Neil Levy

Vaccination and the omissions bias.

Vaccination has been in the news recently, as an outbreak of measles hits California. The US virtually eliminated measles around the turn of the century, but it has made a comeback. A big factor in that comeback has been ‘conscientious objection’ on the part of parents, who refuse to have their children vaccinated for religious or ‘philosophical’ reasons. Media reports often focus on the ignorance or confusion of these parents. And there’s plenty of both on show. Prominent anti-vaxxers continue to push the long discredited vaccination causes autism line, while the California conscientious objectors seem to have embraced an ill-informed ‘no chemicals’ line. I want to suggest that these views may be motivated, to some extent and in at least some parents, by the omissions bias. Continue reading

Moral Offsetting

A recent blogpost on 3 Quarks Daily satirised the idea of ‘moral offsetting’. Moral offsetting would work like carbon offsetting. With carbon offsetting, you purchase carbon credits to offset against your emissions – for instance, you might give money to a private company that plants trees, to offset your transatlantic flights. Moral offsetting works in a similar way: whenever you indulge in behavior of dubious morality (say eating meat, or buying clothes made in a sweatshop), your transgression would be offset. The simplest way to offset would be through a donation to a charity. Continue reading

The Ethics of Humor

Clinton Cards recently apologized for a Christmas card listing “10 reasons why Santa Claus must live on a Council Estate” (sample reasons: “He only works once a year”; “He drinks alcohol during working hours”). Predictably, some people professed outrage over the card (which seems to me mildly offensive, but not enough to get worked up over) and equally predictably some people slammed the reaction as an excess of political correctness (whatever that means). Humor is very often at someone’s expense. In fact, some people have suggested that making the person who laughs feel superior to the butt of the joke is the essence of humor. That theory is rather implausible, but we certainly don’t want a blanket ban on jokes that target other people. When is it okay to tell jokes at the expense of others and when isn’t it? Continue reading

Pedophiles and homosexuals – apples and oranges?

Australian columnist and TV personality Mia Freedman has been caught in a social media storm after comparing pedophiles to gay people. Freedman’s gaffe didn’t warrant the furious response it got; the response seems mainly the product of people’s inability to understand how analogies and similes work. Freedman, arguing in favor of a public sex offender’s register, claimed that we ought to expect pedophiles to continue to be a danger to children, because they can’t change who they’re attracted to, just like gay people can’t change who they’re attracted to. Freedman’s point was that we used to think that gay people could be ‘cured’; we now accept that that’s a fantasy. So we should say the same thing about pedophiles.

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She was one in a million, so there’s five more just in New South Wales.

We’re not good at large numbers. Our brains are adapted to living in groups of perhaps 150 individuals. City living is a very recent innovation, and our psychological mechanisms struggle to cope with it. One way in which we may go astray is through the misapplication of heuristics that worked well for our ancestors, but which misfire in very large groups. Suppose you learn that there is a person in your group prone to violence without provocation. If you live in a group of 150 individuals, you need to be on high alert: your paths will cross. But if you live in a city of 5 million people, you really shouldn’t worry (unless you have some reason to think the violent individual lives in your street). In fact, on learning that there is such an individual you will probably feel more anxiety than you should – not as much as you would if you knew your paths would cross, but more than you rationally ought to. Continue reading

Would it be bad if humanity were to become extinct?

That’s (roughly) the topic of a panel held at Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas. It is a topical question, in this age of potentially catastrophic climate change. There is no realistic risk that climate change threatens life on this planet, after all,  but it could threaten human existence (not directly, but by triggering widespread conflicts over scarce resources). The Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, has dubbed this our final century, envisaging other means whereby human existence could end. So: would it matter? Continue reading

Forgotten Baby Syndrome

Defense lawyers are increasingly calling upon the services of neuroscientists to give evidence excusing, or mitigating the guilt of, their clients. A recent case illustrates some of the risks of doing so, as well (perhaps) of the potential benefits to lawyers and their clients.
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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

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