This Week’s Book Giveaway

When confronted with an ethical dilemma, most of us like to think we would
stand up for our principles. But we are not as ethical as we think we are. This week’s book giveaway, Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It by Max H. Bazerman & Ann E. Tenbrunsel, examines the ways we overestimate our ability to do what is right and how we act unethically without meaning to. From the collapse of Enron and corruption in the tobacco industry, to sales of the defective Ford Pinto and the downfall of Bernard Madoff, the authors investigate the nature of ethical failures in the business world and beyond, and illustrate how we can become more ethical, bridging the gap between who we are and who we want to be.

“When we think of unethical behavior, the images that often come to mind are those of robbers, thieves, the executives at Enron, or Bernie Madoff. Blind Spots is not just about these criminals, but about a much larger problem—the dishonest actions that we all take while still thinking of ourselves as wonderfully moral people. In this important book, Bazerman and Tenbrunsel show us how we fail to see our own immoral actions in an objective light, and the trouble that this biased view gets us into.”—Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational

The random draw for this book with be Friday 6/24 at 11 am EST. Be sure to “Like” us on Facebook if you haven’t already to be entered to win!

When Biology and Philosophy Collide

According to Christopher Shea of The Chronicle, Patricia Churchland “has long made the case that philosophers must take account of neuroscience in their investigations”.

This case is addressed in her book Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality, which Shea describes as:

“…a bottom-up, biological story, but, in her telling, it also has implications for ethical theory. Morality turns out to be not a quest for overarching principles but rather a process and practice not very different from negotiating our way through day-to-day social life.”

Shea ends by suggesting that Churchland might have a long battle ahead of her to defend her ideas, but that Churchland’s “combative sensibility” will offer her an edge.

Read more here at The Chronicle:

TV Ontario’s Steve Paikin Interviews Patricia Churchland on Neuromorality

You can watch this video on the TV Ontario web site for The Agenda with Steve Paikin here:

Learn more about Dr. Churchland’s book Braintrust and read a sample chapter here:

This Week’s Book Giveaway

This week’s book giveaway is The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress by Peter Singer. What is ethics? Where do moral standards come from? The Expanding CircleIn his classic study The Expanding Circle, Peter Singer argues that altruism began as a genetically based drive to protect one’s kin and community members but has developed into a consciously chosen ethic with an expanding circle of moral concern. Drawing on philosophy and evolutionary psychology, he demonstrates that human ethics cannot be explained by biology alone. Rather, it is our capacity for reasoning that makes moral progress possible. In a new afterword, Singer takes stock of his argument in light of recent research on the evolution of morality.

“Singer’s theory of the expanding circle remains an enormously insightful concept, which reconciles the existence of human nature with political and moral progress. It was also way ahead of its time. . . . It’s wonderful to see this insightful book made available to a new generation of readers and scholars.”–Steven Pinker, author of The Blank Slate and The Stuff of Thought

If you’ve LIKED US on our Facebook Page you are automatically entered in this Friday’s random draw.

The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress by Peter Singer

U. Penn features Robert Kurzban’s recent Knowledge by the Slice lecture

“No one likes a hypocrite, or so the saying goes. But in a world driven more and more by technology like social networking, hypocrisy has never been so glaring. It has become part of pop culture to expose self-contradiction, with cable news networks and programs like The Daily Show placing contradictory political remarks side-by-side on a nightly basis, pointing out instances of hypocrisy to great effect. What if there was a scientific explanation? In a recent School of Arts and Sciences Knowledge by the Slice lecture series appearance, Robert Kurzban, Associate Professor of Psychology, discussed his most recent book, Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind. Using biology as a stepping stone, the book applies evolutionary insights to human behavior, arguing that the mind does not function as a single unit, but instead a collection of adaptations—modules—customized to take over when a given situation arises.”

Click over to U. Penn’s web site to read the complete article, or click here to watch a video of Kurzban’s talk.

