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Edge 340 — March 15, 2011
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A Talk with Armand Leroi
Edge Video

On Armand Leroi's "Who Is the Greatest Biologist of All Time?"
Introduction by John Brockman
George Dyson, Stewart Brand, Richard Dawkins

MOST RECENT COMMENTS: David Dunning, John Jost, Jenifer Jacquet, Roy Baumeister on Jonathan Haidt's "The Bright Future of Post-Partisan Social Psychology"

Jonathan Haidt responds

Business Day, The Guardian, The Guardian, Il Sole, Focus Online, Cuartopoder.es


A Talk with Armand Leroi

For me, the answer is absolutely clear.  It's Aristotle.  And it's a surprising answer because even though I suppose some biologists might know, should they happen to read their fassier textbooks, that Aristotle was the Father of Biology, and he is usually given a little bit of credit for that.  Most people would say, "Yes, he was the Father of Biology, but basically he got everything wrong."  And that I think is a canard.  I think it's completely untrue.  The thing about Aristotle and this is why I love him, is that his thought was so systematic, so penetrated, and so vast, and yet he's undeniably a scientist. 

ARMAND LEROI is a Professor of Evolutionary Developmental Biology at Imperial College London.

Armand Leroi's Edge Bio Page

Further Reading on Edge:


[ARMAND LEROI:] So who is the greatest biologist of all time? Good question. For most people it's got to be Darwin. I mean, Darwin is top dog, numero uno. He gave us the theory of natural selection, he told us about evolution, he convinced us that evolution happened, and he gave us an explanation for it. I mean, there just wouldn't seem to be any competition. Okay, fine, well you might then say Mendel. Mendel discovers transmission genetics, and that was pretty good. And I suppose then you have to go pretty far down the list to come to people like Watson and Crick, who they just discovered DNA, which is just a bit of structural biology, really. It's a bit of biochemistry.

Okay, but who is the real top dog? For me, the answer is absolutely clear. It's Aristotle. And it's a surprising answer because even though I suppose some biologists might know, should they happen to read their fassier textbooks, that Aristotle was the Father of Biology, and he is usually given a little bit of credit for that. Most people would say, "Yes, he was the Father of Biology, but basically he got everything wrong." And that I think is a canard. I think it's completely untrue. The thing about Aristotle and this is why I love him, is that his thought was so systematic, so penetrated, and so vast, and yet he's undeniably a scientist.

Aristotle was a student of Plato's, and around the year 345 BC when he was in his late 30s, he left Athens and went to the Island of Lesvos. Now, he scooted a bit along the Aegean Coast, and as he did so picked up a wife. We believe that she was 18 years old. We don't entirely know that for sure. We know her name was Pythias. We think she was very young because he says the best age for a man to marry is 37, the best age for a woman to marry is 18, and given that we know that Aristotle was 37 when he married, we infer that his wife was 18. He was a great man for rationalizing things.

In any event, he's 37, he's left Athens, and he's done this, incidentally, after Plato's death, and one explanation for why he left was that he being the brightest kid in the academy, the brightest guy in the academy was clearly a candidate for the top job upon Plato's death, the head of the academy, but he didn't get it, so he upsticks and he leaves. In any event, he arrives in Lesvos, the Island in the Eastern Aegean in 345 BC.

He's got his young wife, he's thinking about biology, and he goes down to the shore, and he picks up some snails, and he picks up some fish from the local fish market, and he begins to dissect them, and he writes the results down, and that's when biology is born, in those few years. I think of Lesvos, and the place that he worked, which was a lagoon, a magical lagoon, a beautiful piece of water that bisects the island as Aristotle's Galapagos, his Down House, his Andes. It was to him what all those places were to Darwin, and to Humboldt, and all the other great biologists, each of whom seem to have some place, some location that inspired them. And for me, that I think is what Lesvos was. What he did there was lay the foundations of biology.

We don't know the order in which he wrote his books. We can take a bit of a stab at it. Probably the first book that he wrote, though some scholars dispute this, it's not really very important, was his story Animalia, which you can roughly call it a natural history of animals. It's not really a natural history, it's certainly not a systematic treatise, rather what it is, it's a comparative anatomy, it's a treatise and comparative anatomy. He goes through digestive systems, and hearts, and circulatory systems, and so on, and so on, and so on, and he shows how they differ between different creatures. He goes through their behavior, and he does a lot of dissections.

We've lost his book of dissections, but he refers to the dissections in there, and it's all astonishingly modern. He said, "As you can see in the picture, to the left, the part labeled "alpha" is this, and the part labeled "gamma" is that, and the part labeled "zeta" is that", and so you infer that he's got an anatomical diagram complete with labels that looks exactly like that, which you'd find in any modern textbook. Fine. So that's the story Animalia.

Then he writes a book about the parts of animals, which is his functional anatomy. Then he writes a book about locomotion, on the movement of animals, and he writes one about sleep, and he writes another one about aging. He gives a very coherent and articulate theory of aging, which has had enormous amounts of influence right through the history of life, indeed. It still forms part of the modern theory of aging. He writes, in fact, two books about that, and of course, he writes on generation, which his great book about the development of animals, the generation of animals, and it's here that he does one of his great and most wonderful observations, and it's such a simple one, but it's so beautiful, and it's been so immensely influential.

He takes a chick, he takes an egg, a chicken egg, which has just been newly laid, and he opens it up, and he sees the chick embryo lying there with his little beating heart, and he watches how the chick embryo develops over the course of days, and that is the foundation of developmental biology, the science of how we make ourselves during ontogeny. And it is still to this day that chicken is used by thousands of developmental biologists.

Every generation has to reinterpret Aristotle, because the thing about him is he's so vast. His works, his biological works would span in small print, a small shelf of books, something like that, thousands of pages. However good modern biologists may believe they are, they're nothing compared to Aristotle. I mean, just the sheer force and scope of his thought, and that is what makes reading him so wonderful. It's a whole system of biology which bears some resemblance to ourselves, but is yet sort of strangely skewed by comparison because it's kind of like our biology, and yet its premises are in some ways so strange and so very different.

