Profound Insight from Cosmo (Again)

As I’ve mentioned previously, about every six months someone will link to a Cosmo article, and I’ll grudgingly read it, hoping against all evidence that their usual approach has been replaced with something more substantive.

This time, the title “Why Guys Get Turned on When You Orgasm, and Why That’s a Bad Thing” seemed to indicate that it was directly related to a piece I had written about before.  In the previous article, it was proposed that a man should care about making sure a woman orgasms during sex because “You = your orgasm” in the pithy equation proposed by the author.

I tend to think that’s a very dangerous belief.  When we regard the achievement of orgasm as the fulfillment of what it means to be human, and learning how to provide women with orgasms via clitoral stimulation as a critical part of working for women’s equality, then we’ve just perpetuated the myth that the value of women is primarily in their sexuality and specifically in the transient pleasure it brings them.

As we’ve seen over the past few decades, this is not a belief that seems to do much to make practical strides in leading women to be valued more.  In fact, if anything, it seems to be the opposite trend.  But in the newer article, an important caveat is brought to light for those who do believe the myth.

The core insight about how men tend to make women’s pleasure about themselves is a valuable one.  There’s an underlying ethical principle that’s important to understand, which is that when we make doing something for another person about ourselves, it’s no longer virtuous.

For example, if I give money to homeless people while walking around with a camera crew behind me so they can include the footage in my political campaign video, that’s not virtuous.  It might benefit the individuals who receive the money (a very good thing!) and it may be very smart political campaigning, but it does not build the habits of loving others which lead us to the true fulfillment we most need.

Instead, it builds the habits of regarding other persons (often not consciously) as the objects which are used to meet our own goals.  And treating persons as objects is inherently degrading.

This same principle applies when men use women to achieve their own ends, even when they provide those women with temporary pleasures in the process.  These men are degrading the women they provide pleasure to briefly.  That should be enough of an incentive to stop doing it, but there are also other reasons for men to stop degrading women in this way.

These men are losing out on an opportunity to build genuine habits of loving another person.  And instead, they are training themselves to live in such a way that the true fulfillment they most need, the fulfillment reached at the heights of sacrificial love, can never be reached.

But there is hope.  It is possible to re-shape our attitudes, to regard women as having intrinsic dignity, and to build habits that allow us to learn to love radically.  Get started today.

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Posted in Current Events, Education, Philosophy, Relationships | 1 Comment

The Once and Future Abortion Dilemma

Recently, a friend of mine shared a link from ScaryMommy regarding a dilemma posed to illustrate that not even people who take pro-life position on abortion actually believe that the embryo’s life is of equal value to a more developed child.

So what’s the dilemma?  Here are the essentials:

You’re in a fertility clinic that’s on fire.  You have time to save a crying child in one corner, or 1,000 viable human embryos in another corner.  Your choices are…

A.  Save the child crying in one corner and live

B.  Save the 1,000 embryos chilling on the shelf and live

C.  Try to save both and die in the process

I’m not sure where this hypothetical scenario originated.  I first heard it posed by Sam Harris quite a while ago.  In this case, it was posed by a writer named Patrick S. Tomlinson.

What if it’s true?

One of the interesting things about how the argument is framed is that the author claims that “we all instinctively understand the right answer is A.”  Perhaps it’s my philosophical training making me instinctively skeptical, but I’m not sure that we all do.

And even if that were true (for the moment let’s assume that it is true), it wouldn’t really tell us much.  By and large, human instincts are finely-tuned mechanisms for survival.  One of those really useful instincts is that we are more likely protect beings that look and act more like us and less likely to protect beings that look and act less like us.

Some of the same cognitive errors that lead us to identify more closely with beings who look and act more like us (in-group bias and so on) are also factors that lead us to instinctively prefer to socialize with people who have the same skin color as us, or the same kinds of clothing, or the same hair and eye color.  Our instincts in this area can and do lead us to dangerous and unfair treatment of other beings.

For those of us sitting in our armchairs pondering moral dilemmas, we may be experiencing a bit of an empathy gap.  We might be thinking that what we would do in this scenario reflects our rational assessment of the relative value of the life of a child and the quite different value of 1,000 embryos on a shelf.

But in most cases, we’re wrong.  In survival scenarios, we generally function on instinct (which includes a large dose of cognitive errors) rather than reasoned judgments intended to mitigate the problems with those cognitive errors in arriving at accurate moral assessments.

Even if Tomlinson is correct that “we all instinctively understand the right answer is A” and every human being agrees that they would take the actions described in A if they were in that situation, it wouldn’t tell us anything more than that our instincts lead us to that action.

