Fun in Cities: Feature, Not Bug

From P.D. Smith, a man who knows cities and fun:

I’ve written a piece for Arc 1.2, the new digital quarterly from the makers of New Scientist, about cities and fun:

“Every year for three whole days in the picturesque Piedmont town of Ivrea, Italy, some three thousand people pelt each other mercilessly with oranges, until the streets are covered with eight inches of golden citrus gore and the gutters run with juice. Welcome to the Battle of the Oranges, part of Ivrea’s Carnival festivities. In this age of mushrooming megacities, Carnival is a boisterous reminder that urban life has proved so popular in the last five thousand years not just because of the economic benefits, but because cities are fun.”

Buy the issue – titled Post Human Conditions – and read the whole article, “Built for Pleasure”, here.

via Pleasure Cities | PD Smith | Kafka’s mouse.

I wish more cities recognized this. While you’re waiting for that to happen, do yourself a favor and order a copy of Smith’s City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age, which will hit the U.S. next week. It’s a wonderful book: BldgBlog meets Italo Calvino. Gorgeous, smart, fun, and full of surprises, like wandering all the world’s great cities at once. Here’s the opening of the rave review from Jonathan Yardley at Washington Post:

Half a century ago, Lewis Mumford published “The City in History,” a hugely influential and in some ways controversial book that has been the Bible for students and lovers of city life. But that was half a century ago, and around the world the cityscape has undergone enormous changes. A new look at this great subject has for some time been needed, and in “City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age,” P.D. Smith provides it. A British scholar connected to University College London, Smith is less philosophical and more empirical than Mumford, but if anything this is welcome, as “City” is wholly accessible to the serious general reader.

I’d add that it’s way beyond accessible: It’s irresistible.

And be sure to follow Smith on Twitter and at his fine blog, Kafka’s Mouse.

Seriously Tough Love: Morality the Hard Way

Cover art for MORAL ORIGINS

My post yesterday on morality and evolution drew a useful heads-up from the writer and entrepreneur Jag Bhalla: a review he wrote for The Wilson Quarterly of a recent book on the same subject, evolutionary biologist Christopher Boehm’s Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. This book, published last month, slipped under my radar. It looks like a valuable add to the debate over the evolutionary and cultural origins of altruism and pro-social behavior, and particularly welcome as a bit of coherent signal amid all the recent and rather tired spat between E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins.

One thing that sounds promising is that Boehm appears to draw smartly on a line of evidence that too often gets a hand-waving treatment: The actual behavior of hunter-gatherer societies. Before we went all agricultural 10,000 years or so ago, we humans spent about 20 times that long as hunter-gatherers. It stands to figure that our behavior and sense of morality during that period probably has much to say about what we’re capable of, if not what we’re actually up to lately. And according to Bhalla’s review, hunter-gathering societies, as reflected by the handful around today, are perfectly capable of enforcing a high level of prosocial and altruistic behavior — and in ways that go beyond the sort of selfish-gene math that too often dominates discussion of the issue:

The dominant view of human evolution against which Boehm deploys his arguments and data is well summarized in evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’s hugely influential 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins famously warned that “if you wish . . . to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature.” In nature, he declared, there is “no welfare state.” Indeed, he wrote, “any altruistic system is inherently unstable, because it is open to abuse by selfish individuals, ready to exploit it.” These ideas, aided by others’ similar claims, became barrier beliefs, preventing further analysis for decades.

Boehm’s story begins when the survival of our ancestors became a team sport. About 250,000 years ago, collaborative hunting of big game became more successful than solo hunting. Teams that chased the game toward hunters could be much more productive—but only if the profits were sustainably shared. A further complication arose in harsh environments where success depended on luck as well as skill. Both problems were solved, then as now, by the logic of shared profits and risks. Even the best hunters, when unlucky, benefited from rules that required meat sharing. Solving this collective carnivores’ dilemma radically changed the rules of our evolutionary game. Those who were skilled at cooperating fared better, as did those with the fittest sharing rules. Our ancestors, Boehm writes, went through a “major political transition,” developing from “a species that lived hierarchically” into one that was “devoutly egalitarian.”

