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Ann Snitow Prize Awarded to Barnard Historian and Activist Premilla Nadasen

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 17/12/2020 - 8:02am in

The Executive Committee of the Ann Snitow Prize is excited to name its first honoree, Premilla Nadasen. The annual award...

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Conference Series On Oppressive Speech Disinvites Trans-Exclusionary Philosopher

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 12/12/2020 - 12:19am in

Leibniz-Zentrum Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft (ZAS), a publicly-funded research institute in Berlin that is holding a series of conferences on oppressive speech between now and May, has removed a philosopher from its program after complaints about her planned talk.

The philosopher, Kathleen Stock (Sussex), had been invited to particpate in the session taking place in April, 2021, the theme of which is “Gendered Speech Acts, Practices, and Norms.” Stock’s planned talk was of a piece with the trans-exclusionary position she has advocated for over the past few years on social media and in Medium posts, QuilletteThe Economist, and elsewhere:

According to Leiter Reports, which first reported on this story, another philosopher taking part in a different session complained about Stock’s participation in the conference, and because of this, says Stock in a tweet, she was “told to withdraw.”

ZAS itself said in a tweet:

ZAS had to retract the abstract because it did not fit to the scientific theme of the workshop (oppressive speech & communication) and contained language that was inconsistent with the values of the ZAS. We regret that the abstract went online.

What to make of these two reasons?

Regarding the first: As advocates of the trans-exclusionary view like to note, their view is the dominant one in the broader culture. So in simply reinforcing the hegemonic trans-exclusionary conception of “woman,” Stock’s paper could be seen as closer to exemplifying what some take to be “oppressive speech,” rather than taking up oppressive speech as a topic. That said, it is highly unusual for such a degree of scrutiny to be applied to invited talks, after the speaker has been invited, with a consequence of such scrutiny being that the speaker is disinvited. Though still unusual, it would have been much more respectful and sensible to consult with the speaker about revising her paper or giving a different one if the proposed one really did not fit the conference at which the speaker was invited to speak.

Regarding the second: This seems more straightforward. Stock is arguing for a trans-exclusionary view, and ZAS presumably takes that to be inconsistent with its values.

OK, ZAS, you’re within your rights to not want to be identified with trans-exclusionary views. And sure, you’re within your rights to disinvite a speaker. But you didn’t have to. This is because, for one thing, inclusion needn’t imply endorsement (though see here, too).

For another, if you oppose trans-exclusionary views, and you would like others in the academy to oppose them, too, then sometimes we’re going to have to hear such views. As I wrote last year:

The more I have learned about the philosophical and policy arguments regarding transgender issues, and in particular trans women, the closer I have come to a fairly strong trans-inclusive view. Like most philosophers, I’m not the kind of person who, on controversial matters, just takes others’ words for it. I want to hold the view of the matter that I believe is most justified, and to do that I need to understand the issues and to be moved by reasons and arguments, and to do that well, I need to make sure I’m getting a good accounting of the relevant considerations and opposing arguments. How can I do that? By engaging with the best work those with competing views have to offer.

If the institutions of philosophy prohibit the defense of trans-exclusionary views, what then? Do the views disappear? No. Rather, their best defenses go elsewhere, to less reliable, less seriously-vetted venues (think, for example, of Quillette, or blogs), where argumentative errors, rhetorical nudges, strategic omissions, and polemical sleights-of-hand are more likely.

Furthermore, the absence of trans-exclusionary views from academic venues under such conditions does not thereby signal their weakness to philosophers who’ve yet to form considered opinions on the matter. It signals instead a kind of dogmatism that threatens to alienate allies…

In short, if your interest is in more philosophers coming to reject trans-exclusionary views, then we have to talk about trans-exclusionary views, and to do that well, we have to let those with trans-exclusionary views talk to us through the institutions we’ve found valuable for pursuing the truth. This argument doesn’t depend on prioritizing philosophical questioning above all else, or on the idea that as philosophers we question everything. It is based on a confidence in the justifiability of a more trans-inclusive view, and a belief that Millian considerations regarding the expression of ideas are not unrealistic for the philosophical community.

