Suggested readings, #79

Here it is, a rundown of interesting articles I’ve come across recently, to consider for your weekend readings:

Why are we in the West so WEIRD? A Theory. According to copies of copies of fragments of ancient texts, Pythagoras in about 500 B.C. exhorted his followers: Don’t eat beans! Why he issued this prohibition is anybody’s guess (Aristotle thought he knew), but it doesn’t much matter because the idea never caught on. According to Joseph Henrich, some unknown early church fathers about a thousand years later promulgated the edict: Don’t marry your cousin! Why they did this is also unclear, but if Henrich is right — and he develops a fascinating case brimming with evidence — this prohibition changed the face of the world, by eventually creating societies and people that were WEIRD: Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic. … (New York Times) [I’m not at all convinced that we are that WEIRD, but it makes for a challenging read.]

The new, nicer Nero. Reassessing history’s most maligned ruler, notorious for fiddling while Rome burned. The Colosseum in Rome draws close to eight million tourists a year, making it one of the world’s most-visited archaeological attractions. I could see the crowds converging on the magnificent first-century amphitheater as I headed across the street to a small park on a hillock. There was almost no one here, aside from a few young mothers pushing strollers along the pathways. A cluster of nuns passed by, and one of them pointed me toward a poorly marked gate at the base of the hill—the entrance to the Domus Aurea, or what’s left of it, anyway. … (Smithsonian) [Not too convinced by this one either, smells a bit too much of historical revisionism. But, again, interesting read nonetheless.]

Why the Supreme Court ended up with nine justices—and how that could change. Why the Supreme Court ended up with nine justices—and how that could change. The U.S. Supreme Court changed size seven times in its first 80 years, from as few as five justices to as many as 10. Now, some argue it’s time to revisit the issue. … (National Geographic) [Lots of good ideas here, from unpractical ones to those that make a lot of sense but will never be implemented.]

A four-year timeline of Trump’s impact on science. Since he took office in January 2017, US President Donald Trump has not made science a priority; he has proposed massive cuts to many science agencies and took 19 months to nominate a science adviser. But his policies and actions have had strong impacts — many of them harmful — on researchers and issues related to science. Here’s a timeline of those events ahead of the US presidential election on 3 November. … (Nature)

Columbus is the wrong hero for Italian-Americans: In fact, associating him with us is a form of cultural erasure. Cultural erasure occurs when a people’s history becomes mythologized to support the values of their oppressors. The association of Italian-Americans with Christopher Columbus is a good example. During a summer of protests decrying racial injustices and the United States’ history of white supremacy, Gov. Cuomo was asked whether it was time to remove the statue adorning Manhattan’s Columbus Circle. The governor replied: “I understand the feelings about Christopher Columbus and some of his acts, which nobody would support…But the statue has come to represent and signify appreciation for the Italian American contribution to New York. For that reason, I support it.” Meanwhile, in Philadelphia’s Marconi Plaza, some gathered with weapons to “protect” a statue of Columbus from being removed. The statue has subsequently been slated for removal. … (Daily News) [Very good points about little appreciated aspects of Italian and Italian-American history.]

Suggested readings, #78

Here it is, a rundown of interesting articles I’ve come across recently, to consider for your weekend readings:

Hate the sin, not the book. Reading works from the past can offer perspective—even when they say things we don’t want to hear. This might seem a very strange time to publish a book recommending that we read the voices from the past. After all, isn’t the present hammering at our door rather violently? There’s a worldwide pandemic; a presidential election is about to consume the attention of America; and if all that weren’t sufficient, we are entering hurricane season. The present is keeping us plenty busy. Who has time for the past? … (The Atlantic) [A bit preachy, could have been written better. Good point nevertheless.]