Why would anyone choose option C?

Tomlinson goes on to claim that “There is no “C.” “C” means you all die.”  I can understand why Tomlinson would make this claim.  Instinctively, I think most of us would choose to find a way to live if possible.

But I also know that there are people who jump on grenades to save the lives of others, or run up into collapsing buildings to save others knowing that they will eventually die on one of those runs.  Some of us do in fact manage to choose option “C” in which we die trying to preserve the lives of others.

Let’s suppose that as an environmental activist, I were actively trying to save both the glaciers and the cows from being wiped out by global climate change.  What if I fail to save either and die in the process of doing my best to save both?  Was that the wrong choice from a moral standpoint?

At the very least, it’s not clear to me that option C, which means dying while trying to save as many people as possible, is clearly the wrong answer.  Or that we should a priori rule it out as an option.

If anything, dying while trying to save as many as possible seems to me, upon reflection, the most noble course.  And we honor those who give their lives in such a heroic manner in other circumstances (such as described above).  We don’t berate them posthumously for their awful grasp of utilitarian moral calculus.

I hope that I could choose the heroic option, but I don’t know that I would.  Instincts are powerful things, especially the survival instinct.

Why is it hard for pro-lifers to answer A or B?

I’m really not sure why Tomlinson hasn’t gotten any clear answers.  I’ve seen people who are pro-life answer either A or B to the dilemma.  Some after a great deal of thought, or reluctantly, or while undergoing a great deal of cognitive dissonance.  Maybe some people just haven’t thought about it.  I’m reluctant to assume their motivations.

Personally, the reason I don’t play his game is that I don’t agree with the assumptions being made.  As someone who has been on both sides of the abortion debate, I’m very familiar with the sorts of convenient moral dilemmas employed by both sides and how they’re framed to make the other side look stupid or dishonest or uncaring.

My experience has been that there’s a lot of irrationality on both sides, but also many compassionate and honest and intelligent people who just happen to be reasoning from different premises about a difficult moral issue.

I know this is really unpopular right now, but maybe we can try to spend less time trapping our ideological opponents with arguments that aren’t nearly as clever as we think they are, and spend more time questioning our own assumptions productively.

Posted in Current Events, Philosophy, Politics, Science | 2 Comments

The Sexist Science

Recently, I was reading an article over at VICE that contained many good points amidst the tangled web of editorial notes and reviews of a book entitled Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong by Angela Saini.

I found myself in agreement with many of the points being made, including:

  • It’s a bit ridiculous that 3 male scientists concluded that menopause makes sense from an evolutionary perspective because older women are not attractive to older men.  The amount of sex that happens in nursing homes suggests that this is simply not true.
  • Science has been used throughout its history to reinforce gender stereotypes and keep women in subservient roles, and women have been excluded from it too often, and also frequently haven’t been given credit for their discoveries or innovations.
  • Science is popularly seen as far more impartial and certain in its proclamations than it actually is.
  • There are a lot of conclusions unsupported by evidence that are conveniently drawn by folks who want to perpetuate narratives about female inferiority, albeit only loosely based on the findings of evolutionary psychology.
  • The strength of women in various areas (physically, mentally, emotionally) has been undervalued by biological scientists on many occasions.

Unfortunately, Saini does some leaping to conclusions unsupported by the evidence as well.  Her speculation that men might be physically stronger on average not because of role differentiation and sexual selection in primates (the most likely cause), but rather because women spend more of their energy on menstruation and childbirth, doesn’t make much sense.

Our musculature’s upper limits are determined by our genes, not our energy costs.  If every man and every woman were to achieve their maximum muscular strength, there would still be an average difference in strength between the sexes.  See the Olympic Games’ results in various sports for evidence of this.

Now, higher energy costs will definitely reduce the ability to build muscle, but men and women do not on average have the same potential to build muscle because of the typical genetic differences.  Men and women are equal, but we are not interchangeable, not even in the aggregate.

Given that many people who have espoused the idea that women are inferior to men based on reactionary cultural values or religious views have used it to support their imperatives to keep women subordinate to men, and that MRAs (Men’s Rights Activists) have used it to support their views about women’s excessive power in our culture that operates to the detriment of men, it’s completely understandable that any feminist would look askance at evolutionary psychology.

For a fair number of contemporary feminists who are vaguely familiar with evolutionary psychology, it’s true that they often recognize that the scientific endeavor has historically been and is now tainted by sexism, but it’s also true that evolutionary psychology is the scientific discipline that is not infrequently seen by feminists as THE sexist science par excellence.