Additionally, to say that we have to let those with trans-exclusionary views talk to us is not to say that everything goes…

Or, as Elizabeth Barnes (Virginia) said last year:

I think we need to take seriously the pain and harm that can be caused to individuals by philosophical arguments. What is a purely hypothetical thought experiment for one person is a discussion of someone else’s personal suffering, and I think that discrepancy matters. Nor do I think all arguments are worth taking seriously—sometimes the moral awfulness of an argument’s conclusion can make me think that it’s not worth engaging, no matter how clever or interesting the premises might be. The question then is when to engage, and for me that is just a hard question with no clear answers. 

At least for my own decisions, one thing I think about a lot is whether the argument is taken seriously in wider public discourse. (I know people worry that engaging with offensive arguments will ‘legitimize’ them, but in a lot of cases the arguments already have widespread currency, and whether I pay attention to them won’t change that.)  I’m the elite among disabled people—I have great health insurance and a full-time job with great job security. And I also, in an important sense, make my living and my reputation from talking about the experiences and the oppression of people less fortunate than I am. So if I then turn around and say, in response to an argument that has wide public currency, that it’s too offensive for me to engage with, that doesn’t strike me as fair. What am I here for if not to philosophically engage with arguments that are hurting people who are subject to the type of oppression I study (the study of which gets me a nice paycheck and invitations to fancy universities and etc)?… 

Another thing that matters to me a great deal, when thinking through these issues, is what happens to philosophical discourse if we repeatedly say that arguments or positions ought not to be entertained because they are offensive or politically unacceptable. I should caveat by saying that I think that a lot of complaining about free speech and no-platforming is overblown, especially because in many cases we adopt a ‘teach the controversy’ mindset in which arguments are given prominence not because they are particularly interesting or challenging, but simply because their conclusitons are controversial. And then the same people are asked, over and over, to engage with these arguments in a way that can feel more like public theater than genuine philosophical engagement. And I can understand getting sick of that. That being said, I am genuinely concerned about issues of political censorship in philosophy. 

And I’m concerned not because I think we have to make sure we protect the rights of obnoxious people to say obnoxious things (although I do think that.) I’m concerned because academia, like most any other social setting, has embedded hierarchies and power structures. If I was confident that the progressive elite of academia would always be on the side of right, then I wouldn’t be too worried about a norm of discourse that says you can shout down views that you find offensive or that you are politically opposed to. But I’m not confident of that. In fact I’m very confident of the opposite. And so I think it’s imperative, if we want to protect the ability of the truly vulnerable to be heard and to question consensus, that we have a norm of allowing views that go against the political grain. This will, of course, involve having a norm that allows for shitty and offensive views. But I think that’s a price worth paying. 

Whether it’s justifiable or not, we take there to be a difference between not being invited to an academic event and having one’s invitation to it rescinded—no one will notice the former but people will make noise about the latter. If Stock wasn’t the right fit for your conference, or you weren’t prepared to responsibly put on a talk by someone whose views you think are at odds with your values, then you ought not to have invited her in the first place. But you did, and now you’ve disinvited her, you handled it badly, and now there is, reasonably, some noise.

* * * * *

Readers, I’m going to try to leave comments open on this. If you want to comment on this thread, you’ll have to use your real name to do so. Please be patient. Comments may take a while to appear (I have grading to do and a few meetings today).

It would be great if the discussion were useful, say, by focusing on ways events can include views the organizers reject without endorsing those views, or what steps, if any, event organizers could usefully take besides disinviting a speaker when they find themselves in a position like ZAS’s, or ways speakers could effectively and respectfully present offensive ideas, etc. And of course readers are welcome to disagree with my views about speech presented here. But here’s what I don’t want comments on:

  • Why I call Stock’s view “trans-exclusionary,” and whether I should call it that (see here)
  • Whether Stock’s view is correct or not.
  • What kind of person you think Stock is.
  • Whether trans women are women, whether trans men are men, and generalizations about people who are trans.
  • Outing specific people as trans.
  • How I’m censoring you.
  • If 2+2 = 4
  • The supposed irony of this list on a post about someone losing an opportunity to speak.

Thank you for your cooperation.

UPDATE (12/18/20): Comments on this post are now closed.

Related: “When Tables Speak”: On the Existence of Trans Philosophy

The post Conference Series On Oppressive Speech Disinvites Trans-Exclusionary Philosopher appeared first on Daily Nous.