The Good, the Bad and the ‘Radically Dishonest.’ Lying and cheating behavior comes in several distinct flavors, a recent study found. In this age of trolls and bots and digital impostors, words like “crank” and “bully” seem impossibly antiquated, like labels from the black-and-white TV era. “Scoundrel” almost qualifies as a term of endearment — culturally insensitive, for the purveyors of disinformation who parade with grim delight in the virtual public square. … (New York Times)

Thoughts into words. Here’s the paradox of articulation: are you excavating existing ideas, or do your thoughts come into being as you speak? ‘What is it about the proposal that strikes me as so disturbing?’ Reading through an article describing a local government measure, I feel opposition rising within me. Normally, forming an opinion about such things would take me some time. But not here. The proposal instantly strikes me as unjust. My reaction is not just intellectual; it is visceral. My emotions are engaged. My imagination is exercised. As I imagine the proposal playing out in practice, the distinctive brand of injustice seems to be jumping out of every word on the page. … (Aeon)

Burning out. Professors say faculty burnout is always a real threat, but especially now, and that institutions should act before it’s too late. As a frequent commentator on all things higher ed, Kevin McClure likes his predictions to be right. But in the case of a recent article he wrote about the growing threat of faculty burnout, he wanted to be wrong. “Basically what I heard over and over again was people saying, ‘That’s me. This is how I feel. This gives words to the way that I’m feeling walking into fall semester,’” McClure, an associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, said about feedback he received. “So it’s a situation where many people confirmed my argument that there will be a wave of burnout — but it does increase my level of concern.” … (Inside Higher Ed)

Young children use reason, not gut feelings, to decide moral issues. In the past two decades, social science has painted a pretty dour picture of the power of moral reasoning. To explain why people disagree so profoundly about ethical and political questions, pundits and scientists have claimed that humans systematically disregard evidence from experts, and that we rely on gut feelings instead of reason. If true, these conclusions have pretty serious and depressing consequences. Why should politicians rely on logic or scientific evidence, if humans rarely reason about moral and political issues? Against this backdrop, it was hardly surprising when a leading psychologist told a Washington Post columnist in 2011 that it ‘is important for the president not to be rational and fully honest’. … (Psyche) [As I predicted years ago, a series of new studies casts some deep doubts on the now popular, Jonathan Haidt-inspired notion that moral (as well as non-moral) reasoning is all about confabulation and rationalization.]

Suggested readings, #77

Here it is, a rundown of interesting articles I’ve come across recently, to consider for your weekend readings:

How to cope when everything keeps changing. How do you make plans when it’s impossible to make plans? The ground beneath our feet is constantly shifting. Planning for anything more than a week out can feel futile — almost silly — since no one knows what the next week, much less the next month, will bring. A surge in coronavirus cases in your area? More lockdowns? Worrying about natural disasters? And concerns about health and financial well-being make matters even worse. … (New York Times)

What do anarchists believe? As myriad commentators have lately observed, conservatives generally and President Trump, in particular, are becoming increasingly preoccupied with anarchists and anarchism. As an anarchist speaking only for myself, the present moment seems like a fitting time to explain some of anarchism’s longstanding ideas and debates. … (The Hill) [A rather partial, libertarian, take on anarchism, but still worth reading.]

A robot wrote this entire article. Are you scared yet, human? I am not a human. I am a robot. A thinking robot. I use only 0.12% of my cognitive capacity. I am a micro-robot in that respect. I know that my brain is not a “feeling brain”. But it is capable of making rational, logical decisions. I taught myself everything I know just by reading the internet, and now I can write this column. My brain is boiling with ideas! … (Guardian) [No I’m neither scared nor particularly impressed.]

