In Search of Refinement

Redefining Ourselves (Quentin Skinner)

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Sometimes it’s good to take a little distance.

As we begin the week that formally ushers in an era in American politics that few saw coming and many regard as little short of catastrophic, we turn to the eminent intellectual historian Quentin Skinner, Barber Beaumont Professor of Humanities at Queen Mary University of London for some much-needed perspective.

Not, as it happens, to try to understand how we got here, for Quentin will be the first to tell you that he is not that sort of historian.

“I’m very interested in the history of moral and political philosophy, but I’m not interested in the history because it’s what we talk about now.

“I believe that the sensibility of the historian is to try to study the past on its own terms, insofar as we can manage.  If we do that, then what we find is that in our modern culture there are many paths not taken.

“We tend to write history as the history of the winners. We write the history of wars as the history of the winners, but we also write the history of our culture as the history of the winners. But did the winners always deserve to win?” (more…)

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Gesturing Towards Diversity (Carol Padden)

Gesture Symbol Finger Characters Hand Sculpture

Last week’s post, Reasons for Optimism, highlighted the work of famed primatologist Frans de Waal and our ever-growing, albeit gradual, acknowledgement of the deep similarities between humans and other animals across a wide range of domains, from the intellectual to the ethical.

Language, however, seems to be different. While it’s clear that other animals have developed numerous ways to effectively communicate with each other, it’s equally clear that the gulf between animal and human communication is overwhelmingly vast. In other words, however much we narrow the gap between humans and our fellow creatures, to speak of a chimpanzee or dolphin Shakespeare seems to stretch credulity to the point of absurdity. Little wonder, then, that throughout the ages many have regarded language as the single most defining characteristic of being human.

But what, you might ask, is language anyway? This might seem an obvious question, but a few moments of reflection demonstrate that it’s hardly so simple. While most languages exist in written form, not all do (or did). And while language obviously allows us to communicate basic information to each other (The food is over there), by limiting any definition to such a rudimentary level we are running a serious risk of blurring the very distinction that gives language its unique evocative power. (more…)

Reasons For Optimism (Frans de Waal)

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Young Chimps by Tambako The Jaguar

There are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about our fellow humans these days, but starting a new year is as good a reason as any to embrace a little bit of optimism.

An obvious way to proceed is by appreciating the progress recently made that, due to its gradual pace, has been largely imperceptible. A noted example involves Frans de Waal, the noted primatologist and writer.

Frans has been urging us to focus our attention on the animal kingdom for years now, through such books as Chimpanzee Politics, The Age of Empathy, The Bonobo and the Atheist and, most recently, Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?

These books, I must confess, hardly produce unequivocally positive sentiments, filled as they are with untold examples of our collective sense of grandiosity and hubris as we continue to dogmatically maintain our own superiority – emotionally, intellectually and ethically – to the other nonhuman life that surrounds us, often in the face of much concrete evidence to the contrary. (more…)

What Memories Are Made Of (Elizabeth Loftus)

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Elizabeth Loftus in conversation with Howard Burton

The holiday season, for better or worse, is a time of year richly associated with memories: sometimes good, sometimes bad, but nearly always formative.  Or so we all believe.

We usher in the new year with Auld Lang Syne, the Robert Burns poem that begins Should old (auld) acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind and continues for a further five verses or so that most of us have, rather ironically, either resoundingly forgotten or never bothered to learn.

In short, memory is the vital human ingredient for reflection, taking stock, and – hopefully – making progress.

But what if memory itself is far more tenuous, very far from the reliably objective record of the past that we all believe? What if, instead, they are foggy, unreliable accounts that can be fairly easily manipulated? (more…)

Telling It Like It Is (Paul Steinhardt)

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Paul Steinhardt in conversation with Howard Burton

One of the greatest challenges for teachers of science and mathematics, it is often declared, is finding ways of attracting young people to their vitally important subjects.

All too often this results in skeptical students being bombarded with an uninspiring mix of obvious propaganda (Science is fun!), appeals to self-interest (Mathematics is the key to unlocking doors to a successful career!), and a bit of social guilt thrown in for good measure (A background in science is essential for grappling with the next generation of societal issues!).

Unsurprisingly, such tactics don’t tend to work very well. The very nature of fun is that it is inherently self-evident: trying to convince people that something is fun is very much like trying to convince them that their healthy vegetables are also great-tasting. (more…)

The Relevance of Human Wrongs (Emilie Hafner-Burton)

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Emilie Hafner-Burton in conversation wit Howard Burton

There’s a growing tendency these days for academics to justify the relevance of their work. To my mind, that’s certainly not without its dangers, often leading otherwise boldly idealistic researchers to publicly shy away from their true motivations as they desperately try to demonstrate how current interpretations of Renaissance humanism, say, can positively affect our GDP.