And that's actually what makes reading him so exciting because it causes you to look at the natural world in a way that frees you from the assumptions of modern science. You see things afresh, and you say, "Well, actually, couldn't he have a point here?" But as I said, every generation needs to read Aristotle afresh, precisely because he is so vast, and every generation finds in him the things that they are looking for. In the 19th century the big thing in science was systematic biology, it was sorting out and cataloguing the natural world. People looked at Aristotle, and they found the systematic biologist, a taxonomist. I don't know if that's really ... many scholars dispute that he was much of a classifier, and I think that's actually right. I don't think it was a primary concern of him.

So what do I find when I look at Aristotle? Well, for me the thing that fascinates me about Aristotle is his discussion of the soul. Now, I know that's a strange thing to say because the soul ... when we talk about souls, we're talking about ... we immediately think of the Judeo-Christian conception of the soul which is this, some strange thing, non-physical entity that hangs above your head, or something, and survives you after death. That's not what Aristotle meant, not at all.

What Aristotle meant by soul, he meant the moving principle of life. And there's nothing vitalist about it, there is nothing metaphysical about it. It's hard to get a grip on what he meant, but it's a resolutely empirical kind of concept. What he meant was something like this, he says all living things have a soul, and when they die, the soul disappears. So none of that nonsense about the immortality of the soul. Plato thought souls were immortal, many people, popular belief had that the souls were immortal, but Aristotle is clearly using soul in a very special, and technical, and new sense. It's the moving principle of life.

Okay, but what is it made of? The answer is it's not made of stuff, it's not made of matter. Well, that's a bit strange. So how can it exist if it's not made of matter? You think about that, and you think about that quite a lot, and you read Aristotle, and then you sort of see what he's getting at. What he's getting at is that the soul is not matter itself, it's the way that matter is organized. It's the relationship between the parts. It's the system. And, in fact, many Aristotelian scholars reaching for metaphors to explain what Aristotle is getting at, they use words like "system", and "cybernetic", and so on, depending on exactly when they were writing. You know, when cybernetics was cybernetics, well, they used that. And I think that's basically right.

I think that if we understand what Aristotle is getting at, we can show, and you can find this in this text, and you can find it, it's actually intrinsic to his entire explanation of what he's getting at is that what he's interesting in doing is explaining how creatures have taken stuff from the environment, food, how they partition it, how they distribute it to the various ends that they need, how all that is regulated by a very elaborate homeostatic system. Again homeostasis this is cybernetics systems talk, a system that he actually tells us about in some detail. One that is deeply wrong, but then, again, his fundamental chemistry is completely barking mad by modern comparisons, based upon four elements. But given all that, the logic of his explanation is very clear.


On Armand Leroi's "Who Is The Greatest Biologist of All Time?"

Introduction by John Brockman, George Dyson, Stewart Brand, Richard Dawkins

by John Brockman

One of the problems with the Darwin lovefest of a year ago is that it overwhelmed both the recent and ancient history of biology. Most EDGE readers have at least some familiarity with the high points of modern physics in the past one hundred years or so: Einstein's Special theory of relativity (1905); Eddington's expedition to observe the Solar eclipse that provided one of the earliest confirmations of relativity (1919); Bohr, Heisenberg and Quantum Mechanics (1920s); the work of Gell-Mann and Feynman (1960s); the unified field theory Glashow, Weinberg, and Saalam; and more recently, areas such as string theory, the inflationary universe, the multiverse, etc.

The same cannot be said for the field of biology. Physicist don't talk about "Newtonism", but biologists can't shut up about "Darwinism". Enough is enough; and more than enough is too much.

This aspect of our science culture is, in my opinion, a show-stopper. I believe it contributes to the problem of how biology and evolution are treated as political footballs in debates over school curricula in America.

It's time for biology to get up to date, to credit people other than Darwin for their contributions to biology and to present these achievements to the educated public.

I would like to hear about the relationship of Darwin's ideas to those of Jean- Baptiste Lamarck. What about the the work done by Mendel in 1900 and how the the gene, though its exact nature was unknown at the time, became a player in "the modern synthesis" of Mendel and Darwin. This synthesis, which reconciled genetics per se with Darwin's vision of natural selection, was carried out in the early 1930s by R.A. Fisher, J.B.S. Haldane, and Sewall Wright, and augmented a few years later by the work of the paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, the biologist Ernst Mayr, and the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, who expanded on this neo-Darwinian paradigm.

How many readers of Edge are familiar with the biological developments of the 1960s and 1970s led by George C. Williams, William Hamilton, and John Maynard Smith. Williams, for example, was the first to emphasize that it was the gene on which natural selection acted. In this regard, he precedes Richard Dawkins, with whom he shares a great many ideas, and he was in a different camp from Stephen Jay Gould, who had a hierarchical theory of selection processes, of which the gene is only one level. Williams' book Adaptation and Natural Selection, published in 1966, described the gene as having a "codical" as well as a physical character — that is, he views the gene as a package of information, not an object.

And that just brings us up to the 1970s when Robert Trivers, while a post-doc at Harvard, wrote five seminal papers that created a new scientific field: the scientific study of human nature. A seminal moment in that decade was the publication of Dawkins's The Selfish Gene (with an introduction to the first edition by Trivers) in which he presented many of the ideas of Williams, Hamilton, Maynard-Smith, and Trivers along with his own original thinking on the subject. All the while, the mainstream media in America were misrepresenting Stephen Jay Gould as the authority on evolutionary biology, when Gould himself said this his role was that of a critic, of the mainstream researchers in the field.