Office Hours interviews Francesco Duina about an American obsession–Winning

The language of winning is so ingrained in the culture that we Americans don’t even notice it. Does all this competition make us happier? Of course not. Listen along as Francesco Duina, author of Winning: Reflections on an American Obsession, joins David Phillippi on the Office Hours podcast. Their lively discussion touches on subjects from popular culture ranging from sports to children to celebrities, including why it makes sense for Budweiser to crown itself “The King of Beers” while the Danish brand Carlsberg is happier to be “Probably the Best Beer in the World.”

Why are politicians such hypocrites?

At his event with Zocalo, Robert Kurzban offered up an explanation of hypocritical behavior by politicians:

For more on how our brains modularity contributes to contradictions, read Rob’s book Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite.

Princeton Global Science, Issue 10

Recent articles in Princeton Global Science include:

A response from Louise Barrett to Nicholas Wade’s article for the New York Times on dog cognition. Louise is the author of the forthcoming book Beyond the Brain: How Body and Environment Shape Animal and Human Minds which will revolutionize how we think about and define intelligence.

Richard Crossley Unplugged provided some hints on becoming a better birder and tips on identifying birds by size. We also saw some early reviews for this revolutionary bird ID guide.

PUP author Roland Kays (Mammals of North America, 2nd edition) began his stint as a guest-blogger for the New York Times.

David Weintraub, author of How Old Is the Universe?, is interviewed by Sean Moncrieff on Ireland’s Newstalk radio.

Josh Bloom has a book launch for What Are Gamma-Ray Bursts? at the American Astronomical Society conference.

Our jacket designers give us a glimpse into the creativity that goes into a striking cover like the one for The Silicon Jungle by Shumeet Baluja, a novel of deception and mystery that gets at the heart of privacy issues and the googlization of information.

And lastly, Eugene Kaplan, author of What’s Eating You?: People and Parasites, invites you to become an adventurous eater.

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PGS Exclusive: Louise Barrett responds to NY Times piece on dog cognition

Did you read this article in the NY Times, Science Times about Chaser, a collie who now recognizes 1,022 nouns? The article–which bears the wonderful title “Sit. Stay. Parse. Good Girl!”–argues that Chaser’s example might teach us about how humans acquire language, too. In the response below, Louise Barrett, author of the forthcoming book Beyond the Brain: How Body and Environment Shape Animal and Human Minds, cautions us to take Chaser’s story with a grain of salt. She argues here (and in her book) that traditional ways of viewing intelligence should be re-evaluated and all may not be as it seems.

My dog, Cassie, is a border collie. Unlike Chaser, the collie who has learned the names of over 1000 toys, Cassie’s vocabulary is rather more limited: all her toys are called ‘scrunchies’—the name of the first toy she was ever given. She consistently fails to learn any other names, and her apparent lack of intellectual ability has led my husband to dub her a ‘borderline collie’. Perhaps Cassie is simply not inclined to learn more and wants to get on with the ‘real’ game of fetch or, more likely, we lack the dedication to teaching shown by John Pilley, Chaser’s owner. Reading about Chaser’s feats, one cannot help be impressed by the feat of teamwork displayed by man and dog, and Chaser’s ability to discriminate between over 1000 different items is truly remarkable. So, why bring human language into it? As one commentator on Nicholas Wade’s piece puts it: “It’s too bad we see in this article the old, reliable tendency to make this finding valuable if it tells us something about how human children learn. How narrow are humans!” Exactly so. Our anthropocentrism, our desire to see ourselves reflected in other animals, is indeed a narrow perspective, and one that, inevitably, results in the diminishing of Chaser’s natural intelligence.

Consider how one of the first questions asked is whether Chaser is showing ‘simply’ a Clever Hans effect, the mere cuing into human body language without true ‘understanding’. The interpretation of the Clever Hans effect as ‘simple’ has always struck me as rather odd. After all, there’s nothing ‘simple’ about it; I find it amazing that another creature—one so different from us in morphology and its manner of engaging with the world—can nevertheless cue into the subtlest aspects of human body tension and breathing patterns, and learn to read them so expertly. Indeed, I find it much more interesting than the idea that Hans could actually count.