This is unfortunate, in my opinion.  I think that evolutionary psychology can be very useful and often is very useful in understanding important things about ourselves as homo sapiens.  It would be a shame to miss out on really valuable knowledge because of the uses to which evolutionary psychology is put by reactionaries or MRAs.

Sadly, I suspect that there will always be some feminists who reject evolutionary psychology wholesale.  Some may do so because there are so many historical and contemporary examples of its misuse.  Others may do so for the less appealing reason that evidence from evolutionary biology and psychology contradicts their dogmas about the interchangeability of men and women and the causes of differences between the sexes.

For the latter group, evolutionary psychology, no matter how it changes and even if sexism is eliminated in the discipline, will always be seen as the sexist science.

Posted in Current Events, Philosophy, Science | Leave a comment

The Good News About Lying in Politics

…is that if we identify what’s causing much of it, we can find solutions.  This, of course, prompts us to ask a perfectly sensible question:

Is there well-designed and effective research that identifies what’s causing most of the lying in politics and lying about the evidence that underlies our political decision-making?

It turns out that there is (see this article in Psychology Today), and it tells us something very useful about how to combat lying in politics and lying about the evidence that informs our politics.

The research demonstrates that when we have a strong incentive to find the truth, we are much more likely to be able to put aside or at least reduce the impact of our tribal loyalties.

In the particular study referenced by Psychology Today’s article, that incentive was monetary.  We have good reason to think that providing people with a significant monetary incentive to be correct allows them to be committed to finding the truth as a higher priority than signaling loyalty to one’s political tribe.

For a variety of reasons, this will probably not work as a society-wide strategy for eliminating or massively reducing lying in politics.  The amount of money that would be significant enough compensation to incentivize folks to pursue the truth over tribal loyalty varies dramatically between and among persons.

Those who have plenty of money already will usually need a larger amount relative to their wealth to function as a strong incentive.  Those who have very little money will need to be provided enough money to rise above day-to-day survival concerns, a process that can take quite a long time and will also be very expensive.

Those who already have enough money to rise above day-to-day survival concerns, but aren’t so extremely wealthy that they can easily afford to turn down a monetary incentive for valuing truth over tribal loyalty, are probably going to be the most susceptible to this kind of incentive.

I’m not sure we have enough money to use it as an effective society-wide incentive under those circumstances, and that’s setting aside the very complicated questions of who gets to decide what’s true and how we manage the process of paying folks to learn it.  So what other kind of incentives might work?

Material incentives in general are subject to the same kinds of problems as using a monetary incentive, and in many cases those problems would be even more striking, particularly for rare materials and goods, or materials and goods which have very limited uses.

The wide variety of incentives that work well for a wide variety of people suggests to me that each person needs to find an incentive that works well for them, something that can provide them with such a powerful motivation to seek the truth without regard to tribal loyalty that they can make significant progress in mitigating the effects of their cognitive biases.

It also suggests to me that we need to have cultural values and norms that support a pursuit of truth over tribal loyalty.  Given how our brains work, there’s no way to eliminate completely from our decision-making the influence of tribal loyalties.  Which might not even be desirable.

And yet a powerful cultural tradition of the pursuit of Veritas and personal commitments to that pursuit can help us reduce the Animus in public life and allow us to work together more often for the good of all.

So if we want to massively reduce the lying in politics and the lying about the evidence we use to inform our politics, the best thing we can do is start today by either finding or renewing our extraordinary motivation to seek the truth even and especially when it costs us dearly-held beliefs.

The second thing we can and should do right after that is to pass our love of truth onto our children and help them find an extraordinary motivation to pursue truth above tribal loyalty as well.

In this way, we might one day find that it’s true that there is good news about lying in politics, and that the good news is that a lot of that lying has stopped.

Posted in Current Events, Economics, Education, Politics, Relationships, Science | Leave a comment

The Conceptual Hoax: A Blind Review

At the end of my previous post about the recent hoax paper entitled “The Conceptual Penis” I briefly alluded to the fact that this paper’s acceptance through the peer review process should concern all of us, even those of us who don’t think that the paper’s authors actually demonstrated via their hoax that gender studies in particular and post-modern social sciences in general are, well, intellectually bankrupt.

But why should it concern us that a couple of reviewers accepted the paper, and even praised it?  Couldn’t they have just been rubber-stamping the review because they don’t have time to do a proper review?  Don’t universities tend to overburden their new academics with heavy teaching loads and publishing expectations and committee seats and community service hours and onerous regulations?

Yes, universities definitely overburden new academics.  This is a serious problem that needs to be dealt with so that academics can do the work of discovering, creating, and building civilization rather than spending most of their time kowtowing to the administrators.

