Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Historically, most anarchafeminists have explicitly rejected marriage as a tool of control by the state and/or church, inherently reinforcing the patriarchy. In the early 20th century, this position was known in the Anglophone West as ‘Free Love’ and didn’t necessarily imply anything about the relationship structures of the people involved, although many did engage in what we would now call polyamorous relationships. ‘Free Love’ as a term underwent a semantic shift as a result of its adoption by 1960s counterculture movements, in which incarnation it has been roundly (and rightly) critiqued by feminists. More recently, the word ‘monogamy’ has also undergone a semantic shift, which I argue is actually detrimental to our political understanding of marriage and relationships.[1]

The word ‘monogamous’, taken literally, does not mean ‘having a romantic relationship with only one other person’. It means ‘being married to only one other person’. Despite the semantic shift towards the former that has happened over the past few decades, I argue that we should return to using the word ‘monogamous’ in its literal sense – not on etymological grounds, but on political ones. That is, we should use ‘monogamous’ only to mean the state of being married to precisely one other person (or seeking or being oriented toward such a state).

Immediately, we see that this has two potentially counter-intuitive effects. First, it means we must start calling some people in exclusive, committed, dyadic relationships ‘non-monogamous’, if they are opposed to the institution of marriage or otherwise intend not to enter it. At the same time, it recasts many polyamorous relationships as ‘monogamous’. Specifically, those which have the sort of relationship structure that is centred around a married couple who are practising a sort of gender-equal concubinage with outside partners, who may or may not also be part of monogamous couples themselves.

Before proceeding, let me specify what I mean by ‘marriage’. Marriage is the socio-political institution whereby the state exerts control over relationships and family structures by certifying some as valid while denying the validity of others. It is, in its secular sense, a legal relation and a property relation. I am not critiquing marriage as a religious institution, which from a purely feminist perspective may be more or less acceptable depending on the particularities involved (i.e. can range from extremely patriarchal to not at all) – and which in any case has often been a point of contention between states and minority religions within their jurisdiction. (This is not to say that there are not criticisms of religious marriage to be made; only that they fall outside the scope of my argument here.) Rather, the problem with marriage is that it entails the allocation of legal standing and material resources based on the people involved having signed a particular kind of contract with each other and the state, and state-sanctioned monogamy is thereby blatantly discriminatory both to single people and to polyamorous people.

In the social realm, married relationships are simply taken more seriously in their communities than unmarried relationships, even in purely secular communities where there is no stigma about unmarried partners living together, and even as marriage has begun to wane in social importance overall. When things are going well, unmarried partners might see little difference between themselves and married partners in the eyes of their communities (if not the state) – but mistreatment, abuse, infidelity, and the breakdown of the relationship are all given significantly more social weight if the people involved are married than if they are not. Now, there is a very limited sense in which that is actually appropriate. Partners have the right to make whatever level of commitment they choose to one another, and communities should support that – which includes things like having more social censure for a partner who abandons a committed relationship than for someone who dumps a casual lover. (Obviously, serious mistreatment such as abuse should be taken very seriously no matter what the relationship of the people involved.) The main problem here is not that publicly committed relationships are taken more seriously by their communities than privately committed or uncommitted relationships. It is that the state-sanctioned institution of marriage is often the only way in which this distinction is made.

The word ‘monogamy’, however, even if narrowly defined to refer specifically to marriage relationships and not merely to all exclusive dyadic relationships, can still have a broader sense, because we live in a normatively monogamous society. Precisely because of all of the social pressures towards marriage, it makes sense to call a relationship ‘monogamous’ if it is taking place in a context where all participants understand that marriage is the desirable outcome for a dating couple, and they have not decided any differently between themselves. Therefore, the vast majority of  unmarried relationships in our society could indeed still be called ‘monogamous’, in that they are participating in a normatively monogamous paradigm without challenging it.

It was this relation – marriage, and its social normativity – against which the original proponents of ‘Free Love’ were arguing. While many of them did practise what we would now call non-monogamy, i.e. non-exclusive relationships or polyamory, the term itself did not initially indicate anything whatsoever about the relationship styles of the people involved. It merely meant that they were opposed to the state and the church dictating the forms of their relationships, as well as their legal and property relations associated therewith.

