In September 1941, William McNeill was drafted in the US Army. He spent several months in basic training, which consisted mostly of marching around the drill field in close formation with a few dozen other men. At first McNeill thought the marching was just a way to pass the time, because his base had no weapons with which to train. But after a few weeks, when his unit began to synchronize well, he began to experience an altered state of consciousness. “Words are inadequate to describe the emotion aroused by the prolonged movement in unison that drilling involved. A sense of pervasive well-being is what I recall; more specifically, a strange sense of personal enlargement; a sort of swelling out, becoming bigger than life, thanks to participation in collective ritual.” McNeill fought in World War II and later became a distinguished historian. His research led him to the conclusion that the key innovation of Greek, Roman, and later European armies was the sort of synchronous drilling and marching the army had forced him to do years before.
Jonathan Haidt, quoted by Scott Alexander in “List Of The Passages I Highlighted In My Copy Of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind“, Slate Star Codex, 2014-06-12.
November 23, 2015
October 19, 2015
In case the title isn’t clear enough, there’s a protest started recently at the University of Texas in Austin where students upset at a recent court ruling allowing concealed weapons to be carried on campus came up with what they thought was a perfect counterpoint: they’d open carry dildos instead. Sarah Hoyt comments:
… I have no idea what Ms. Jin majored in, but I can sort of follow the tracks of her thought. Logically, carrying sex toys to campus to protest guns makes absolutely NO sense. I could see carrying signs, or … I don’t know, police whistles, if you’re convinced you’re completely safe if you can just call the police. I can even see, in a more sane way, wearing a protective vest and claiming this is better than guns for defense. I mean, at least they are in the same general kind of thing and sort of kind of address the problem in different ways.
BUT no. Because this is not reasoning. This is magical thinking. WORSE. This is magical thinking based on a world that doesn’t exist, a world that was sold to Ms. Jin (literally. College is expensive) by academics so divorced from reality that they can’t find it with two hands, a cane and a seeing eye dog.
In this world, you see, conservatives love guns and hate sex. This is all “explained” with pseudo Freudian patter about how guns are a substitute for the penis. This is total nonsense and old nonsense at that, stuff we LAUGHED at for being pseudo profound way back in the seventies.
But they absolutely believe that we defend the second amendment not because we want to be responsible for our own self-defense, not because we believe power derives from the individual and that therefore an individual must be capable of reining in the government when it gets out of control. No. They think we want guns because that’s the way we express our sexual repression. (Actually now I think about it, my gun obsessed friends are also the most sex-positive, so their idea not only is wrong, it’s bizarrely wrong.)
Since Ms. Jin has never considered that these stories she was sold are in fact stories with no relation to reality, her reasoning went something like “They’re carrying guns and that upsets me. I must carry something that upsets them. Ahah! Dildos.”
In an even mildly sane world, the press would have made her a laughing stock, because that reasoning makes no sense whatsoever.
But the press buys into the same imaginary world in which somehow the belief in guns for defense is a Freudian thing and so the “gun” value can be countered with the “dildo” value.
This is not grown up thinking. It’s magical thinking, in which complex issues get reduced to amulets and symbols, countered by other amulets and symbols.
Again, this is sort of the human default. And believing absurd things about those you believe to be the enemy is also completely normal. The left calls it “othering” and is completely oblivious to the fact that they do it. A lot.
But it’s still human-normal.
I attended my first science fiction convention when I was 16, and being a science fiction fan in the mid 70s was ever so slightly more reputable than being a junkie or a drag queen in “mundane” society. Fandom was a tiny, tiny group of people compared to just about any other group of enthusiasts you could think of. At my first SF con in Toronto, there was a sharp dividing line between the “real” SF fans and the (euchhhhh!) Star Trek fans … even though the Trek fans were close to 50% of the attending fanbase. The “real” SF fans viewed the Trekkies as just barely tolerable (think of a guest bringing along a new and not-yet-housetrained puppy to your party). This was the first cycle of modern SF fandom history. On LiveJournal, wombat-socho outlines the pattern:
A short-lived show on NBC, Star Trek, generated massive fan interest in people who had never heard of science fiction fandom. The Trek fans flooded into fandom, and in the first of a sadly repetitive series of dumb mistakes, fandom turned on these newcomers and made them aware that they were most certainly Not Welcome. Fandom’s open and non-judgmental culture suddenly became harshly critical of “drobes” who ran around in Starfleet and Klingon uniforms they hadn’t even made themselves, and Trekkies who seemingly had no other interest in SF outside the series. This was horseshit, of course; perhaps predictable horseshit, given that so many SF fans (as I mentioned previously) were more than a little lacking in social skills, but horseshit all the same. Trekkies were in many cases SF fans fired up by the campaigns to bring the show back, fans writing fanfic, fans writing fanzines to publish fanfic and fanart in, fans starting conventions to which bemused actors were invited and besieged by legions of fans seeking autographs. In short, fans doing fanac, but not in the Approved Manner or on the Approved Topics. And so Trek fandom and its conventions, for the most part, went its separate way from traditional literary SF fandom.