At the same time, it takes almost no effort whatsoever to determine that the article written by the hoaxing authors is utter nonsense.  Particularly if the reviewers had a basic familiarity with feminism, post-structuralism, and feminist post-structural discourse analysis, it should have been very easy to tell that this paper was employing the discipline’s buzzwords without actually presenting an understanding of the topic.

After all, this is a common way of getting through an essay for students.  They use the right key words that appear in the literature and are discussed in class, but it’s fairly apparent from their writing that they lack a deep understanding of the topic with which they’re engaging.  Any academic should be able to spot this kind of thing quickly.

In general, experts in a field can quickly spot people who are just faking it poorly.  And the paper submitted by the hoaxers were intentionally faking it poorly.  They admitted to having done no research to understand the concepts involved.  And they intentionally added phrases that would be immediate red flags for anyone familiar with feminist literature.

So how on earth did this paper pass a blind peer-review process with praise from the reviewers?  Were the reviewers not actually experts in the relevant field?  Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the reviewers were not experts in the relevant field.  In that case, they must have failed to do basic research into the field’s terminology before accepting the paper and/or praising it.

Or, if they were in fact experts in the relevant field, the hoaxers are probably right that the paper wasn’t accepted on its perceived merits, but rather because it signaled agreement with the moral orthodoxy of contemporary post-structuralist feminism on topics like masculinity, capitalism, and climate change.

It’s hard to imagine that the reviews were anything other than horrifyingly inept for one reason or another, and it’s difficult to figure out whose peers they were.  I hope, along with the hoaxers, that it’s not true that the reviewers actually thought the paper’s arguments effective, regardless of whether they thought the conclusions were true.

The worst case scenario is that the reviewers maliciously accepted the paper knowing that the authors were faking their way through it really poorly.  A bad scenario is that the reviewers weren’t experts and didn’t bother doing cursory research.  A truly horrifying scenario is that an intentionally bad paper seemed genuinely like sound academic exposition to truly expert reviewers, meaning that an intentionally nonsensical paper was indistinguishable from well-intentioned academic work in the field of gender studies.

I refuse to assume that the reviewers were just plain stupid, because that would just be uncharitable in addition to being even less likely than the other possibilities.  Regardless, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this was a blind review in the sense that the folks who did the reviewing couldn’t see through an obvious fake.

The Conceptual Hoax Series

A Limp Trick – A Blind Review – A Failed Analysis

Posted in Current Events, Education, Philosophy, Politics, Religion | 1 Comment

The Conceptual Hoax: A Limp Trick

The recent hoax written about in Skeptic magazine has resulted in, no doubt, many terrible puns in response to the satirical article’s title, “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct.”

Understandably, the authors of the article think that their hoax was a rousing success on two fronts, described in their own words below:

  1. The Pay-to-Publish, Open-Access Journal Problem
  2. Postmodernism, Gender Studies, and the Canon of Knowledge

The authors predicted that some people would conveniently focus on only 1 or 2 depending on their a priori intellectual commitments, and this seems to be happening.

That said, the authors seem to have overestimated the size and potency of their hoax.  They believe that this hoax has broad implications for the academic viability of what they describe as “postmodernist social “sciences” in general, and gender studies departments in particular,” at least in their current form.  They recommend a thorough “housecleaning” without providing concrete steps for accomplishing it.

The implication, though, is that these academics need to adhere to some set of academic standards in a rigorous way.  On that point, I tend to agree with the authors.  I’m just not sure how these disciplines could accomplish that, given their assumptions about how to do academic work.

Much of the efforts of these disciplines being critiqued by the authors are bound up in trying to explode existing conventions, overturn traditional understandings of important topics, and tearing down any distinctions that might be meaningful enough to, well, make a difference.

Any attempt in these areas of academia to have a functional distinction between proper academic work and other kinds of work will be quickly deconstructed by their fellow academics.  After all, isn’t the identity of an academic fluid?  Don’t academic standards change because they are social constructs subject to the vagaries of the usual oppressive suspects?

This would be followed by additional attempts to explode the conventions for proper academic work based on the fact that they are designed to perpetuate the power of white middle-class feminists at the expense of academics who fall into other identity categories.

Even if one department managed to establish a cultural tradition of adhering to a specific set of academic standards, isn’t it likely that the instinct to overturn traditional understandings of important topics would drive many of the members of the department to get rid of the academic standards?

While I think it’s entirely possible for a professor who specializes in Gender Studies to adhere to rigorous academic standards, and I’m sure that many do, I’m not sure how those can be maintained with any consistency across the field.