There is still discord in the ranks of evolutionary biologists. The principal debates are concerned with the mechanism of speciation; whether natural selection operates at the level of the gene, the organism, or the species, or all three; and also with the relative importance of other factors, such as natural catastrophes. This is evident in the strong reactions to a controversial paper recently p published in Nature by Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita and Edward O. Wilson ("The Evolution of Eusociality", 26 August 2010).

And so it goes. The conversation in biology since Darwin is interesting, it's important, and it's something the general public should know about. To the extent the Edge community can present it in a coherent manner, it will be a wonderful public service.


Science Historian; Author Baidarka; Project Orion; and Darwin Among the Machines.

In his Edge conversation "Who is the greatest biologist of all time?", Armand Leroi asks, and unequivocally answers the question. What can anyone add?

The only question left is "Who is the greatest biologist since Aristotle?" Now, in general, "who is the greatest" questions are dangerous, but, if Edge is going to ask one, you have to ask that. And most people are going to answer, "Darwin!" and we just had a full year of that.

So, let's move on to the next question:


Now that's an interesting question....

Founder, The Whole Earth Catalog; Cofounder, Chairman, The Long Now Foundation; Author, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto

Indeed, Leroi has written a lovely piece, full of news for me. And I like George Dyson's question, as he has framed it above.

Evolutionary Zoologist, University of Oxford. Author, The Blind Watchmaker; The Greatest Show on Earth

I've listened to Armand Leroi's talk: beautifully delivered (apart from his infuriating use of the historic present), but his nomination of Aristotle is obviously just contrarian for the sake of it. He is simply bending over backwards to contrive a way of answering the question with a name other than Darwin. And that's a hopeless cause! I prefer to answer the question straight, making no attempt to be contrarian or 'interesting'. Darwin, of course, is the greatest biologist ever.

Who is the greatest biologist since Darwin? That's far less obvious, and no doubt many good candidates will be put forward. My own nominee would be Ronald Fisher. Not only was he the most original and constructive of the architects of the neo-Darwinian synthesis. Fisher also was the father of modern statistics and experimental design. He therefore could be said to have provided researchers in biology and medicine with their most important research tools, as well as with the modern version of biology's central theorem.

On "The Bright Future Of Post-Partisan Social Psychology" By Jonathan Haidt

MOST RECENT COMMENTS: David Dunning, John Jost, Jenifer Jacquet, Roy Baumeister on Jonathan Haidt's "The Bright Future of Post-Partisan Social Psychology"


Francis Eppes Eminent Scholar and head of the social psychology graduate program at Florida State University; Author, Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty

So far this discussion has been conducted on liberal grounds: Does fairness of process entail we should strive to make way for conservatives among us? Let me instead try to think like a conservative and ask, what would be some pragmatic benefits to our field of having conservatives among us?

I care much more about science and truth than about politics. I'd rather know the truth even if disagreeable. My ideal is to have no political preferences at all, because they impede one's willingness to accept the facts. (Not that I'm there yet.)

Leary is right in saying that political bias likely only distorts a limited number, a minority even, of research topics. But the composite understanding of the human mind depends on the parts being correct. If we let some parts be wrong, the whole will be wrong.

A first major benefit of hearing conservative views in academia would be a pro-business view. I have a rather feeble understanding of business, but at least I know how much I don't know. My impression is that most of my colleagues do not. Marxism did much better in academic theories than in practice. Many professors detest business and the people who do it, even though most of their students will work in business. Business has made our society rich enough to afford universities, among many other benefits. Most professors, including myself, do not understand how business works and what is great about it and what it needs. Having some respected professors to espouse pro-business views would inform and elevate how we understand a huge part of life and of culture.

The second benefit would be a stronger advocacy of traditional family values. I know even some liberals are now coming round, but on things like whether parents with a so-so marriage (not liking though not hating each other) should stay together until their children are in college, it might be good to have the conservative pro-family view represented.

A third would be to have our academic culture include a minority viewpoint that would hold a generally positive view of America and its traditions. I find that liberals are generally critical of American culture and its history. I have certainly complained much about the United States myself. But as I read more, I see that compared to pretty much all other countries and historical periods ever, the US is the better place to live. It would be valuable us to figure out what the Founding Father (Parents) and others did right.

Last, while liberals evaluate organizations based mainly on fairness of process, conservatives tend to look at performance outcomes. Social psychology used to study task performance but these days is almost entirely devoted to how people think and feel as dependent variables. A conservative presence in the field might re-kindle attention to what makes people and organizations produce and perform well.

Postdoctoral Fellow, University of British Columbia

Haidt's main point is well articulated, very interesting, and captures what I believe is a true statement: that the university environment can be one-dimensional. However, as the lone liberal in an immediate and extended family of conservatives (who came to liberalism through education), I must disagree with several points.

Being a conservative is not similar to being a woman or a minority (the
latter you cannot change). In other words, it's possible that one enters the field of social psychology as a political conservative and comes out the other side politically liberal. There are very few conservatives in social psychology possibly not because it's a hostile environment but because the field of social psychology self-selects for liberals and might even create them (e.g., if you learn/accept through the work in social psychology that people are largely a product of their environment, it makes it hard to then support political strategies that further disadvantage the poor).

The military self-selects (or creates?) conservatives. Physics seems to self-select (or create?) believers, which is very interesting indeed.

Professor of Psychology, New York University; Co-Editor, Social and Psychological Bases of Ideology and System Justification

Social psychology is not a "tribal-moral community" governed by "sacred values." It is wide open to anyone who believes that we can use the scientific method to explain social behavior, regardless of their political beliefs. Nor is our "corner" of social science "broken" when it comes "race, gender, and class," as Jonathan Haidt claimed in response to Paul Krugman. Rather, social psychologists have made cutting edge advances in understanding the subtle, implicit, nonconscious biases that perpetuate inequalities concerning race, gender, and class.