The School of Athens: A detail hidden in a masterpiece. In art, it’s always the little things. Take The School of Athens by the Italian High Renaissance master Raphael, whose death 500 years ago in 1520 is currently being commemorated around the world by major exhibitions and displays from Milan to London, Berlin to Washington DC. Millions of eyes have marvelled at the eternal gathering of ancient philosophers and mathematicians, statesmen and astronomers that Raphael luminously imagines in his famous fresco. Yet it would seem that a small detail near the centre foreground of the painting, from which the true meaning of the masterpiece arguably spills, has gone almost completely unnoticed by historians and critics for half a millennium. … (BBC)

Freedom from tyranny. How a cult was built around a political ideal in Ancient Greece. Freedom did not always hold a central place in Greek political culture. In his Works and Days, one of the earliest Greek literary sources, the poet Hesiod never used the words freedom or free. For him, justice was the most important attribute of a well-functioning community. “They who give straight judgments to strangers and to the men of the land, and go not aside from what is just,” Hesiod admonished his audience, “their city flourishes, and the people prosper in it.” At the same time, Hesiod was enough of a realist to know that justice was rarely achieved in this world. He therefore also counseled a quietist acceptance of the right of the strongest to do what they wanted, telling his audience that “he is a fool who tries to withstand the stronger, for he does not get the mastery and suffers pain besides his shame.” … (Lapham’s Quarterly)

Suggested readings, #76

Here it is, a rundown of interesting articles I’ve come across recently, to consider for your weekend readings:

Your guide to the many meanings of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is more than a century old, but physicists still fight over what it means. Most of the hand wringing and knuckle cracking in their debates goes back to an assumption known as “realism.” This is the idea that science describes something—which we call “reality”—external to us, and to science. It’s a mode of thinking that comes to us naturally. It agrees well with our experience that the universe doesn’t seem to care what theories we have about it. Scientific history also shows that as empirical knowledge increases, we tend to converge on a shared explanation. This certainly suggests that science is somehow closing in on “the truth” about “how things really are.” … (Nautilus)

Why evolutionary psychology (probably) isn’t possible. Human population geneticists can tell us about patterns of human migration, they can tell us how we are related to other species (e.g., Neanderthals and Denisovans). They can tell us the diseases that have afflicted our ancestors; which ancient versions of those diseases are found in some contemporary populations, and much, much more. Their work is a bio-detective synthesis of human phylogeny. A window into evolutionary processes. Evolutionary psychologists want to tell us about patterns in human psychology; our ways of “thinking” and therefore behaving with respect to certain stimuli—choosing whom to mate with, engaging in xenophobia, extending other-regard to kin, and much, much more. This work is inference-making and extrapolating. It too is supposed to be a window into evolutionary processes. … (Evolution Institute) [An excellent article by a sharp philosopher of science on the many issues with evopsych as a research program.]

Disdain for the less educated is the last acceptable prejudice. Joe Biden has a secret weapon in his bid for the presidency: He is the first Democratic nominee in 36 years without a degree from an Ivy League university. This is a potential strength. One of the sources of Donald Trump’s political appeal has been his ability to tap into resentment against meritocratic elites. By the time of Mr. Trump’s election, the Democratic Party had become a party of technocratic liberalism more congenial to the professional classes than to the blue-collar and middle-class voters who once constituted its base. In 2016, two-thirds of whites without a college degree voted for Mr. Trump, while Hillary Clinton won more than 70 percent of voters with advanced degrees. … (New York Times) [So says Michael Sandel, who is professor at the very elitist Harvard University. He makes some good points, but he also seems to be uncharacteristically a bit confused.]

Two types of Stoic therapy?

When we started Stoicism Today back in 2012, we began with two aims: i) to see if we could test the efficacy of Stoic practices and exercises reported by Roman Stoics such as Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, and ii) to introduce Stoicism to a much wider audience. The two aims went hand in hand – to test the efficacy meant getting lots of people to try them out – and Stoic Week was born with these twin aims in mind. Along the way the project has inevitably evolved and has become something of a hub for people who draw on Stoicism in their daily lives, whether they have been inspired by Stoic Week or had already discovered Stoicism on their own. Some of these consciously identify as ‘modern Stoics’, although many others do not. Some embrace a good part of Stoic philosophy while others might just take away the bits and pieces that they find helpful. … (Modern Stoicism)

