Neil Levy

A shocking discovery about thinking?

You’ve probably already seen the story. Participants in an experiment were asked to sit and think. The only distraction available was the possibility of giving themselves a mild electric shock. One third of women and two thirds of men shocked themselves to pass the time. One man shocked himself 190 times. Continue reading

Reading in a connected age

There is no doubt that the internet has transformed our lives in multiple ways. Here I will focus on the ways in which it has transformed our cognitive environment. I’m writing these words in Australia; as soon as I press “publish” they will be available to readers all over the world. For an academic, the “tyranny of distance” is greatly reduced by the web: it doesn’t matter where I am or where the journal is; I can have immediate access and I can email the author queries as easily from Melbourne as from London. Notoriously, it has made information available in quantities many people report they find overwhelming. Continue reading

Was Marx Right?

In The German Ideology, Marx claimed that “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas”. The idea, roughly, is that the way the dominant class frame and view the world comes to be the ideology of the entire society. If the ruling class sees people as divided into castes, for instance, then most people – whether they belong to that class or not – will absorb this way of thinking and see the world in the same way. This explains why – according to Marxists – people may be complicit in their own subordination: it seems natural to them. Continue reading

Discrimination against the (historically) privileged

Most cases of discrimination involve someone who belongs to a historically subordinated group being unfairly treated, because they belong to that group. Must all cases of discrimination fit this mould? Here are two, involving people who claim that they are being discriminated against because they belong to a historically dominant group. The first has been in the news recently: a group of workers at university in Wales are claiming sex discrimination on the grounds that they are paid less than their female counterparts. The second has not been in the news, since the case is more than a decade old. It concerns a man rejected by a US police force because he scored too high on an IQ test (the force has a policy of rejecting those who score too high, on the grounds that applicants who are too intelligent might get bored with police work and move on, which would entail a waste of the time and resources devoted to their training). Continue reading

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.