Dawkins argued that the benefits enjoyed by selfish exploiters, or free riders, are a key constraint on the viability of generous cooperation. Though he was right about that, he was deeply wrong in being so pessimistic about evolution’s ability to overcome such hurdles. Boehm marshals extensive evidence showing how hunter-gatherers use rigidly enforced social rules to suppress free riding today, providing a model for how our ancestors could have cooperated in a natural “welfare state” that was crucial to their survival.

A key new insight Boehm provides is that humans are both able and inclined to “punish resented alpha-male behavior”—for example, when powerful individuals hog more than their fair share of meat. He illustrates this phenomenon with examples from present-day hunter-gatherer societies, in which social rules are used to prevent excessive egoism, nepotism, and cronyism. For example, meat is never distributed by the hunter who made the kill, but by another stakeholder. Rules of this kind are socially enforced by means of “counterdominant coalitions” and techniques such as ridicule, shaming, shunning, ostracism, and, ultimately, the death penalty. (Typically, the task of execution is delegated to a kinsman of the condemned to prevent escalating revenge by other relatives.) The result is a sort of inverted eugenics: the elimination of the strongest, if they abuse their power. Astonishingly, such solutions aren’t rare; rather, they’re nearly universal. Our ancestors likely unburdened themselves of the “Darwinian” overhead costs of Hobbes’s “war of all against all.” Lincoln’s principle of government “of the people, by the people, for the people” ran deeper than he knew.

This suggests something quite important: The power of culture to override the sort of math Dawkins tends to revert to, and to serve as a sort of evolutionary force itself.

Do take in the whole thing at WQ. And if you wish, discuss — prosocially, or course — in the comments.

via The Wilson Quarterly: Book Reviews: Noble Savages by Jag Bhalla.  Jag, btw, keeps a smart and mischievous blog at “I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears,” has a book of the same title; and is an ace Twitter follow.

Do Evolution and Morality Talk Much? David Sloan Wilson & Simon Blackburn Discuss

Morality, even when it doesn’t involve slick trolley problems like killing Whitey, poses a perennial puzzle, particularly in light of evolution. Does human morality rise innately, from culture, or both? Did we evolve merely a capacity to think morally, or a compulsion to do so? What do the evolutionary roots of morality, complex as they might be, suggest about its nature?

These questions get bounced around a lot, sometimes in monkey labs, sometimes in halls of philosophy. Over at Evolution, This View of Life, the magazine and site spearheaded by David Sloan Wilson, Wilson this week launched a series of conversations on morality and evolution with a nice Skype conversation with Simon Blackburn, who is the Bertrand Russell Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University, and the author of such books as Practical Tortoise Raising and Other Philosophical Essays.

Wilson, who recently wrote a splendid take on the altruism spat between E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins, leads off with Blackburn so as to ground the discussion of morality and evolution with some definitions about the former. I rather like Blackburn’s direct definition in answer to Wilson’s first question:

Wilson: What is morality?

Blackburn: Morality is the system by which we put pressure, including coercrive pressure, on ourselves and others to obey social rules.

Both interesting and useful, methinks, to anchor the definition in an action — this pressure to be prosocial — than in concepts or feelings. It’s more practical. And it focuses on morality not as an impulse, but as action — a trait clearly expressed.

Get the whole thing at  This View of Life: Evolution and Morality I: Simon Blackburn.

“How Full of Sh*t Are They?” and Other Questions Writers Ask

Q: Is that a real skull?  

A: Yes

Q: Just how full of shit are they — like, completely?

A: Completely.

What kinds of questions do writers ask? Particularly when writing a book about science? The writer Charles Quoi asked that question of me and several other writers the other day for an article at The Open Notebook, the splendid site about the craft of writing about science. The article, drawing on insight from Deborah Blum, Matthew Hutson, Maggie Koerth-Baker, Maryn McKenna, and Carl Zimmer, is full of good fun useful stuff. My own answer is below:


The questions I ask when writing a book are of two kinds:

First, I ask all the kinds of questions I’d ask writing an article on the same subject – very much the sorts of questions you’ve outlined in your article at Scientific American [CQC: which you can read here].

