Category Archives: society

Op-ed: Worse than Bigotry

In June 2020 the conversation of three cops in Wilmington NC talking to one other in their separate cars was inadvertently recorded by the police system.  After scanning a 2-hour video that had been “accidentally activated”, towards the end of the tape an officer found conversation she found to be “extremely racist”.

Why, one wonders, did the Wilmington police department devote so much time to scrutinizing an accidental recording?  No matter: the comments thus discovered were indeed unpleasantly racist. The mildest involved one officer referring to a black woman and later a black magistrates as “negroes”. The officers also speculated about a possible coming civil war and “slaughtering them”.  Another officer apparently felt a civil war was needed to “wipe them off the (expletive) map.” Another officer told this one that he was “crazy”. The recording ceased at that point.

Overall, the officers’ conduct was deplorable. On the other hand, their conversation was intended to be private and some of it might not be racist.

The word “negro” was once the acceptable term for African-Americans. It was MLK’S term and is used by black charitable organizations like the United Negro College Fund. Now Black Lives Matter seems to have ratified the word “black”. The point is that racial issues are so touchy that acceptable language changes frequently.

The name for anything that is, or was, regarded as undesirable, is always subject to change. An obvious example is mental handicap.  After the term “idiot” became unacceptable it was supplanted by “moron” (yes, the Greek-derived “moron” was for a while a gentler and more acceptable term than Middle English “idiot”). Moron in turn has been succeeded by a long list of euphemisms, the current favorite being “special needs.”

Although the Wilmington cops can be exonerated for some of what they said, much that is racist remains. There is as yet no evidence that they acted publicly as their words implied (an inquiry is ongoing). The three officers denied that they are racists.  Their conduct was intended to be private; in effect it was a “thought crime”.

Nevertheless, before the results of an inquiry are in, they have all been fired.

Avid anti-racists may regard this as a just punishment.  But, absent any evidence of public misbehavior  by the three officers, the punishment will seem to others both hasty and harsh.

Wilmington police authorities should reflect on what their action means for society as a whole. Racism may be a sin. But the idea of “sin” is a Christian one and it comes along with the idea of redemption — and forgiveness.  The treatment of these three officers for a private speech  crime is not only un-Christian, it is also chilling.

Peremptory and extreme treatment suppresses not just free speech but free thought. Perhaps that’s the idea, although I doubt the officers’ superiors thought much about that. Protecting their fragile fundaments was probably the main thing on their minds. But arbitrary and harsh punishment does chill thought and that is much worse than the small amount of bigotry that is unavoiadable in any free society.

A more moderate  punishment would have let the officers and the public know that the Wilmington police department understands justice as well decency: decency of behavior and justice of punishment. As it is, they do themselves no credit by bowing to the mob.

CAVEAT:  This post was deemed “too political” for my blog on Psychology Today. You be the judge.



A Platform for Activists

This correspondence relates to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Katherine Mangan. The article was highlighted by a picture of four rather grumpy looking young interviewees and headed: What College Activists Want.

From an editor: On 7/16/2020 11:44 AM, Rachel Mull wrote:

Dear Professor Staddon,

Katherine Mangan passed along your email. To answer your questions:

In the past several weeks, racial-justice advocates have gained widespread support for their cause, with sustained calls for change at institutions of all kinds. Colleges are likely to face pressure from student activists and their allies well into the academic year. This article gives Chronicle readers a window into the viewpoints of a few such students.

Additional Chronicle coverage of this movement offers analysis, and will continue to do so in the future. Criticism is the domain of The Chronicle Review [Here is a relatively balanced example.]

Thank you for reading.

Rachel Cieri Mull

Senior Editor

The Chronicle of Higher Education


Dear Rachel Mull:

Thanks for responding. I take your point about newsworthiness, and thanks for the link — which also seems to be promoting the activists’ cause.  My problem is that as someone who has worked in a US university for decades, I see little evidence for many of the claims these kids make and little or no representation of that point of view in CHED.  A couple of examples:

“it was a jarring reminder for Maliya Homer of how vulnerable she felt as a Black woman.” But the question is: How rational is it for Ms. Homer to feel that way on the campus of a university where such events essentially never occur? Does she need a course in statistics? In other words, is it her problem or ours? (Of course, it is a problem for government and law enforcement, but that is another matter.)

Tyler Yarbrough is concerned about Emmett Till, but who isn’t? I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t deplore what happened. I suspect that the frat boys [“a photo emerged last year of fraternity members posing with guns in front of a bullet-pocked memorial sign to Till.”] were just reacting against the pressure to conform (has anybody investigated?). I well remember how I behaved as a college kid in less tumultuous times.

A confederate statue is just a statue; it doesn’t “say” anything. It means different things to different people. Many, myself included, don’t see those statues as anything more than relics of history reflecting the importance of the figure not his virtue.

What do southerners, white and black, really think? If only a minority see these statues as celebrating slavery and a majority see them as reminders of Southern history, then should the  minority, who see them as somehow supporting racism, automatically have their way — never mind the illegality of toppling?

“Among their key demands: Students need more minority faculty, staff, and administrators they can feel comfortable confiding in and seeking advice from.” Knowledge has no color; white kids have sought comfort from black nannies in ages past; why should not black kids do likewise with whites?  Segregating students and faculty by color turns history on its head, and is racist besides.

I could go on. The point is that these are emotional and contentious issues. They should not be presented without a context. Perhaps next time, if you pick four students, there should be two on each side of the debate.

John S.

Possum’s Handy Guide to Wokeness

Rational people in Western society have been puzzled in recent years by a series of disturbing words, some new, some old with new meanings.  Information and analysis is now available to help the ‘unwoke’ to appreciate, if not fully understand, these powerful new concepts. Our account might even interest the occasional ‘wokester’ who has a side-interest in reason. The  guide follows:


This has become a big issue in 2020. It was kicked off by black writer Ta-Nehisi Coates in a June 2014 Atlantic article. Are African Americans worse or better off than if they had remained in Africa with their ancestors ? REPARATIONS: Taking Ta-Nehisi Coates Seriously looks at the pros and cons of the idea.


“Aggression means “an intent to harm”; microaggressions are usually unintentional.  What are they then?  Microaggression, Mens Rea and the Unconscious Mind and It’s All About Power explain and Blinded with Science! If civil speech is violence, what is real violence? reassures the ‘unsafe’.


This paradoxical idea was mooted a few years ago by scholars of race and ethnic studies. Recently it has given birth to the racism vs, anti-racism dichotomy, aka “you’re either with us or against us”. The New Racism, Part I: How ‘Race and Ethnic Studies’ Made Color Blindness a Bad Thing and The New Racism, Part II: The Sociologist’s Toolkit: Justifying Racism Through Language explain what is going on.


Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (appropriately: DEI) have become a new religion among administrators everywhere, from schools and colleges to big business: “demographic diversity is a proxy for perspectival diversity…” says one historian of science. Well, no it’s not: Diversity and Inclusion of Identity Groups Often Means Uniformity and Exclusion of Ideas and  Is Diversity an Enemy of Excellence? explain why.


This has become a popular theme and a very successful book, but as social science (as opposed to propaganda), it is nonsense.  A parody, Did the Hoaxers Do Anything Wrong? shows that white fragility is a meaningless insult.


This has become a biggie. Now systemic racism is everywhere. We all know about individual racism: how is systemic racism different? Does it even exist?  How Real Is Systemic Racism Today? , The New Racism: How activism and pseudo-science have corrupted sociology and Response to Vicky: Is racism everywhere, really?


How can we recognize prejudice? It isn’t always easy.  Is stimulus generalization prejudice, or just an automatic learning process? Offense intended? Or not? gives an example.


A powerful new social-justice philosophy that proves and empowers: “My ongoing general motivation for the past twenty years or so has been to help with the project of unwhitening mainstream political philosophy…” says Charles S. Mills, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center.  For more see…

Op-Ed: Worse than Bigotry: An incident in Wilmington

Cancel culture on the beach

Bigotry is bad. But the steps that must be taken to completely eliminate it are much, much worse.

Here is an example.  The conversation of three cops in Wilmington NC talking to one other in their separate cars was inadvertently recorded by the police system.  Their comments were picked up via a monthly video audit.  The comments were unpleasantly racist. The mildest involved one officer referring to a black woman and later a black magistrates as “negroes”. The officers also speculated about a possible coming civil war and “slaughtering them”.  Another officer apparently felt a civil war was needed to “wipe them off the (expletive) map.” A second officer told this one that he was “crazy: the recording ceased at that point.

The officers conduct was deplorable; no doubt about that. On their other hand, their conversation was intended to be private. The word “negro” was once the acceptable term for African-Americans. It was used by MLK and is still used by black charitable organizations like the United Negro College Fund.

The point is that racial language is so touchy that what is acceptable changes frequently.  You can see the same phenomenon in relation to mental handicap.  Once mentally handicapped people were just called “idiots”.  After the term idiot became unacceptable it was supplanted by “moron” (yes, the Greek-derived “moron” was for a while a gentler and more acceptable term than Middle English “idiot”). Moron in turn has been succeeded by a long list of euphemisms, the current favorite being “special needs.”  If a person or a condition is regarded as socially undesirable, the words used for it tend to change: as one word becomes stigmatized, another will take its place. This is just the nature of language,

Even if they were confused about the acceptable term for people of color, there is no doubt that the rest of the cops’ conversation was blatantly racist. The three officers denied that they are racists.  Their conduct was not public; in effect it was a “thought crime”. There is as yet no evidence that they acted publicly in the way their words implied (an inquiry is ongoing).

Nevertheless, before the results of an inquiry are in, all three cops have been fired.

Many people will regard this as a just punishment. They should reflect on what it means for society as a whole. Racism may be a sin. But the idea of “sin” is a Christian one and it comes along with the idea of redemption — and forgiveness.  The treatment of the officers is not only un-Christian, it is also chilling.

Hasty, arbitrary and severe treatment like this suppresses not just free speech but free thought. Perhaps that’s the idea, although I doubt the officers’ superiors thought much about that. Protecting their fragile fundaments was probably the main thing on their minds. But a more measured punishment would have let the officers and the public know that the Wilmington police department understands justice as well decency: decency of behavior and justice of punishment. As it is, they serve neither society nor themselves by caving to the mob.

John Staddon


Determining Truth

Harvard Magazine  July-August 2020

MANY THANKS for the rather eloquent article in the May-June issue (“Will Truth Prevail?” page 27) by 2020 Harvard graduate Drew Pendergrass on his science education. I applaud his enthusiasm but have reservations about what he seems to have learned from history of science professor Naomi Oreskes.

Pendergrass has obviously been much influenced by Oreskes’s book Merchants of Doubt. I recently wrote a critique of the book’s treatment of passive smoking, an issue so entangled in political bias that the truth, which is in fact pretty clear, is hard to see through the smoke. Pendergrass has obviously picked up Oreskes’s habit of dismissing an argument by impugning the motives of the source. She describes (in Pendergrass’s words) “how a small group of contrarian, industry-funded scientists misled the public about the dangers of both tobacco and human-caused climate change. By sowing doubt, exaggerating scientific uncertainty, and creating their own institutions to publish junk papers that would never survive peer reviewmore

Why Do American Universities Lead the World in Scientific Research?