Thanks to Pilley’s careful experimental approach, we know that Chaser’s abilities are not the result of such inadvertent cuing, but even if they were, they would still tell us something interesting about the perceptual learning abilities of border collies, abilities we have bred into them and which are clearly exceptional; watching a collie herding sheep, sensitive to the subtle shifts and change in the herd’s response and responding itself to the minimal cues provided by the shepherd, can seem almost magical to our untutored eyes. But, of course, it isn’t magic. It is a form of expert pattern-recognition, a kind of fluid anticipation, as the dog notices the right things and responds at the right moment. It seems a shame that we spend our time attempting to eliminate such effects, wary of the spectre of Clever Hans, and not investigating them in their own right. Living in our human language-heavy world, we often fail to recognize how common and important such body-based practical knowledge is to the successful negotiation of our physical and social environment. We too are expert pattern-recognizers, engaged in a process of moment-by-moment attunement and adjustment to the things and events we encounter as we go about our daily lives; we too are creatures that cue into subtle aspects of movement and mood; we too spend part of every day behaving just like Clever Hans.

Emphasizing the language-like nature of Chaser’s skills, and whether she understands ‘meaning’, therefore misses the point. We can instead choose to look at things less analytically, with more attention to pattern, much like the way that turning down the sound on a TV show makes us more aware of the gestures and facial expressions that accompany the speech on which our attention usually becomes fixed. We can, in other words, attempt to look at the tasks without labeling the sounds that Chaser hears as ‘nouns’ and ‘verbs’, or ‘proper nouns’ versus ‘common’ ones. And when we do this, we see how Chaser has learned to discriminate the patterning of sounds and objects, on an ever finer level, and how these finely drawn perceptual discriminations of objects have also been discriminated from the patterns of actions that can accompany them, all achieved within the social context of pleasing her owner, and receiving praise and treats. Lacking the fully linguistic scaffold that shapes our view of the world—the way in which, as Andy Clark, the philosopher puts it, language ‘freezes’ our thoughts into objects, creating islands (or icebergs?) of thoughts about thoughts—Chaser may not see the task as we do at all, even though she performs exceptionally well at it. For her it may be another form of pattern-recognition, and not the bizarre human practice of word-learning. Indeed, this is the real lesson of Clever Hans: we shouldn’t assume that Chaser, and other animals in other experiments, sees their tasks as we do, even when their performance is consistent with a human-like interpretation.

John Pilley says he wants to teach Chaser a ‘receptive, rudimentary language’ as a way to help develop communication between people and dogs. Clearly, Chaser will be an apt pupil. But if we want to increase communication between humans and dogs there is another way. Instead of imposing the weird world of human language on dogs by dint of ‘brute repetition’ and daily drills, we could instead learn to read more closely the body-based cues and signals our dogs produce, and exploit the pattern-recognizing skills that we already share. A little less conversation, a little more Clever Hans please.

Princeton Global Science, Issue 9

We enjoyed a nice long break for the New Year, but we’re happy to present Issue 9 of Princeton Global Science.

Richard Crossley, author of The Crossley ID Guide, explains in two videos how you can make your backyard more bird-friendly by incorporating bird baths and bird feeders (Check out the gorgeous birds in this video!).

We have sneak peeks of two catalogs — Physics and Astrophysics and Mathematical Sciences.

And lastly we have two new PGS Dialogues — Robert Kurzban who is author of Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite, and Mircea Pitici who is editor of the The Best Writing on Mathematics 2010.

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PGS Dialogue: Robert Kurzban, author of Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite

In the last PGS Dialogue, I wrote “Math is everywhere,” and now I find that, with a small modification, this short statement is as applicable to the subject of this Dialogue as the last. I could just as easily write “Hypocrisy is everywhere” and still be on solid ground.

