Jew and Sharon was a Christian.

Just another example of the ‘God Gene’ at work, I suppose, and, as such, just another reminder that there is little or no prospect of ever weaning mankind off religion (Professor Dawkins, please note).




The “Bioethics” Fraud


“It’s always in bioethicists’ professional interest to suggest that a new technology raises troubling moral issues that require deep (funded) thought and extensive (lucrative) conferences.”





How to lose a presidential election 101…
Via The Hill

The top donor behind a pro-Rick Santorum super-PAC said Thursday that contraception doesn’t have to be costly because women used to use aspirin for birth control.

“This contraceptive thing, my gosh it’s so inexpensive. You know back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraception,” Foster Friess, the major donor behind the pro-Santorum Red White and Blue Fund super-PAC said on MSNBC. “The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly.”

Friess was referencing an old saying that women who held their knees closely together would have to remain abstinent.

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Against Self-Government

The Council of Europe is, in theory, meant to be some sort of bulwark for the citizens of its member countries against the power of the overreaching state.

That’s the theory. But here’s how it really works. The Daily Mail reports:

The Council of Europe has ruled that euthanasia and assisted suicide should be banned in every country across the Continent. In a declaration that will have huge implications on human rights laws in its 47 member countries, the Strasbourg-based organisation announced that such practices ‘must always be prohibited’.

The move will represent a major setback to assisted dying campaigners in the UK who want Britain to follow Holland, Belgium and Switzerland in allowing doctors to help to end the lives of their patients. The explicit condemnation of euthanasia was inserted into a non-binding resolution entitled ‘Protecting Human Rights and Dignity by Taking Into Account Previously Expressed Wishes of Patients’.

The resolution had originally simply focused on the human rights questions of ‘advance directives’, or ‘living wills’, in which people set out how they wish to be treated if they became mentally incapacitated.

But members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe argued that living wills, which became legal in the UK under the 2005 Mental Capacity Act, were inextricably connected to euthanasia. They successfully moved an amendment forbidding euthanasia by 34 votes to 16 with six abstentions.

The amendment said that ‘euthanasia, in the sense of the intentional killing by act or omission of a dependent human being for his or her alleged benefit must always be prohibited’.

Among those fighting for the amendment was British member Edward Leigh, the Tory MP for Gainsborough.

It’s that “always” that sticks in the craw. What it means (thankfully the resolution is not binding) is that Leigh, and those like him, are insisting that their prejudices should prevail over an individual’s power to decide his or her own fate. The consequences of such absolutism can, of course, be grotesque suffering. A patient with locked-in syndrome, for example, who wishes to end it all has no need to worry about some “slippery slope”. He is already a prisoner, imprisoned in a body that has become its own dungeon, guarded by doctors who have thrown away the key.

And quite why Leigh, a Tory supposedly, a euroskeptic allegedly, believes that a transnationalist body should have the power to police Britons in this way escapes me. He is, it appears, an opponent of the right of Britons to govern themselves — and in more ways than one.


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A Test of Civilization

Count me skeptical whether there is a ‘right’ to die, or a right to very much else for that matter, but a truly humane society would not force this helpless man to go to the courts for the relief he seeks:

LONDON (AP) – Former rugby player Tony Nicklinson had a high-flying job as a corporate manager in Dubai, where he went skydiving and bridge-climbing in his free time. Seven years ago, he suffered a paralyzing stroke. Today he can only move his head, cannot speak and needs constant care.

And he wants to die.

To try to ensure that whoever ends his life won’t be jailed, the 57-year-old Nicklinson recently asked Britain’s High Court to declare that any doctor who gives him a lethal injection with his consent won’t be charged with murder. This week, the court will hold its first hearing on the case


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Why are you a conservative?

This is addressed to people who consider themselves fundamentally conservative, and not libertarian, and, also reject the supernatural. By this, I mean that if you do support libertarian policies (I often do) it is not necessarily because you are at the root someone who is motivated by liberty as the summum bonum. By rejecting the supernatural I mean that you don’t accede to the plausibility of gods, spirits, etc.

Sometimes the answer can be somewhat vague and general. For example, by conservatism, as I implied below, is rooted in the social dependence of human flourishing. This necessarily entails that individual freedom is not the ultimate ends, and means that I am opening to diverging from libertarian logic in many specific cases. Or, more precisely, in the case of the United States I think that this nation-state is a good thing, that it has legitimacy, and that it’s coherency as a nation-state should be defended as a long term project. It’s not a mere convenience for the execution of legal prescriptions.

I throw the question out there because I’m wondering how people will take the ideas I’m going to present at the Moving Secularism Forward conference this March.

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The Machines That We Are

Via the New Scientist:

You can now experience the world through someone else’s eyes by tapping into their brain activity. Jack Gallant and colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley developed a technique that uses brain scans to reconstruct what a person is seeing. In the video above, it’s used to recreate film clips that a person is watching.

The team first measured brain activity produced while a person watched hours of movies. They used this data to create a model that can predict the neural activity that would be elicited by any given movie.

Then brain activity was recorded while a volunteer watched a new set of videos and the model was used to select the clips they were most likely viewing. Combining the model’s best guesses produced a blurry but reasonable approximation of the original clip.

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