Haidt's essay sows confusion; he misrepresents what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. By focusing on scientists' personal beliefs rather than the quality of their work, Haidt perpetuates the myth that social scientific research simply exemplifies the ideological biases of the researchers. No doubt this energizes those who are eager to dismiss our findings. But polling firms are paid by clients, including political campaigns, and this fact neither determines nor invalidates the poll's findings. Similarly, the personal beliefs of social scientists may (or may not) be one of many factors that affect the decision of what to study, but those beliefs are, at the end of the day, scientifically irrelevant.

This is because we, as a research community, take seriously the institutionalization of methodological safeguards against experimenter effects and other forms of bias. Any research program that is driven more by ideological axe-grinding than valid insight is doomed to obscurity, because it will not stand up to empirical replication and its flaws will be obvious to scientific peers — all of whom have been exposed to conservative perspectives even if they do not hold them.

If we do concern ourselves with the results of Haidt's armchair demography, we should ask honestly whether social scientists are too liberal or society is too conservative. After all, when experts and laypersons disagree, we do not usually rush to the conclusion that the experts are biased. Haidt fails to grapple meaningfully with the question of why nearly all of the best minds in science find liberal ideas to be closer to the mark with respect to evolution, human nature, mental health, close relationships, intergroup relations, ethics, social justice, conflict resolution, environmental sustainability, and so on. He does not even consider the possibility that research in social psychology (including research on implicit bias) bothers conservatives for the right reasons, namely that some of our conclusions are empirically demonstrable and yet at odds with certain conservative assumptions (e.g., that racial prejudice is a thing of the past). Surely in some cases raising cognitive dissonance is part of our professional mission.

We need science, now more than ever, to help us overcome ideological disputes rather than getting bogged down in them. We do not need conservatives to become conservative social psychologists any more than we need liberals to become liberal social psychologists. Our "community" still holds that policy preferences should follow from the data, not the other way around. Sadly, Haidt puts the ideological cart before the scientific horse. I simply cannot agree that — especially in this political era — it would be good for our science to reproduce the ideological stalemate and finger-pointing that has crippled our government and debased our journalism. 

Professor of Psychology, Cornell University; Author, Self-Insight

Jon Haidt presents his case about political imbalance in psychology with vigor, clarity, and admirable passion.  That said, I wish respectfully to dispute two aspects of his account.

First, I wish to dispute the idea that Jon has met the enemies of political balance and that they is us—specifically, that psychologists create a hostile environment for those who are politically different. That may be the case, but to my knowledge no systematic data exist to support such a claim even though the "discrimination hypothesis" has been tested.  And a few personal anecdotes illustrating hostility, which I do not dispute, are no replacement for systematic data.

The second dispute has to do with the demarcation of the phenomenon Jon describes.  Before entering into an extensive discussion about a problem, one first has to make sure that one has properly defined what the problem is.  Here, I believe Jon has erred.  Political imbalance is not constrained to social/personality psychology.  Liberals outnumber conservatives in academics across the board, as well as many fields outside the academy, such as authors, journalists, artists—even bartenders.  The real issue is not why the small neighborhood of social/personality is so politically blue, but why this much larger circle of professions is.

But that, too, is a mistaken demarcation.  Just as important, there are professions where the political imbalance is equally great but runs in the opposite direction.  Conservatives greatly outnumber liberals among law enforcement, physicians, dentists, and religious workers.  Among the military, the margin is five to one.  And that's not all.  In 1976, roughly 25% of Americans lived in "landslide" counties in which one Presidential candidate beat the other by over twenty percent.  In 2004, that percentage tucked into landslide counties had grown to nearly 50%.

Thus, the real problem is that people—both liberal and conservative—increasingly find themselves in "epistemic cultures" that can contain little exposure to diversity of opinion.  The enemy of imbalance is not us, it is ALL of us—inside and outside of psychology and academics alike.  Here, I do not think that Jon's proffered remedy of affirmative action would work.  Perhaps we could set up an exchange draft where people could volunteer to switch their professions to establish political balance—law enforcement to academics, artists to the military.  But something tells me that would not work. 

Instead, the best remedy may be to make sure to expose ourselves to viewpoints that differ from our own. Robert Heinlein once boldly claimed that he never learned from anyone who agreed with him, and I concur that it is difficult. This leads me to join Jon on perhaps his most important point: Seek out disagreement and consider it.  Discussion with people on the other side of the political divide may create some nervy moments, but it might make us a little wiser at the end of the day, and thus less disagreeable to those around us.  And, maybe in addition, it may just create a less disagreeable society.

Psychologist, University of Virginia; Author: The Happiness Hypothesis

Response to Reality Club Comments on "The Bright Future of Post-Partisan Social Psychology"

Thinking is for doing, as William James said, and there is mounting evidence that human reasoning was designed in large part to do social stuff. When we need to justify our actions, our views, or our teams, we are brilliant at finding evidence and weaving it into arguments. But when it comes to seeking out evidence on the other side, few of us can get past the confirmation bias. Science is a supremely successful institution because it institutionalizes the cure for confirmation bias: other scientists. We have difficulty finding flaws in our own theories, but we can rest assured that our colleagues will help us out.

I am therefore grateful to my colleagues in this Edge discussion for their critical as well as their supportive comments. I'll make 5 points in response to those comments.  

1) Adding Nuance

Several flaws in my initial argument can be fixed easily by adding qualifiers. Most importantly, Leary is quite right that few of us "study topics that have anything whatsoever to do with liberal values." Let me state clearly that social psychology is by and large a healthy, vibrant field of scientists, not activists. I would also like to acknowledge Gopnik's point that discussions of biologically based sex differences are not uncommon nowadays among psychologists. They can still be hazardous, but the topic is not a true taboo. Also, Dunning is correct that the ideological imbalance is not unique to social and personality psychology. It is indeed part of a larger problem of segregation into "epistemic cultures" that affects groups and institutions on the right as well as the left. I do not claim that the left is any more tribal than the right. In fact, the data I have collected with my colleagues at YourMorals.org shows just the opposite: Conservatives endorse tribal virtues such as group loyalty more than do liberals. (Which congressman has an easier job, the Democratic Whip or the Republican?)