Urquiola describes how the history of American universities put them on a path different from European universities, a path where economic forces could act in ways that allowed American institutions to diverge and, in the late 20th century, to become pre-eminent engines of scientific research.

This pre-eminence occurred despite statistics putting US scientific literacy well behind many European countries…more 

The Self-Destruction of the Academy

John Staddon May 26, 2020 Heterodox Academy

A review of Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education, by Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness.

There is a field of economics called Public Choice Theory (PCT) whose best-known advocates are James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock. Public Choice aims to show how the incentives to which bureaucrats are subject, the things that their status, perks, and salaries really depend on, frequently push them in directions incompatible with their assigned mission. PCT highlights the purely economic forces that often underlie apparently moral decisions.

Cracks in the Ivory Tower (CIT) is in the PCT tradition. The two authors are economists and philosophers. They ask tough questions about higher education as a business and a bureaucracy. They point out that the misalignment of actual incentives with stated goals also poses moral problems…more

What Happened to the SAT?

Selection bias and the end of Gen Ed.

Posted May 22, 2020 Psychology Today, John Staddon

he Scholastic Aptitude Test was once hailed as a way to open colleges to bright poor kids. It works pretty well to predict performance in college, and even afterwards —at least it used to in 2011. But it has been increasingly criticized on several grounds: It doesn’t predict; it doesn’t predict as well as high school grades; it’s unfair because it’s correlated with parents’ socioeconomic status (SES); it’s unfair because different racial/ethnic groups don’t score the same; rich kids can prepare for the SAT, poor ones can’t; high schools waste time on test prep when they should be teaching substance. There are probably other objections; this is a tangled issue, not to be settled in a short blog post.

I just want to draw attention to a simple problem…more

Science and Activism

Should scientists also persuade, or should facts speak for themselves?

Posted Apr 28, 2020 Psychology Today, John Staddon

The May-June issue of the Harvard Magazine has several interesting articles.  The World’s Costliest Health Care, by professor of applied economics David Cutler will perhaps draw the most readers (U.S. health care costs roughly twice as much, per capita, as healthcare in other developed countries; in return we have a lower life expectancy than most).

But almost equally interesting is Will Truth Prevail? by just-graduated student Drew Pendergrass.  The piece is well written and Pendergrass’ enthusiasm for science is appealing.  Less attractive is his belief that scientists should also be activists, because “truth” doesn’t always win…more

Moral Algorithms

“I’m sorry, Dave; I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Posted Apr 02, 2020 Psychology Today, John Staddon

Thus spake HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. The computer saw Dave’s request as jeopardizing the mission and acted accordingly. HAL’s algorithms were moral.

Not to be outdone by science fiction, Congress last year introduced something called the Algorithmic Accountability Act, a novel attempt to hold computer programs accountable for immoral behavior. The New York Times (5/7/19) labeled it “The Legislation that Targets the Racist Impacts of Tech.” The bill seems to have died, but the ideas behind it are worth exploring…more

The Mess That Is Science Publishing

Researchers have been grumbling about the state of scientific publishing for years. Now, rumor has it that the Trump administration (yes, those science-haters!) may be trying to fix at least one problem: access to reports of government-funded research.

The rumored proposal will require free, immediate access to all reports of government-funded scientific research. The rumor is credible enough that an association of 210 academic and research libraries has written to the president in support of the idea. The research-publication system is a mess, and open access would be one small step toward a fix.

But first, a little history. When scientific publishing began, scientists were few, many were amateurs…more

The Meritocracy Trap—A Review

Quillette  John Staddon Published October 9, 2019. VIDEO

A review of The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feed Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite by Daniel Markovits, Penguin Press (September 2019) 422 pages.

Meritocracy is in trouble. Recent years have seen a flood of articles deploring inequality and blaming meritocracy for it. In the vanguard is Yale Law professor Daniel Markovits who attacked meritocracy in its home, in an address to Yale University graduates in 2015. His new book, The Meritocracy Trap,1 has just been published.

Professor Markovits is a meritocratic champ himself: “In the summer of 1987…I graduated from a public high school in Austin, Texas, and [then] attend[ed] Yale College. I then spent nearly 15 years studying at…the London School of Economics, the University of Oxford, Harvard University, and finally Yale Law School—picking up a string of degrees [in philosophy, econometrics, mathematics and law] along the way.”…more

Diet Reporting—the Real Fake News

Quillette  John Staddon Published on September 18, 2019

No one would choose to study diet as a way to understand the way humans metabolize food. Effects are delayed, often for years. Experimentation is usually impossible for ethical and practical reasons—subjects cannot be sacrificed and dissected to see the physiological effects of different food regimens. And much better methods are available to study how food is processed by the body. On the other hand, people are very interested in what they should eat. There is a huge market for ‘diet science.’

Diet Reporting Should Go on a Diet

The New York Times once had a reputation as the “paper of record,” a reliable, if left-of-center, source of information. I’m not sure it’s ever been reliable when it comes to diet…more

No Offense

What did she really mean?

Psychology Today John Staddon Posted Jul 23, 2019

Behaviorists of all varieties agree on one thing—that the job of their science is to explain how an organism’s history affects its future behavior.

Here is an example. Imagine a hungry pigeon in a Skinner box facing a disk (called a key) which can be lighted with different colors. He is exposed to a random sequence of two key lights: red and green: RGRRGRGG…Each color stays on for 5 s.  If he pecks the red light, he gets a “time-out,” all the lights go out and he must wait in the dark for 60 s until one of the lights re-appears. If he pecks on the green light, he gets a bit of food and the sequence resumes….more

Administrative Bloat: Where Does It Come From and What Is It Doing?

James Martin Center JUN 19, 2019 John Staddon 12 Comments

College bureaucracies have been growing at least since the 1980s. I was then editor of a mildly disputatious Duke University publication called the Faculty Newsletter. The one thing that seems to be remembered from those days is the “VP Count:” The number of people in the administration with “vice president” or “vice provost” in their title. On the first or second page of every issue of the Newsletter, in large letters, appeared the current number of VPs. Finally, I got data from the Duke Archives and published a graph in November 1991, plotting the number of vice presidents from 1959 to 1991. The graph rose with only one small dip, from three in 1959 to 19 in 1991. Now we might have to convert to a log scale….more

The APA Guidelines

Science or ‘Dedicated follower of fashion’

Psychology Today, John Staddon Posted Apr 22, 2019

Many eminent scientists think that science is a guide to action, which is true in a sense: Science guides action in the way that a steering wheel guides a car. But the wheel by itself provides no destination and the car will not go anywhere without an engine.  Without moral values to motivate action and set a goal, scientific facts point nowhere.

As David Hume explained several centuries ago: “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. It is not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me.” Action requires motive; the facts of science by themselves provide no motive….more

Values, Even Secular Ones, Depend on Faith: A Reply to Jerry Coyne

Jerry Coyne’s article “Secular Humanism is Not a Religion” is longer than my “Is Secular Humanism a Religion?”, perhaps because he is confused about what I said. Or perhaps I was too concise. Possibly the problem was my title (not mine, but Quillette’s) which is a bit misleading.

I wasn’t saying that secular humanism is a religion. I was saying that in those aspects of religion which actually affect and seek to guide human behavior, secular humanism does not differ from religion. It has commandments, just as Christianity has. But they are covert, not in plain sight and not easily accessible: not, therefore, as vulnerable to criticism as religious dicta. Moreover, in no case are secular commandments derivable from reason. Like religious “oughts” they are also matters of faith. Secular morals are as unprovable as the morals of religion….more

Is Secular Humanism a Religion?

It is now a rather old story: secular humanism is a religion. A court case in 1995 examined the issue and concluded, rightly, that science, in the form of the theory of evolution, is not a religion. In 2006, the BBC aired a program called The Trouble with Atheism which argued that atheists are religious and made the point via a series of interviews with prominent atheists who claimed their beliefs were “proved” by science. The presenter, Rod Liddle, concluded that Darwinism is a religion. That is wrong, as 18th century philosopher David Hume showed many years ago. Science consists of facts, but facts alone do not motivate. Without motive, a fact points to no action. Liddle was half-right: both religion and secular humanism provide motives, explicit in one case, but covert in the other.

What is religion?…more

Is Diversity an Enemy of Excellence?

By John E.R. Staddon

Intellectual Takeout February 13, 2019

The National Science Foundation (NSF) was created by Congress in 1950 “to promote the progress of science….” Following a 2012 recommendation, NSF now has an Office of Diversity and Inclusion (D&I). NSF was just following the crowd, for almost every academic and research institution now has a D&I program.

No one wants to exclude people or not be diverse. So, what’s wrong with D&I?

Could D&I perhaps interfere with “the progress of science”? …more

Did the Hoaxers Do Anything Wrong?

One of the three “Sokal Squared” academic hoaxers, Peter Boghossian of Portland State University, has been accused of violating his university’s research policies. Boghossian is the only one of the three to hold an (untenured) academic position and so is the only one vulnerable to disciplinary action.

Boghossian and his compatriots parodied fashionable social-“science” research; now, some in the academy are crying that parody is not fair play…more

How Real Is Systemic Racism Today?

Racist attitudes of whites towards blacks have long become socially unacceptable in America, although the reverse, racism of a minority directed at the white majority, is still tolerated or even encouraged. However, statistical racial disparities persist. African Americans, as a population, continue to suffer income, crime and incarceration rate, health, housing and family-structure deficits by comparison with the white population.

These disparities cannot easily be attributed to racist behavior by whites. The disparities have either increased or remained the same while individual racist behavior has declined. What then is the cause of these disparities? There are two possibilities: causes within individuals, what I have elsewhere called endogenous causes; or external, exogenous causes….more


Glenn Beck: Why do they hate him so?

In January 2011, Vanity Fair published Tea’d Off, an article by Christopher Hitchens which is an attack on the Tea Party movement and its chief icon, broadcaster Glenn Beck. I have long admired Mr. Hitchens, for his prose, his erudition, his independence, and, not least, his courage now in the face of a dreadful disease. Mr. Hitchens is also one of our most brilliant debaters and polemicists. In short, I’m a fan; but I’m very disappointed by his caricature account of Glenn Beck…more

How Not to React to a Research Paper

Citizens of North Carolina, to the extent that they pay attention to such matters, may be puzzled by the recent storm in a teacup at Duke.

A statistical study co-authored by two Duke economists and a sociologist described data suggesting that black and legacy applicants to Duke are more likely than others to shift majors away from their initial expressed preference for science, engineering or economics to subjects in the humanities or social sciences with a more generous grade distribution…more

Static theories are inadequate to describe real markets

Financial Times OCTOBER 29, 2012 From Emeritus Prof John Staddon.