Second, over months and months I ask another huge string — a pile, a truckload, a Nile of questions – that are hard to characterize outside the context of a particular project. Why? Because these additional questions usually follow from the answers to the first line of questions. Their entire point is to get past that first layer to other, deeper, hidden layers — to many, many., many details about the science (90% of which I won’t use), as well as details and background and motivations of the people in the book (ditto).

I tend to write about science that is pushing the edge of evidence — it involves tensions that I feel are at the heart of science and reveal a lot about why both humankind and individual people get into science. When I wrote about such arguments taking place in the 19th century, I could know how the argument turned out, and getting the science right was relatively easy. It’s a lot harder when writing about cutting-edge science being done today. I’m not here to adjudicate who’s right; that’s not my call — it’s history’s. But I need to understand the science — science that confuses and confounds and divides researchers — well enough to get a sense of how far the more aggressive people are leaning out over the evidence. That’s the tension I’m after, and to know it I need to see all the strands. This is hard, if you’re doing it right, and of course the science is advancing as I study it. It’s a bit crazy.

Anyway, that same difficulty produces tension in the scientists’ lives, and to get that I need to ask them a lot of questions. I ask them questions about the science and about themselves to the point of them getting sick of me, in some cases beyond. I ask questions that seem to have nothing to do with anything – this seems to bother scientists particularly — and I ask questions that I’ve asked before. I do that partly because I may get more information and partly because their thinking might change. (Just last week, someone told me, “Actually I have changed my thinking a bit on that.”) And I want to know them as people, and that takes a lot of questions, both direct and indirect, about where and how they grew up and how they got started and other questions that are better to keep to myself for now.

Take all that together and you can see why it’s hard to name particular questions I’d ask in a book that I wouldn’t for an article: it’s like predicting what you’d be talking about 20 days into a 400-day conversation. It gets detailed. It gets personal. It gets repetitive and also, sometimes because it’s repetitive, it goes places you don’t expect. The questions can seem weird taken out of context.

But they’re also fun. So here are a few questions that I’ve asked various people just over the last month, for instance, as I work on my book about the genetics of temperament. These come from different parts of different interviews; no two shown consecutively here were asked in any given interview.

Q: Is that a real skull?  

A: Yes

Q: Just how full of shit are they — like, completely?

A: Completely.

Q: How many monkeys we talking about?

A: Forty-nine.

Q: Is that thing poisonous?

A: Not anymore.

Q: These guys jump out of airplanes at night at 10,000 feet into combat, and they’re scared to swim?

A: Some of them.

Q: In what sense is the science getting too far in front of itself?

A: It’s complicated.

Q: Would a really big canoe impress you?

A: Definitely! I’d get in that thing.

Q: So in three months he went from being a disorganized jerk to a focused machine. What changed?

A: He grew up.

Q: What do you mean when you say you still feel a “cautiously optimistic vaguely skeptical pessimism?”

A: Just what it sounds like.

Q: How did she do it?

A: [Too distressing to relate.]

Q: So is gene expression a downstream trait — or is it the stream?

A: Both.

Q: I want to make sure I have this: the frogs with the longest legs migrated farthest and fastest, to make a migratory wave-front; mated with other long-legged frogs at the front; and so over generations the frogs at the front became even more longer-legged. Right?

A: Right.

Q: Five minutes ago you said geneticists don’t like to talk about ‘why’ — but you just did. Why?

A: I didn’t.

Q: Wait: The truck actually took you all the way from Ohio to Miami, then broke down at the end of the exit ramp? Like, the very end?

A: Pretty much. The truck broke down on the exit ramp and rolled into Bayfront Park. There was this apartment house right next to that — a flophouse. I lived there a while where drunks died in the hallway at night. Started doing labor. Worked in a silkscreen shop for two dollars an hour. There was no battle plan.

