davidberreby.com

Writings




Why Secret Information is Over-Rated
Studies show people value secret information more just because it is secret. No wonder we have a problem with "overclassification."

The Obesity Era
It's easy to think that obesity is rising worldwide because people just can't control themselves. But it's wrong.


A sample of Us and Them from Google Books
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The myth of ``Peak Attention''
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Herbert Simon famously said ``information used to be the scarce resource, now attention is the scarce resource.'' It's a popular view nowadays, encouraged by our sense that we're running out of oil, water, food and money -- why shouldn't we worry that we're out of attention too? A few weeks ago, I worked out why I think this view is entirely wrong. This piece, originally a talk I gave at Fordham University in November, explains why.

Eliot Spitzer and Psychologists' Changing Concept of Conformity
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Is it always the lone maverick who's right, when s/he refuses to play along? That's how American psychologists have taught it, but recently they have been taking another look at conformism. I explain a bit in this piece from the New York Times Magazine.

Chapter 1 of US AND THEM
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All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They.

-Rudyard Kipling, "A Friend of the Family"


Scientists, when they turn their attention to people, usually talk about the entire human race or about the individual human being. Those are two faces of the same idea. Truth about all is truth about each . . .


The Punishment Fits the Crime
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A dystopian tale about the uses of medical genetics.

All About Us and Them
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A FAQ about the book.

Ravens, Robots and the Nature of Humanness
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Machines are getting smarter all the time. Animals are turning out to have unexpected mental powers, too. So what happens to our sense of the dividing line between human and non-human?

Ashkenazim, history and intelligence
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About a paper that claims a social role created selection pressure for Ashkenazic Jews to pass on genes for intelligence -- and for Tay-Sachs.

Human Kinds in the Brain: An MRI scan of racial perception
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By definition, studying human kinds means bridging disciplinary boundaries. Human kinds involve bodily states, like stress levels, and brain activity, and mental states, and the political and cultural world that each mind shares with others. This article describes one such cross-cultural project: Collaboration among neuroscientists, brain scanners and social psychologists to look at how a brain function can be tied to human-kind behavior. Specificially, these two studies looked at differences in brain activity when people looked at members of different races.

Can a language be ``endangered''?
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Language is the most emotionally powerful of our tools for deciding who is Us and who is Them, and which human kinds are real. So fights over language politics are fierce. This piece provoked more angry email than almost anything else I've ever written. It also provoked some intelligent reflections, though, one of which made me change my mind about a few things.

On Being Stoned (Not in a pleasant way)
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A first-hand lesson in how we don't get to choose where we stand in a tribal fight.

Human Kinds in the Making: Race and the Mind
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A built-in predisposition to see human kinds, argues Lawrence Hirschfeld, makes it easy for little kids to learn racial categories.

Dear Colleague . . .
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For John James Audubon, the great painter of wildlife and champion of American nature, a good day was one in which he shot a hundred birds. That was how he got the relentless see-it-all detail in those huge prints that made his fortune.

For many biologists, as for him, loving nature means wanting to understand it, and understanding it requires control over a bit of it. That often entails what the journal papers will still refer to as a ``sacrifice'' of laboratory creatures. The word's not lightly chosen. Many biologists admire and cherish the animals they kill. No doubt farmers do too (or did, when farms were not factories) but in science the compensating value for killing animals is more abstract. The ``sacrifice'' produces knowledge, not food. Knowledge the scientist wants because, at root, she loves life and admires animals.

During the time when I was thinking about this, I coincidentally had a chance to experience it first-hand. That's what this essay is about.

Murray Gell-Mann's Quest
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Do physicists ``invent'' things like atoms and quarks, or do they ``discover'' them? What's the link between equations in a journal and reality? On such issues physicists themselves are all over the map.

You don't have to look far to find physicists who say their work depicts an ultimate reality. Google Steven Weinberg or Frank Wilczek, and you'll see. On the other hand, it is not hard to find physicists who believe the opposite -- that we can't say there is a final truth out there without reference to the minds that seek it. Try Peter Galison or Piet Hut on that Google search, and you'll see what I mean.

Some years ago I had the privilege of encountering one of physics' great minds, who addressed this subject (and countless others) in our interviews. This ran in the New York Times Magazine.

Human Kinds in the Making: The Tribe of Attention Deficit
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As activists try to create human kinds that suit them, they often meet resistance. Arguments over Attention Deficit Disorder are a good illustration of ongoing contention over how this human kind should be defined -- and who should define it.

Science, Scientists and the Nature of Knowledge
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What's the difference between a theory and a fact?

Human Kinds in the Making: Dwarves
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I wrote a few articles in the 1990's about human kinds that were being created, or redefined, by focussed, determined work. How was it possible that people could become convinced they belonged to a tribe they never heard of, or thought of as a medical condition, or even a moral flaw? (I now think the answer is the mind's innate mechanism for dealing with human kinds.)

This is one of those articles -- about the movement to make dwarfism less of a medical diagnosis and more of a tribal identity.

Human Kinds in the Making: Race and the Census
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Why American Hindus Were ``White'' in 1910, but not in 1920. The wide range of racial and ethnic definitions in census information reveals how malleable are the definitions of race and ethnicity, from time to time, and place to place. That was the theme of this review-essay about Clara Rodriguez' fascinating book on the subject.

Human Kinds in the Making: Gender
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Some thinkers try to separate human kinds into those with a physical basis and those that are ``merely'' cultural. Being a Christian Democrat is cultural, in this view, while being a woman is biology.

I don't think this distinction makes much sense. Even biological categories have culture in their roots, for one thing. And cultural categories often have some biological traits wrapped into their folds. This is true even of the most biological of all the obvious human-kind differences. That's what this article describes.

Moral Trauma and Physical Trauma: The Human-Kind Link
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Human-kind feelings are the link between body, mind and society. Jonathan Shay is a psychiatrist who has studied how these connections can go wrong for soldiers in combat -- and what has to be done to prevent it.

How Colleges Become Tribes, or, What Football Rallies, Hazing, Secret Societies, School Songs and so on reveal about the mind
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One of the most familiar examples of joining a new tribe is the prestigious American college, where new students quickly learn that students and alumni of their school are a breed apart. It happens within the school, too, as students sort themselves into fraternities, sororities and other human kinds. This is very handy for their professors, who sometimes use school spirit and its symbols -- pennants, songs, bonfires -- as examples of human-kind behavior.

Kids, Creoles, Coconuts and the Mind
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What do we learn from experience, and what are we born with? The notion that we’re all ``blank slates’’ has taken quite a beating in the past 50 years, thanks to evidence that the mind comes pre-set to create certain kinds of perceptions, and to figure out very complicated patterns. Linguistics is where this ``innatist’’ work began, and this article for Discover was my first encounter with these ideas. And with Derek Bickerton, who proposed that the best way to see how children acquire a new language was to put them all on a desert island and see . . .

Well, you can see for yourself.

Recent Writing

Nudge
Math, Weather and War
My profile of the remarkable Lewis Fry Richardson, pioneer of both meteorology and the study of conflict
Xenobiology
When we find intelligent aliens, how will we recognize them?
Secrecy
The mind is biased to see secret information as better than open knowledge.
Obesity
How Not to Think About Obesity
Fiction
Ghastly gastronomy, as published in Nature
A genomic nightmare
Us and Them 2008 Edition
Preface to the Paperback Edition
Essay
Are we really running out of attention?
Is it always the lone maverick who's right, when s/he refuses to play along? That's how American psychologists have taught it, but recently they have been taking another look at conformism.
Other Species