The Race and Gender of U.S. Philosophy PhDs: Trends Since 1973 (guest post)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 07/12/2020 - 9:00pm in

The following is a guest post* by Eric Schwitzgebel (UC Riverside) on trends in the race and gender of people earning Ph.D.s in philosophy in the United States over the past 47 years.

A version of this post first appeared at his blog, The Splintered Mind.

[detail of mixed media artwork by Ervin A. Johnson]

The Race and Gender of U.S. Philosophy PhDs: Trends Since 1973
by Eric Schwitzgebel

On December 1, the National Science Foundation released its data on demographic characteristics of U.S. PhD recipients for the academic year ending in 2019, based on the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED), which normally draws response rates over 90%. NSF has a category for doctorates in Philosophy (which is normally merged with a small group of doctorates specifically in Ethics). The primary available demographic categories are (as usual) gender and race/ethnicity.

For philosophy, I have NSF SED data back to 1973, based on a custom request from 2016. In a 2017 paper, Carolyn Dicey Jennings and I analyze those data through 2014. Today I’m doing a five-year update.


Carolyn’s and my main finding was that although women rose from about 17% of U.S. Philosophy PhDs in the 1970s, to 22% in the 1980s, to 27% in the 1990s, the ratios remained flat thereafter, averaging about 27-28% through the early 2000s to 2014.

How about the past five years? Has there been any increase? There is some reason to hope so: Women constituted about 30% of undergraduate philosophy degree recipients in the U.S. from the 1980s to the mid-2010s, but recently there has been a substantial uptick. Could the same be true at the PhD level?

NSF SED asks “Are you male or female?” with response options “male” and “female”. There is no separately marked box for nonbinary, other, or decline to state. Respondents can decline to tick either box, but the structure of the survey doesn’t invite that and those who decline to state are always a very small percentage of respondents (in Philosophy, only one among 2424 respondents in the past 5 years). Thus, nonbinary respondents might be underrepresented.

Here are the most recent five years’ gender results:

  • 2015: 494 total, 367 male, 127 female, 25.6% female
  • 2016: 493, 322, 171, 34.7%
  • 2017: 449, 326, 122, 27.2%
  • 2018: 514, 369, 145, 28.2%
  • 2019: 474, 312, 162, 34.2%

Here it is as a chart, going back to 1973:

Note the curvy trendline: In 2014, Carolyn and I found that a quadratic trendline fit the data statistically much better than a linear trendline—reflecting the visually evident rise from the 1970s to 1990s and then the flattening from the 1990s to the mid 2010s. For the current analysis, I added one degree of freedom so that the trendline could reflect any apparent increase or decrease since the mid-2010s. As you can see, there is now a gentle trend upward. In other words, the percentage of Philosophy PhDs in the U.S. who are women appears to be back on the rise after a long stable period. However, I think we need a few more years’ data before being confident that this reflects a genuine, long-term trend rather than being statistical noise or a temporary blip.


Race and ethnicity are more complicated, in part because the questions and aggregation methods have varied over the decades. As of 2019, race/ethnicity is divided into two questions:

Are you Hispanic or Latino?
Mark (X) one
( ) No, I am not Hispanic or Latino
( ) Yes, I am Mexican or Chicano
( ) Yes, I am Puerto Rican
( ) Yes, I am Cuban
( ) Yes, I am Other Hispanic or Latino – Specify

What is your racial background?
Mark (X) one or more
( ) American Indian or Alaska Native
Specify tribal affiliation(s):
( ) Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander
( ) Asian
( ) Black or African American
( ) White

Summary race/ethnicity data provided by the NSF generally exclude respondents who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents (thus excluding 35% of respondents 2015-2019). Hispanic/Latino is aggregated into one category regardless of race, and numbers for the other races don’t include respondents identifying as Hispanic/Latino. Also Pacific Islander is aggregated with Asian. This leaves six main analytic categories: Hispanic (any race), Native American (excluding Hispanic), Asian (excluding Hispanic and including Pacific Islander), Black (excluding Hispanic), White (excluding Hispanic), or more than one race (excluding Hispanic). A further complication is that multi-racial data was not consistently reported for some of the dataset and the data on Asians for all PhDs appears to be goofed up in the mid-1990s, showing an implausibly large spike that suggests some methodological or reporting change that I haven’t yet figured out.