2) When is Diversity Better Than Cohesiveness?

The famous Tajfel studies of "minimal groups" show that if you point out the most trivial possible difference among people, they'll divide themselves along that line and then prefer their pseudo-ingroup. For groups that must suppress self-interest and work together to achieve a common goal, it is usually better to stress their common ingroup identity, rather than their internal diversity. It does not surprise me that conservatives are overrepresented in work that requires cohesion in large groups that are hierarchically structured, such as the military, the police, and the corporate world. Ideological diversity might in fact hinder their effectiveness, except at the top levels, where there had better be some leadership or advisory group that values truth over cohesion. It would be a disaster for the United States if the Defense Intelligence Agency was uniformly conservative and uniformly committed to finding evidence consistent with conservative foreign policy preferences. 

Now look at scientific disciplines, and you can see why comparisons to the police or the military (made by Dunning and Jacquet) are not quite appropriate. We scientists are not trying to unite to get a job done. Cohesiveness would reduce our effectiveness, at least the kind of cohesion that emerges when we all hold the same ideological commitments, vote for the same political party, and share the same confirmation biases. We psychologists urge diversity on other professions, telling them that it will be good for them. But as Heine notes, that argument may apply to us more than to any other profession.

3) The Causes of Ideological Imbalance

Gilbert is right to object to my phrase "a statistically impossible lack of diversity." He correctly notes that my concern is not underrepresentation (for which there are many "innocent" explanations), but rather that the ratio is so lopsided that it begins to look suspicious. My "show of hands" demonstration found a lib-con ratio of 266 to 1, and my informal survey of 30 social psychologists revealed that very few of us can name even a single conservative social psychologist with a faculty appointment. I should not have said this was statistically "impossible." Jost and his colleagues have shown that there are indeed some real and relevant differences in openness to experience and other personality traits that should make liberals seek out and excel in the academy more than conservatives. But how many standard deviations apart would the liberal and conservative curves have to be to get just one or two conservatives falling above the threshold for becoming a successful social psychologist? I don't know, but it would imply an intergroup difference vastly larger than anything we ever see when comparing across races or genders. I share Jussim's concern about the double standard apparent in the comments by Gilbert and Jost. Nobody would dare to apply such lines of reasoning (including the citation of Schelling) to exonerate a profession or large corporation that was entirely composed of white males.

4) Is there a hostile climate for non-liberals?

Gilbert and Dunning doubt that there is bias or a hostile climate.  Jost asserts that there is none. Gilbert and Jost fault me for making claims without evidence. It's true I had few citations in my talk, but there is indeed experimental evidence of bias. Jussim refers to one such study; a more recent one is Munro, Lasane, & Leary (2010), whose title serves as its abstact: "Political partisan prejudice: Selective distortion and weighting of evaluative categories in college admissions applications."
And what kind of evidence would it take to convince a skeptic that conservatives often face a hostile climate? Dunning questions the value of "anecdotes," but as an intuitionist, I disagree. I think it's vital for people to get an intuitive sense of what a hostile political climate looks and feels like before they can decide whether or not one exists. This, I think, is the power of Bloom's thought experiment. One moment of empathy can go a long way toward taming the confirmation bias and improving our receptivity to evidence on the other side. I've received dozens of emails from non-liberal students since my talk was first posted on Edge, and many of them confirm that Bloom grasped their situation. Here's one example:

I can't begin to tell you how difficult it was for me in graduate school, because I am not a liberal Democrat. As one example, following Bush's defeat of Kerry, one of my professors would email me every time a soldier's death in Iraq made the headlines; he would call me out, publicly blaming me for not supporting Kerry in the election. I was a reasonably successful graduate student, but the political ecology became too uncomfortable for me. Instead of seeking the professorship that I once worked toward, I am now leaving academia for a job in industry.

Many of the emails speak of getting "ground down," "worn down," or "fighting an uphill battle." One thing I've learned from these emails is that the problem begins before grad school. Even as undergraduates, many students who are not secular liberals get the message that they won't be welcomed in the academy. Self-selection is not entirely an "innocent" process.
A second thing I've learned from these emails is that while there are hardly any social conservatives in our pipeline, there seem to be many grad students, like the self-described "fiscal conservative" I quoted above, who could help us if we could just retain them. I've been hearing mostly from centrists, libertarians, and moderate conservatives. Two were liberal Christians. This means that I might have erred in focusing on the absence of conservatives. The problem may be better described as the near invisibility of people who are not secular liberals. If we can make these students feel more welcome, we can gain some ideological diversity with very little effort.

5) So What?

Gilbert says that "The interesting question isn't whether [there is an imbalance], but why?" I disagree. In my talk I raised the "why" question but quickly put it aside and focused on the question of "so what?" I argued that we should seek more diversity not for moral reasons, but, as Baumeister put it, for its "pragmatic benefits." 
Jost's comparison to "polling firms" makes my point nicely. Jost is correct that if a highly professional polling firm is paid by a client on the far left or far right, the source of the funds neither "determines nor invalidates the poll's findings." But now imagine that all polling in the United States was commissioned by conservative causes and candidates. We'd learn a great deal about the electorate's dislike of welfare programs and burdensome regulations, but we'd be blind to its desires for protecting children and preventing corporations from fouling our drinking water. That, I argue, is precisely our situation. We have great work on the psychology of conservatism (much of it done by Jost), but we do not have a similar understanding of the psychology of liberalism, which is taken for granted as the normal, healthy perception of reality, endorsed by "nearly all of the best minds in science." We have great work on stereotyping, but few of our textbooks and handbooks report politically uncomfortable findings (such as Jussim's) about the accuracy of many stereotypes. I'm not accusing anyone of misconduct. I'm accusing my field (and a few other social sciences) of suffering from a kind of market failure because nearly all the polls are commissioned by one half of the political spectrum. 

