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.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Massimo's Picks

* Why is Doctor Who of such long lasting appeal? (50 years and counting...)

* Two new books on the science and philosophy of trolleology.

* Steve Novella comments on my comments on Marteen Boudry's idea of a pseudoscience black hole.

* Is the latest Jared Diamond book another exercise in naive history and misguided anthropology?

* The godfather of MOOCs says they won't work. And the fault is of the poor kids who just can't take advantage of them.

* Sam Harris, the elephant in the (scientistic) room.

* Wall Street just isn't worth it.

* Viral journalism and the Valley of Ambiguity.


  1. Re Novella's list, for comparison here's Irving Langmuir's list:
    The maximum effect that is observed is produced by a causative agent of barely detectable intensity, and the magnitude of the effect is substantially independent of the intensity of the cause.
    The effect is of a magnitude that remains close to the limit of detectability; or, many measurements are necessary because of the very low statistical significance of the results.
    Claims of great accuracy.
    Fantastic theories contrary to experience.
    Criticisms are met by ad hoc excuses thought up on the spur of the moment.
    Ratio of supporters to critics rises up to somewhere near 50% and then falls gradually to oblivion.

  2. Per the Harris piece, the biggest problem with utilitarianism is that none of us are omniscient. We have no way of knowing how many people an action of ours will benefit. Plus, we really can't step into the "view from nowhere" enough to know if an action of ours is even a benefit as much as we think it is.

    The trolley problem, per the NYT piece, illustrates that. What if, per the old discussion on abortion, the "one," or one of the "five," is Hitler or Stalin? Or, their father? Or great-grandmother?

    1. I had the very same thought when considering the Singer podcast (which I didn't listen to yet). In fiction Consequentialism often seems to have the obvious ethical answer - of course you can torture the terrorist to find the bomb/the child/... because for the reader (and the author) the facts and consequences are clear cut. In RL, you mostly don't even know whether the guy in the chair committed the crime...

      Actively harming others aside, I wonder whether in many (fictional or real) cases Virtue Ethics or Consequentialism would arrive at different actions at all. Wrath of Khan vs. Into Darkness illustrates the point - Spock and Kirk act the same way coming from different ethical directions (Spock C, Kirk VE).

    2. Good point on Singer. I, then, tie this back to Harris on scientism. Another issue I have with it is that it seems to consider members of H. sapiens as Vulcan-like automatons. The NYT piece pointed out male-female differences on the trolley as one obvious counterexample.

      It's also funny that the least scientific social science, economics, had the most scientism-like presentation of, and understanding of, its own self until the one actually scientific wing of economics, behavioral economics, upset the applecart by showing how emotion-driving H. economicus actually is.

      That all said, I do give Singer credit for being unflinching in following out the conclusions of his own thought processes.

    3. I do have to defend economics here - you are talking about Micro (although Homo Oeconomicus never made sense to me even in University a long time ago). Macro, for the most part, does not fall into this trap. Good post on Wonkblog last week related to that: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/11/30/colleges-are-teaching-economics-backwards/


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