With all that in mind, here are graphs of race data in Philosophy back to 1973 for the six main analytic groups, with comparison lines for all PhDs to the extent I was able to find appropriate comparison data. (All graphs and numbers exclude participants for whom ethnic or racial data were unavailable, generally under 5% per year.)

Philosophy PhD recipients are disproportiately White, but there’s a long term roughly linear decrease in percentage White, both among PhDs as a whole and among Philosophy PhDs.

In 2019, among U.S. citizens or permanent residents who received PhDs in Philosophy, non-Hispanic Whites constituted 81% (285/352) of those for whom racial and ethnic data were available, compared to 71% of PhDs overall. (The sudden decrease in the mid-1990s is probably an artifact related to the complication about Asian respondents.)

As is evident from the next two figures, the decline in percentage White is largely complemented by increases in percentage Hispanic and Asian.

In 2019, among U.S. citizens and permanent residents, Hispanic students received 6.5% of Philosophy PhDs and 8.3% of PhDs overall (up from 3.7% and 4.5% respectively in the year 2000) while Asian students received 5.4% of Philosophy PhDs and 10.0% of PhDs overall (up from 3.1% and 7.8% in 2000).

Very few Philosophy PhDs were awarded to American Indians and Alaskan Natives. In many years the number is zero. Native Americans are generally underrepresented among PhD recipients—probably even more so in philosophy than overall (despite an interesting spike in 1999), and with no sign that the situation is changing. If anything, the trendline appears to be down. Over the past five years, Native Americans have received about 0.3%-0.4% of PhDs overall and 0.2% of philosophy PhDs (3/1843, including zero in the past three years).

As is evident from the chart below, multiracial students are relatively uncommon but rising fast—now about 3% of PhD recipients both in Philosophy and overall.

I save Black/African American for last. The situation is difficult to interpret. Like Native American students, Black students have long been underrepresented in Philosophy both at the Bachelor’s and the PhD level with little increase in representation over the decades. However, if we’re willing to squint at the data, and possibly overinterpret them, this looks like the percent of Philosophy PhD recipients who are Black might have recently started to increase. Thus, I’ve drawn not only a linear trendline through this graph but a third-degree trendline, similar to the one used for women, reflecting the possibility of a recent increase after a relatively flat period through the mid-2000s.

Whether that apparent increase is real I think we won’t know for several more years. But if so, that also fits with a trend that Morgan Thompson, Eric Winsberg, and I noticed for Black students to be increasingly likely to express an intention to major in philosophy and maybe also to complete the major. (Obviously, if so, it would not be those same students already completing their PhDs but rather something more general about the wider culture or the culture specifically in philosophy.)

The post The Race and Gender of U.S. Philosophy PhDs: Trends Since 1973 (guest post) appeared first on Daily Nous.

Fresh audio product

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 04/12/2020 - 9:54am in


Radio, cities, gender

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

December 3, 2020 Thomas Sugrue, author of this essay, on COVID-19’s impact on cities • Kristin Du Mez, author of Jesus and John Wayne, on gender, especially the masculine kind, in evangelical Christianity

Book Review: Me, Not You: The Trouble with Mainstream Feminism by Alison Phipps

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 15/11/2020 - 8:50pm in

This review originally appeared on LSE Review of Books. If you would like to contribute to the series, please contact the managing editor of LSE Review of Books, Dr Rosemary Deller, at   In Me, Not You, Alison Phipps builds on Black feminist scholarship to investigate how mainstream feminist movements against sexual violence express a ‘political whiteness’ that can reinforce … Continued

Women, Opioids, Benzos, and Alcohol

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 20/10/2020 - 8:15am in



Financial insecurity, familial concerns, and caring labor drive more women to unsafe drug and alcohol use. Each of these is not just a matter of personal choice.

‘I’ Review of Book on the Alma Fielding Poltergeist Case

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 13/10/2020 - 5:12am in

Last Friday, 9th October 2020, the ‘I’ published a review by Fiona Sturges of the book, The Haunting of Alma Fielding, by Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury, £18.99). Fielding was a woman from Croydon, who in 1938 found herself and her husband haunted by a poltergeist, the type of spirit which supposedly throws objects around and generally makes itself unpleasant. The review states that she was investigated by the Society for Psychical Research, in particular Nandor Fodor. Summerscale came across the case while going through the Society’s files.