Precisely because the intellectual commitments of the discipline cut against the establishment and maintenance of differences of treatment driven by policies that can always be critiqued as problematic by using the analytical approaches used every day by people in that discipline, I think attempts at “housecleaning” by way of implementing new (or old) academic standards are doomed to fail.

I don’t really see how this hoax could have any constructive impact.  Yes, it showed that complete nonsense can make it into an academic journal.  But who didn’t already know that?  And isn’t that a problem for multiple disciplines, as has already been pointed out?

We would need a far larger number of examples of hoax articles getting published, and in a wide variety of academic journals in Gender Studies, to conclude that Gender Studies departments in general were in need of basic academic reform, let alone that post-modernist social sciences in general were the problem.

This hoax simply doesn’t rise to the level of evidence we would need to draw those sorts of conclusions.  Of course, the conclusions may be correct, and there might be good evidence out there for those conclusions.

Nonetheless, the “Conceptual Penis” hoax article getting past 2 peer reviewers, as troubling as that should be, is probably just a limp trick.

The Conceptual Hoax Series

A Limp Trick – A Blind Review – A Failed Analysis

Posted in Current Events, Education, Philosophy, Politics | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Does positive reinforcement work long-term?

In a very well-written article for Moultrie News, Jody Stallings addresses the topic of positive reinforcement as an educational tool.  His first point is that while positive reinforcement does seem to have benefits, it has stark limits.

His central claims about what those limits are seem to be as follows:

  1. Positive reinforcement doesn’t work so well once children are older.
  2. Positive reinforcement requires us to constantly adapt to children’s changing desires.
  3. Positive reinforcement stops working when extrinsic rewards are taken away.

Given what I learned in my developmental psychology courses, I think there’s good evidence that claim #1 is largely correct.  While positively reinforcing behavior you want people to keep doing will probably always work with some people, most of us have a moral sense that develops and changes as we get older, and we become more resistant to changing our behaviors without some very compelling reason that’s greater than an extrinsic reward.

I actually think that kind of moral development in which our motivations for behavior shift farther away from extrinsic rewards and become rooted in intrinsic rewards like a desire to be virtuous is a very good developmental path, and to that extent I am always happy to see that people no longer rely on extrinsic rewards as positive reinforcement.

That said, I don’t think Stallings is correct to associate positive reinforcement solely with extrinsic rewards.  When we gain the intrinsic rewards associated with becoming people of good moral character through practicing the virtues, that too is positive reinforcement.  It’s just that the positive reinforcement relies upon our own motivations and principles rather than being founded on rewards we are given from others.

Claim #2, that using the positive reinforcement technique requires us to adapt to children’s changing desires, is also true.  In fact, it seems trivially true.  Of course teachers will need to adapt to the changing desires that accompany growth into adulthood.  That has always been the case, whether some teachers acknowledged it or not.

Children will of course seek different kinds of approval from teachers based on their developmental path and their cultural and family environments.  This only becomes a problem if positive reinforcement is being used as a panacea.  If a teacher is trying to fix all a child’s behaviors with positive reinforcement, it takes a lot of time and resources and may well not be practical.

On the other hand, if positive reinforcement is used in conjunction with punishments for egregious behavior that harms others by teachers who have cultivated a relationship of honesty and trust with their students and can do both punishment and reward credibly, this does not become unhealthy.

Claim #3, that positive reinforcement stops working when extrinsic rewards are taken away, is at least partially true.  Stallings provided an anecdote as an illustration of this claim, so I’ll provide an anecdote to illustrate its limits.

When I was a young child, my parents paid me a penny for every page of a book I had read.  This is precisely the kind of positive reinforcement that Stallings believes doesn’t work after the extrinsic reward is taken away.

And yet, here I sit, not being paid to read any of the hundreds of books, thousands of educational magazine articles, or thousands of practical and personal blog posts I’ve read as an adult.  It seems that the positive reinforcement never stopped working.  What happened is simply that I found my own intrinsic motivations to continue the behavior and no compelling reason to stop it.

Stallings’ suggestion that we cultivate an ethos of living virtuously because it is a good unto itself is of course one way to inculcate this kind of development of intrinsic motivations, and it’s the one I happen to favor myself.

I think Stallings reasoned correctly from his premises in the article, but like many a philosopher examining claims, I’m worried that he got one of the definitions wrong and that it may have caused him to critique the target of his piece more harshly than was warranted.

I think the problem is less that we use positive reinforcement frequently, and more that some folks see it as a panacea or fail to help children find intrinsic motivations for good behaviors that lead to a healthy life.

Posted in Current Events, Education, Philosophy, Relationships | Tagged , , | 2 Comments