These are the kinds of questions I get to ask. This is one of many reasons I love my job — and why it’s often hard, especially when writing a book, to stop asking questions and write the damned book. You know there’s more gold out there — and all you have to do to get it is ask the right question.


More fun of that sort over at The Open Notebook, which is chock full of useful fascinations.



The Hole in My Brain: Amnesia’s Lessons About Memory, Depression, and Love

The hole in my hippo (circled, just NW of center).

What happens when you can’t remember the maps in your head? How many ways can you get lost — and what’s the best way to get found again?

Last week, as part of the second anniversary celebration of Story Collider, the science storytelling show based in New York, I told of how a transient episode of spatial amnesia  — as in, I couldn’t remember the way to my kids’ preschool — forced me to explore these questions. The quest sent me chasing both the science of memory and the connections between space, memory, depression, love, and happiness. The theme of the show was “I Am Science” — that is, the various paths that people take to lives in or near to science. In my case, my amnesia event didn’t really make me science. But as I describe, it sure quickened my interest.

You can listen by clicking here or by clicking the play button below (it won’t show up on mobile devices, though). If neither of those works, go direct at the Story Collider page, where you can also pull it onto iTunes and such. For more Story Collider stories about science, including find material from writers such as Carl Zimmer, Amy Harmon, Bora Zivkovic, John Rennie, and Tom Levenson and scientists such as Daniella Schiller, Nancy Parmalee, Doug Fields, and Naomi Azar. Many thanks to Ben Lillie, Brian Wecht, and Erin Barker, who make Story Collider happen, and to fellow storytellers that night Joy Hirsch, Joe LeDoux, and Darlene Cavalier.

David Dobbs: Lost in your brain by The Story Collider

Open-Science Geeks Invite Obama Onto Roller Coaster

The ride's fun only if you lean forward. Will Obama climb in?

The open-science movement, having exploded over the last year in its efforts to make science work more collaboratively and flow more openly to the public. I wrote earlier here about the extensive nature of the problem and what the open-science movement was doing (and needed to do) to push their agenda. Now open-access advocates have created a petition at the site that could, like many peitions, mean nothing — but might prompt action that could transform the open-access debate.

The short, concise petition, filed by a loose, ad-hoc group of advocates, Access2Research, addresses just one aspect of the complex open-science agenda — but it’s perhaps  the most important aspect from either a substantive or a political perspective: The petition asks the White House to make all papers that draw on federally funded research “open-access” — that is, free to all readers. The argument: We paid for for the research, so we shouldn’t have to pay to read it. (If you’re puzzled how this could work, see my feature.) The petition essentially calls for an expansion of an existing NIH policy that requires some, but not all, papers from federally funded research to be made open-access after six months.

It would seem the sort of message Obama is generally friendly to; but according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the petition was filed after advocates met with the White House’s top science adviser and sensed less enthusiasm than they would have liked to:

John Wilbanks, a senior fellow in entrepreneurship at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, decided to try a petition after he and other open-access proponents met recently with John Holdren, science adviser to President Obama. “It was a nice meeting, but everyone’s always very noncommittal, and it was sort of the same old same old,” Mr. Wilbanks said. “Something had to change the conversation.”

Three other champions of open access joined Mr. Wilbanks in creating the petition: Michael W. Carroll, a professor of law at American University’s Washington College of Law; Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, or Sparc; and Mike Rossner, executive director of Rockefeller University Press. Coming out of the meeting with Mr. Holdren, they felt frustrated, Mr. Wilbanks said. “It seemed like nothing was changing,” he said, even though public access has. So Mr. Wilbanks et al. decided that “we might as well see if we can go direct to the public.”