Not too long after the hordes of unwashed Trekkies had been successfully repelled from the ghetto, a fellow named George Lucas showed up at the Kansas City Worldcon in 1976, promoting a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress featuring starships, a courageous young farmboy with hidden psychic powers, a couple of amusing robots, two ancient masters of martial arts, and a brutal Galactic Empire. He got a warm reception, and a few years later millions of people around the world were flocking to see the movie we all know now as Star Wars. They, too, started showing up at science fiction conventions, and got the same warm reception shown to their older brothers and sisters the Trekkies, and they in turn started going to what were increasingly called media conventions. The media conventions, like the Trek conventions before them, were very different from the fan-run SF conventions that preceded them. More (if not most) of them were unabashedly for-profit, charged different membership rates with different levels of access to the guests, and sometimes seemed more like combination flea markets/autograph sessions, with some panels where the guests talked about the shows. And they drew tens of thousands of people, because after Hollywood saw the huge piles of money Lucas was making, they couldn’t wait to launch a new Star Trek movie, a new Star Trek TV series, and all manner of TV shows and movies with science fiction themes. And lo, the fans of these shows and movies were likewise greeted with a cold shoulder by the Big Name Fans, Filthy Pros, and Secret Masters of Fandom.
At about the same time, role-playing games (Dungeons and Dragons, Traveller) exploded in popularity, followed not much later by collectible card games like Magic. For some reason, gamers had always fit better with traditional fandom, perhaps because so many of them were SF and fantasy fans to begin with, but after a while (perhaps around the time video games started becoming affordable and popular) they, too, started feeling less than welcome at regular SF conventions, and began going off to swell the crowds at GenCon and other conventions that were mostly about games and gaming.
Are you starting to see a pattern here? Is a trend becoming apparent to you?
Fans, back before Star Trek, were an isolated low-status fringe group who banded together against the mundanes who looked down on them. Given multiple opportunities to live up to their declared open and tolerant mores, each and every time they tried to do to the newcomers (Trekkies, Star Wars fans, gamers, and so on) exactly what the mundanes had done to them. You can’t say fans aren’t human, because they certainly re-enacted the same social exclusion, belittlement, and shaming that almost every in-group in human society uses against almost every out-group. Oh, and look, the “real” SF fans did the same thing recently to the libertarian and conservative fanbase.
Having read the preceding, should the results of SP3 have been a surprise to anyone? The people running WSFS and the people running local SF conventions are the same people who for the last fifty years have been mouthing off about “openness” and “tolerance” and “not being judgmental” while doing their best to run off “fringefans” at every opportunity instead of welcoming new chums and introducing them to the wider world of science fiction and fantasy. In order to join traditional fandom, you are only allowed to come in through one door, only allowed to read certain books, only allowed to express certain opinions. Then you can be accepted as a “true fan”. Why would anyone in their right mind want to put themselves through that? It’s a good question, and one which a lot of fans have answered by ignoring traditional fandom in favor of geek culture events such as the San Diego Comic Convention, Otakon, GenCon, and Dragon*Con. Some fans have signed up for Sad Puppies 4, hoping to recruit enough friends and allies to retake the Hugo Awards from the Sadducees and Pharisees who have controlled it (and increasingly, handed it out to those favored by Tor) for going on ten years. In the long term, though, perhaps what fandom (as opposed to Fandom) needs to do is build up a fan organization that welcomes all fans of science fiction and fantasy, no matter what door they enter by.