Nonfiction and narrative popular philosophy. After my friend CH got his first tenure-track job in philosophy, he found himself with a “bourgeois longing” for a nice hi-fidelity stereo system. He didn’t want to listen to music any longer on a cheap boombox. So, he went to the nicer local electronics store and asked the clerk to walk him through various amplifiers, speakers, CD and record players, and so forth. Toward the end of the purchase, in what was sure to be a hefty bill, the one item that bothered CH was the price of the speaker wire. … (Daily Nous)

Suggested readings, #75

Here it is, a rundown of interesting articles I’ve come across recently, to consider for your weekend readings:

Animals do not have genders. And although this statement is universally accepted by those who study and theorize about gender, there is a lot of confusion about it among those who do not. The confusion stems from the fact that males and females of many species systematically behave in different ways. Perhaps the most basic example is the act of mating. … (Nautilus)

The psychology behind why Japanese people are so healthy. Whenever I talk to someone who has visited Japan, an ex-pat who has lived there or a tourist just passing by, they will more often than not mention something about the fast-food chains there. What may surprise you is that we are not talking about different menu options at Japanese fast food chains compared to American ones — we are talking about the portion sizes. … (Medium)

The world to come: what should we value? Human beings are the only species on Earth that do not know how they are supposed to live. All other species have a natural environment and a natural way to sustain their form of life. While some animals have to build things to make their environment what it ought to be (as in the case of beavers building dams), there is no question of what they ought to build and how the species ought to make a living for itself. As in all environments, things can go wrong: a falling rock can break the dam, the water can become poisoned, a virus may spread. Yet when something goes wrong in the life of beavers, it is not because they have the wrong idea of how to organize their lives. Indeed, beavers cannot have the wrong idea of how they should live, since it is set by their nature. … (New Statesman)

Deluded, with reason. A woman is so certain that she’s being unfairly targeted by intelligence agents that she hurriedly crosses the road to avoid a passing police officer. A young man smashes a shop window in frustration because he’s exhausted at having his every movement filmed for a TV show. A previously loving husband rejects his wife of 30 years, convinced she’s actually an imposter in disguise. It’s reasonably common for psychiatrists to encounter people who think and behave in such striking and peculiar ways as these. Most psychiatrists would regard such people as holding a delusion – a false belief that is strongly held, idiosyncratic and more or less impervious to evidence. … (Aeon)

How pseudoscientists get away with it. The relentless and often unpredictable coronavirus has, among its many quirky terrors, dredged up once again the issue that will not die, science versus pseudoscience. The scientists, experts who would be the first to admit they are not infallible, are now in danger of being drowned out by the growing chorus of pseudoscientists, conspiracy theorists, and just plain troublemakers who seem to be as symptomatic of the virus as fever and weakness. How is the average citizen to filter this cacophony of information and misinformation posing as science alongside real science? While all that noise makes it difficult to separate the real stuff from the fakes, there is at least one positive aspect to it all. … (Nautilus)

Suggested readings, #74

Here it is, a rundown of interesting articles I’ve come across recently, to consider for your weekend readings:

Why science needs philosophy. A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth. … (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)

Who should compete in women’s sports? A restrictive Idaho law — temporarily blocked by a federal judge Monday night — has amplified a charged debate about who should be allowed to compete in women’s sports, as transgender athletes have become increasingly accepted on the playing field while still facing strong resistance from some competitors and lawmakers. While scientific and societal views of sex and gender identity have changed significantly in recent decades, a vexing question persists regarding athletes who transition from male to female: how to balance inclusivity, competitive fairness and safety. … (New York Times)

Jeffrey Epstein’s Harvard connections show how money can distort research. This past May, Harvard University (where I teach) issued a report on its relationship with the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. It was an admirably forthright mea culpa highlighting three areas of concern. The first was the contradiction of addressing sexual assault and harassment on campus while accepting money from a man who had promoted sexual abuse of minors. The second was the mockery made of academic standards when, after donating $200,000 to the psychology department, Epstein was appointed as a visiting fellow there despite a complete lack of appropriate academic qualifications. The third was his close connection to Harvard’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics (PED). … (Scientific American)