In closing, I'd like to note the importance of personal relationships for good thinking. We are by nature tribal creatures who readily jump to "battle stations" and use our prodigious reasoning abilities to defend our team, not to find the truth. But when you cultivate personal relationships and come to like people, you're not as quick to demonize or dismiss them when they contradict your cherished values. Pizarro succinctly stated the broadest message of my talk: "we should be open-minded, be respectful of others, and understand that disagreements can be had between people with good intentions." If we can succeed in attracting greater ideological diversity in social psychology, we'll have the chance for many more cross-ideological friendships, which will be followed, I believe, by more productive disagreements. That is my (updated) vision for our bright post-partisan future.

February 25, 2011

StreetDogs: Things long held true

that turned out false, to our consternation

There is a list at Edge.org, the website founded by the intellectual impresario John Brockman, of scientific ideas...

Michel Pireu

THERE is a list at Edge.org, the website founded by the intellectual impresario John Brockman, of scientific ideas that endured for a long time, but were wrong. The list grew from a query by Richard Thaler, at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, in which he pointed to the flat earth and geocentric world as examples of wrong scientific beliefs held for long periods, before asking Edge contributors to name their favourite examples ...

...Meanwhile, the idea that matter is one thing in different appearances and that human symbolic intelligence is the highest form of intelligence around are regarded as true even today.

As the physicist Haim Harari, explains: "The earth is flat and the sun goes around it for the same reason that an apple appears to be more strongly attracted by the earth than a leaf, the same reason that when you add 20% and then subtract 20% you return to the same value, and the same reason that the boat is heavier than water. All of these statements appear to be correct, at first sight, and all of them are wrong.

"The length of time it takes to figure it out is a matter of history and culture. Religion gets into it, psychology, fear of science, and many other factors. I do not believe there is one parameter that determines how these things are found to be wrong."

"Part of the problem," says Harari, "is that, in order to find the truth, you need to ask the right question. This is more important, and often more difficult, than to find the answer. The right questions in the above cases are of different levels of complexity."


February 23, 2011


A columnist writing about aspects of human behaviour discussed an essay written by Gloria Origgi, a specialist in the philosophy of mind. To clarify the origin of this: the essay was written on Edge.org, in answer to its annual challenge to thinkers (Mediocrity sucks, but who really cares, asks Oliver Burkeman, 12 February, page 61, Weekend).

February 23, 2011

Twitter can help bring down Middle Eastern dictators – but being forever online disrupts our lives for the worse

Jonathan Freedland

Who among the first evangelists of the internet foresaw this? When they gushingly described the still emerging technology as "transformational", it was surely the media or information, rather than political, landscapes they had in mind. And yet now it is the hard ground of the Middle East, not just our reading habits or entertainment options, that is changing before our eyes – thanks, at least in part, to the internet.

Take the Tunisia uprising that started it all. Those close to it insist a crucial factor was not so much the WikiLeaks revelations of presidential corruption that I mentioned here last week, but Facebook. It was on Facebook that the now legendary Boazizi video – showing a vegetable seller burning himself to death – was posted, and on Facebook that subsequent demonstrations were organised. Who knows, if the people of Tunis one day build a Freedom Square, perhaps they'll make room for a statue of Mark Zuckerberg. If that sounds fanciful, note the Egyptian newborns named simply "Facebook". (Not that we should get carried away with the notion of internet as liberator: dictators have found it useful, too.)

But what about the rest of us, those unlikely ever to go online to organise an insurrection? What has been the transformative effect on us? Or to borrow the title of the latest of many books chewing on this question, how is the internet changing the way you think?

Given the subject I thought it wise to engage in a little light crowd-sourcing, floating that question on Twitter. As if to vindicate the "wisdom of crowds" thesis often pressed by internet cheerleaders, the range of responses mirrored precisely the arguments raised in the expert essays collected by editor John Brockman in the new book. ...


20 febbraio 2011



Armando Massarenti

[Google Translation:] ...In Milan on Tuesday, Matt Ridley will inaugurate an exhibition on art and science, a combination that is also a good strategy to try to overcome the old division between the "two cultures", the scientific and the humanistic. "The science is, from my point of view, one of the arts. The creation of knowledge through research that takes place is able to generate some of the most beautiful things, moving and fascinating: the theory of natural selection, the double helix of DNA; relativity. For me a great scientific idea is as exciting as it is a great work of literature or music. Science is not mere cataloging of facts: it is an exploration of what we know and the mystery that is inherent. Yes, I think it is vital to overcome the division between art and science. Both are part of the culture. "

Edge.org the founder of the New York literary agent John Brockman (who also is the author of What Are Your Optimistic About?), in this context refers to a "third culture".Brought together under this sign authors of scientific texts, such as Dawkins, Greene, Pinker, Dyson and many others, who know their views, interesting and deep, directly addressing a very wide audience, fueling debates that do not stop in the narrow circle of scientists, but are able to engage a non-specialist. Matt Ridley, of course, is one of them.

"I'm very lucky — says Ridley. That people want to read my books means that I can be paid time and energy spent in the exploration of ideas and scientific discoveries!I'm just a writer — not a real scientist — but good writing is useful for transferring ideas into life. Richard Dawkins makes him so extraordinary. It changed a whole field of science, that of evolutionary biology, giving it a perspective from the viewpoint of the gene. Dawkins has a talent for understanding what people do not know, and then nell'esporlo and explain it to everyone. Which is rare among scientists, who often fail to enter the mind of man of the street. "

Knowing full well that in Italy — but not only — there are many educated people who even hate science, Ridley I ask what are the best strategies for providing the people the perception that science is an integral part of culture. The answer is very laconic: "Give good science!"