October 15, 2015
The American military historian S.L.A. Marshall was perhaps best known for his book Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command in Future War, where he argued that American military training was insufficient to overcome most men’s natural hesitation to take another human life, even in intense combat situations. Dave Grossman is a modern military author who draws much of his conclusions from the initial work of Marshall. Grossman’s case is presented in his book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, which was reviewed by Robert Engen in an older issue of the Canadian Military Journal:
As a military historian, I am instinctively skeptical of any work or theory that claims to overturn all existing scholarship – indeed, overturn an entire academic discipline – in one fell swoop. In academic history, the field normally expands and evolves incrementally, based upon new research, rather than being completely overthrown periodically. While it is not impossible for such a revolution to take place and become accepted, extraordinary new research and evidence would need to be presented to back up these claims. Simply put, Grossman’s On Killing and its succeeding “killology” literature represent a potential revolution for military history, if his claims can stand up to scrutiny – especially the claim that throughout human history, most soldiers and people have been unable to kill one another.
I will be the first to acknowledge that Grossman has made positive contributions to the discipline. On Combat, in particular, contains wonderful insights on the physiology of combat that bear further study and incorporation within the discipline. However, Grossman’s current “killology” literature contains some serious problems, and there are some worrying flaws in the theories that are being preached as truth to the men and women of the Canadian Forces. Although much of Grossman’s work is credible, his proposed theories on the inability of human beings to kill one another, while optimistic, are not sufficiently reinforced to warrant uncritical acceptance. A reassessment of the value that this material holds for the Canadian military is necessary.
The evidence seems to indicate that, contrary to Grossman’s ideas, killing is a natural, if difficult, part of human behaviour, and that killology’s belief that soldiers and the population at large are only being able to kill as part of programmed behaviour (or as a symptom of mental illness) hinders our understanding of the actualities of warfare. A flawed understanding of how and why soldiers can kill is no more helpful to the study of military history than it is to practitioners of the military profession. More research in this area is required, and On Killing and On Combat should be treated as the starting points, rather than the culmination, of this process.
October 11, 2015
October 7, 2015
Everyone who knows musicians has heard at least a few drummer jokes. Open Culture attempts to put a bit of science into the casual abuse drummers have been subjected to over the years:
An old musician’s joke goes “there are three kinds of drummers in the world — those who can count and those who can’t.” But perhaps there is an even more global divide. Perhaps there are three kinds of people in the world — those who can drum and those who can’t. Perhaps, as the promotional video above from GE suggests, drummers have fundamentally different brains than the rest of us. Today we highlight the scientific research into drummers’ brains, an expanding area of neuroscience and psychology that disproves a host of dumb drummer jokes.
“Drummers,” writes Jordan Taylor Sloan at Mic, “can actually be smarter than their less rhythmically-focused bandmates.” This according to the findings of a Swedish study (Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm) which shows “a link between intelligence, good timing and the part of the brain used for problem-solving.” As Gary Cleland puts it in The Telegraph, drummers “might actually be natural intellectuals.”
Neuroscientist David Eagleman, a renaissance researcher The New Yorker calls “a man obsessed with time,” found this out in an experiment he conducted with various professional drummers at Brian Eno’s studio. It was Eno who theorized that drummers have a unique mental makeup, and it turns out “Eno was right: drummers do have different brains from the rest.” Eagleman’s test showed “a huge statistical difference between the drummers’ timing and that of test subjects.” Says Eagleman, “Now we know that there is something anatomically different about them.” Their ability to keep time gives them an intuitive understanding of the rhythmic patterns they perceive all around them.
October 6, 2015
The easy way to tell real religion from fake religion is that real religion doesn’t make you feel good. It doesn’t assure you that everything you’re doing is right and that you ought to keep on doing it.
The same holds true for science. Real science doesn’t make you feel smart. Fake science does.
No matter how smart you think you are, real science will make you feel stupid far more often than it will make you feel smart. Real science not only tells us how much more we don’t know than we know, a state of affairs that will continue for all of human history, but it tells us how fragile the knowledge that we have gained is, how prone we are to making childish mistakes and allowing our biases to think for us.
Science is a rigorous way of making fewer mistakes. It’s not very useful to people who already know everything. Science is for stupid people who know how much they don’t know.
A look back at the march of science doesn’t show an even line of progress led by smooth-talking popularizers who are never wrong. Instead the cabinets of science are full of oddballs, unqualified, jealous, obsessed and eccentric, whose pivotal discoveries sometimes came about by accident. Science, like so much of human accomplishment, often depended on lucky accidents to provide a result that could then be isolated and systematized into a useful understanding of the process.