Moreover, when seeing ‘monogamy’ as specifically descriptive of marriage (or aspirations thereto), it becomes clear that none of the arguments that people might make against marriage can thereby be taken as arguments in favour of polyamory, however much merit that kind of relationship arrangement may have for its practitioners.

Polyamory is neither natural nor political. There is a body of thought – or perhaps it is more accurate to say, a set of inclinations – that I am opposing under the term ‘political polyamory’, but which in some forms might also be called ‘evangelical polyamory’, or in some cases even ‘normative polyamory’. Namely, it is the set of ideas that posit that polyamorous relationship arrangements are “more radical” or in some way better than non-polyamorous ones. There are a few different strands here, which I’ll be treating as different arguments rather than as representative of different groups of polyamory-proponents, as it is quite often the case that proponents of one will also be proponents of one or more of the others, despite their internal contradictions.

First, there is the idea that polyamory (or non-exclusivity) is somehow “more natural” than other forms of relationships. Basically, the story goes, human beings probably practised non-monogamous relationships during most of our evolutionary history – and our closest living relatives, the bonobos, certainly do – therefore this is most likely the most natural form for our relationships to take. Setting aside whether or not that is true or even knowable, it quite simply does not follow from the fact that this-or-that behaviour is “more natural” than another that it is in any way better. For one thing, all human behaviour is a product of our cultures to one degree or another; there is no such thing as a human being without culture. Further, even if it were so, the argument rests on a basic fallacy, known in philosophy as the is-ought problem or naturalistic fallacy. That is: it is absurd to make claims about what ought to be the case, merely on the basis of what is. It is certainly valid to use the evidence often cited in these arguments to show that monogamy is not a natural, inherent behaviour in humans, but that negative claim is the extent of what can be shown; the same evidence cannot be used to make any positive claims about what human behaviour is or ought to be.

Next, there is the claim that polyamory is in some sense “more evolved” or “more enlightened” than traditional monogamy. This argument does not rest on dubious evopsychological claims, but instead takes as its base scenario the traditional monogamy of western Europe and its diaspora. Despite (rather curiously) often being proposed by proponents of the naturalistic polyamory arguments just described, in many ways it makes precisely the opposite sort of mistake: it takes its own base set of cultural values as universal norms, and sees polyamory as an enlightened refutation of these norms.[2] The word ‘evolved’ in this context probably isn’t meant literally, as that would not be possible, but seems instead to be metaphorically referencing a teleologically progressive view of human society, in which ideas or practices that come later are taken to be intrinsically better than those that they replace. “Enlightened”, meanwhile, seems to be deployed as a simplistic contradistinction to the assumed benightedness of the monogamous, as though the only reasons a person might not be polyamorous were because they had either never heard of it, or they are so in thrall to tradition that they would never dare to flout it. In this sense, the argument is similar to naturalistic polyamory in that it shares the assumption that everyone would be polyamorous if they had the option, and is held back only by cultural norms. In both of these cases, the so-called political content of polyamory is in challenging the norms of a monogamous society, and the error is in the assumption that normative monogamy is the only reason that someone might choose to only have exclusive, dyadic relationships.

Finally, there is the idea that polyamory is ‘more radical’ or is more ethical based on radical anarchist principles. In the first formulation, it seems to be just another repetition of what I call the ‘queerer than thou’ fallacy. That is, that because x, y, and z sorts of relationships are proscribed by heteronormative mainstream society, relationships that fall into more than one of those categories are ‘more queer’ than those that fall into only one, with the subtext that ‘queer’ = ‘cool’ and so ‘queerer’ = ‘better’. That is to say that it is making a basic category error, confusing what might be “cool” in certain subcultures with what is politically desirable.