I’m putting up Sturges’ review as I’ve friends, who are members of the Society and very involved in paranormal research, as are a few of the great peeps, who comment on this blog. Ghost hunting is also very big at the moment, and there are any number of programmes on the satellite and cable channels, as well as a multitude of ghost hunting groups across the UK, America and other countries. Despite its popularity, there’s a big difference between serious paranormal investigation of the type done by the SPR and ASSAP and the majority of ghost hunting groups. The SPR and ASSAP contain professional scientists as well as ordinary peeps from more mundane professions, and try to investigate the paranormal using strict scientific methodology. They contain sceptics as well as believers, and are interested in finding the truth about specific events, whether they are really paranormal or have a rational explanation. They look down on some of the ghost-hunting groups, because these tend to be composed entirely of believers seeking to confirm their belief in the paranormal and collect what they see as evidence. If someone points out that the evidence they show on their videos actually is no such thing – for example, most researchers believe orbs aren’t the souls of the dead, but lens artefacts created by floating dust moats – then the die-hard ghost hunters tend to react by decrying their critics as ‘haters’. Many of the accounts of their encounters with the supernatural by the ghost hunters are extremely dramatic. They’ll describe how members got possessed or were chased by the spirits on their home. I’m not saying such events don’t happen at all. I do know people, who have apparently been possessed by spirits during investigations. But the stories of such supernatural events put up by the ghost-hunters seem more likely the result of powerful imaginations and hysteria than genuine manifestations by the dead.

Academic historians are also interested in spiritualism and supernatural belief in the past because of what they reveal about our ancestors worldview and the profound changes this underwent during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Psychical research emerged in the 19th century at the same time as spiritualism, and was founded partly to investigate the latter. Both can be seen as attempts to provide concrete, scientifically valid proof of the survival of the soul after death at the time science was itself just taking shape and religious belief was under attack from scientific materialism. As the review says, spiritualism and psychic research were particularly popular in the aftermath of the First World War, as bereaved relatives turned to it for comfort that their loved ones still lived on in a blessed afterlife. One famous example of this is Conan Doyle, the creator of the arch-rationalist detective, Sherlock Holmes. Doyle was a spiritualist, who helped, amongst other things, popularise the Cottingley Fairies in his book, The Coming of the Fairies. Another of his books in this area was Raymond, an account of his contact with the spirit of his son, who was one of those killed in that terrible conflict.

But the history of spiritualism is also interesting because of what it also reveals about gender roles and sexuality, topics also touched on in the review. Mediums stereotypically tend to be women or gay men. At the same time, historians have also suggested that there was an erotic element to seances and investigations. More intimate physical contact between the sexes was permitted in the darkness of the séance room that may otherwise have been permitted in strictly respectable Victorian society. At the same time, there is to modern viewers a perverse aspect to the investigation of the mediums themselves. In order to rule out fraud, particularly with the physical mediums who claimed to produce ectoplasm from their bodies, mediums were tied up, stripped naked and examined physically, including in their intimate parts. Emetics could be administered to make sure that their stomachs were empty and not containing material, like cheesecloth, which could be used to fake ectoplasm.

The review, ‘Strange but true?’, runs

In February 1938, there was a commotion at a terraced house in Croydon. Alma and Les Fielding were asleep when tumblers began launching themselves at walls; a wind whipped up in their bedroom, lifting their eiderdown into the air; and a pot of face cream flew across the room. The next morning, as Alma prepared breakfast, eggs exploded and saucers snapped.

Over the next few days, visiting journalists witnessed lumps of coal rising from the fireplace and barrelling through the air, glasses escaping from locked cabinets and a capsizing wardrobe. As far as they could tell, the Fieldings were not responsible for the phenomena. One report told of a “malevolent, ghostly force”. The problem, it was decided, was a poltergeist.

Fast-forward to 2017 and the writer Kate Summerscale, best known for the award-winning The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, was in the Society for Psychical Research Archive in Cambridge looking for references to Nandor Fodor, a Hungarian émigré and pioneer of supernatural study, who investigated the fielding case.

She found a dossier of papers related to Alma, compiled by Fodor, containing interviews, séance transcripts, X-rays, lab reports, scribbled notes and photographs. The file was, says Summerscale, “a documentary account of fictional and magical events, a historical record of the imagination.”

The Haunting of Alma Fielding is a detective novel, a ghost yarn and a historical record rolled into one. Blending fact and fiction it is an electrifying reconstruction of the reported events surrounding the Fieldings, all the while placing them in a wider context.