Sir, As someone who was heckled by Robert May (Comment, October 20) while giving a plenary lecture to a conference on ethology in Oxford more than 30 years ago (I went on too long, as a nervous speaker will often do), I want to add to John Whiteman’s letter about predator-prey equations and market cycles (October 26)…more

Solution is to abolish multinational tax

Financial Times November 22, 2012, John Staddon
Sir, Sol Picciotto and Nicholas Shaxson are quite right that the tax treatment of multinationals gives them an unfair competitive advantage over smaller companies. But there is of course an even better way of solving the problem than restructuring the tax code as they propose…more

Cutting the Too-Big-to-Fail Banking Risk Down to Size

Wall Street Journal  March 13, 2013, JS and various contributors

If size is the problem, size should be the target. The simplest way to deal with the TBTF problem is a progressive tax on total exposure. The largest banks should pay a marginal rate that makes them unprofitable. It would force them to downsize and would raise much-needed cash in a way that should not damage the economy…more


The Atlantic January/February issue 2013, John Staddon

In November, James Bennet interviewed Michael Bloomberg. They spoke about the role of government, highlighting such topics as the New York City mayor’s regulation of soda sizes and metzitzah b’peh, an ancient Jewish circumcision practice.

I liked Mayor Bloomberg more after reading James Bennet’s interview, but I still find him annoying…more

‘Gullivering’ American Enterprise and Its Job Creators

Wall Street Journal ,June 25, 2013 John Staddon and another

The core problem seems to be “legislation by delegation.” The Dodd-Frank Act and the Affordable Health Care act are both wish lists of utopian objectives, with no details about how they might realistically be achieved, plus the assumption that they are in fact achievable. An example from Dodd-Frank: “SEC. 714. ABUSIVE SWAPS. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission or the Securities…more 

Science and the senator: missing the point about government waste

About to retire, Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn, M.D., has just released his 107-page 2014 Wastebook, a tabloid-type listing  of over a hundred wasteful government-funded projects. Coburn continues the tradition of the late William Proxmire, the Wisconsin senator who, more modestly, chose just one or two “Golden Fleeces” each year.

Many objects of Coburn’s ire—agencies using paid “administrative leave” to isolate whistle blowers, vast misdirection of food-stamp money, for example—are right on target. But when it comes to science, he misses the point…more

A Most Curious Document

National Association of Scholars, June 23, 2016. John Staddon

Elite schools have struggled for many years to increase their racial and ethnic diversity, to foster ‘inclusion,’ and to eliminate any vestige of prejudice. Surely after decades of effort, universities must be among our least prejudiced, biased and hate-filled institutions?

Apparently not. Duke University, one among many, is worried about bias and hate and recently produced a report to prove it: Report of the Duke University Task Force on Bias and Hate Issues (April 30, 2016)…more

Team Player: Professor Shiller and Finance as Panacea

How big should finance be? How productive is the financial industry?

Psychology Today  March 6, 2017, John Staddon

This is a new review of a relatively old book by a famous economist.  The book seems never to have been critically reviewed, despite the eminence of its author.  But as the financial industry looks forward to some kind of deregulation, the issues covered here are returning to the front page.

Shiller, Robert J. (2012). Finance and the Good Society. Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Yale professor Robert Shiller is one of the most influential economists in the world.  Co-inventor of the oft-cited Case-Shiller index, a measure of trends in house prices, he is author or co-author of several influential books about financial crises – including Irrational Exuberance (2000) and (with George Akerloff) and Animal Spirits (2009).  He shared the 2013 Economics Nobel with Eugene Fama and Lars Peter Hansen.

In 2012 Professor Shiller published a full-throttle apologia for plutocracy: Finance and the Good Society.  FATGS is a reaction to the hostility to finance provoked by the 2007+ crisis…More

Unlucky strike: Private Health: The Science, Law and Politics of Smoking

Video John Staddon Cato Institute March 11, 2015

Duke Professor’s 1991 Warning about Campus Chaos is Oddly Prophetic

Intellectual Takeout, Annie Holmquist April 27, 2017

If one was to judge solely from headlines, it would appear that the only activities occurring on university campuses these days are riots and outrage. As professor Jonathan Haidt notes, it’s as if the university is possessed of a “tribal mind” which views “the demonization of inconvenient research and researchers” as its chief end…more

Taking Ta-Nehisi Coates Seriously

Ta-Nehisi Coates has become one of the most prominent intellectuals in America. But his case for reparations is flawed.

Intellectual Takeout John Staddon October 26, 2017.
In June 2014, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a feature in the Atlantic arguing that the terrible history of blacks in the United States justified reparations. Many consider this a radical proposition. Yet critical reaction was mild.

Kevin Williamson, writing in National Review, disagreed with Coates’ proposal but was impressed with the “beautifully written monograph,” describing the prose as “intelligent and sometimes moving.” In his muted critique, Williamson gives little weight to the faulty logic and fundamental injustice of Coates’ proposal…more

How Is Science Judged? How Useful Is Peer Review?

James Martin Center,  John Staddon Jan 31, 2018

The British journal Nature, home in 1953 to Watson and Crick’s important DNA paper, was by 1966 rather in the doldrums, with a backlog of submitted manuscripts and losing ground to the general-science leader, the U.S. journal Science…more

Peer Review: the Publication Game and “the Natural Selection of Bad Science”

James Martin Center,  John Staddon February 2, 2018

Professor Brian Wansink is head of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University. The lab has had problems, some described in an article called “Spoiled Science” in the Chronicle of Higher Education early in 2017:…more

The Persistence of Memory and #MeToo

Intellectual Takeout, John Staddon February 8, 2018

The recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein have precipitated hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse. Many of the complainants are now adults, even middle-aged. But most of the alleged events took place when the victims were young – teenagers or even children. One of Weinstein’s accusers recounted events that occurred some twenty years previously; another accused Weinstein of raping her in 1992…more

Science and Its Discontents: Too Few Jobs—or Too Many Scientists?

James Martin Center, John Staddon February 28, 2018

The United States is producing more research scientists than academia can handle,” so begins a July 2016 article by respected New York Times science reporter Gina Kolata. It turns out that new PhDs in science have a hard time getting a job like their mentor’s: tenured faculty in a research university. Fifty years ago, in my own area of experimental psychology, things were very different. Postgraduates, after four years of college, were able to get their PhDs in four or five years. They usually got a tenure-track job at a reasonable university right after graduating….more

Duke Divinity School’s Race to the Bottom

Comment on The Irreproducibility Crisis: The State of Science


Racism Is Everywhere…Is It, Really? Suppressing debate is a non-solution

Psychology Today  Posted Oct 07, 2017

This blog is about how lack of empathy can lead to charges of racism; and how the perception that racism is pervasive can lead to demands for remedies worse than the disease they are supposed to cure.

A Chronicle of Higher Education article, written by Marcia Chatelain, an African-American curricular activist and associate professor of history at Georgetown University, claims that racism is found almost everywhere, that limiting academic speech is a necessary part of a cure and “That college campuses are complicit in encouraging and emboldening budding white nationalists.”…more

Response to Vicky: Is racism everywhere, really?

This is a response to a thoughtful comment from Vicky to my blog critical of the supposed ubiquity of racism.  This response turned out to be too long for a comment; hence this new blog. (It also made Psychology Today uncomfortable).

Apropos race differences in IQ and SAT: They do exist, both in the US and in comparisons between white Europeans and Africans.  What they mean is much less clear…more

Sorry, Professor, Speech Is Not Violence, Even To Your Neurons

These data simply do not support Lisa Barrett’s implausible claim that speech directed at college students can cause them physiological harm.

The Federalist, J 20, 2017  By

“She Blinded Me With Science” is a wonderful 1980s song by the Brit Thomas Dolby. It could be the signature tune for Professor Lisa Barrett’s deeply fallacious New York Times article on speech as violence. She writes: “Words can have a powerful effect on your nervous system. Certain types of adversity, even those involving no physical contact, can make you sick, alter your brain – even kill neurons – and shorten your life.”…more

Diversity and Inclusion of Identity Groups Often Means Uniformity and Exclusion of Ideas

The New Racism, Part I: How ‘Race and Ethnic Studies’ Made Color Blindness a Bad Thing

Like most Americans, I have always assumed that color blindness is our ideal.  Not any more: color blindness is now become the new racism. So much for a 70-year struggle to fulfill Martin Luther King Jr.’s wish that his children be “judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” So much for the noble aim to treat people as individuals rather than as representatives of an identity group….more

The New Racism, Part II: The Sociologist’s Toolkit: Justifying Racism Through Language

James Martin Center AUG 3, 2018 By John Staddon  23 Comments

The best way to grasp how sociology has managed to make color-blind racism (CBR) seem believable is to study its Newspeak (to continue the Orwell theme).


To many modern sociologists, color blindness is a racist weapon that works, somehow, through whiteness, a scheme of thought invisible to most whites, but revealed by CBR sociology. Whiteness is part of systemic racism: “Exposing the Whiteness of Color Blindness” is a chapter subhead in Bonilla-Silva’s book. Whiteness is as real an identity as blackness. None of these, neither whiteness, nor blackness, nor systemic racism is measurable in an objective way.  Whiteness, “the practices of the ‘new racism’—the post-civil rights set of arrangements that preserves white supremacy” in the words of Bonilla-Silva—is apparently hegemonic: “I contend that ‘color-blind’ ideology plays an important role in the maintenance of white hegemony,” writes Ashley “Woody” Doane, a leading “whiteness studies” advocate who heads the sociology department at the University of Hartford….more

Righteous Witness

AUG 6, 2018 National Association of Scholars

A couple of years ago, Duke University convened a large task force to produce a 69-page Report of the Duke University Task Force on Bias and Hate Issueswhich I discussed on the NAS site.  The report expressed much concern about, but provided little evidence for, an epidemic of hate. On the other hand, bias (by Duke’s definition) may well be widespread, since the report emphasized that a “bias incident” need not be intentional.

Now there is a new report from Duke, this time in response to the battles over politically incorrect monuments and lack of representation for ‘marginalized groups’ in the history of Duke and other historically white and male institutions. The lavishly produced 100-page Activating History for Justice at Duke, funded by the philanthropic Bass family,..more

The Devolution of Social Science

This article has two themes: first, how in “soft” science fields, increased specialization has led to fragmentation, incoherence and, ultimately, nonsense. And second, an example of the process: race and ethnic studies (RES) and the concept of color-blind racism (CBR) — the idea that treating people according to the content of their character, not the color of their skin, is itself racist. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous definition of non-discrimination is not accepted by, for example, the 2018 President of the American Sociological Association.

Some science history…more


Offense intended?

Or not?

Behaviorisms of all varieties agree on one thing, that the job of their science is to explain how an organism’s history affects its future behavior.

Here is an example. Imagine a hungry pigeon in a Skinner box facing a disk (called a key) which can be lighted with different colors. He is exposed to a random sequence of  two key lights: red and green: RGRRGRGG…Each color stays on for 5 s.  If he pecks the red light, he gets a “time-out”, all the lights go out and he must wait in the dark for 60 s until one of the lights re-appears. If he pecks on the green light, he gets a bit of food and the sequence resumes.

Even the dimmest pigeon will soon learn to peck only on the green light.