Robert Kurzban, author of Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite, spoke with editor Eric Schwartz about his new book, his research, and of course, what might be on the horizon.

How did you arrive at your field of research?

I was lucky enough to have the chance to learn from so many people – and arriving at a research destination is always about the people who take you there – that it’s difficult to say how I arrived. I’ll highlight three stops along the way that stand out to me. Going back to the beginning, as an undergraduate preparing to major in biology, I learned two key lessons. First, that organisms are incredibly specialized to exploit their niches and, second, that inhaling ether in a fruit fly lab was not going to lead me to a satisfying and fulfilling life. Next, in graduate school, a biological anthropologist and a cognitive scientist – my advisers – showed me how the lessons I learned in my biology classes could shed new light on human social behavior. In many ways, my graduate education is reflected in the subtitle of the book, “evolution and the modular mind.” The third stop was a workshop I was lucky enough to attend in which a bunch of really smart people discussed some really interesting issues about human behavior and made really little progress. What was clear from the workshop is that we humans are really inconsistent creatures, and modularity – the idea that the mind consists of a large number of different parts – helps to make sense of why. This book, Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite, takes ideas from my particular academic journey to explain some puzzling aspects of human behavior. (I might have mentioned a fourth stop along the way. I spent some time working for Disney – long story – and worked on a show called Cranium Command. The attraction explains how the mind is made up of a lot of different parts. Did a theme park attraction influence my academic path? *Shrug*)

What is the most surprising finding in your research?

A lot of people don’t want other people to use recreational drugs. This is so obviously true that it’s easy to miss the fact that psychologists still don’t really know why this is. So, recently, some collaborators and I ran a study designed to try to figure it out. Most people would probably think that opposition to recreational drugs comes from being a conservative, or highly religious, or from some other philosophical commitment. We had a different idea. So, we measured people’s opposition to drugs, their politics, and – the heart of the theory that started this research program – their sexuality, including things such as views toward casual sex, number of prior sexual partners, and so on. From our data, it turns out that if you want to try to predict whether someone opposes drugs, the best questions to ask them – other than, you know, whether or not they oppose drugs – isn’t their political party, but something considerably more personal. (The final version of the book was written before these findings were all in, but the explanation for this link is in Chapter 9.)

Where do you see your work leading you in the future?

Well, if I knew where it was leading, I guess it wouldn’t be “research” – off into the unknown and all that – but I can say that there are two questions that I’m excited to be pursing. The first one is about morality. Along with graduate students past and present, I’ve been working to understand the function of morality. To return to the question above, people moralize all sorts of things other people want to do, and we’d like to understand why that is (and, maybe, what we can do about it). The second line of work asks why people seem to like some sorts of scientific explanations – neuroscience is currently all the rage – but dislike other kinds. This dislike is tangible; as an evolutionary psychologist, I not infrequently have people who have no training as scientists inform me, with quiet, serious confidence, that my field is not, in fact, a science. It’s unclear why this is, and one thing I’d like to do is to understand such people and figure out what, exactly, their problem is.

Patricia Churchland, “The Great Debate” about neuroscience and morality, recorded at Arizona State University

On November 6th, 2010 a panel of renowned scientists, philosophers, and public intellectuals gathered to discuss what impact evolutionary theory and advances in neuroscience might have on traditional concepts of morality. If human morality is an evolutionary adaptation and if neuroscientists can identify specific brain circuitry governing moral judgment, can scientists determine what is, in fact, right and wrong? The panelists were psychologist Steven Pinker, author Sam Harris, philosopher Patricia Churchland, physicist Lawrence Krauss, philosopher Simon Blackburn, bioethicist Peter Singer and The Science Network’s Roger Bingham.

Recorded live at the Arizona State University Gammage auditorium.

“The Great Debate” was sponsored by the ASU Origins Project in collaboration with the ASU Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law Center for Law, Science and Innovation; the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge; and The Science Network.