Italian language original | Google Translation

February 16, 2011

John Brockman


Marcel Reichart, Co-founder of DLD

John Brockman, a pioneer and tireless curator of the Third Culture, which links the digital world with natural science and social networks, is now 70

[Google Translation:] Brockman celebrates with his celebrity guests and friends in the New York restaurant Le Cirque, including Nobel laureates, Internet millionaires, best-selling authors and thinkers of our time threshold. ...

... As a globally successful book agent got Brockman for his mission, which many science writers such as the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the neuroscience researcher Steven Pinker, or Internet sociologists Clay Shirky bestsellers and thus made to agenda setters. The critical thinkers organized intellectual salons, where he brings together about the Google and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, CEO of its authors, publishes books and operates edge.org the dominant medium of the digital elite, and the New Enlightenment. ...

...The Third Culture has announced the sovereignty debate, as Brockman wanted taken, but much more. It shapes and renews our reality in politics, economy, and for each individual — Wikileaks and the Twitter revolution in Tunisia and Egypt, the billions of reviews of Google and Facebook and the related debate about transparency and privacy rights, the opportunities for bio-research for cancer therapies or energy supply. Thus it has become the culture of our time and those who create it.John Brockman is its most important agent.

German language original | Google Translation



Ángel J. Gordo López 

[Google Translation:] During the last decades we have witnessed the emergence of a scientific art, known as the Third Culture, Media and marked nature aroused the interest of intellectuals of various kinds but all of them for science to be judge and jury in decisions of profound social and political depth. A tentatively argue that some of the collaborations and statements sympathetic to the Third Culture in the Spanish context help visualize a complex web of socio-political affinities and Evolutive thinking expansion.

The first manifestations of the Third Culture dating from the late fifties when CP Snow notices the gap between science and literature and the possibility of bridging. To see how this approach would make it was not until the nineties when a group of scientists from such diverse areas as biology, mathematics, physics, paleontology, cognitive science, computer science and psychology, decided to take by assault the land occupied by the letters considered. These initiatives included the editorial work of John Brockman , an artist interested in scientific progress who informative interviews with scientists together leading representatives of these disciplines in the book The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution .

One of the background closer to the Third Culture in his attempt to pooling of different branches of knowledge we find in the cyber revolution. The ultimate ambition of cybernetics was to describe and predict the behavior of any system or anything, human or nonhuman. Despite his grandstanding behavior was interested primarily in "things" instead of his deepest nature.

The Third Culture goes beyond when it proposes to unravel the great enigmas of humanity, from the origin of life and the creation of the universe to an accurate and objective understanding of the mind or even the deepest meaning of our life. This self-proclaimed new natural philosophyraises the need to realize the complexity of the evolution of systems, whether organisms, brains, the biosphere or the universe itself. To achieve such an objective seeks to avoid middlemen and ally with the means to express their findings in a direct and accessible to the public.

Such is the importance of the Third Culture means that some science communicators as Javier Sampedro, in an interview granted to the journal Mètode in 2004, reported the error that is left in the hands of science other than science communicators themselves as -according to this regular contributor to the El Pais — hot topics such as human cloning, embryo research or genetically modified organisms "can not be left to scientists, politicians or scientists. Are matters on which society should act, and that needs to be properly informed. Science can not be understood if it is disclosed ".

In addition to the new power they claim for themselves the scientific writer, scientific advances from the Third Culture appear engaged in high dose of sensationalism. Their findings, to specialized and opaque they are, always have something to say about the way we live and behave. In fact the interest of the third culture issues in the general public would be unthinkable outside the growing desire to know who and how we are, why we do this or that, and equally inconceivable apart from the high importance afforded to the world of and how to regulate emotions. ...

Spanish language original | Google Translation

Edited by John Brockman

"An intellectual treasure trove"An intellectual treasure trove...Best three or four hours of intense, enlightening reading you can do for the new year""
San Francisco Chronicle

The Net's Impact On Our Minds And Future

Edited By John Brockman
Harper Perennial

"Edge is an organization of deep, visionary thinkers." —Atlantic.com


[click to enlarge]

Contributors include STEVEN PINKER on how the mind adapts to new technologies • NASSIM N TALEB on the destruction of precise knowledge • RICHARD DAWKINS on the consequences of infinite information • NICHOLAS CARR in the future of deep thought • HELEN FISHER on finding love and romance thought the Net • Wikipedia cofounder LARRY SANGER on the promise and pitfalls of the "hive mind" • SAM HARRIS on the wired brain • BRIAN ENO on finding authenticity in a world of endless reproduction

Other thinkers include tech theorists TIM O'REILLY, CLAY SHIRKY. DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF, and EVGENY MOROZOV; founding Wired editor KEVIN KELLY; Google Executive MARISSA MAYER; computer scientists JARON LANIER; Philosopher DANIEL C. DENNETT; physicists FRANK WILCZEK, MARTIN REES, LISA RANDALL, LEE SMOLIN; psychologist MIHALY CSIKSZENTMIHALYI; geneticist GEORGE CHURCH; novelists TOM McCARTHY and DOUGLAS COUPLAND; actor ALAN ALDA; artists MARINA ABRAMAMOVIC and AI WEIWIE; X Prize founder PETER H. DIAMANDIS; science historian GEORGE DYSON; and TED Conferences curator CHRIS ANDERSON.

"Edge, the high-minded ideas and tech site. (New York Times Week In Review)

"The answers are remarkable." (Sueddeutsche Zeitung)

"Edge is an organization of deep, visionary thinkers on science and culture." (The Atlantic Wire)

"The German Internet debate is stuck in the nineties. Brockman's question this year sets the chord for questions that take us beyond this set of attitudes. (Frank Schirrmacher, Feuilleton Editor & Co-Publisher, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung)

"If you have more time and think your attention span is up to it, we recommend you enjoy the whole scope of their length and diversity by visiting edge.org." (Ana Gershenfeld, Publico [Lisbon] Weekend Magazine Cover Story)

(* based On The Edge Question 2010: "How Is The Internet Changing The Way You Think?")