The second – and rather more charitable – formulation also comes down to a category error, although in a much subtler way. It is a basic principle of anarchism, as well as of any other properly egalitarian political philosophy, to be opposed to hierarchy in human relations. There is a naïve sense in which this is sometimes interpreted to mean that every person should have an absolutely equal say in every decision – which, upon examination, is obviously absurd. As well as individuals not having any right to butt in on decisions that don’t affect them, most collective endeavours would not function without some delegation of decision-making powers, even if the people making those decisions are ultimately accountable to their collectives and communities. Furthermore, any society will always have hierarchies of information and therefore differing levels of expertise among individuals. The point of opposing hierarchy is not to deny the specialist knowledge of experts, nor to pretend that someone ignorant of a subject can speak on it with equal merit, but to deny that the holding of any particular expertise, skill, or position in society entitles that person to special treatment in their society as a person. For example: it’s fine for the architect to tell us how to build the building; it’s not okay for her to demand that she therefore gets to live in the very biggest and nicest flat inside of it.

Similarly, we quite naturally form hierarchies of love in our personal relationships. I love my friends more than I love my acquaintances, and I imagine that you do as well – that’s why they’re your friends, after all! I would even say that I love my parents more than I love my aunts and uncles, even though I do love my aunts and uncles very much. And, this is okay. What would not be okay is if I were to claim that my friends and my family are more important per se than other people; but that is not what we do when we acknowledge that they are more important to us. We do not make claims that our loved ones are more valuable than other people based on our love for them; we merely acknowledge that we value them more.

There is a subset of polyamorous people – not all of whom would use the word ‘polyamory’ to describe their relationships – who are explicitly opposed to the sort of traditional-marriage-plus-concubinage style of polyamory referenced up top. However, they see the problem with this not as the marriage at the centre, but as the primacy given to that relationship itself, no matter its legal status. They term this sort of relationship structure ‘hierarchical polyamory’, implying (or sometimes outright stating) that people who have a single primary relationship while maintaining other non-primary (or “secondary”) relationships are mistreating their non-primary partners simply by virtue of those relationships being non-primary. This carries with it the implication that it is impermissible to make different levels of commitment to different partners, as to do so would automatically institute a “hierarchy” among one’s relationships. The error, then, in much of explicitly non-hierarchical polyamory or “relationship anarchy” is to seem to imply that by loving or valuing one partner more than another – or, in some forms, more than hypothetical partners who do not yet actually exist, as in the case of commitments to exclusivity – a person is thereby denigrating the very humanity of the other partners (or hypothetical partners).

Proponents of this view seem to be making the logical leap from the idea that all people have equal worth, to the idea that all of the people they are or might be in relationships with should have equal value to them, and thereby an equal “say” in any conflicts that might arise within or among their relationships. Of course, people seldom do end up valuing all of their loved ones absolutely equally – or in the same sorts of ways – and so in practice attempts to enact this sort of relationship structure often find that established romantic partners feel alienated and devalued, especially when they have high levels of entanglement, while newer partners might feel pressured into a level of seriousness they may not feel. This is not to say that people inspired by these ideas about relationship structures cannot or do not have loving, supportive relationships. However, attempts to impose supposedly non-hierarchical relationship structures where they have not formed organically has, in my observation at least, tended to lead to the person pushing for the “non-hierarchical” structure ending up treating their partners quite badly, and this may be because they are attempting to impose a (confused) political ideal onto a situation where it is not at all warranted.

Of course, much avoidable pain has also come from normative monogamy. This, then, is the point of the matter. If polyamory is not political, it must be stated that non-monogamy – in its narrow-but-expansive definition given at the beginning, i.e. the state of being opposed to the sociopolitical institution of marriage, regardless of one’s actual relationships or the exclusivity or openness thereof – absolutely is political. If there is anything worth saving, worth valuing in marriage, it is that it is the method by which communities support partners in their relationships, helping them to support each other and to uphold their commitments to one another. The problem is that for the most part this is the only way that this happens. How much better might our society become if all relationship configurations were supported in this way? If our communities recognised, respected and supported the relationships not only of those people who were married – or intending or assumed to be married – but also those people in long-term, committed, intentionally unmarried relationships; partially or alternatively committed long-term relationships; short-term relationships of any kind; and indeed all uncommitted relationships, in the ways that those need community support as well; and treated single people as whole people and not as defective, open-ended dyadic halves? That is the politics of Free Love, and it has nothing at all to do with polyamory, except as a term – politically and morally neutral as any other – for a particular subset of the myriad options available to people in a truly romantically liberated society.