Daniel Greenfield, “Science is for Stupid People”, Sultan Knish, 2014-09-30.
September 30, 2015
In Psychology Today, Peter Gray looks at how universities are unequipped to handle the anxieties and emotional neediness of today’s students:
A year ago I received an invitation from the head of Counseling Services to join other faculty and administrators, at the university I’m associated with, for discussions about how to deal with the decline in resilience among students. At the first meeting, we learned that emergency calls to Counseling had more than doubled over the past five years. Students are increasingly seeking help for, and apparently having emotional crises over, problems of everyday life. Recent examples mentioned included a student who felt traumatized because her roommate had called her a “bitch” and two students who had sought counseling because they had seen a mouse in their off-campus apartment. The latter two also called the police, who kindly arrived and set a mousetrap for them.
Faculty at the meetings noted that students’ emotional fragility has become a serious problem when in comes to grading. Some said they had grown afraid to give low grades for poor performance, because of the subsequent emotional crises they would have to deal with in their offices. Many students, they said, now view a C, or sometimes even a B, as failure, and they interpret such “failure” as the end of the world. Faculty also noted an increased tendency for students to blame them (the faculty) for low grades—they weren’t explicit enough in telling the students just what the test would cover or just what would distinguish a good paper from a bad one. They described an increased tendency to see a poor grade as reason to complain rather than as reason to study more, or more effectively. Much of the discussions had to do with the amount of handholding faculty should do versus the degree to which the response should be something like, “Buck up, this is college.” Does the first response simply play into and perpetuate students’ neediness and unwillingness to take responsibility? Does the second response create the possibility of serious emotional breakdown, or, who knows, maybe even suicide?
Two weeks ago, the head of Counseling (who has now moved up to another position in the University) sent us all a follow-up email, announcing a new set of meetings. His email included this sobering paragraph: “I have done a considerable amount of reading and research in recent months on the topic of resilience in college students. Our students are no different from what is being reported across the country on the state of late adolescence/early adulthood. There has been an increase in diagnosable mental health problems, but there has also been a decrease in the ability of many young people to manage the everyday bumps in the road of life. Whether we want it or not, these students are bringing their struggles to their teachers and others on campus who deal with students on a day-to-day basis. The lack of resilience is interfering with the academic mission of the University and is thwarting the emotional and personal development of students.”
In my next essay in this series I’ll examine the research evidence suggesting that so-called “helicopter parenting” really is at the core of the problem. But I don’t blame parents, or certainly not just parents. Parents are in some ways victims of larger forces in the society — victims of the continuous exhortations from “experts” about the dangers of letting kids be, victims of the increased power of the school system and the schooling mentality that says kids develop best when carefully guided and supervised by adults, and victims of increased legal and social sanctions for allowing kids into public spaces without adult accompaniment. We have become, unfortunately, a “helicopter society.”
If we want to prepare our kids for college — or for anything else in life! — we have to counter all these social forces. We have to give our children the freedom, which children have always enjoyed in the past, to get away from adults so they can practice being adults, that is, practice taking responsibility for themselves.
September 18, 2015
If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants is correct as far as it goes, but it gives dullards the wrong idea. Those giants don’t hoist you up there for a piggy back. You have to climb up them like a kitten that hasn’t been fed yet, and the giants swat at you while you make the ascent. Once you’re standing on their shoulders, you realize that the giants are drunk half the time and palsied the rest. They were only giants because you were so short. You can’t see as far as you had hoped. There’s a lot of work left to do.
Nobody understands that you have to be able to do it first. You can’t deconstruct a goddamned thing until you can do it, and if you could do it, you wouldn’t get the urge to deconstruct it. Frank Gehry can’t design a proper two-holer so he designs giant monstrosities to hide the fact.
Politics is the same. You will never elect anyone to take the government apart. Once you know how to work it well enough to get in charge of it, you don’t want to wreck it. You want to lord over it and add to it. No one wants the bulldozed empty lot where a Post Office once stood to be named after them. Humans don’t work that way.
Sippican Cottage, “The Cover Charge to Greatness”, Sippican Cottage, 2015-08-23.
