Neil Levy

Cricket and mental illness

There is a lively debate in the philosophy of psychiatry over what makes a condition a disease. The debate is particularly heated with regard to addiction: it is a moral failing, a brain disease or something else altogether? People who hold that addiction is a brain disease often claim that their view is more humane, because it removes the stigma from a condition that is not the sufferer’s fault. Unfortunately matters are not so clear cut: there is some evidence that the disease model actually increases stigma, or at least makes mental illness seem more a fixed part of the person’s identity. Continue reading

Luck and Success

I have long been uncomfortably aware that luck has played a major factor in my success (such as it is). I spent more than three years after my PhD alternating between unemployment and low paying part-time jobs, before I got two lucky breaks. First one philosophy department urgently needed a full-time lecturer for a few months due to an unexpected absence, than a second; in both cases, I just happened to be around at the right time. The second job got renewed a few times, and then I was around when the department secured a very large grant which kept me employed for the next five years. I was able to take advantage of my lucky breaks by publishing a lot, but I was lucky to be given the time and conditions to do research. I know that lots of other people who left philosophy due to the scarcity of jobs would have done as well, or better, if they had had the breaks I had. Continue reading

Woody Allen and those allegations

It is hard to be agnostic when someone is charged with a terrible crime like child abuse. It is still harder when that person is a beloved filmmaker and symbol of artistic excellence (even if few of his recent films have lived up to expectations). Given the depth of some people’s emotional attachment to Allen and his films, many have reacted by refusing to believe Dylan Farrow’s claims that she was abused by him. Others, though, can’t believe that she would lie about something like that, and have therefore concluded that the allegations are true. Continue reading

Politics as tribal allegiance

How strongly wedded are people to their political preferences? The received wisdom amongst political journalists and pollsters is that most people can be counted on to vote for one major party or another, and only a relatively small percentage of people swing elections. It is these people – swinging voters, as they called in Australia – who decide elections. At very least, as an election approaches most have made up their mind and can’t be persuaded to shift.

Suppose most people are committed to a major party, at least in the days preceding an election.  Is this a matter of policy agreement or of something more like identification or tribal allegiance? A recent paper casts some light on this question, and along the way suggests that people might be more open to shifting allegiances than we might have thought, at least if approached in the right way. Continue reading

Is it rational to have children?

Laurie Paul’s fascinating paper on the rationality of choosing to have children has already received a great deal of attention in the blogosphere. Perhaps everything worth saying has already been said. But I wanted to point to some evidence that we ought not place the kind of weight on people’s experiences, in the context of assessing how their choices have gone, that Paul suggests we should.

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Is progressivism the biggest threat to science?

In the latest New Scientist, Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell attempt to redress what they see as an imbalance in perceptions of how political views affect attitudes to science. It is widely held today – in the wake of books like The Republican War on Science, Christian conservative opposition to evolution and well-documented interference into science policy by successive Republican administrations for ideological reasons (not to mention recent Tea Party lunacy with regard to the biology of human fertility) – that ideological opposition to science is a right-wing affliction. Berezow and Campbell (both proud conservatives; Berezow edits RealClearScience, an offshoot of RealClearPolitics, which aims to counter “the bias in media against conservatives, religious conservatives, [and] Christian conservatives”) argue that ideological opposition to science is not restricted to the right.

They are surely right, though the primary example they give seems more to involve petty political point scoring and a failure to conduct proper cost-benefit analyses than ideological opposition to science. Knee-jerk opposition to GMOs is more common on the left than the right for instance (the qualification ‘knee-jerk’ is an important one: there are good reasons to oppose particular uses of GMOs and to be cautious about all its actual applications, though there are no good reasons for thinking that GMOs might not make significant contributions to human and non-human flourishing). In the end, though, Berezow and Campbell exemplifies the very faults they rail against: allowing ideology to trump good sense.

Once upon time, ideological opposition to science seemed more common on the left than on the right, especially in the form of a muddled relativism. Today, to many commentators, it seems that things have reversed and more, or at least more practically significant, ideological opposition to and downright distortion of science is to be found on the right than the left (after all, opposition to the science of global warming is almost exclusively to be found on the right, and there is a strong case to be made to saying that global warming is the single most significant challenge facing humanity). Berezow and Campbell will have none of this. No, for them it is ‘progressives’ that are the major problem:

Of all of today’s political philosophies, progressivism stands as the most pressing problem for science. Progressives, not conservatives, are the ones most likely to replace scientific research with unscientific ideology.

Might they be right? I doubt it very much, but were I to try to make the case, I would look for data. In God We Trust, the Americans like to say, and no one more than the Christian conservatives that RealClearPolitics represents. But everyone else must bring data. Without data, without evidence in the broadest sense of term, you’re simply expressing your political prejudices. And that, whether it comes from the left or the right, is the way in which ideology distorts reason.

Ableist Language

Recently we have seen the stirrings in the philosophical blogosphere of a campaign, spearheaded by Shelley Tremain, to highlight and increase sensitivity to the use of ‘ableist’ language. Ableist language stands to disability in the way that sexist language stands to gender. Just as we now avoid certain kinds of language because it suggests – and may inadvertently reinforce – the inferiority of women, so (Professor Tremain suggests) we ought to avoid certain kinds of language because it demeans the disabled.