[1]    Please note: throughout this essay I am speaking from and largely to a very specific cultural context (or set of contexts). Namely, that of radical left-wing political communities and polyamorous/non-monogamous, queer, and other “alternative” minority-sexuality subculture-communities within the Anglophone West. My experience and observation comes from participation in these communities, both in person and online, over approximately the past decade; unfortunately most of the trends and phenomena I describe are therefore not citeable in any traditional way, as they come from either direct participation or from observation of largely ephemeral forms of communication. My observations are my own, and should not be taken as definitive of any group of people.

[2]    In fairness, proponents of this view are generally aware that there are other cultures where monogamy is not the norm, or at least is not normatively enforced. However, to the extent that they engage with this information at all, their engagement tends to be tokenising. That is, there is a general tendency among (especially white) Westerners to pluck ideas and activities from the rest of the world as though they were whole and undifferentiated consumable objects, rather than culturally embedded practices which may not make sense outside of the context in which they were developed. Furthermore, consumption of these alienated tokens is often itself seen as an “enlightened” activity, presumably by the logic that it is only the ignorant and simple-minded who are aware only of their own cultures, and therefore to visibly consume the practices and artefacts of other cultures is necessarily an “enlightened” activity.

A version of this essay was presented at the 2016 Anarchist Studies Network conference in Loughborough. It has been lightly edited.


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As an anarchist, I have no illusions that my voting will actually do anything at all to enact positive change in society. It is only ever, at best, an imperfect means by which to hinder the ruling classes in being even more rapacious than they might otherwise be. But that’s not nothing. I’ve never voted for a politician in my life, but I’ve sure as hell voted against some others … in a way that happens to be indistinguishable from voting “for” their opponents, because that is the only means the system allows. Yet, if it’s there, why not use it? Use it cynically, use it with open eyes, but what exactly is the point of eschewing the one tiny scrap of power given to citizens of representative “democracies”, even while working to overturn the whole system?

“If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal!”
Sure. But doesn’t that well-worn slogan actually prove the opposite point to the one it’s generally deployed in favour of? It’s hard to see the history and current realities of deliberate disenfranchisement and voter suppression and  not see the ruling classes as actually running scared at the power of the electorate. They may be largely over-worried about that (see: most actual communist governments), but the aggregate power of the populace — shrunken and circumscribed though it most certainly is — is a genuine check on their power.

Voting legitimises the state (and/or whomever you vote for)
This is ultimately a philosophical point, and one where I tend to disagree with most anarchists. My disagreement, interestingly enough, stems from the very process that led me to anarchism in the first place: the academic study of the philosophical arguments by which governments claim legitimacy. See, they’re all bullshit, every last one. Social Contract Theory probably comes closest to actually being justifiable, in that it at least tries to involve the consent of the governed in being ruled by the state, but even it ultimately rests on the bullshit idea of “tacit consent”, whereby by simply existing under the rule of the state, the people have somehow agreed to be ruled by it.
All of which is to say: your consent is not required. It is simply assumed — even among electorates with voter turnout percentages regularly in the low 30s, it is assumed — and you are merely asked to choose among your oppressors. But some oppressors genuinely are worse than others, and given that the option of ‘no oppressors’ isn’t even on the table, I see no contradiction in using what little power you are afforded to try to ensure the less evil option (that is, to improve or sustain the actual material wellbeing of people in your society), and at the same time trying to flip that table altogether.
The more general point here is that participating in a system does not legitimise it. At least not where one is not given a genuine choice in whether or not to participate — and as we see from the general interpretation of low voter turnouts, simply not voting is not sufficient to be counted as “not participating” in the system. As far as I see it, voting doesn’t legitimise government any more than, say, having a bank account legitimises money, or having a job legitimises wage slavery.

Voting is alienating
Yep. Sure is. No argument there. I want to be clear that I’m not writing this as any sort of active encouragement for anyone to vote, merely as a counter-argument against some specific arguments against voting. Voting is quite literally alienating yourself from your real political power, and I would never shame someone for choosing not to do that.