The narrative centres of Fodor, who at the time was losing faith in spiritualism – the mediums he had met were all fakes, and the hauntings he had investigated were obvious hoaxes. He was increasing convinced that supernatural occurrences were caused “not by the shades of the dead but by the unconscious minds of the living”.

But he was intrigued by Alma, who now experiencing “apports” – the transference of objects from one place to another. Rare stones and fossils would appear in her hands and flowers under her arms. Beetles started to scuttle out from her clothes and a terrapin appeared in her lap. She would later claim to be able to astrally project herself and give herself over to possession by spirits.

Summerscale resists the temptation to mine the more comic aspects of the story. She weaves in analysis on class, female emancipation and sexuality, and the collective angst of a nation. At the time, spiritualism was big business in Britain, which was still suffering the shocks of mass death from the First World War and Spanish flu. Seances to reach the departed were as common as cocktail parties. There was dread in the air, too, as another conflict in Europe loomed.

Alma became a local celebrity, released from domestic dreariness into the gaze of mostly male journalists, mediums and psychiatrists. Chaperoned by Fodor, she made frequent visits to the Institute of Psychical Research, where she submitted to lengthy and often invasive examinations.

We come to understand how Fodor stood to benefit from the cases, both in furthering his career and restoring his faith in the possibility of an afterlife. You feel his pain, along with Alma’s, as the true story is revealed.

It sounds very much from that last paragraph that the haunting was a hoax. There have been, unfortunately, all too many fake mediums and hoaxers keen to exploit those seeking the comfort of making contact once again with deceased relatives and friends. There was even a company selling a catalogue of gadgets to allow someone to take a séance. But I don’t believe for a single moment that all mediums are frauds. There is a psychological explanation, based on anthropologists study of the zar spirit possession cult of one of the African peoples. This is a very patriarchal culture, but possession by the zar spirits allows women to circumvent some of the restrictions of women. For example, they may be given rings and other objects while possessed through the spirits asking, or apparently asking, through them. It’s been suggested that zar possessions are a form of hysteria, in which women, who are frustrated by societal restrictions, are able to get around them. The same explanation has also been suggested for western mediumship and alien abductions. Many of the women, who became mediums and who experience abductions by aliens, may do so subconsciously as these offer an escape from stifling normal reality.

I also believe that some supernatural events may well be genuine. This view was staunchly defended by the late Brian Inglis in his history of ghosts and psychical research, Natural and Supernatural, in the 1990s. As an Anglican, I would also caution anyone considering getting involved in psychical research to take care. There’s fraud and hoaxing, of course, as well as misperception, while some paranormal phenomena may be the result of poorly understood fringe mental states. But I also believe that some of the supposed entities contacting us from the astral realms, if they exist, are deliberately trying to mislead us. The great UFO researchers, John Keel and Jacques Vallee, came to the same conclusion about the UFO entities. One of Keel’s books was entitled, Messengers of Deception. There’s also the book, Hungry Ghosts, again written from a non-Christian perspective, which also argues that some of the spirits contacting people are malevolent and trying to deceive humanity for their own purposes.

If you are interested in psychical research, therefore do it properly using scientific methodology. And be aware of the possibility of deception, both natural and supernatural.

Confessions of a Metal God

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 08/10/2020 - 5:56am in


gender, Media, Religion, Sex

I have no gripe with Rob Halford when it comes to his sexuality. No one should. But I do have a bone to pick with him when it comes to music.

RBG: We Are Here to Stay

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 25/09/2020 - 3:05am in

I don’t know the precise moment when Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Ruth Bader Ginsburg stepped out of her august robes and lace collar and into the pantheon of popular culture. The Notorious RBG. -- Lynn Sherr Continue reading

The post RBG: We Are Here to Stay appeared first on

Constant distractions are leading to major declines in top-level reasoning. What to do?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 14/09/2020 - 9:22pm in

Till 20 year ago, IQ scores in the West increased about 3 points per decade ever since the 1920s, a phenomenon known as the “Flynn effect”. That rise in IQ test scores, which have an average of 100 and a standard deviation of 15, was attributed to improved schooling, improved nutrition, and the increased demands of the workplace. In recent decades that steady increase has turned into a sharp decrease. I want to discuss the evidence for this, the role of constant distractions, and what can be done.