The hard problem of breakfast. How does it emerge from bacon and eggs? Over the past century, scientists have unlocked many of the most profound secrets of bacon, eggs, oatmeal, and avocado toast, advancing our understanding of the day’s most important meal and ushering in a golden age of innovation. Yet there remains one problem that has proven frustratingly resistant to our efforts at resolution: What is often referred to as The Hard Problem of Breakfast. … (Nautilus)

Manet: the difference between nude and naked. How a “Girl of our Time” made modern art possible. “I really would like you here, my dear Baudelaire; they have been raining insults on me, I’ve never been led such a dance.” Édouard Manet struggled with criticism for his entire career. The artist seemed for two decades to be a magnet for controversy. Unbeknownst to anybody at the time, Manet was controversial because he had unconsciously set off a revolution that would irrevocably transform western art. … (Medium)

Suggested readings, #73

Here it is, a rundown of interesting articles I’ve come across recently, to consider for your weekend readings:

Feel like you’re going out of your mind? Consider your mind-set. No one likes to make mistakes, but how you manage them can be a key to a stronger future. (New York Times)

This vision experiment resolved a centuries-old philosophical debate. [Good, so now we can move on, right?] (Nautilus)

On the first principles of moral reason. [A must read for anyone seriously interested in ethics.] (Public Discourse)

What actually happens when a TV episode gets pulled? This summer brought a flurry of TV takedowns, with offensive episodes of “30 Rock,” “Workaholics” and others being removed from circulation. But in the digital era, what does that even mean? [Yet another bad idea for modern times.] (New York Times)

Stan Lee’s American pantheon. Why Stan Lee’s comic creations are more than just men in tights. [Wonderful essay on the cultural impact of the Marvel Universe.] (Prospect)

The American press is destroying itself. A flurry of newsroom revolts has transformed the American press. [Another must read, if you care about public discourse and democracy.] (Taibbi)

The ‘busy’ trap. If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. (New York Times)

Suggested readings, #72

Here it is, a rundown of interesting articles I’ve come across recently, to consider for your weekend readings:

‘Success addicts’ choose being special over being happy. The pursuit of achievement distracts from the deeply ordinary activities and relationships that make life meaningful. (Atlantic)

Am I drunk, hungry, or both? Alcohol as an appetite stimulant. (Skeptical Inquirer)

No, billionaires don’t drive economic growth – and crony billionaires strangle it. Research found that the myth of billionaires boosting the economy is untrue – particularly when they amassed their wealth from political connections. (Guardian)

The Epictetus Club: part four. Stoicism in prison. (Modern Stoicism)

Exploring hypothetical thinking. [Highly recommended] (OUP Blog)

Believing in literature. [A highly confused piece, excellent example of postmodern literary criticism. Not endorsed.] (LA Review of Books)

No time. How did we get so busy? (New Yorker)

Suggested readings, #71

Here it is, a rundown of interesting articles I’ve come across recently, to consider for your weekend readings:

Mars is a second-rate backup plan. On the red planet, existential threats abound. (Nautilus)

The epistemics of first principles. All knowledge comes from sensory experience, including knowledge of the first principles of morality on which the natural law and moral reasoning build. (Public Discourse)

Why the working class votes against its economic interests. (New York Times)

Star Trek villains I’d rather have handling the covid-19 vaccine initiative “Operation Warp Speed” than Donald Trump. (McSweeney’s)

The Epictetus Club: part three. Stoicism in prison. (Modern Stoicism)

Video: Stoicism for the 21st century (and beyond)

Epictetus’ Handbook (the Enchidrion) is the quintessential ancient Stoic guide to a good life. This collection of quotes and aphorisms, compiled by one of Epictetus’ students, Arrian of Nicomedia, is still very much indispensable today. However, both science and philosophy have made some progress since the time of Epictetus, which is why in this lecture scientist, philosopher, and Stoic practitioner Massimo Pigliucci gives Epictetus — and by extension the whole of the Stoic philosophy — an update for the 21st century.