Electioneering drains the energy of the radical working class!
Woah, woah, woah, now. Slow your roll, anxious anarchist abstentionists. I said voting. I didn’t say anything about campaigning. I absolutely think that it’s a waste of time for anyone seeking revolution[ary change of any kind] to bother spending any significant time working to get So-and-So, the Left’s new Great White Hope, elected into office. There are plenty of people who haven’t yet come around to genuinely radical politics; let them do the electioneering. You and me, we can keep working on the same shit we’ve been working on. But given the minimal effort required to actually cast a ballot, when elections do come around, why not vote?

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There’s been a fair bit of recent and less recent hand-waving about the methodological flaws dogging medical science. The problems seems to be these: First, human trials are difficult and expensive, meaning that a significant chunk of them are done by private (or, perhaps worse, publicly-traded and thus shareholder-beholden) companies with a vested interest in the treatments they’re developing turning out to be effective. Second, where trials are done by universities, something about the structure of grant funding means that researchers are under tremendous pressure to publish positive results – the combined effect of the general academic pressure to publish and the literature’s strong and well-documented (if much-bemoaned) bias towards publishing positive results. Thus, negative and especially inconclusive trial results “slip through the cracks”, going unpublished and leading to an unconscionable level of seemingly avoidable human suffering.

This is clearly a serious problem, but thus far the only concrete solution I’ve seen proposed comes from this New Scientist article, which profiles a start-up agency whose remit is specifically to reproduce trials, with the power to award those that prove reproducible with some sort of “reproducibility certificate”. This sounds great, and I’m all for it, but surely the simpler and more obvious answer is to get in some mechanism that gets all those unpublished results published in the first place? Indeed, Ben Goldacre’s article notes: “In any sensible world, when researchers are conducting trials on a new tablet for a drug company, for example, we’d expect universal contracts, making it clear that all researchers are obliged to publish their results, and that industry sponsors – which have a huge interest in positive results – must have no control over the data.”

It’s so glaringly obvious that I’m hesitant even to write, feeling for sure that this must have already been proposed, or is already being proposed by hundreds of people who are much closer to the medical research industry than I am, but: what about a universal research results database? The information-cataloging technology for this certainly exists, and it seems like it would solve several problems simultaneously. All research would be visible, and research proving a negative wouldn’t feel “wasted”. Something like this would presumably benefit all areas of science, but it seems especially pressing in medical research, given the potentially life-threatening consequences of messing that up.

I’ve spent the last several years coming to the gradual and disappointing realization that scientific research doesn’t usually work the way they tell you it does when they teach you about the scientific method in elementary school – an idealized picture that seems to still inform quite a lot of professional philosophers’ picture of scientific research. I recognize that there are “real world constraints” that make perfect application of the scientific method impossible or unrealistic, or unethical with human subjects. But does it really have to be so bad? For one thing, there is presumably a regulatory body that approves experiments on human subjects. How on earth are the non-publishing gag orders that Goldacre describes making it past their ethics committees? Shouldn’t it be the opposite? And if the data-publishing aspects of the experiments aren’t part of the proposals that have to go before the ethics boards – well, why aren’t they?

Anyway, I’m coming at all this as someone who is not a practicing scientist myself, and would welcome any input or feedback from those of you who are.

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Action and Knowability

I haven’t been getting out much, but last weekend I did manage to go to a party, and got talking to a woman I met there, mostly about Kant. We argued with vehemence and gesticulation: she was of the opinion that all of Kant’s theories were BULLSHIT because he said that even space and time were merely constructs of the human mind and thus not actually real. I found this to be both a serious oversimplification and gross misunderstanding, although because she was one of the hosts I did not use those words. My own over-simplistic understanding of Kant’s metaphysics is that the business about space and time being constructs of the human mind is mostly an epistemological point: that the “true nature” of the universe is ultimately unknowable because, although we perceive things spatiotemporally, we cannot know that our perceptions are accurate. This does not rule out the possibility that our perceptions are in fact accurate regarding the extension of objects in space and time; it simply means we cannot know for sure. (Or rather, more subtly but also more accurately: that we cannot understand our perceptions except through scema, such as space and time, which we introduce ourselves; but again this does not ultimately mean that they are somehow “inaccurate”.)

