Archive for August, 2010

Why Steven Pinker gave up on anarchism

August 23, 2010

From The Blank Slate, p. 331:

When law enforcement vanishes, all manner of violence breaks out: looting, settling old scores, ethnic cleansing, and petty warfare among gangs, warlords and mafias. This was obvious in the remnants of Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and parts of Africa in the 1990s, but can also happen in countries with a long tradition of civility. As a young teenager in proudly peaceable Canada during the romantic 1960s, I was a true believer in Bakunin’s anarchism. I laughed off my parents’ argument that if the government ever laid down its arms all hell would break loose. Our competing predictions were put to the test at 8:00 A.M. on October 17, 1969, when the Montreal police went on strike. Read the rest of this entry »


Bruno Latour’s strange take on laboratory life

August 23, 2010

A while back I picked up a book by sociologists of science Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar called Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts. It’s an anthropological account of the ordinary goings-on of a scientific laboratory.

Latour spent 21 months, from October 1975 to August 1977, gathering field data in the lab of Nobel Prize-winner Robert Guillemin at the Salk Institute. He observed lab members at work, sat in on meetings, etc.

I liked the authors’ description of their approach:

[O]ur use of “anthropology” denotes the importance of bracketing our familiarity with the object of our study. By this we mean that we regard it as instructive to apprehend as strange those aspects of scientific activity which are readily taken for granted. … This … leads us to what might be regarded as a particularly irreverent approach to the analysis of science. (29) Read the rest of this entry »

Humility, equality and luck

August 22, 2010

I’m reading The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. One of the passages that piqued my interest compares attitudes toward success and failure in Japan and the US.

According to data presented in the book, Japan is the most economically equal of the rich market democracies, with its richest 20 percent making just under four times the income of its poorest 20 percent. The US is the most unequal market democracy after Singapore. Its richest 20 percent makes more than eight times the income of its poorest 20 percent. (Both ratios sound too low, but I’ll take the authors at their word.) Read the rest of this entry »

Addressing climate change is about preserving freedom

August 20, 2010

I finished George Lakoff’s book Whose Freedom? this week, and I have to ask: why aren’t cimate activists talking left, right and center about freedom?

Lakoff’s argument is that there are two competing conceptions of freedom in the minds of Americans. There’s the narrow conception endorsed by the radical right, in which freedom requires only the absence of government interference, and there’s the wider conception endorsed by the left, in which freedom demands material well-being for all. Some people explicitly favor one version of freedom or the other, but many people carry both conceptions of freedom. The correct framing can activate either conception. Radical conservatives have been highly effective at framing issues in terms of narrow, negative freedom. The left has to work just as hard to reframe the issues in terms of expansive, positive freedom. Reframing requires constant repetition (so expect to hear me talking a lot about freedom in coming weeks). Read the rest of this entry »

Is aggression a valid personality construct?

August 19, 2010

I’ve given Jonah Lehrer a fair amount of crap for not being radical enough. I shouldn’t complain. He’s giving me a niche to occupy. In that spirit, I’ll give Jonah a belated fistbump for providing an independent reason to believe that aggression patterns in men and women would be influenced by a variety of factors, both individual and social, as opposed to some essential difference between the sexes: Read the rest of this entry »

Six links worth reading

August 18, 2010

1. Five stupid, sexist things expected of men

3. Be physically strong. This is an obvious one: so obvious it almost seems ridiculous to mention it. One of the most common expectations of men is that they be physically powerful: big, strong, muscular, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. We see this everywhere: on TV, in movies, in video games, all over advertising like a cheap suit. It’s tied in with competitiveness, of course — but it’s also very much its own thing. And lots of men I talked with about gender roles brought it up. Even gay men, who on the whole seem to feel a lot more free of these gender expectations than straight men, have a decided tendency to buy into the Big Strong Man myth. For themselves, and their objects of desire. Read the rest of this entry »

What Ray Kurzweil and geoengineering have in common

August 17, 2010

John Rennie points me to the most eye rollingest article of the week, in which we’re told that brilliant inventor-turned-futurist Ray Kurzweil claims we are perhaps two decades from “reverse-engineering the human brain so we can simulate it using computers.”

I say eye-rollingest. In fact, I had a more visceral reaction to this non-story.

If you haven’t heard of Kurzweil, let me give you some context: He pops 200 vitamin pills a day. He goes to a longevity clinic once a week to be pumped full of untested life-extending drugs. Why? Because he believes mankind is destined to achieve immortality by uploading itself into ultra-powerful computers, and he doesn’t want to miss his shot. Read the rest of this entry »

Has George Lakoff been reading Marx?

August 16, 2010

Perhaps my favorite paragraph yet from Lakoff’s Whose Freedom?:

Part of the economic liberty myth is that employers “give jobs” to employees. The flip side of that is a deep truth: Working people provide profits to those who pay their wages, and it is the work by workers, even low-skilled workers, that provides profits to employers. In America over the past thirty years, wages have not risen much for the middle class, while efficiency and the corresponding profits and executive salaries have risen enormously. In short, the profits from productivity increases are not going to the workers who are being more productive. Instead they are going to owners and investors who are not doing the more productive work. That is unfair and un-American. Middle-class working people have been providing more and more profits to owners and investors without making higher and higher wages. An economy that works this way is immoral.

Atlas shrugged, indeed.

The beauty of multiple baby daddies

August 16, 2010

God bless for this little factoid, from a story on the long, troubled history of marriage:

In some South American tribes, a pregnant woman could take lovers, all of whom were considered responsible for her child. According to “Cultures of Multiple Fathers: The Theory and Practice of Partible Paternity in Lowland South America” (University of Florida Press, 2002), 80 percent of children with multiple “fathers” survived to adulthood, compared with 64 percent of kids with just one dad.

The practice of partible paternity – i.e., multiple baby daddies – dovetails nicely with some points raised by the group sex theory of hunter-gatherers, which I blogged about earlier. A Google search turned up the introduction to the volume mentioned above, from which I here excerpt the juicy bits. Read the rest of this entry »

Peter Kropotkin, anarchist scientist

August 15, 2010

Great guest post from Eric Michael Johnson over at Skulls in the Stars on Peter Kropotkin (1842 – 1921), a respected Russian naturalist and self-proclaimed anarchist who rejected his wealthy upbringing in favor of the people.

[Kropotkin] was a devoted Darwinian from the first publication of On the Origin of Species, and it was this scientific background that he held as the basis for a politics of individual liberty and the necessity of social change.

As he wrote in his essay “Revolutionary Studies”:

Everything changes in nature, everything is incessantly modified: systems, wages, planets, climates, varieties of plants and animals, the human species — Why should human institutions perpetuate themselves! … What we see around us is only a passing phenomenon which ought to modify itself, because immobility would be death. These are the conceptions to which modern science accustoms us. Read the rest of this entry »