The evidence.

Since about 1995, IQ scores have started to decline in the West, first in places that by then had optimised education systems wherein the vast majority of the population were stimulated to reach their cognitive potential. A good example of the data that shows this decline is in the graph below, taken from a 2018 PNAS study.

These graphs all show IQ scores derived from a test given in the period 1980-2009 to Norwegian boys aged 18-19 when they were considered for the military. Since Norway had a conscription army in this period, we are looking at the IQ scores of most of the male population. The graphs show that the cohorts born in 1961, who took the test around 1980, had lower IQs than those born in 1975 (the peak), after which there was a large drop.

The three graphs show you the differences in these trends if you look at different bits of the data. The middle graph uses only data on brothers within the same family, thus holding family circumstances relatively constant. The third graph is the one favoured by the authors of the piece because it corrects for selection problems over time, namely that over time those with cognitive problems became less likely to be given the test in the first place. The estimated decline from the cohort born in 1975 till 1990 is then about 5 points, or 0.35 IQ point decline per year.

A 2018 survey by Flynn himself (and others) surveys the results across many Western countries. The average IQ decline since 1995 turns out to be a phenomenon seen nearly everywhere, with the exception of the US where improvements in schooling meant the reversal was observed later in the general population, although already clear to see for the top.

The general pattern Flynn found was that abstract cognitive thinking, which is particularly important for understanding and forward planning, reduced the most, somewhat compensated by improvements in spatial awareness and pattern recognition. Interestingly, the drop is particularly pronounced at the top of the academic ladder: the “Pendulum” and “Equilibrium” tests in England among teenagers showed that the percentage able to get top marks in these tests declined from 20% to 5% from 1976 to 2006 (Equilibrium test), and from 24% to 12% (Pendulum test).

Tests done in Australia show a similar decline, though the last Australian data in the Flynn survey is 2003 and the only comparison data was from the 1970s. Still, if you look at the rapidly declining PISA scores for Australians aged 15 in the last 20 years, where the PISA tests mainly look at “higher-order thinking”, it seems the decline has progressed at a faster pace in Australia than elsewhere.


Likely reasons

The explanation of Flynn and others ties in with the “distraction” hypothesis that has been coming out of neuroscience work the last 20 years. This says that social media, mobile phones, and the internet have lead to a dramatic change in our attention span. We are now distracted much more frequently than before, and our minds are adjusting by becoming better at dealing with disparate information coming from many different sources, at the cost of being able to concentrate for long periods or think deeply about complex problems.

In the words of Flynn and co-authors (crediting Shayer):

“Children drifted away from formal toward concrete thinking. They became more and more immersed in modern visual and aural electronic culture. More time (four to five hours a day, more on weekends) spent on TV, computer games, and cell-phones, all of which decrease their attention span.”

Flynn and his co-authors also have something interesting to say about the boy/girl difference in teenage years. They note that in the 1970s boys did better at IQ tests on average, but that boys started to get worse at cognitively demanding tasks first such that girls overtook them, though both their IQs declined after the 1990s. One main explanation is that boys were seduced by computer games before girls discovered the internet.

These explanations fit the findings in neuroscience about the plasticity of the brain and how constant distractions are both addictive and lead to slow changes in our wiring. In a 2016 book “The distracted Mind”, Gazzaley and Rosen discuss these phenomena at length, predicting that it is only going to get worse, ie

“It is clear that our interruptive technologies are only going to become more effective in drawing our attention away from important aspects of life, so we urgently need to understand why we are so sensitive to interference and how we can find a ‘signal amidst the noise’ in our high-tech world.”

I basically entirely agree with these offered explanations. The economic version of these arguments is that individual attention is largely a commons and that we’re encountering a tragedy of the commons: those who manage to distract us are more likely to sell us something, without those distractors paying the price of the negative externality on our focusing abilities. Moreover, most of us are willingly distracted and our social information systems are now set up for distraction since we use the same platforms that distract for coordination and doing our work.

I have noticed the importance of incessant distractions for my own functioning and those of others. Distractions are addictive and difficult to avoid, even if you are fully cognisant of their long-term damaging effects. The loss of top-cognitive functioning is particularly bad for academia and for societal systems that rely heavily on the intelligence of its elites, like the UK.