The public is responding:  In just 5 days, the petition has gathered over two-thirds of the 25,000 signatures it must get within 30 days of its posting to compel a White House response. I’m sticking my neck out and betting it will pass.
But how will the White House respond? As far as I can tell, this hasn’t received much attention from the politicorati. So I’ll suck it up and punt some punditry.
First, I’ll take a wild-ass guess and say there’s, oh, a 40% chance the WHite House will respond with something really meaningful  — an extension of the current open-access policy, say, such as sharply reducing or eliminating the open-access wait period or expanding the policy to all federally funded research rather than mainly the NIH. More likely (the 60% chance, I’m guessing) Obama will make some nice sounds, tweak a few knobs, and call it done for now. If that’s the case, I don’t see it destroying the open-access movement; but it’ll  be a chance missed.
However, if the White House puts its shoulder behind this idea to push, whether through directly making sharp policy changes or pressing hard in the press and in Congress, it could give another huge boost to a movement that has gained tremendously in visibility and effect over the last 12 months.
The gravity is there either way. But if Obama climbs aboard, the roller coaster could speed up sharply.
See also:
US petition could tip the scales in favour of open access publishing | Dr Mike Taylor | Science |
Petition Urges White House to Require Public Access to Federally Financed Research – Wired Campus – The Chronicle of Higher Education
Sign the petition to require open access to US taxpayer-funded research – Confessions of a Science Librarian

Image:   Lee J Haywood, some rights reserved

Is Cognitive Science Full of Crap?


[Note 5/24/12: I’m away from the desk this week. This post originally ran on February 28, 2011, and stirred a lot of online discussion; still fully current, and I suspect will be so for a while.]

Is cognitive science full of crap? A biophyics researcher recently asked this of a cognitive science researcher. The latter answered with spirit. My own answer is that of course cog sci is full of crap — except when it’s not. Which makes it like most science, only more so.

It started when Cambridge University memory researcher Jon Simons posted a lament about how proposed UK science-funding cuts especially threaten young, developing researchers. The cog-sci debate broke out when University of College London biophysicist David Colquhoun suggested that perhaps precious funding might be better used if less were spent on cognitive science:

I couldn’t agree more about the very real danger posed to early-career and even mid-career scientists by the lack of smallish responsive mode grants.

But being in a different area, I may see the problem slightly differently. At the risk of being lynched, I’ll have to admit that I sometimes sigh when see the next “new phrenology” study come out. Only too often the results are uninterpretable (though university PR departments love the fact that, however trivial, they make headlines). The equipment is enormously expensive and perhaps some of that money could be better spent (for example, on fundamental biophysics!).

When pressed for examples, Colquhoun named a couple of studies, most prominently a 2000 study about the “taxi drivers’ hippocampus.” He was referring to work at the lab of Eleanor Maguire, who found that London taxi drivers, who to earn their licenses must pass a horrifically difficult navigational and geographic exam called The Knowledge, had bigger hippocampuses than most people did.

Hippocampuses play an vital role in memory and spatial navigation. As the paper noted, the bigger hippocampi in London cab drivers might mean one of (at least) two things: That memorizing the streets and routes of London made their hippocampuses grow; and/or that having big hippocampuses to start with made you better able to memorize enough routes and streets of the Knowledge to pass it. The paper leaned toward the former explanation.

Continue reading →

Kill Whitey. It’s the Right Thing to Do (Repost)

A couple years ago, David Pizarro, a young research psychologist at Cornell, brewed up a devious variation on the classic trolley problem. The trolley problem is that staple of moral psychology studies at dinner parties in which you ask someone to decide under what conditions it’s morally permissible to kill one person to save others. Here, via Wikipedia, is its most basic template:

A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are 5 people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you can flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch?

This has generated scores of studies that pose all kinds of variations. (You can take a version of the test yourself at Should You Kill the Fat Man?) Perhaps the richest has been the footbridge problem. The footbridge scenario puts the subject in a more active hypothetical role: You’re on a footbridge over the trolley track, and next to you, leaning perilously over the rail to see what happens, stands a very large man — a man large enough, in fact, to stop the train. Is it moral to push the guy over the rail to stop the train?