I’ve also been watching lots of Star Trek lately, which, like most sci-fi, has a tendency to play out weird ethical thought experiments. Viz.:

The captain always defends the deontological position; the first officer, the utilitarian.

The captain always defends the deontological position; the first officer, the utilitarian.

(Drawing is from Hourly Comics Day, which I did not complete with enough pizzazz to share any but this.)

There are questions, of course, about the extent to which Kant’s metaphysics were important to his ethical theories, but I maintain that in the most important ways they are effectively separate. Kantian ethics can be effectively summed up in his Categorical Imperative, which is to “Act as if the maxim of your actions were a universal law” or various other effectively similar formulations. It is commonly dismissed for the somewhat ironic reason that it is often impossible to know the consequences of one’s actions. And of course for the impossibility of correctly formulating “maxims” by which one purports to act.

Meanwhile, at work, I have a copy of Rawls’ A Theory of Justice reserved for myself, so that if I ever get around to reading it all the way through, I can disagree with it more intelligently. In a nutshell, though, Rawls provides the last possibly defensible gasp for Social Contract Theory, via a thought experiment in which one is meant to defend the state which one would find most palatable even if one did not know which position one would hold within it. We are meant to hedge our bets, of course, because we want it to turn out that, even if we were the lowliest of the low, the society we “chose” when we were in the “original position” (from which one sets the parameters of the society) would not be so bad. It is a fine thought experiment, except for the conclusion that the obvious choice of society would be a liberal state. When I run the experiment in my own head, the society I imagine is an anarcho-socialist one.

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Today I came across one of those hi-larious comic flowcharts, this one about alternative medicine. Now, it’s hardly new or innovative to make fun of ‘alternative therapies’ (though this is a fairly well-done piece of humour), but I want to draw your attention to one corner of it in particular. That is, the options for those wanting a “wholly ‘natural’ remedy” and who believe that “Yes, Big Pharma are the devil”. The choice is then based on the “Quantity of active ingredients required”. “Bugger all” leads to “Homeopathy”;* “An unknown, uncontrolled & untested amount” leads to “Herbal Medicine”.

This idea of testing has been at the centre of most of the more civil debates I’ve had or seen about herbal medicines, and it’s an important one. Many arguments are marred throughout by both sides’ tendency to argue as though more committed to being on a side than to striving towards Truth, no matter what they may claim. That is: typically, someone on the anti-herbal side will point out that little or no medical testing has been done for most herbal remedies. Then someone on the pro-herbal side will either bemoan the lack of funding for testing in most places — at which point arguments usually end because the opponents see that they are on the same ‘side’ really, the side of scientific testing, they are just coming into it with differing hypotheses — or else the pro-herbalist will question the validity of medical testing itself. And that is when it usually gets nasty.**

It’s this sort of oppositional attitude, I think, that leads people to ridiculously extreme positions of either disregarding all scientific research, or blindly accepting it all just because it’s *~*~science~*~* (though it’s worth noting that the latter view seems to be much more prominent among rationalistic non-scientists than practicing scientists or especially scientific researchers). The trouble, of course, is that a lot of scientific research, and — this excellent article in this month’s Atlantic magazine leads me to believe — medical research in particular, is often filled with methodological flaws. Some are the result of bias or fraud, but many are simply unavoidable, and probably many more are simply oversights. It is simply not healthy — literally or figuratively — to accept all research uncritically.

In the above-linked article, meta-researcher Dr. John Ioannidis claims, and has come up with a mathematical proof to demonstrate, that under normal conditions, most medical research turns out to be wrong. Moreover: “His model predicted, in different fields of medical research, rates of wrongness roughly corresponding to the observed rates at which findings were later convincingly refuted: 80 percent of non-randomized studies (by far the most common type) turn out to be wrong, as do 25 percent of supposedly gold-standard randomized trials, and as much as 10 percent of the platinum-standard large randomized trials.” And yet, of course, it would be wrong to say that this is a reason to automatically distrust all medical research — though it certainly appears to be a reason only to trust randomized trials, and even to take those with a grain of salt. It is still less reason to think we should abandon the concept of medical research altogether. It just means that we need to work to make that research better.