Now we give the bird a test. Occasionally, instead of red or green, the light is yellow. What will the pigeon do? Well, at first he will peck the yellow key, because yellow is close to green on the spectrum: green and yellow are similar. This is called stimulus generalization.

But in our test, pecking yellow doesn’t give food but another timeout. Since the pigeon can in fact tell the difference between green  and yellow, even though they are similar, it takes but few repetitions for him to learn not to peck yellow. This is called discrimination.

Human beings also behave like this. Here is an example.

Many years ago, distinguished black scholar Dr. John Hope Franklin took offense. The incident occurred in Washington’s Cosmos Club:

In 1995, on the evening before he was to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House, Franklin hosted a celebratory dinner party for some of his friends at the Cosmos Club. Some of his guests had not arrived, and Franklin decided to head to the entrance of the Club to look for them. There, an elderly white woman handed Franklin her coat check and demanded that he fetch her coat. Franklin politely informed her that all the Club’s attendants were uniformed and if she handed one of them her coat check, they would be happy to assist her. In a talk he gave ten years later, Franklin recounted this event as an example of how racist stereotypes and ideologies about the social position of Blacks remained strongly entrenched in American society. [emphasis added]

Was Dr. Franklin right to be offended? Should the white lady have known better?

In fact, both parties were probably just behaving like our pigeon.  In the WL’s experience, coat attendants in Washington were almost always black (perhaps the attendant to whom she handed her coat originally was black) — the green key. Members of the Cosmos Club, on the contrary, were always white — Franklin was the club’s first black member. Hence her mistake. She had no experience with the yellow key, a black person at the club who was not a servant.

Dr. Franklin had experienced many racist insults in his life, all from white people. Like the pigeon, he had much experience with the red key. Hence his inference that this was just another insult and he reacted as if insulted.

Both individuals made mistakes. But in both cases, the mistakes were a predictable result of their past histories. Who should apologize?  Not Franklin, who was perfectly civil at the time. The lady? Well, yes, she should have apologized, since she did make a mistake. But neither party need feel offended since her error is understandable.

This incident has become an influential story of racism in the American South. It is taken as a blanket condemnation of stereotypes, even though many stereotypes are true: men are usually stronger than women and have deeper voices, for example. A stereotype doesn’t have to be true one hundred percent of the time to be useful. And people form stereotypes automatically.  Horse nettle fruit look like tomatoes, but they are poisonous. A hungry child familiar with tomatoes might well eat the look-alike nettle fruit and get sick. People, like pigeons, generalize based on their past experience.

How should the Cosmos Club incident be regarded now? Dr. Franklin’s original reaction is totally understandable. But emotion is not always a reliable guide to truth. Being upset does not mean you should be upset.  The real facts may be different from what your instincts assume. Dr. Franklin, unlike the hapless pigeon, had the power to reflect on possibly non-racist causes of the WL’s behavior.

It is unfortunate that, ten years after the event, Dr. Franklin used this ambiguous incident as a kind of prototype for racism. His history excuses him. Nevertheless, he could have looked at alternative interpretations, as I have done, or chosen a less ambiguous example. As it is, he provided race-baiters with a stick to beat up many probably innocent people caught up in similar incidents.

The message, for both black and white: please think before you take offense or might give it.

A version of this post appear on the Psychology Today blog. 

REPARATIONS: Taking Ta-Nehisi Coates Seriously


Reparations is the idea that a group wronged in the past may be compensated by a monetary reward in the present. The proposal that African-Americans now should be compensated for wrongs done to African slaves more than a century and a half ago had seemed absurd to many. But reparations got a huge boost in June 2014, when African-American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a feature in the Atlantic arguing that the terrible history of blacks in the United States required compensation. Despite earlier skepticism, critical reaction was mild.  Now, the issue is being discussed in Congress.

Uncritical reaction

Kevin Williamson, writing in National Review, disagreed with Coates’ proposal but was impressed with the “beautifully written monograph,” describing the prose as “intelligent and sometimes moving.” In his muted critique, Williamson gives little weight to the faulty logic and fundamental injustice of Coates’ proposal.

Williamson is not alone. Other writers, like David Remnick of the New Yorker and media critic Jay Rosen esteem Coates as a public intellectual, perhaps the public intellectual of our time. “The more radical Coates’s critique of America, the more tightly America embraces him,” comments Carlos Lozada in a mildly critical appraisal. With few exceptions, the reaction of intellectuals to Coates’ grumpy essays has been rapturous. Even critic Rod Dreher finds moving Coates’ account of his difficult and race-dominated early life.

In all this commentary, careful review of what Coates is saying, its pros and cons, is almost absent. Coates’ understandable passion, his eloquent accounts of suffering — his own and others’ —  has obliterated almost all critical evaluation of what he is actually saying. But passion need not displace reason. The obligation to take Coates’ proposal seriously remains.

John Locke’s thesis

Mr. Coates begins his Reparations article with a quotation from Deuteronomy, which says that a freed slave should get something in return for the bondage he has suffered. He continues with another quotation, from 17th century philosopher John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, which runs in part: “…there is commonly injury done to some person or other, and some other man receives damage by his transgression: in which case he who hath received any damage, has, besides the right of punishment common to him with other men, a particular right to seek reparation.”
My own knowledge of Locke is far from complete. I was curious, therefore, to read a little more of what he wrote on this topic. Coates gives no page number, but I found a similar quotation, which is as follows: “In the latter case, the person who has been harmed has, in addition to the general right of punishment that he shares with everyone else, a particular right to seek reparation from the person who harmed him.” (Second Treatise, Chapter 2, para 10. emphasis added)

The quotes establish two principles: that a freed slave deserves recompense, and that the recompense should come “from the person who harmed him.” This key phrase is omitted in Coates’ version.

White people now are responsible, for what?

The rest of Coates’ article goes on to violate both these principles, since he claims that 21st-century white people, who were not party to the moral crime of slavery, should make reparations to 21st-century black people who were not victims of it. Whatever the plight of modern of African Americans, if those responsible are dead, why should the living, most of whom are not even descendants of the oppressors, pay? The rest of Coates’ piece is an attempt to trace a line of causation to implicate modern white Americans.

In fact, the situation of African-Americans today is quite possibly better than it would have been had their ancestors remained in Africa – or so says journalist Keith Richburg. In Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa, Richburg writes: “[E]xcuse me if I sound cynical…it’s Africa that has made me this way. I feel for her suffering…But most of all I think: Thank God my ancestor got out, because, now, I am not one of them. In short, thank God that I am an American.”

In other words, in Richburg’s opinion, African-Americans now, for all the tragedy in their past, are better off than if their ancestors had remained in Africa. If American blacks are not in fact worse off than they would have been absent slavery, why reparations? Coates demand for reparations fails on grounds of justice, fact and logic. So what are his other arguments?

Suffering, then

He begins the piece with a sad account of one Clyde Ross, a bright lad, apparently, born in rural Mississippi in 1923, one of 13 children. Life was tough for Clyde.  His parents were “robbed of the vote…through the trickery of the poll tax and the muscle of the lynch mob” in the 1920s.  His illiterate father lost his land because he could not pay back taxes.  Clyde lost his horse in a sale forced by a white buyer.  We are not told why his father agreed to the sale nor why a poll tax is ‘trickery’ rather than just unfair. “It was in these early years that Ross began to understand himself as an American—he did not live under the blind decree of justice, but under the heel of a regime that elevated armed robbery to a governing principle.”

The lives of black Americans have improved since the Jim Crow era, Coates admits partway through his essay, but he takes no comfort from the fact because the black-white wealth and income gaps remain large. When a black man does well it’s because he is twice as good: “Barack and Michelle Obama have won. But they’ve won by being twice as good—and enduring twice as much.”

Perhaps Coates has seen Barack Obama’s still-sealed Harvard transcript? Is it better (which would support Coates’ thesis) or worse than average? We don’t know, and Coates offers no other evidence for this claim.

Coates emphasizes that for every white contribution there is a white racial sin: “If Thomas Jefferson’s genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings’s body.” (Did it happen? Did Sally consent? We can’t be sure.)

And so the article goes on, alternating heartbreaking anecdotes and frequent allusions to slavery with depressing statistics to illustrate the plight of blacks and the planful racism of whites.

How fair is Coates’ attack on American whites? Every society able to do so has owned slaves at one time or another.  Many countries in various parts of the world, including Asia and Africa, still do. But Europeans abolished slavery on their own, without a fight. They get no credit from Coates. Some 620,000 Americans died in a war that was mainly about slavery. They get no credit either.

“This country was formed for the white, not for the black man,” quotes Coates. But is it fair to use John Wilkes Booth as a white spokesman?

Housing discrimination

The fundamental illegality of America is a theme that runs through the article, even though many of the incidents that Coates recounts do follow law.  It’s just that the law seems racist to Coates, which at times it was. It is the same story with home ownership, a topic that makes up the bulk of the article. In the early twentieth century, “black people across the country were largely cut out of the legitimate home-mortgage market through means both legal and extralegal. Chicago whites employed every measure…” Redlining meant that “[n]either the percentage of black people living there nor their social class mattered. Black people were viewed as a contagion.” The entire mortgage industry was “rife with racism.” The result is that neighborhoods like Lawndale in Chicago are now poor and crime-ridden.

Racial housing discrimination was outlawed by the Fair Housing Act of 1968.  “By then the damage was done,” writes Coates. Not according to economist Thomas Sowell, who has pointed out that real discrimination would mean that loans made to blacks should be on average more profitable for banks than loans made to other groups. In other words, black borrowers should be held to higher credit standards than others.  But over the past several decades, loans to blacks are not in fact more profitable than average. None of this is discussed by Coates who rejects all evidence that racial discrimination has diminished. Indeed, it is no longer just discrimination. White supremacy is the problem now.

Evidence for this is found in the exodus of whites from urban areas. “When terrorism ultimately failed, white homeowners simply fled the neighborhood,” writes Coates, implicating every white who leaves an integrated neighborhood as complicit in a failed terror plot. “The traditional terminology, white flight, implies a kind of natural expression of preference. In fact, white flight was a triumph of social engineering, orchestrated by the shared racist presumptions of America’s public and private sectors.”

What is the proof? Who were the engineers? What were their aims? Are there other possible explanations?

Of course there are, but Coates ignores them. He does quote a white homeowner who in fact suggests one. The man objected to a potential new African-American neighbor, saying, “Bill Myers was ‘probably a nice guy, but every time I look at him I see $2,000 drop off the value of my house.’”

It’s true that if predominately black neighborhoods develop bad reputations, people likely will be more resistant to racial integration. That’s self-protection, not racism – unless the black neighborhoods have been wrongly stigmatized. But Coates himself quotes statistics that make the neighbor’s point. Black neighborhoods are statistically more crime-ridden than comparable white ones.  White flight is not social engineering, but prudence–-excessive perhaps, but not racist.

Coates ends his long article with Germany. If any country owed reparations, it is surely Germany after the Second World War. The survivors of the Holocaust were still living and so were many of the murderers of their co-religionists. Locke’s criteria were well met. In the end, the Germans paid modest amounts to Israel and other Jewish causes.

