Ideas & Insights Objects, academia, and fallacies about human nature

Objects, academia, and fallacies about human nature


Jul 9th 2018

Note: This is the final blog of the six-part blog series

The things they carried: lost objects of people desperately trying to make a new life.

Sicilian photographer Mario Badagliacca is documenting migrants’ journeys as they get to the shores of the Italian island Lampedusa. “There are pictures of broken shoes, clothes, cigarettes, crosses, personal letters, everything. I was feeling the subjectivity of their owners. Their faces, voices and their stories of life.” Relatedly, follow the Undocumented Migration Project at the University of Michigan, started by anthropologist Jason De León and featured on Radiolab. And in yet another part of the world – a story from the largest refugee camp in the world, in Cox Bazaar, Bangladesh, and why it’s imperative for the international community to do more.

 On false dichotomies and gender in academia.

These two pieces by The Chronicle of Higher Education seem practically important to how we interpret what comes out of the higher education system.

On false dichotomies, or the two cultures fallacy of the sciences and the humanities:

 “Both sides can articulate the values they hold in emotionally satisfying but utterly imprecise contrasts: useful versus useless, material versus idealistic, narrowly careerist versus broadly learned. As long as this opposition itself remains unquestioned, any “defense” of the humanities will only reinforce and prolong the debate.”

On women and power in the academy: important perspectives from presidents and adjuncts, scientists  and humanists, senior scholars and junior professors.

Pay Scale, by Ellen Weinstein

Fallacies in some foundations of “behavioral science.” A re-interpretation of Simons and Chabris’s famous gorilla experiment (also highlighted by Daniel Kahneman), illustrates some issues in how cognitive science/behavioral economics/etc. are being used today:

 “In other words, there is no neutral observation. The world doesn’t tell us what is relevant. Instead, it responds to questions. When looking and observing, we are usually directed toward something, toward answering specific questions or satisfying some curiosities or problems. ‘All observation must be for or against a point of view,’ is how Charles Darwin put it in 1861. Similarly, the art historian Ernst Gombrich in 1956 emphasised the role of the ‘beholder’s share’ in observation and perception.”

 “What we assume about human nature will determine the type of science we do, and shape questions we ask […]If we make blindness or bias the key characteristic of human nature, we’ll never get to these deeper insights.”

“That said, it is worth recognising that Kahneman’s focus on human blindness and bias – building on Herbert Simon’s 1950s work on bounded rationality – can be seen as an improvement to economic models that ascribe almost god-like perceptual abilities to economic actors. […] But behavioural approaches put scientists themselves onto a god-like perch from which they can point out human failure. A third option – as discussed above – focuses on the role of human ingenuity in crafting questions, expectations, hypotheses and theories to make sense of their environments. It’s this approach that gives humanity its due, rather than succumbing to caricatured – whether omniscient or blind – views of cognition and human nature.”

“Knowing what to observe, what data to gather in the first place, is not a computational task – it’s a human one.”

“Humans do a remarkable job of generating questions, expectations, hypotheses and theories that direct their awareness and attention toward what is relevant, useful and novel. And it is these – generative and creative – qualities of the human mind that deserve further attention.”

This call for focusing on the generative and creative qualities of the human seems pretty relevant to asking questions about what sorts of policies and programs should be made for them, doesn’t it?