An example from my own life has been niggling at my conscience for years now. St Andrews is a major centre for certain kinds of psychological research, as well as having a host of psychology grad students with their own research projects, and as such it is fairly common for students to earn bits of extra money by participating in experiments. Now, St Andrews is also a small town, and the university is small, and quite a lot of students know each other, and even more students, I would think, will know each other within the set of current students who participate in these experiments, because a lot of them find out about them through friends who’ve done them too — I mean, really, what student anywhere would give up the chance, or fail to pass on word of the chance, to earn almost minimum wage for pressing buttons for 45 minutes?

For most experiments, the fact that a lot of participants know each other is surely a non-issue. But one of the bigger labs within the department is one that researches perceptions of faces. This surely must be affected by the participant’s familiarity with the faces they view within the experiment. In the one I did, I was first given a basic colour-blindness test and then asked to rate how “healthy” various faces looked. There were fifteen or twenty faces in the cycle, and I knew close to a third of them. Two were close friends! I’m sure this must have made a difference, because I could tell where my friends’ faces had been digitally manipulated or stretched or discoloured, which I generally couldn’t with the strangers’.

I tried to tell someone this at the time, but they were all so busy and I was so shy that I didn’t work up the courage to demand one of their attention long enough to point out this potential (and potentially serious) methodological flaw. Then they took my picture to add to their database, gave me my handful of coins and sent me on my way. Ever since, I’ve been idly wondering whether or not I should email someone, but I don’t know who I would email, and the more time passes the more embarrassing it would seem to be, to initiate the discussion. But REALLY. It’s probably not something that most experimenters would need to think to control for, if they were in larger cities or had larger or older databases or whatever, but in that particular situation, it seems like a gross oversight — and one quite easily corrected within the experiment, with just a button or something the participant could click if the face generated was an acquaintance’s. Or by having a time lag of a good few years in between entering a participant’s photograph into the database and having it show up in experiments. Or something.

The good news, though, is that Dr. Ioannidis’ work has been exceptionally well-received by the medical community. Yet there is apparently controversy within the meta-research community for exactly the reasons described above: some fear that seeding public doubts about scientific research will simply drive people to seek “alternative” therapies or ignore the medical establishment, or their own health, altogether. I much prefer his proposed solution. To quote the Atlantic article: “We could solve much of the wrongness problem, Ioannidis says, if the world simply stopped expecting scientists to be right. That’s because being wrong in science is fine, and even necessary—as long as scientists recognize that they blew it, report their mistake openly instead of disguising it as a success, and then move on to the next thing, until they come up with the very occasional genuine breakthrough.”

* As well it should.

** Let us be clear: it also gets nasty because of the anti-herbal camp’s tendency to lump herbal remedies together with all other “alternative” therapies, like homeopathy and crystal healing and bullshit like that, and equivocate between them in their refutations; and by the tendency of many proponents of herbal remedies to also believe in bullshit like homeopathy and crystal healing.

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This year, all of H.P. Lovecraft’s work came into the public domain, eliciting a flurry of geekery among, well, the geeks. Harry took the opportunity to stage the first-ever play of ‘Call of Cthulhu‘, and filled the house with Lovecraft paraphernelia, including various radio plays which he aired for our general enjoyment. I hadn’t read much Lovecraft before, but it wasn’t long before the themes common to most of his stories became glaringly apparant. In almost all of the ones I read or listened to, some curious person delves just a little too deeply into some secret knowledge of the ancient horrors of the world, and concludes that it were better they were never known.


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Recently I’ve been feeling inexplicably agitated. It’s almost physical, like an itch or irritation deep in my chest, behind the solar plexis, churning and twitching with no hope for relief. It could just be too much coffee, I suppose, but I am so tired all the time. And anyway, it feels more like I just ought to be doing something, anything, all the time, but I’ve no idea what I should do — and I am so tired, all the time. And so I itch, and burn, and snap at people.

This becomes an extended metaphor »

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