But the Germans had good reason to hesitate, despite the overwhelming case against them: the ruinous reparations they were forced to pay after World War One. The effort to cope with the depredations of war combined with enormous debt led to hyperinflation and economic collapse in the next decade.  Growing national resentment at the unfairness of the treatment imposed on them found its outlet in Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party.

The case for U.S. reparations is infinitely weaker than Germany’s.  The victims are dead, as are the perpetrators of the ancient evils of slavery.  Evidence that American blacks now are in fact better off than they would have been if their ancestors had remained in Africa is in fact quite strong.  Why else would so many Africans be seeking to immigrate if life in Nigeria, say, is really better than here? Keith Richburg is undoubtedly right.  If blacks now are better off than they would have been absent slavery, what exactly are they to be compensated for?  Perhaps modern American blacks should in fact compensate whites? An absurd idea, but no more absurd than its opposite.

Tracing historical causation, as Coates does so confidently, is dodgy. Whites cannot escape responsibility by “disavowing the acts of one’s ancestors, nor by citing a recent date of ancestral immigration,” says Coates.  But why not?  Most admit the innocence of those “dreamer” kids brought to this country by their illegal immigrant parents.  Most people absolve them of the sins of those who brought them.  In exactly the same way many white Americans will reject responsibility for the sins of their slave-owning ancestors.  Indeed, many, perhaps most, white Americans have no slave-era ancestors.  “But all have benefited from the prosperity driven by slavery!” Coates might say. But “so have contemporary blacks!” whites might respond, agreeing with journalist Richburg.

The first German reparations had disastrous and world-injuring consequences. It is not unlikely that the reparations Coates demands from white America would cause resentment and division almost as destructive to this country.

Does he care?

Following the example of discredited historian Howard Zinn, Coates interprets each bad thing that happened to black Americans as engineered by whites; each good thing is interpreted as an unintended consequence.  As long as whites pay, Coates is untroubled. Nor does he worry about the divisive consequences of a program that many whites will feel is unfair.

Some readers may be content to take  Coates’ output as eloquent prose poetry. But if he is to be considered more than a stylish provocateur, he needs to add more reason to the mix. Until he, or someone, does, there is a strong case not for reparations but for changing the subject.

(This a longer, updated version of a piece originally published here.) 

Was Darwin Wrong?

Or have critics – and some fans – missed the point?

This is an updated version of a piece that originally appeared in Intellectual Takeout

Christopher Booker is a contrarian English journalist who writes extensively on science-related issues.  He has produced possibly the best available critical review of the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis. He has cast justifiable doubt on the alleged ill effects of low-level pollutants like airborne asbestos and second-hand tobacco smoke.

Booker has also lobbed a few hand-grenades at Darwin’s theory of evolution.  He identifies a real problem, but his criticism misses a point which is also missed even by some Darwin fans.

Is anti-Darwin ‘politically incorrect’?

In that 2010 article, Booker was reacting to a comments from a seminar of Darwin skeptics, many very distinguished in their own fields.  These folk had faced hostility from the scientific establishment which seemed to Booker excessive or at least unfair. Their discussion provided all the ingredients for a conspiracy novel:

[T]hey had come up against a wall of hostility from the scientific establishment. Even to raise such questions was just not permissible. One had been fired as editor of a major scientific journal because he dared publish a paper sceptical of Darwin’s theory. Another, the leading expert on his subject, had only come lately to his dissenting view and had not yet worked out how to admit this to his fellow academics for fear that he too might lose his post.

The problem was raised at an earlier conference:

[A] number of expert scientists came together in America to share their conviction that, in light of the astonishing intricacies of construction revealed by molecular biology, Darwin’s gradualism could not possibly account for them. So organizationally complex, for instance, are the structures of DNA and cell reproduction that they could not conceivably have evolved just through minute, random variations. Some other unknown factor must have been responsible for the appearance of these ‘irreducibly complex’ micromechanisms, to which they gave the name ‘intelligent design’. [my emphasis]

I am a big fan of Darwin. I also have respect for Booker’s skepticism.  The contradiction can be resolved if we look more carefully at what we know now – and at what Darwin actually said.

The logic of evolution

There are three parts to the theory of evolution:

  1. The fact of evolution itself. The fact that the human species shares common ancestors with the great apes.  The fact that there is a phylogenetic “tree of life” which connects all species, beginning with one or a few ancestors who successively subdivided or became extinct in favor of a growing variety of descendants.  Small divergences became large ones as one species gave rise to two and so on.
  2. Variation: the fact that individual organisms vary – have different phenotypes, different physical bodies and behaviors – and that some of these individual differences are caused by different genotypes, which are heritable and so are passed on to descendants .
  3. Selection: the fact that individual variants in a population will also vary in the number of viable offspring to which they give rise. If number of offspring is correlated with some heritable characteristic – if particular genes are carried by a fitter phenotype – then the next generation may differ phenotypically from the preceding one.
    Notice that in order for selection to work, at every stage the new variant must be more successful than the old.

An example: Rosemary and Peter Grant looked at birds on the Galapagos Islands.  They studied populations of finches, and noticed surprisingly rapid increases in beak size from year to year. The cause was weather changes. Dry weather for a succession of years favored nuts with thick, hard-to-crack shells. Birds with larger beaks were more successful in cracking the thick-shelled nuts; thus got more food and  left more descendants.  Natural selection had operated amazingly quickly, leading to larger average beak size within just a few years.

Bernard Kettlewell observed a similar change, over a slightly longer term, in the color of the peppered moth in England.  As tree bark changed from light to dark to light again as industrial pollution waxed and waned over the years, so did the camouflage-color of the moths. There are several other “natural experiments” that make this same point.

None of the serious critics of Darwinian evolution seems to question evolution itself, the fact that organisms are all related and that the living world has developed over many millions of years.  The idea of evolution preceded Darwin. His contribution was to suggest a mechanism, a process – natural selection – by which evolution comes about.  It is the supposed inadequacy of this process that exercises Booker and other critics.

Looked at from one point of view, Darwin’s theory is almost a tautology, like a theorem in mathematics:

  1. Organisms vary (have different phenotypes).
  2. Some of this variation is heritable, passed from one generation to the next (have different genotypes).
  3. Some heritable variations (phenotypes) are fitter (produce more offspring) than others because they are better adapted to their environment.
  4. Ergo, each generation will be better adapted than the preceding one. Organisms will evolve.

Expressed in this way, Darwin’s idea seems self-evidently true.  But the simplicity is only apparent.

The direction of evolution

Darwinian evolution depends on not one but two forces: selection, the gradual improvement from generation to generation as better-adapted phenotypes are selected; and variation: the set of heritable characteristics that are offered up for selection in each generation.  This joint process can be progressive or stabilizing, depending on the pattern of variation.  Selection/variation does not necessarily produce progressive change.  This should have been obvious, for a reason I describe in a moment.

The usual assumption is that  among the heritable variants in each generation will be some that fare better than average.  If these are selected, then the average must improve, the species will change – adapt better – from one generation to the next.

But what if  variation only offers up individuals that fare worse than the modal individual?  These will all be selected against and there will be no shift in the average; adaptation will remain as before.  This is called stabilizing selection and is perhaps the usual pattern.  Stabilizing selection is why many species in the geological record have remained unchanged for many hundreds of thousands, even millions, of years.  Indeed, a forerunner of Darwin, the ‘father of geology’ the Scot, James Hutton (1726-1797), came up with the idea of natural selection as an explanation for the constancy  of species.  The difference – progress or stasis – depends not just on selection but on the range and type of variation.

The structure of variation

Darwin’s process has two parts: variation is just as important as selection.  Indeed, without variation, there is nothing to select. But like many others, Richard Dawkins, a Darwinian fundamentalist, puts all weight on selection: “natural selection is the force that drives evolution on.” says Dawkins in one of his many TV shows.  Variation represents “random mistakes” and the effect of selection is like “modelling clay”.  Like Christopher Booker, he seems to believe that natural selection operates on small, random variations.

Critics of evolution simply find it hard to believe that the complexity of the living world can all be explained by selection from small, random variations.  Darwin was very well aware of the problem: “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.” [Origin]  But he was being either naïve or disingenuous here.  He should surely have known that outside the realm of logic, proving a negative, proving that you can’t do something, is next to impossible.  Poverty of imagination is not disproof!

Darwin was concerned about the evolution of the vertebrate eye: focusing lens, sensitive retina and so on.  How could the bits of an eye evolve and be useful before the whole perfect structure has evolved?  He justified his argument by pointing to the wide variety of primitive eyes in a range of species that lack many of the elements of the fully-formed vertebrate eye but are nevertheless better than the structures that preceded them.

There is general agreement that the focusing eye could have evolved in just the way that Darwin proposed.  But there is some skepticism about many other extravagances of evolution: all that useless patterning and behavior associated with sexual reproduction in bower birds and birds of paradise, the unnecessary ornamentation of the male peacock and many other examples of apparently maladaptive behavior associated with reproduction, even human super-intelligence: we seem to be much smarter than we needed to be as hunter-gatherers thought the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace.  The theory of sexual selection was developed to deal with cases like these, but it must be admitted that many details are still missing.

The fundamental error in Booker’s criticism of Darwin as well as Dawkins’ celebration of him, is the claim that evolution always occurred “just through [selection of] minute, random variations.  Selection, natural or otherwise, is just a filter.  It creates nothing.  Variation proposes, selection just disposes.  All the creation is supplied by the processes of variation.  If variation is not totally random or always small in extent, if it is creating complex structures, not just tiny variations in existing structures, then it is doing the work, not selection.

Non-random variation

In Darwin’s day, nothing was known about genetics.  He saw no easy pattern in variation, but was impressed by the power of selection, which was demonstrated in artificial selection of animals and crops.  It was therefore reasonable and parsimonious for him to assume as little structure in variation as possible.  But he also discussed many cases where variation is neither small nor random.  So-called “sporting” plants are  examples of quite large changes from one generation to the next, “that is, of plants which have suddenly produced a single bud with a new and sometimes widely different character from that of the other buds on the same plant.” What Darwin called correlated variation is an example of linked, hence non-random, characteristics.  He quotes another distinguished naturalist writing that “Breeders believe that long limbs are almost always accompanied by an elongated head” and “Colour and constitutional peculiarities go together, of which many remarkable cases could be given among animals and plants.”  Darwin’s observation about correlated variation has been strikingly confirmed by a long-term Russian experiment with silver foxes selectively bred for their friendliness to humans.  After several generations, the now-friendly animals began to show many of the features of domestic dogs, like floppy ears and wagging tails.

“Monster” fetuses and infants with characters much different from normal have been known for centuries.  Most are mutants and they show large effects.  But again, they are not random.  It is well known that some inherited deformities, like extra fingers and limbs or two heads, are relatively common, but others – a partial finger or half a head, are rare to non-existent.

Most monsters die before or soon after birth.  But once in a very long while such a non-random variant may turn out to succeed better than the normal organism, perhaps lighting the fuse to a huge jump in evolution like the Cambrian explosion.  Stephen Jay Gould publicized George Gaylord Simpson’s “tempo and mode in evolution” as punctuated equilibrium, to describe the sometimes sudden shift from stasis to change in the history of species evolution.  Sometimes these jumps  may result from a change in selection pressures.  But some may be triggered by an occasional large monster-like change in phenotype with no change in the selection environment.