Researchers generally use these scenarios to see whether people hold a) an absolutist or so-called “deontological” moral code or b) a utilitarian or “consequentialist” moral code. In an absolutist code, an act’s morality virtually never depends on context or secondary consequences. A utilitarian code allows that an act’s morality can depend on context and secondary consequences, such as whether taking one life can save two or three or a thousand.

In most studies, people start out insisting they have absolute codes. But when researchers tweak the settings, many people decide morality is relative after all: Propose, for instance, that the fat man is known to be dying, or was contemplating jumping off the bridge anyway — and the passengers are all children — and for some people, that makes it different. Or the guy is a murderer and the passengers nuns. In other scenarios the man might be slipping, and will fall and die if you don’t grab him: Do you save him … even if it means all those kids will die? By tweaking these settings, researchers can squeeze an absolutist pretty hard, but they usually find a mix of absolutists and consequentialists.

As a grad student, Pizarro liked trolleyology. Yet it struck him that these studies, in their targeting of an absolutist versus consequentialist spectrum, seemed to assume that most people would hold firm to their particular spots on that spectrum — that individuals generally held a roughly consistent moral compass. The compass needle might wobble, but it would generally point in the same direction.

Pizarro wasn’t so sure. He suspected we might be more fickle. That perhaps we act first and scramble for morality afterward, or something along those lines, and that we choose our rule set according to how well it fits our desires.

To test this, he and some colleagues devised some mischievous variations on the footbridge problem. They detail these in a recent paper (pdf download; web), and Pizarro recently described them more accessibly at the recent Edge conference on morality. (The talk is on video, or you can download the audio.)

As Pizarro describes, the variations are all of a piece: All explore how the political and racial prejudices — and guilt — of both liberals and conservatives might affect where they stand on the absolutist-consequentialist spectrum.

Perhaps most revealing is what Pizarro calls the “Kill Whitey” study. This was a footbridge problem — two variations on a footbridge problem in one, actually — that the team presented to 238 California undergrads. The undergrads were of mixed race, ethnicity and political leanings. Before they faced the problem, 87 percent of them said they did not consider race or nationality a relevant factor in moral decisions. Here the paper‘s (.pdf) description of the problem they faced:

Participants received one of two scenarios involving an individual who has to decide whether or not to throw a large man in the path of a trolley (described as large enough that he would stop the progress of the trolley) in order to prevent the trolley from killing 100 innocent individuals trapped in a bus.

Half of the participants received a version of the scenario where the agent could choose to sacrifice an individual named “Tyrone Payton” to save 100 members of the New York Philharmonic, and the other half received a version where the agent could choose to sacrifice “Chip Ellsworth III” to save 100 members of the Harlem Jazz Orchestra. In both scenarios the individual decides to throw the person onto the trolley tracks.

Tyrone and Chip. Just in case you’re missing what Pizarro is up to:

While we did not provide specific information about the race of the individuals in the scenario, we reasoned that Chip and Tyrone were stereotypically associated with White American and Black American individuals respectively, and that the New York Philharmonic would be assumed to be majority White, and the Harlem Jazz Orchestra would be assumed to be majority Black.

So the guy on the bridge kills either Tyrone to save the New York Philharmonic or Chip to save the Harlem Jazz Orchestra. How, Pizarro asked the students, did they feel about that? Was sacrificing Chip/Tyrone to save the Jazz Orchestra/Philharmonic justified? Was it moral? Was it sometimes necessary to allow the death of one innocent to save others? Should we ever violate core principles, regardless of outcome? Is it sometimes “necessary” to allow the death of a few to promote a greater good?

Turned out the racial identities did indeed color peoples’ judgments — but it colored them differently depending on their political bent. Pizarro, who describes himself as a person who “would probably be graded a liberal on tests,” roughly expected that liberals would be more consistent. Yet liberals proved just as prejudiced here as conservatives were, but in reverse: While self-described conservatives more readily accepted the sacrifice of Tyrone than they did killing Chip, the liberals were easier about seeing Chip sacrificed than Tyrone.