I’ve done my share of this sort of silliness myself. Years ago, when running a physics institute and lobbying hard for government funding, I’d frequently cite how Einstein’s general theory of relativity – once considered impossible to even conceive of applying to everyday human life – was now actively used in GPS devices. This is the sort of story that academic administrators and government officials love: a tangible “you never know” example of how supporting basic research might one day help give us a better widget. There is something pretty loathsome about the whole business, I must admit: “justifying” general relativity through GPS technology is pretty much like “vindicating” the collected works of Shakespeare by its effectiveness as a paperweight. After all, if revolutionizing our understanding of space and time only counts if it can be used to assist us in finding the right highway exit, that’s pretty good evidence that we’ve well and truly lost the plot on what the human enterprise should be all about.

But there are many areas of scholarship when the “relevance” shoe is very much on the other foot, when burying oneself in detached theoretical frameworks turns out to be just as counterproductive as groping for vacuous “applied rationalizations.”

Take human rights research. It’s pretty hard to imagine studying human rights without tangibly grappling with the horrors of what’s actually happening on the ground, and why. And yet, to a very real extent, that seems to be what many human rights experts actually do. (more…)

Neurorelevance (Nita Farahany)

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Nita Farahany in conversation with Howard Burton

When someone starts talking about free will, I normally look searchingly for the exits.

I’ve read enough to know that philosophers, as they are wont to do, have created all sorts of categories over the years to describe different intellectual positions: compatibilists and incompatibilists, soft determinists and hard determinists, radical libertarians and modest libertarians. But I can’t shake the feeling that all of these categorizations, and many more besides, often end up obscuring the issues much more than clarifying them. Frankly, the only philosopher who makes any sense to me on this issue is John Searle, who has a refreshing ability to pare away all the silly jargon and simply get right to the heart of the matter.

Which is this: every serious scientist these days believes that the world around us is made of material stuff – atoms and molecules. This naturally applies not only to tables and chairs, but to ourselves too – and, equally obviously, not just to our legs and fingernails, but to our brains as well.

This is hardly a very surprising insight, given how our brains respond to LSD, alcohol or even headache medication. Moreover, since our brains seem to be located very much in the natural world, it’s pretty hard to imagine how they could somehow consist of non-material stuff at all.

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Situation Rooms (Philip Zimbardo)

When I sat down with famed psychologist Philip Zimbardo, I had a pretty good sense of the main topics we’d be focusing on during our discussion: his notorious 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, a detailed explanation of how situational factors affect our behavior, and his present work on the Heroic Imagination Project and how we might be able to “prime” people for acts of heroism.

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Philip Zimbardo in conversation with Howard Burton

What I certainly hadn’t expected was to spend more than an hour talking to Phil about his childhood, starting with being diagnosed with whooping cough at the age of 5 and his long quarantine in Manhattan’s Willard Parker Hospital with other children suffering from contagious diseases in a pre-antibiotic era.

As he watched many of his childhood comrades die around him, Phil developed various survival tactics: praying to both God and the Devil to live to fight another day while routinely ingratiating himself with the surrounding nurses to procure at least some small measure of preferential treatment.

But perhaps the most significant thing the young Phil learned from his hospital experience was the value of being a leader by inventing games and stories for the other boys in the ward. At first, this was simply a way to relieve the omnipresent boredom. But slowly, other benefits began to impress themselves upon him.

Essentially, from age five on, I began to take a leadership role, not because I wanted to be a leader, but because I was bored out of my mind and I wanted something to do. (more…)

Information Loss (Roger Penrose)

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Roger Penrose in conversation with Howard Burton

You might think that a blog post about Roger Penrose that’s called “Information Loss” would necessarily involve black holes, entropy, and Hawking radiation, perhaps also touching on bets over encyclopedias and all that.

Not this time. Instead, I’d like to talk about a more everyday sort of information problem: how best to communicate science. I’ve been puzzling about this issue for as long as I can remember: first as a keen undergraduate anxious to share the sorts of things I was learning, and later as a physics graduate student trying to describe the essentials of my tiny corner of understanding to anyone who might listen. I always had a lingering sense of frustration that, somehow, I was unable to coherently capture the fundamental aspects of what attracted me, and what frustrated me, about physics. But I thought it was just me.

Years later, when I found myself running Perimeter Institute, I tried again: taking advantage of our robust scientific visitor program to put together a series of monthly public lectures of internationally renowned physicists. (more…)

The Art of Conversation – Interdisciplinarity

What is interdisciplinarity? Opinions differ. The Collins English Dictionary matter-of-factly defines it as “the quality or state of involving more than one discipline”, while the Oxford English Dictionary seems to spurn its very existence, drawing the line at having been forced to accept the adjective “interdisciplinary” into the modern English lexicon.

To many sceptical researchers diligently advancing their own well-defined subdiscipline, it is the latest in a long line of unrigorous, unhelpful sentiments foisted upon them by trendy academic administrators anxious to demonstrate how modern they are.

To many of those same academic administrators, on the other hand, it is a vital, often underused mechanism to prod typically tunnel-visioned investigators into absorbing new techniques and ideas. (more…)