The kinds of phenotypic (observed form) variation that can occur depend on the way the genetic instructions in the fertilized egg are translated into the growing organism.  Genetic errors (mutations) may be random, but the phenotypes to which they give rise are most certainly not.  It is the phenotypes that are selected not the genes themselves.  So selection operates on a pool of (phenotypic) variation that is not always “small and random”.

Even mutations themselves do not in fact occur at random.  Recurrent mutations occur more frequently than others, so would resist any attempt to select them out.  There are sometimes links between mutations so that mutation A is more likely to be accompanied by mutation B (“hitchhiking”) and so on.

Is there structure to variation?

Selection acts on phenotypes, but the results are passed on from generation to generation through the genotype.  Just how this process works is still a mystery: how is the information in the genes translated during development into the adult organism?  How might one or two modest mutations sometimes result in large structured changes in the phenotype?  Is there any directionality to such changes?  Is there a pattern?  Some recent studies of the evolution of African lake fish suggests that there may be a predetermined pattern. Genetically different cichlid fish in different lakes have evolved to look and behave almost identically:  Armand Leroi concludes in the video:  “In other words, the ‘tape’ of cichlid evolution has been run twice. And both times, the outcome has been much the same.” Moreover, the process occurred very quickly: “the more than 500 species that live [in Lake Victoria]  and only there today all evolved within the past 15,000 to 10,000 years – an eyeblink in geologic terms…”  There is room, in other words, for the hypothesis that natural selection is not the sole “driving force” in evolution.  Natural selection works. But its role may be large or small, depending on circumstances.  Variation may sometimes be highly structured and not “small and random”. The ways that this may come about are being mapped out.

The laws of development (ontogenesis), if laws there be, still elude discovery. But the origin of species (phylogenesis) surely depends as much on them as on selection.  Perhaps these largely unknown laws are what Darwin’s critics mean by ‘intelligent design’?  But if so, the term is deeply unfortunate because it implies that evolution is guided by intention, by an inscrutable agent, not by impersonal laws.  As a hypothesis it is untestable.  Darwin’s critics are right to see a problem with “small, random variation” Darwinism.  But they are wrong to insert an intelligent agent as a solution and still claim they are doing science. Appealing to intelligent design just begs the question of how development actually works. It is not science, but faith.

Darwin’s theory is not wrong. As he knew, but many of his fans do not, it is incomplete.  Instead of paying attention to the gaps, and seeking to fill them, these enthusiasts have provided a straw man for opponents to attack.  Emboldened by its imperfections they have proposed as an alternative ‘intelligent design’: an untestable non-solution that blocks further advance.   Darwin was closer to the truth than his critics – and closer than some simple-minded supporters.

Science and Morals: Can morality be deduced from the facts of science?

You can’t beat science.  “One by one, the great questions of philosophy, including ‘Who are we?’ and ‘Where did we come from?’ are being answered to different degrees of solidity. So, gradually, science is simply taking over the big questions created by philosophy. Philosophy consists largely of the history of failed models of the brain.” So much for philosophy! Thus spake eminent biologist and chronicler of sociobiology E. O. Wilson, in a 2009 interview[1] where he also said “If the empiricist world view is correct, ought is just shorthand for one kind of factual statement, a word that denotes what society first chose (or was coerced) to do, and then codified.” So, morality can be deduced from science, according to Wilson.

Wilson’s confidence in the omnipotence of science, his belief in scientific imperialism, is shared by vocal members of the so-called New Atheists. Richard Dawkins, another well-known biologist, has notoriously said that belief in anything that cannot be scientifically proved, i.e., faith, “is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate…”

The New Atheists are moral people. But as I will show, they are wrong to think that their morality, or any morality, can be derived from science.


Dawkins deems faith “evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument”. Faith in this sense seems to include non-religious as well as religious beliefs. All people believe things that they cannot prove, many of which Dawkins would surely allow as good: the virtues of generosity, kindness, courage and so on. But Dawkins seems to be especially critical of faith that has a religious basis: belief in God, in the specifics of religious stories, and religious prescriptions that violate the (often-unstated) morals of 21st century Western intellectuals, such as the rights of women, sexual freedom, freedom of belief, the innocence of abortion, the evils of punishment, and so on.

Dawkins concedes that “it’s very difficult to come to an absolute definition of what’s moral and what is not.” [talk, 2012] He does not claim that morals can be deduced from science. But he does say he has given up what he calls “the hectoring myth that science can say nothing about morals.”  Evidently science has something to say. But he is reluctant to say just what it is.

Dawkins sidesteps saying what morality is, by suggesting how it might come about. In other words, he retreats from conclusion to process. The process involves consensus: “Be good for the reason that you’ve decided together with other people the society we want to live in: a decent humane society. Not one based on absolutism, not one based on holy books and not one based on … looking over your shoulder to the divine spy camera in the sky.”  But where is the guarantee that everyone in the group that is “together deciding” on a morality will have relinquished all faith, all allegiance to holy books and all belief in an omnipotent god? Dawkins has dodged the question.

Not so the most forthright and committed of the New Atheists, Sam Harris. In his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Harris directly confronts the issue and comes down on the side of science.  He solves the ethical problem by arguing that “questions about values — about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose — are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.”  “Values are a certain kind of fact” he argues. Harris also points to felt experience as a signal of value: “[T]here’s no notion, no version of human morality and human values that I’ve ever come across that is not at some point reducible to a concern about conscious experience and its possible changes.”  For Harris, “the good” is about the feelings and “flourishing” of individuals.


“[C]oncern about conscious experience” — human feelings — is integral to Sam Harris’s scientific take on human morality. But feelings are not a reliable guide to truth, moral or otherwise, if only because many scientific, value-free, statements nevertheless elicit strong emotional reactions. For example, in the Origin of Species — which is subtitled The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life — Charles Darwin describes many examples of competition: “the more vigorous … gradually kill the less vigorous”, etc. Some critics of Darwin have reacted emotionally to the word struggle and the implication that some individuals and races survive at the expense of others.  The idea that some animal, plant and human varieties — races — are ‘superior’, in the sense that they will prevail in the ‘struggle’, makes Darwin  “obviously racist” in the eyes of one author[2]. Indeed, any reference to human individual differences, especially in relation to ‘race’, will elicit passionate feelings in many readers, no matter how ‘scientific’ the context or disinterested the account.  Facts are neutral; the human reaction to them very often is not. People find it very difficult indeed to separate the factual from the emotional.

This is why philosopher David Hume, perhaps the most perceptive figure of the 18th century Enlightenment, famously separated “ought”, the dictates of morality, from “is”, the facts of science.  Reason is value-neutral, Hume argued:

It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. It is not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me[3].

He goes on to point out that

Since a passion [motive, desire] can never, in any sense, be called unreasonable, but when founded on a false supposition, or when it chuses means insufficient for the designed end, it is impossible, that reason and passion can ever oppose each other, or dispute for the government of the will and actions. The moment we perceive the falshood of any supposition, or the insufficiency of any means, our passions yield to our reason without any opposition. I may desire any fruit as of an excellent relish; but whenever you convince me of my mistake, my longing ceases. I may will the performance of certain actions as means of obtaining any desired good; but as my willing of these actions is only secondary, and founded on the supposition, that they are causes of the proposed effect; as soon as I discover the falshood of that supposition, they must become indifferent to me.

In other words, reason is just the link between passion (will, motivation) and action: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Without passion, the facts established by reason are impotent. The findings of science are neither moral or immoral, according to Hume. Hume’s distinction between “is” and “ought” is not a distinction between doing science and doing religion. It is a distinction between being and acting.

Sam Harris admits that this is “the received opinion in intellectual circles” but begs to disagree. He makes three points:

  1. whatever can be known about maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures—which is, I will argue, the only thing we can reasonably value—must at some point translate into facts about brains and their interaction with the world at large;
  2. the very idea of “objective” knowledge (i.e., knowledge acquired through honest observation and reasoning) has values built into it, as every effort we make to discuss facts depends upon principles that we must first value (e.g., logical consistency, reliance on evidence, parsimony, etc.);
  3. beliefs about facts and beliefs about values seem to arise from similar processes at the level of the brain[4]

Point 3 is something of a red herring, in the sense that any difference of behavior is caused by, and thus will be reflected in, some brain activity. We don’t yet understand enough about how the brain works to make much of the apparent similarity that Harris describes.

Point 1 assumes what it purports to support: that the “well-being of conscious creatures” is our highest good. Not everyone will agree.

Point 2, that the pursuit of science involves values, is of course, correct. The reason is that, as Hume argued, any action requires some kind of motivation, some kind of value. Hence, the fact that doing science requires scientists to believe in “logical consistency, reliance on evidence, parsimony, etc.”, not to mention honesty and curiosity, does not invalidate Hume.  Neither does the fact that pursuing science requires faith in a fixed, hence discoverable, nature. The stability of natural law is not self-evident, like a syllogism or simple arithmetic. In order to seek, a scientist must believe there is something to be found.

Yes, to do science requires values; but the facts thus obtained are not themselves values. The facts that men are on average taller than women, or that African-Americans have lower average IQ than white Americans, are equally value-neutral. But, human nature being what it is, the second fact is likely to elicit much stronger emotions than the first, even though both are just facts. Neither one impels us to action, unless we feel, as a value, that race or gender differences are a bad thing.

‘Science-based’ ethics: Human flourishing

If science cannot provide us with an ethics, how about those ethical systems that pretend to be science-based? They cannot be based on science, so how should we judge them?

There are at least two supposedly science-based ethical systems on offer. One is Sam Harris’s “human flourishing” idea, which rests on the well-being of individuals. The other is based on evolution. I’ve already alluded to some problems with Harris’s proposal. Here are a couple more. “Values are a certain kind of fact” says Harris in a 2010 TED talk. Perhaps, but values are not scientific facts, because they cannot be tested. We can show that one course of action leads to better results than another. But “better” is always a judgment of value not a provable fact. Harris provides a number of apparent counter-examples, but solves them all by resorting to his well-being idea. And, as commentator Sean Carroll points out,  who says that personal well-being is the highest good anyway?

The other alternative is evolution and natural selection.  Wilson and radical behaviorist B. F. Skinner have both suggested[5] that evolutionary epistemology in some form allows “is” to be transformed into “ought”.  In his provocatively titled 1971 bestseller Beyond Freedom and Dignity Skinner said:

“Questions of this sort…are said. . .to involve ‘value judgments’—to raise questions…not about what man can do but about what he ought to do. It is usually implied that the answers are out of the reach of science…It would be a mistake for the behavioral scientist to agree.”