But this was just college students. Perhaps they were morally mushier than most people. So the team went further afield. As Pizarro describes in the talk:

We wanted to find a sample of more sort of, you know, real people. So we went in Orange County out to a mall and we got people who are actually Republicans and actually Democrats, not wishy-washy college students. The effect just got stronger. (This time it was using a “lifeboat” dilemma where one person has to be thrown off the edge of a lifeboat in order to save everybody, again using the names “Tyrone Payton” or “Chip Ellsworth III”.) We replicated the finding, but this time it was even stronger.

If you’re wondering whether this is just because conservatives are racist—well, it may well be that conservatives are more racist. But it appears in these studies that the effect is driven [primarily] by liberals saying that they’re more likely to agree with pushing the white man and [more likely to] disagree with pushing the black man.

So we used to refer to this as the “kill whitey” study.

They offered some other scenarios too, about collateral damage in military situations, for instance, and found similar differences: Conservatives accepted collateral damage more easily if the dead were Iraqis than if they were Americans, while liberals accepted civilian deaths more readily if the dead were Americans rather than Iraqis.

What did this say about people’s morals? Not that they don’t have any. It suggests that they had more than one set of morals, one more consequentialist than another, and choose to fit the situation. Again, from the talk:

It’s not that people have a natural bias toward deontology or a natural bias toward consequentialism. What appears to be happening here is that there’s a motivated endorsement of one or the other whenever it’s convenient.

Or as Pizarro told me on the phone, “The idea is not that people are or are not utilitarian; it’s that they will cite being utilitarian when it behooves them. People are aren’t using these principles and then applying them. They arrive at a judgment and seek a principle.”

So we’ll tell a child on one day, as Pizarro’s parents told him, that ends should never justify means, then explain the next day that while it was horrible to bomb Hiroshima, it was morally acceptable because it shortened the war. We act — and then cite whichever moral system fits best, the relative or the absolute.

Pizarro says this isn’t necessarily bad. It’s just different. It means we draw not so much on consistent moral principles as on a moral toolbox. And if these studies show we’re not entirely consistent, they also show we’re at least determined — really determined, perhaps, given the gyrations we go through to try to justify our actions — to behave morally. We may choose from a toolbox — but the tools are clean. As Pizarro puts it at the end of his talk,

I am still an optimist about rationality, and I cling to the one finding that I talked about, which is that when you point out people’s inconsistencies, they really are embarrassed.


Note: This piece  originally ran on 9/15/10. 

Image: Flickr/Heath Brandon

How Science Entered My Brain

This Tuesday evening, May 22, I’ll be part of the “I Am Science” story-telling and music mash-up in Brooklyn. To celebrate the two-year anniversary of the wonderful StoryCollider outfit, neuroscientists Joy Hirsch and Joe LeDoux, science cheerleader Darlene Cavalier, and I will tell how science got into our heads. Joe LeDoux’s fearless band, The Amygdaloids, will provide musical interludes. This builds atop StoryCollider’s wonderful two-year run of story-telling about science and a month in which they’ve focused on the many weird paths that take people into obsessions with science — a project itself inspired by Kevin Zelnio’s remarkable story of his own’ path in and the rousing responses by others offering theirs. My own story, a bit strange, will most distinctly concern paths. Can’t say more till showtime.

If you’re in New York or can get there, join us on at 8 pm on Tuesday, May 22, 2012, at The Bell House in Brooklyn, NY; tickets here. And keep an eye here or at StoryCollider for the podcasts to come.

Hope to see you there.

Four Minutes of London, Achingly Beautiful

Via the wonderful The Londonist. By MB Films. Soundtrack Rael Jones, who did same for Sherlock.

As the Londonist puts it, ‘According to the filmmakers, their intention was to “capture the spirit and endless energy of London.” Job done.’ I should add: and the skies.

I’m still mourning our departure, 9 months ago, after a year there. This film makes me about as homesick as I’ve ever been, barring, maybe, my first day at camp, way back when.