Edited by John Brockman
Harper Perennial

[click to enlarge]

Contributors include: RICHARD DAWKINS on cross-species breeding; IAN McEWAN on the remote frontiers of solar energy; FREEMAN DYSON on radiotelepathy; STEVEN PINKER on the perils and potential of direct-to-consumer genomics; SAM HARRIS on mind-reading technology; NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB on the end of precise knowledge; CHRIS ANDERSON on how the Internet will revolutionize education; IRENE PEPPERBERG on unlocking the secrets of the brain; LISA RANDALL on the power of instantaneous information; BRIAN ENO on the battle between hope and fear; J. CRAIG VENTER on rewriting DNA; FRANK WILCZEK on mastering matter through quantum physics.

"a provocative, demanding clutch of essays covering everything from gene splicing to global warming to intelligence, both artificial and human, to immortality... the way Brockman interlaces essays about research on the frontiers of science with ones on artistic vision, education, psychology and economics is sure to buzz any brain." (Chicago Sun-Times)

"11 books you must read — Curl up with these reads on days when you just don't want to do anything else: 5. John Brockman's This Will Change Everything: Ideas That Will Shape the Future" (Forbes India)

"Full of ideas wild (neurocosmetics, "resizing ourselves," "intuit[ing] in six dimensions") and more close-to-home ("Basketball and Science Camps," solar technology"), this volume offers dozens of ingenious ways to think about progress" (Publishers Weekly — Starred Review)

"A stellar cast of intellectuals ... a stunning array of responses...Perfect for: anyone who wants to know what the big thinkers will be chewing on in 2010. " (New Scientist)

"Pouring over these pages is like attending a dinner party where every guest is brilliant and captivating and only wants to speak with you—overwhelming, but an experience to savor." (Seed)

(* based On The Edge Annual Question — 2009: "What Will Change Everything?)

Edited by John Brockman
With An Introduction By BRIAN ENO


Contributors include: STEVEN PINKER on the future of human evolution • RICHARD DAWKINS on the mysteries of courtship SAM HARRIS on why Mother Nature is not our friend NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB on the irrelevance of probability ALUN ANDERSON on the reality of global warming ALAN ALDA considers, reconsiders, and re-reconsiders God LISA RANDALL on the secrets of the Sun RAY KURZWEIL on the possibility of extraterrestrial life BRIAN ENO on what it means to be a "revolutionary" HELEN FISHER on love, fidelity, and the viability of marriage…and many others.

"The splendidly enlightened Edge Website (www.edge.org) has rounded off each year of inter-disciplinary debate by asking its heavy-hitting contributors to answer one question. I strongly recommend a visit." The Independent

"A great event in the Anglo-Saxon culture." El Mundo

"As fascinating and weighty as one would imagine." The Independent

"They are the intellectual elite, the brains the rest of us rely on to make sense of the universe and answer the big questions. But in a refreshing show of new year humility, the world's best thinkers have admitted that from time to time even they are forced to change their minds." The Guardian

"Even the world's best brains have to admit to being wrong sometimes: here, leading scientists respond to a new year challenge." The Times

"Provocative ideas put forward today by leading figures."The Telegraph

"The world's finest minds have responded with some of the most insightful, humbling, fascinating confessions and anecdotes, an intellectual treasure trove. ... Best three or four hours of intense, enlightening reading you can do for the new year. Read it now." San Francisco Chronicle

"As in the past, these world-class thinkers have responded to impossibly open-ended questions with erudition, imagination and clarity." The News & Observer

"A jolt of fresh thinking...The answers address a fabulous array of issues. This is the intellectual equivalent of a New Year's dip in the lake — bracing, possibly shriek-inducing, and bound to wake you up." The Globe and Mail

"Answers ring like scientific odes to uncertainty, humility and doubt; passionate pleas for critical thought in a world threatened by blind convictions." The Toronto Star

"For an exceptionally high quotient of interesting ideas to words, this is hard to beat. ...What a feast of egg-head opinionating!" National Review Online

Today's Leading Thinkers on Why Things Are Good and Getting Better
Edited by John Brockman
Introduction by DANIEL C. DENNETT


"The optimistic visions seem not just wonderful but plausible." Wall Street Journal

"Persuasively upbeat." O, The Oprah Magazine

"Our greatest minds provide nutshell insights on how science will help forge a better world ahead." Seed

"Uplifting...an enthralling book."The Mail on Sunday

Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable
Edited by John Brockman
Introduction by STEVEN PINKER


"Danger — brilliant minds at work...A brilliant bok: exhilarating, hilarious, and chilling." The Evening Standard (London)

"A selection of the most explosive ideas of our age." Sunday Herald

"Provocative" The Independent

"Challenging notions put forward by some of the world's sharpest minds" Sunday Times

"A titillating compilation" The Guardian

"Reads like an intriguing dinner party conversation among great minds in science" Discover

Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty
Edited by John Brockman
Introduction by IAN MCEWAN


"Whether or not we believe proof or prove belief, understanding belief itself becomes essential in a time when so many people in the world are ardent believers." LA Times

"Belief appears to motivate even the most rigorously scientific minds. It stimulates and challenges, it tricks us into holding things to be true against our better judgment, and, like scepticism -its opposite -it serves a function in science that is playful as well as thought-provoking. not we believe proof or prove belief, understanding belief itself becomes essential in a time when so many people in the world are ardent believers." The Times

"John Brockman is the PT Barnum of popular science. He has always been a great huckster of ideas." The Observer

"An unprecedented roster of brilliant minds, the sum of which is nothing short of an oracle — a book ro be dog-eared and debated." Seed

"Scientific pipedreams at their very best." The Guardian

"Makes for some astounding reading." Boston Globe

"Fantastically stimulating...It's like the crack cocaine of the thinking world.... Once you start, you can't stop thinking about that question." BBC Radio 4

"Intellectual and creative magnificence" The Skeptical Inquirer


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