The hypothesis that what ought to be (in the moral sense) can be inferred from what is was termed the naturalistic fallacy by English philosopher G.E. Moore (1873-1958). Obviously, Skinner did not believe it to be fallacy, and neither does E.O. Wilson: “I find it hard to believe that had Kant, Moore, and [John] Rawls known modern biology and experimental psychology they would have reasoned as they did…. Moral reasoning, I believe, is at every level intrinsically consilient with the natural sciences[6]” and “The empiricist argument, then, is that by exploring the biological roots of moral behavior, and explaining their material origins and biases, we should be able to fashion a wiser and more enduring ethical consensus than has gone before.”  In sum: “Ought is the product of a material process.” Note the reference to “material origins and biases”, which again points to a confusion between process and outcome: Understanding the historical process that led to a belief can justify a scientific claim, but not a moral one.

So what lesson does Wilson draw from science? Unlike Harris and (as we will see) Skinner, Wilson is not specific. His view is consequentialist, we judge “moral instincts…according to their consequences.” There are two problems with this. First, over what time period should we look? Should we judge the consequences today, this week, a hundred years from now? How should a good consequence now be weighed against a bad sequel 10 years down the road? How well can we predict remote consequences? And second, how do we tell good consequences from bad; in other words, what is “the good”?  Wilson does not answer this question directly. We can infer what he thinks is good from the things he calls bad: he dislikes xenophobia and what he calls “paleolithic egalitarian and tribalistic instincts”.  He advocates more research, assuming that the better we understand what human moral sentiments are, the better we will know what they should be.  Wilson is a natural scientist. The path he recommends may tell us why we do what we do; it can never tell us what we should do

B. F. Skinner defines “the good” in two ways. One is merely descriptive: “good” is just whatever society “reinforces” — rewards — or punishes. His more fundamental definition goes to the heart of evolution, survival of the culture and the species. “The ultimate sources [of values] are to be found in the evolution of the species and the evolution of the culture.” Perhaps “survival” is a value everyone can agree on. The problem is deciding just what will promote survival and what will endanger it. If “survival” is to be our guide we must be able to predict, at least in broad outline, the course of biological and cultural evolution.

Survival as the ultimate value

The assumption that evolutionary history is predictable is closely related to the doctrine of historicism, espoused most famously by Karl Marx. It was devastatingly criticized by Karl Popper, who wrote: “Marx may be excused for holding the mistaken belief that there is a ‘natural law of historical development’; for some of the best scientists of his time…believed in the possibility of discovering a law of evolution. But there can be no empirical ‘law of evolution[7]’”

There are also practical difficulties. First, looking to “survival” for answers to ethical questions will often point to conclusions that conflict with values that are now deeply held. Are we to abandon them? Second, there are very many cultural and genetic “fitness” questions that simply cannot be decided at all: the problem with “survival” as a value is that it provides little or no practical guidance in difficult cases.

A few examples should suffice to show that deciding on evolutionary “good” and “bad” is at least as difficult as predicting stock movements. For example, alcohol is a poison. Hence, cultures that use alcohol must be less “fit” (in the Darwinian sense) than cultures that do not. But are they? There might be hidden benefits to one or the other that we cannot now foresee. The Puritan consensus was that alcohol was an unmitigated evil. The social benefits associated with moderate drinking were assumed to be outweighed by its bad effects. Yet alcohol ingestion is a custom common to the majority of cultures, and now it turns out that there might even be health benefits to moderate drinking, so the evolutionary balance sheet on alcohol is not yet closed.

Another example: alcohol might be controversial, but smoking is certainly bad—isn’t it? This is not so clear either. Some smokers (by no means all) die from lung cancer and emphysema, usually in unpleasant ways, which is unquestionably bad for “human flourishing” as well as individual survival. However, smoking-induced illnesses generally do not kill until their victims reach their fifties and sixties, after their productive life is almost over and before they become a burden to their children and to society. It is an evolutionary truism that life history is determined by adaptive considerations, and a short but productive life is often “fitter,” in a natural-selection sense, than a longer and less productive one.

Perhaps a society that encourages smoking—which yields a generally short but productive life—will be more successful in the long run than one that discourages smoking and has to put up with a lot of unproductive old people? Should we perhaps encourage smoking? There are some data to support the idea. Several studies have shown that the lifetime health-care costs for smokers are actually lower than for non-smokers (public-health rhetoric to the contrary). Whether or not reduced financial cost corresponds to evolutionary advantage is of course not known, but an inverse relation between cost and “fitness” is perhaps more likely than not.

Argument from evolutionary survival very quickly comes up against many traditional beliefs. Even obvious virtues like safety and the emancipation of women, not to mention tolerance for anti-progenitive sexual abnormalities, might be questioned by a thoroughgoing evolutionary ethicist. Is it really adaptive to outfit 3-year-olds on tricycles with crash helmets so they grow up timid and unadventurous, or to fit our cars with air bags and seat belts so that the reckless and inept are protected from the consequences of their actions? And does it make evolutionary sense to encourage the brightest young women to delay, and thus limit, childbirth so they can spend the prime of their lives as physicists and investment bankers rather than mothers? Lee Kuan Yew, President of Singapore, thought a few years ago that it did not. He was pilloried for providing maternal incentives to well-educated women. But surely a conscientious evolutionary ethicist should applaud him?

The problem of what really conduces to “fitness” — of a culture or a race — has become especially acute with advances in medicine. Should parents be allowed to control the sex and other characteristics of their children? Should human cloning (which may have already happened) be permitted? What extraordinary measures are justified to keep a sick person alive? Kidney transplants, yes. Heart transplants, yes, perhaps—but what if the patient is already old or has other ailments? When should a sick person be allowed to die? What is the “optimal lifespan”? We know that lifespan is a subject to natural selection[8], so there must be an optimal—in the sense of most favorable to the continuation of the species—lifespan. What is it?  What if it is shorter than the current average in the West?

Politics are not immune from evolutionary optimality. What is the best political system? Most Americans assume that hierarchy is bad, and the American Constitution enshrines democracy and the rights of the individual. However, the most stable (i.e., evolutionarily successful) societies we know were not democratic and egalitarian but hierarchical and authoritarian. The ancient Egyptian culture survived substantially unchanged for thousands of years. The Greeks, the inventors of democracy, survived as a culture only for two or three centuries and were defeated by the undemocratic Romans, who lasted three or four times as long. The oldest extant democracy is less than 300 years old. In the animal kingdom, the termites, ants and bees, with built-in hierarchies, have outlasted countless more individualistic species[9].

The attempt to base values on evolutionary success very soon raises questions about traditional beliefs, albeit in an inconclusive way. The problem with “survival of the culture” as a value is that it requires reliable knowledge of the future. While some customs are clearly maladaptive under most imaginable circumstances, others are more contingent. The problem is that most of the prescriptions of traditional morality fall in the latter class. We simply do not know, belief by belief, custom by custom, rule by rule, whether or not our culture would, in the long run, be better off with or without them.

It is certain that some cultures will survive longer than others. It seems very likely, moreover, that the ones that survive will have many beliefs that were in fact essential to their survival. But the importance of at least some of those beliefs could not have been foreseen, even in principle. This is the fatal flaw in Skinner’s belief and E.O. Wilson’s claim that the fact of evolution allows all morality to be reduced to science. A comprehensive evolutionary ethics is impossible. Scientific imperialism is simply false.

Faith returns

Furthermore (and this will not please your average atheistical social scientist), the argument that demolishes evolutionary ethics also provides a rational basis for faith—although not, I hasten to add, for any faith in particular. The reason is not that a faith is true in the scientific or any other sense. The reason is that for a society to function at all, rules seem to be necessary, even in cases like the examples I have given, in which certainty is (and perhaps must be) lacking. We deter smoking, outlaw some drugs, emancipate women, tolerate the non-reproductive and preserve life at almost any cost, even though the evolutionary consequences of these decisions are unknown and probably unknowable. If rules must exist—even for situations in which science provides no clear basis for choosing them—then some other basis for choice is necessary. That basis is, by definition, a matter of faith.

The evolutionary approach to the problem of values promises more than it can ever deliver. Harris, Dawkins, Skinner, E.O. Wilson and most other scientific imperialists are confident of their own values and believe them to derive from science. Hence, they think the ethical problem easier than it is — which allows them to try to persuade us that values which are so obvious to them in fact flow from science.  It appears that their aim is not so much to understand the world, as to change it.

* * *

The issue should have been settled by David Hume in 1740: the facts of science provide no basis for values.  Yet, like some kind of recurrent meme, the idea that science is omnipotent and will sooner or later solve the problem of values seems to resurrect with every generation.

The science-based criterion most likely to achieve consensus, survival of the species or the culture, is impossible in practice because evolution is unpredictable. Embarrassingly, many practices that seem to favor survival are opposed to accepted Western values.

Cultures depend on practices and beliefs. We do not know which of them in fact promote survival and which do not. We do know that without at least some of them, no culture can long survive. We must have faith in some unprovable things, but science cannot tell us what they should be.

John Staddon is James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Professor of Biology, Emeritus, at Duke University.  His most recent book is Scientific Method: How science works, fails to work or pretends to work. (2017)Routledge.”

Notes and references

[1] Junod, T. (2009, January 5). E. O. Wilson: What I’ve learned. Esquire. Retrieved from The quote also appears in his book Consilience (1998).

[2] Leon Zitzer (2017) A short but full book on Darwin’s racism (Universe), which is a summary of a much longer book accusing Darwin of racism. On the contrary, authors Adrian Desmond and James Moore (Darwin’s Sacred Cause, Allen Lane, 2009), trace Darwin’s whole evolutionary project to his hatred of slavery… go figure.

[3] Hume, David. David Hume Collection: A Treatise of Human Nature. (1738-40) Kindle Edition.

[4] Harris, Sam. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (p. 11). Free Press. Kindle Edition.

[5] Staddon, J. E. R.(2004) Scientific imperialism and behaviorist epistemology. Behavior and Philosophy, 32, 231-242.

[6] Wilson, E.O. (1998). Consilience: The unity of knowledge. New York: Alfred Knopf.

[7] Popper, K. R. (1950). The open society and its enemies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Popper, K. R. (1962). Conjectures and refutations: The growth of scientific knowledge. New York: Basic Books.

[8] Stearns S.C The evolution of life histories. 1992, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

[9] Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) thought bees a fine model for a human utopia.

The Logic of Profiling: Fairness vs. Efficiency

ABSTRACT There are several strategies available to police “stopping” suspects. Most efficient is to stop only members of the group with the highest a priori probability of guilt; least efficient is indiscriminate stopping.  The best profiling strategy is one that biases stops of different groups so that the absolute number of innocents stopped is equal for all groups.  This strategy is close to maximally efficient, allows some sampling of low-crime sub-groups, and seems fair by almost any criterion.

 Profiling is selecting or discriminating for or against individuals, based on easily measured characteristics that are not directly linked to the behavior of interest.  For example, age, sex or racial appearance are used as partial proxies for criminal behavior because crime rates differ among these groups.  Old people, women and whites are less likely than young people, men and blacks to be guilt of certain types of crime.   Hence, preferentially ‘stopping’ young black males is likely to catch more criminals than stopping the same number of people at random.   Just how many more, and at what cost in terms of ‘fairness’ is the topic of this note.