I first came across the campaign in the context of a call to avois the phrase ‘blind review’, on the ground that “ it associates blindness with lack of knowledge and implies that blind people cannot be knowers”. Professor Tremain suggests that we replace ‘blind review’ with ‘anonymous review’. I must admit my first response was to regard the whole thing as silly. But I had second thoughts. I no longer think it is silly (to be clear: I think that the campaign against ‘blind review’ is silly, but the campaign against ableist language is not). Here’s one reason to be suspicious of this initial reaction: when women (and a few men) began to question the unthinking use of sexist language, I think lots of well-meaning people reacted by thinking that the notion was silly. The people I had in mind may not have been sexist, in their explicit commitments. Rather, they thought that words do not harm, that we should save our energies for fighting for equal rights, that the movement brought feminism into ridicule, and so on. But gradually people became sensitized to the use of sexist language and we now avoid it. Moreover, research in psychology backs up the contention that the existence of – independently of belief in – stereotypes has real world effects, both on the behavior of those who are stereotyped and on others too. Those who are stereotyped may suffer stereotype threat, where their performance on tasks suffers because the task is stereotype atypical, while others may judge in ways consistent with the stereotype even when they don’t accept it.

I remain unconvinced that the phrase ‘blind review’ is problematic. Still, it seems easy and costless to avoid, so why not avoid it (as Mohan Mathen suggests in comments on the post linked to above)? More obviously problematic is the rich language of mental illness as insult: ‘crazy’, ‘hysterical’, ‘schizophrenic’ (to mean two-faced), and so on.

However, I want to note that there are potential costs to sensitizing ourselves to ableist language in the manner suggested. Some metaphors are so dead that I doubt that they do any harm. ‘Sinister’, for instance, does not seem to me to be remotely harmful to left-handed people. But the problem with sensitization is that it spreads: it makes metaphors live, and increases the cognitive load.

Here’s an example of what I mean. There have been several recent controversies in the United States over the word ‘niggardly’. ‘Niggardly’ is a synonym for ‘stingy’. It is etymologically unrelated to the word ‘nigger’. However, a number of people have taken offense at the word, because they took them to be related. As a result of these controversies, the following situation has arisen: niggardly is, considered in itself, a perfectly harmless word, but because of the association that has arisen, it is a word that is now best avoided. The Wikipedia entry on the controversies surrounding the use notes that people now sometimes use it to have dig at others: they ask black people not to be niggardly, for instance (thus allowing themselves to be offensive while establishing a bit of plausible deniability). ‘Niggardly’ is etymologically and semantically unrelated to ‘nigger’, but it is now guilty by association.

The problem is once you are sensitized to possible associations and suggestions, it is difficult to stop. Double entendres are a classic example: make one inadvertently in a classroom and from then one everyone will hear one in every sentence you say. John Derbshire – not normally a fount of wisdom – notes how the ‘niggardly’ controversy might cause further words to be become suspect: he gives the example of ‘snigger’.

There is a cost to the raising of sensitivities. Linguistic self-censorship is time and resource consuming. It may make dead metaphors live once more, and thus lead to some of the very harms it aims to avoid. It may nevertheless be a cost worth paying – it was in the case of sexist, racist and homophobic language.

Should we breed smarter children?

Last Sunday’s Melbourne Herald-Sun published an article reporting Julian Savulescu’s argument for enhancing the intelligence of babies through genetic modification. The argument turns on the social benefits of enhancement. Economic modeling has mounted a powerful case that widespread enhancement of IQ would produce a broad range of benefits. The work builds on previous research demonstrating the effects of reduced exposure to environmental lead. Public health measures aimed at reducing lead exposure caused a small but significant rise in IQ across the population, and brought social benefits including less welfare dependency, less imprisonment, fewer orphaned children, and so on. Continue reading

Affirmative Action in Social Psychology?

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has attracted some controversy recently over his call for affirmative action in social psychology. Haidt polled his colleagues over their political affiliation during a lecture and found that only a tiny minority identifies as conservative. Of course, as he well knows, this isn’t strong evidence for the claim that social psychologists are overwhelmingly ‘liberal’ (in the American sense of that word), but the available data would suggest that this is overwhelmingly likely to be the case. If this is correct, social psychology would be unrepresentative of the general population (given that around 40% of Americans identify as conservatives). Hence Haidt’s call for affirmative action: aim to have at least 10% of the membership of the professional organization be conservative. Continue reading

Political epistemology and recent Australian experience

One of the growth areas in recent analytic philosophy is social epistemology. Epistemology is concerned with the nature of knowledge, but social epistemology often has a more applied focus. It asks about the conditions under which groups produce knowledge, and one of its central claims is that groups are often better at discovering truths than are individuals.

This comforting claim seems, at first sight, to be challenged by contemporary political events. The recent electoral success of Tea Party candidates in the United States, following on the heels of strong showings for hard right parties in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe, as well as an increase in xenophobic rhetoric from centre right leaders like Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, seem to cast serious doubt on the ability of the electorate to rationally assess policies. The problem is sharpest in the US case, since the Tea Party seems to have mobilized the white working class to vote against their own economic interests. In these circumstances, it is tempting for the social democrat or even the moderate conservative to say, with Brecht, that the government should dissolve the people and elect another one.

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