About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Massimo's Picks

by Massimo Pigliucci

* How to determine whether controversial scientific statements are (likely) true.

* Apparently, belief in Hell correlates with lower crime rates. Should we be concerned?

* Likely the most important ethical decision of your life: think before you breed.

* Happiness, apparently, is a glass half empty.

* Free market fundamentalism gets in the way of family values.

* On rude students.

* When physics learns from philosophy.

* The esthetics of gaming.

* Should analytical philosophers be more concerned with emotions?

* Fuck me or you are fired!

* A really, really bad TED talk.

* Is there such a thing as gaydar? Apparently, science says yes.


  1. RE: How to Determine If A Controversial Statement Is Scientifically True

    Odd that Dr. Plait warns of confirmation bias, but seems blind to his own conspicuous bias with regard to conspiracies and politics.

    Plait warns against people "who actively promote conspiracy theories against scientists. . . who say scientists are lying to us, or that Big Pharma is paying them. . .". Further on, the article warns about people "who behave like conversations about research are political...".

    Why automatically assume that charges of conspiracy or political influence are bogus?

    A conspiracy is merely "an agreement to perform together an illegal, treacherous or evil act". Nothing supernatural about that.

    Conspiracy is a concept in law and many corporations routinely plead guilty to it -- including "Big Pharma". Yes Dr. Plait, the principle parties involved in a conspiracy (including pharmaceutical companies) actually ADMIT under oath that the illegal act that they were engaged in WAS a conspiracy.

    But in Dr. Plait's world, anyone who makes reference to such things is obviously being illogical and unscientific, and no further thought is needed. Conspiracy charges or charges of political or monetary influence are summarily amalgamated with Elvis sightings.

    Conspiracies never happen. Scientists never lie. Big Pharma companies (e.g. a pharmaceutical company with business in the billions of dollars) do not exist. Companies never engage in bribery or illegal acts. Scientists never accept bribes or alter their findings. Politics plays no role in controversial issues.

    Dr. Plait conflates a naive and unquestioning faith in powerful institutions with being scientific, and unjustly dismisses the (sometimes well deserved) skepticism regarding these institutions out of hand, instead of urging a review on a case by case basis.

  2. > Apparently, belief in Hell correlates
    > with lower crime rates.
    > Should we be concerned?
    No, we should not. Rather, we should possibly be concerned about the editorial policies at PLoS ONE. It's clear that a study with these "findings" is going to be cited a lot in newspapers (and blogs), so you better make sure that there's at least solid methodology to back the claims up (which there isn't). I'd advice to read the comment by Gregory Paul at the original article at PLoS ONE:

  3. Perhaps I am being too hard on Dr. Plait, but he warns only of the dangers of believing too much in conspiracy/political influence charges and gives no warnings of the dangers of believing too little in them.

    Happily, some recent news articles illustrate my point:

    (1) "Big Pharma" member GlaxoSmithKline plead guilty to criminal charges and was fined $3 billion.

    (2) Barclays Bank, and a host of other major banks (Citigroup, HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland, etc.) are under investigation for trying to manipulate the "LIBOR" (London Inter-Bank Offered Rate).

    In (1), their behavior (which endangered safety) is commonplace in the industry -- Abbot Labs and Johnson & Johnson recently acted the same. The interesting part was the SIZE of the fine: $3 billion. That's billion with a "B". Big Pharma does indeed engage in criminal behavior in a big way (as GSK admits).

    Item (2) is really amazing. Manipulating the LIBOR is big. This is on par with rigging the Kentucky Derby or fixing the result of the World Series. It's unbelievable -- yet it happened. Barclays ADMITS they tried to manipulate LIBOR, and the other banks (all major players in world finance) are still trying to decide what their story is.

    Bottom line: Dr. Plait winds up with egg on his face for his simplistic, one sided approach to evaluating charges of conspiracy or political influence. It is sometimes true that the guy who just walked into your local donut shop is really not Elvis, but it is also sometimes true that major multi-billion dollar industries like GSK and Barclays act like crooks. Trash Dr. Plait's advice and evaluate conspiracy/political charges on a case by case basis.


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