The term “profiling” is usually associated with stop-and-search procedures (see, for example, Callahan & Anderson, 2001; Glaser, 2006 ), but a similar process occurs in other contexts also.  Almost any kind of selective treatment that is based on a proxy variable is a form of profiling.   In life, health and car insurance, for example, people of different ages and sexes are usually treated differently.  Often controversial, profiling nevertheless goes unquestioned in some surprising places.  Take speeding by motorists, for example.  Exceeding a posted speed limit is an offence and few question laws against it.  But most speeding causes no direct harm to anyone.  The legitimacy of a law against speeding rests on the accuracy which speeding predicts the probability and severity of an accident: the statistically expected cost of speeding is the product of accident probability times damage caused.  While it is obvious that an accident at high speed will usually cause more damage than one at lower speed, the relation between speed and accident probability is more contingent.  If drivers go fast only when it is safe to do so, there may be no, or only a weak or even negative, correlation between speed and the likelihood of an accident.  Hence, a car’s speed may not be a reliable proxy for accident risk, in which case penalizing – profiling – speeders would be unfair.  The same is true of alcohol and driving.  If drunks drive more cautiously (as some do), their proven sensory-motor deficiencies may become irrelevant to accident risk.   In both these cases the fairness of profiling rests on its accuracy.  If drinking and speeding really are correlated with higher accident risk, sanctions against them may be warranted.

There is also the issue of personal responsibility.  Speed is under the motorist’s control,  just like smoking – which is used in life-insurance profiling.  Fewer objections are raised to profiling that is based on proxies that are under the individual’s control and for which he can therefore be held responsible.  Race is of course not something over which the individual has any control, which is one reason racial profiling is subject to criticism.   On the other hand, age and sex are also involuntary, yet fewer objections are raised against profiling on these grounds.  The reasons for these policy differences and the problems of measuring the statistics on which they are based are larger topics for another time.

The utility and legitimacy of profiling depend on two related characteristics: accuracy and fairness.  How well do the measured characteristic or characteristics predict the variable of interest?  And how fair is it to pick on people so identified?

Fairness is not the same as accuracy.  In health insurance, for example, the whole idea of “insurance” arose partly because people cannot predict when they will get sick.  But as biological science advances and it becomes possible to predict debilitating genetic conditions with high accuracy, insurance companies may become reluctant to insure high-risk applicants, who may therefore be denied insurance.  How fair is this?  In general, the greater the ability of an insurer to predict health risk, the more questionable health profiling becomes, because the concept of insurance – spreading risk – is vitiated.  But this is not a problem for profiling to catch criminals.  Few would object to profiling that allowed airport screeners to identify potential terrorists with 99% probability.  The better law-enforcement authorities are able to profile, the fewer innocent people will be stopped and the more acceptable the practice will become.

The political and ethical problems raised by profiling and associated practices, and some of the utilitarian aspects of stop-and-search profiling, have been extensively reviewed (see for example, Dominitz, 2003; Glaser, 2006; Persico, 2002; Risse & Zeckhauser, 2004).  But no matter what the political and moral issues involved, it is essential to be clear about the quantitative implications of any profiling strategy.  With this in mind, this note is devoted to a simple quantitative exploration of the accuracy and ‘fairness’ of profiling in “stop-and-search” situations such as driver stops or airport screening.  The quantitative analysis in fact allows us to identify a possible profiling strategy that is both efficient and fair.

Fair Profiling

Age and sex profiling are essentially universal: police in most countries rarely stop women or old men; young males are favored. The reason is simple.  Statistics in all countries show that a young man is much more likely to have engaged in criminal acts, particularly violent acts, than a woman or an older man. The same argument is sometimes advanced for racial profiling, stopping African-American drivers, or airline passengers of Arab appearance, more frequently than whites or Asians, for example.

I look at the very simplest case: a population with two sub-populations, A and B, that differ in the proportion of criminals they contain.  To do the math we need to define the following:

population size = N

proportion of A in population = x

proportion of B in population = 1-x

target probability A = r

target probability B = r < v; 0 < v,r < 1

(r and v define the relative criminality of As and Bs: if r = .2, for example, that means that 20% of A stops find a criminal.  If r = v, profiling offers no benefits because the probability that a given A has engaged in crime is the same as for a given B.  If v > r, the case I will consider here, a B is more likely to be a criminal than an A, and so should Bs be favored by profilers.)

The probability a given A or B will be stopped depends on two parameters, p and qp is the overall probability of a stop, i.e., the fraction of the total population that will be stopped.  q is the profiling parameter,

A-weight = q

B-weight = 1- q

(q is the profiling weight for A, i.e., q/(1-q) is the bias in favor of A. If q = .5 there is no profiling; if q < .5, a B is more likely to be stopped than an A.)

For a sample population of size N, the probability of sampling (stopping) an A= pz, and the probability of sampling a B  = p(1-z), where z is defined below.


With these terms defined, and given values for population size N, stop probability p, and target probabilities r and v, which define the relative criminality of the A and B populations, it is possible to write down expressions that give the total number of criminals detected and the number of innocents stopped in each sub-population.

It is easiest to see what is going on if we consider specific case: a population of, say N = 10,000, and limit the number of stops to one in ten – 1000 people (p = 0.1).  Profiling is only worthwhile if the proportion of criminals in the A and B sub-populations differs substantially.  In the example I will look at, the probability that a given A is criminal is r = 0.1 and for B v = 0.6 (i.e., a B is six times more likely to be a criminal than an A).  I also assume the Bs are in the minority: 1000 Bs and 9000 As (x = 0.9) in our 10,000-person population.

The degree of profiling is represented in this analysis by the parameter q, which can vary from 0 to 1.  When q = 0, only Bs are stopped; when q = 1, only As are stopped.  The aim of the analysis is to see what proportion of our 1000 (pN) stops are guilty vs. innocent as a function of profiling ranging from q = 0 (only Bs stopped) to q = 0.5 (no profiling, As and Bs stopped with equal probability).  The math is as follows:

I first define a term z that represents the proportion of As in a fixed-size sample of, say, 1000 ‘stops’:



is the proportion of Bs; z allows q, the bias – profiling – parameter, to vary from 0 (only Bs stopped) to 1 (only As stopped) for a fixed sample size.

The number of As sampled (stopped) is pzN and the number of Bs sampled is p(1-z)N.  Multiplying these qualities by criminality parameters r and v gives the number of guilty As and Bs caught: guilty As caught is  and the number of guilty Bs caught is .  We can then look at how these numbers change as the degree of profiling goes from q= 0 (all Bs) to q = .5 (A and B stopped in proportion to their numbers, i.e., no profiling).

This sounds complicated, but as the curves show, the outcome is pretty simple.  The results, for N = 10,000, p = 0.1,  r = 0.1, v = 0.6.,  x = 0.9 are in Figure 1, which shows the number of criminals caught (green squares) as a function of the degree of profiling, q.  The number of innocents stopped, which is just 1000 minus the number of guilty since there are only 1000 stops, is also shown (red triangles).  As you might expect, the most efficient strategy is to stop only Bs (q = 0).  This yields the most guilty and the fewest stops of innocent people, 600 guilty and 400 innocent out of 1000 stops.  The number of guilty detected falls off rapidly as the degree of profiling is reduced, from a maximum of 600, when only Bs are stopped, to a minimum of 150 when As and Bs are stopped with the same probability.  So the cost of not profiling is substantial.

But the pure profiling strategy is obviously flawed in one important way.  Because no As are stopped, the profiler has no way to measure the incidence of criminality in the A population, hence no way to update his profiling strategy so as to maintain an accurate measurement of parameter r.   Another objection to pure profiling is political.  Members of group B and their representatives may well object to the fact that innocent Bs are more likely to be stopped than innocent As, even though this can be justified by statistics.  What to do, since there is considerable cost, in terms of guilty people missed, to backing off from the pure profiling strategy?

Profiling entails a higher stop probability for the higher-crime group.  Innocent Bs are more likely to be stopped than innocent As.  Nothing can be done about that.  But something can be done to minimize the difference in numbers of innocent As and B stopped.  The ratio of innocent As to innocent Bs stopped is shown by the line with blue diamonds in Figure 1.   As you can see, with Bs and As in a ratio of nine to one and rates of criminality in a relation of one to six, the ratio of innocent stops A/B increases rapidly as the degree of profiling is reduced.   With no profiling at all, twenty times as many innocent As as innocent Bs are stopped.  But this same curve shows that it is possible to equalize the number of innocent As and Bs that are stopped.   When the profiling parameter, q = .047, the numbers of innocent As and Bs stopped are equal (red arrow, A/B = 1).   At this point, enough As are in fact stopped, 277 out of 1000 total stops, to provide a valid estimate of the A-criminality parameter, r, and the drop in efficiency is not too great,  446 captured versus the theoretical maximum of 600.   Thus, for most values of r, v and x, it is possible to profile in a way that stops an equal number of innocent people in both groups.  This is probably as fair a way of profiling as is possible.

Doing it this way of course sets the cost of stopping innocent As lower than the cost of stopping innocent Bs.  In the most efficient strategy, 400 innocent Bs are stopped and zero innocent As, but in the ‘fair’ strategy 277 of each are stopped, so the reduction of 400-277  = 123 innocent B stops is more than matched by an increase from zero to 277 in the number of innocent A stops.   Some may feel that this is just as unfair as the pure profiling strategy.  But, given the need to sample some As to get accurate risk data on both sub-populations, the ‘fair’ strategy looks like the best compromise.


When base criminality rates differ between groups, profiling – allocating a limited number of stops so that members of one group are more likely to be stopped than members of another – captures more criminals than an indiscriminate strategy.  The efficiency difference between the two strategies increases substantially as the base-rate difference in criminality increases, which can lead to a perception of unfairness by innocent members of the high-risk group.

Profiling entails unequal stop probabilities between the two groups.  Nevertheless, because no one seeks to minimize the stops of guilty people, it seems more important to focus on the treatment of innocent people rather the population as a whole.  And because we live in a democracy, numbers weigh more than probabilities.  These two considerations suggest a solution to the fairness problem.  A strategy that is both efficient and fair is to profile in such a way that equal numbers of innocent people are stopped in both the high-crime and low-crime groups.  This may not be possible if the high-crime  population is too small in relation to the disparity in criminality base rates.  But it is perfectly feasible given current US statistics on racial differences in population proportions and crime rates.




Callahan, G & W. Anderson The roots of racial profiling: Why are police targeting minorities for traffic stops? Reason, August-September, (2001),

Dominitz, J. (2003) How Do the Laws of Probability Constrain Legislative and Judicial Efforts to Stop Racial Profiling?  American Law and Economics Review, 5(2) (412±432)

Glaser, J. (2006) The efficacy and effect of racial profiling: A mathematical  simulation approach.  Journal of Policy Analysis and Management,  March 2.

Persico, N. Racial Profiling, Fairness, and Effectiveness of Policing, 92(5), The American Economic Review, 1472-1497 (2002)

  1. Risse & R. Zeckhauser, Racial Profiling, 32, 2, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Research Library, 131-170. (Spring 2004)