The “modern university” is the worst of all worlds when it comes to the detrimental effects of distractions. For one, university administrations themselves distract students and academics all the time with their constant virtue-signalling messages of “health and safety” and many other matters: for administrative systems distracting the whole organisation has little cost and is simply seen as “informing”, “making aware”, etc..

Students are made into sitting ducks for attention-grabbing because of the good mobile phone and internet connections at universities. By offering online lectures in stead of forcing students to sit down and at least try to pay attention for some continuous period of time, universities are even diluting the pro-focus impact of its traditional teaching. Universities have also clamped down in recent decades on activities that would create a bit of a counter-balance, such as long field trips and writing long essays. Field trips are deemed too dangerous and long essays are both unpopular and take too much effort to police.


What can be done?

Supposed you agree that it is extremely important that our societies find a way to regain a large group of individuals who can keep their attention focussed on one thing for a long time. And you agree that the problem is one of incessant distractions coming from the extremely low price people pay when distracting others via mobile phones, pads, internet, email, social media, etc. You know that the effects of these distractions on the ability to concentrate are slow but they accumulate over several years.

The challenge is then that if you want to do something about it, you would have to shield groups from distractions for years. The key problem is that our social systems of communication and production use the very platforms that have optimised distraction protocols on it: we communicate by mobile phones, allowing others to constantly distract us, and we produce via computers and the internet that are also specifically designed to distract us as much as possible. How can one take out the distractions while keeping communication and production going?

The solution that comes to mind is to shield top students from distractions from an early age. One thinks of rules like “no more than 30 minutes of social media and mobile phone from the age of 4 onwards”, “Internet usage only for focussed activities, like writing essays and settling factual arguments”, “a sender-charge system for emails, text messages, and all other forms of distracting others”, and “no internet and mobile connections on most of a University campus, except libraries”.

These market-price and club-rule solutions unfortunately seem likely to fail when imposed on people because they do not address the fact of life that the rest of society will keep using the same super-distracting technology. Those technologies are completely integrated making club-solutions hard to enforce and easy to counteract. The teenager who is not allowed to use the mobile phone or pop-up internet sites at school will go back home and play internet games with friends, whilst constantly texting and apping. The teenager who does not do this is not merely a social outcast, but also is not learning the technology and social skills that the vast majority is learning, thereby cutting him or herself off from the ability to relate and interact with others later on.

The same holds for the student supposedly only allowed to send emails and texts via a university system in which she has to pay to distract others: she’d very quickly set up “free” email accounts to resume “normal life” with others students. If they cant use phones and emails on campus, they’d first of all complain that this puts their health in danger because they then cannot check on the health and condition of their children and parent, and of course they will simply go off campus and use the facilities there.

Even if you’d effectively seal off the student population for a few years on a remote campus (or a mountain retreat) where you do manage to keep distractions to a minimum by means of heavy interference with the technology they use, you’d most likely do more harm than good. Before and after their retreat, the distractions are in full force. More importantly, the students would be cut-off from the rest of society. That is bad for their social relationships and prevents them from being full members of their society, its civil discourse and political systems. One would thus be creating anti-social ivory-tower academics, which is the opposite of what you want for the social sciences. It’s probably not so bad for theoretical physics and chemistry, but who needs another economist with no interest in the outside world or in social relations?

What can one then realistically do as parents, universities, companies, and governments worried about this?

The first step has to be to make intellectuals and universities aware of the problems. Parents in particular will be motivated to do something about it. Governments will want universities and companies to find counter-moves. You’d think that high-status people and high-productivity places would first move against distractions if they’d be convinced of their negative effects.

Over time I can imagine whole societies decide to move against distractions, trying to price the externality into our behaviour. It would be yet another reason to get national control over the Internet. One can also think of social media free days and periods, extending the basic idea of Lent, Ramadan, and Sundays. One can think of compulsory use of sender-pay technologies for phones and emails inside companies and the civil services: think of electronic stamps one would have to put on messages that cost money depending on size. One can think of clubs of parents who recognise they need to shield their children and workers from constant distractions.

In essence, I think the tragedy of the commons that is eroding our best mind via continuous distractions can only be adressed by a conscious society-wide counter movement. At the minimum, a counter-move needs a whole social stratum to be convinced of the issue. That kind of thing takes decades and starts with a broader recognition of the magnitude of the problem.