September 14, 2015
I think that there’s a lot of very dumb rhetoric about “fair trade” and “fair pricing,” usually coming from people who want to tell others how to set their prices. I generally distrust the word “fair.” But there is an emotional side to pricing. Smart businesses want their customers to feel good about transactions, especially repeat-business propositions such as restaurants. That’s why bartenders give out the occasional free drink, restaurateurs sometimes send out a free appetizer or dessert, etc. And, all the management consultants and books notwithstanding, there’s a lot of gut in business; if a cafe proprietor in New Mexico thinks that a price feels right, or wants to know whether his customers think a price feels right, I don’t think that’s insignificant. Businessmen want to do the right thing, too, at least as often as anybody else.
It does get tricky, sometimes, e.g. the car-dealer who adds $1,000 to the price of everything so he can tell gullible buyers he’s giving them $1,000 off. I think the Internet has made pricing “fairer” in the sense that sellers cannot as often get away with charging above-market rates; there are a fair number of stores that will sell you a product at whatever the lowest price you can document is. It’s hard to say no when somebody’s showing you the same product at a better price on his phone.
Kevin D. Williamson, “A Fair Point”, National Review, 2014-09-29.
September 13, 2015
At Ace of Spades HQ, Ace sums up the deepest problem with the movement to find microaggressions everywhere and in everything:
The idea is that just as cognitive therapy teaches people to not make a big deal out of trivialities (like teaching people who have a phobia about elevators to learn to not be afraid of elevators), microagression brain-programming is a malicious form of cognitive therapy teaching people the exact opposite — to fear this, hate that, fly off the handle about this other thing, and generally carry on like a lunatic about things that sane people do not even think about.
And just as the good form of cognitive therapy can make a hysteric or neurotic a well-functioning individual, so can the insidious form of it turn a well-functioning individual into a hysteric or neurotic.
I think it’s 100% right and I’m glad someone had the guts to say so.
Colleges and progressives generally are teaching young people how to be mentally ill.
September 12, 2015
Published on 20 Jun 2013
From His 1984 LP American Bandages
September 5, 2015
Megan McArdle on why we fall for bogus research:
Almost three years ago, Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman penned an open letter to researchers working on “social priming,” the study of how thoughts and environmental cues can change later, mostly unrelated behaviors. After highlighting a series of embarrassing revelations, ranging from outright fraud to unreproducible results, he warned:
For all these reasons, right or wrong, your field is now the poster child for doubts about the integrity of psychological research. Your problem is not with the few people who have actively challenged the validity of some priming results. It is with the much larger population of colleagues who in the past accepted your surprising results as facts when they were published. These people have now attached a question mark to the field, and it is your responsibility to remove it.
At the time it was a bombshell. Now it seems almost delicate. Replication of psychology studies has become a hot topic, and on Thursday, Science published the results of a project that aimed to replicate 100 famous studies — and found that only about one-third of them held up. The others showed weaker effects, or failed to find the effect at all.
This is, to put it mildly, a problem. But it is not necessarily the problem that many people seem to assume, which is that psychology research standards are terrible, or that the teams that put out the papers are stupid. Sure, some researchers doubtless are stupid, and some psychological research standards could be tighter, because we live in a wide and varied universe where almost anything you can say is certain to be true about some part of it. But for me, the problem is not individual research papers, or even the field of psychology. It’s the way that academic culture filters papers, and the way that the larger society gets their results.
September 4, 2015
September 1, 2015
I’m a fairly big believer in the idea of Questioning Everything, and the absolute first thing on the list of Everything to be Questioned is the self.
Why do I think the way I do? What bigotries lurk in my heart? What cheap rationalizations do I comfort myself with? What petty vanities do I sustain despite all evidence, and what contempts and condescensions do I offer others to sustain those vanities?
What myths and lies do I consciously believe in — and which do I subconsciously believe in?
I don’t want to be all Mr. Liberal here — and I certainly don’t want to lecture self-alleged Liberals on Liberalism 101 — but I think those are reasonable questions that all thinking Men or thinking Women should ask themselves every once in a while.
Self-serving answers shouldn’t be trusted. Self-serving answers may actually be correct, but they should never be trusted, and certainly never accepted at first blush.
We’re taught to be suspicious of flattery from our very first Aesop’s Fable. We know other people may flatter us in order to bend us to their own interests.
The most insidious flattery of all is self-flattery, because we never suspect ourselves of having any ulterior motives.
But of course we all do. We all want to feel superior to our fellow man, and especially those of Other Tribes.
And we will flatter ourselves until we feel just that.
Those who only question other people’s notions are not really questioning anything at all.