Mama, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Deny Evolution
If adults want to deny evolution, sure. That’s fine. Whatever. But those adults better not make their kids follow in step because we as society need them to be better. Bill Nye, everyone's favorite Science Guy, explains the importance of promoting evolution education for America's future voters and lawmakers.
My Man, Sir Isaac Newton
Are you at least 26 years-old? If so, you are older than Isaac Newton was when he invented calculus... on a dare! (If you're younger than 26, better hurry up.) Big Think expert and overall cool guy Neil deGrasse Tyson explains why Newton is the greatest physicist who ever and likely will ever live.
Will Mankind Destroy Itself?
Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku sees two major trends today. One eventually leads to a multicultural, scientific, tolerant society that will expand beyond Earth in the name of human progress. The other trend leads to fundamentalism, monoculturalism, and -- eventually -- civilizational ruin. Whichever of these two trends wins out will determine the fate of mankind. No pressure, everyone.
Ricky Gervais on the Principles of Comedy
Comedy isn't just about making people laugh, says actor Ricky Gervais. It's about making people think. And while different forms of comedy require different approaches, the crux of any good performance will always be rhythm.
Reading the Bible (Or the Koran, Or the Torah) Will Make You an Atheist
Author and magician Penn Jillette was asked to leave his Christian youth group by a pastor who told his parents: "He's no longer learning about the Bible from me. He is now converting everyone in the class to atheism." The reason? Jillette did his homework and was turned off by the hostilities of the text. It can be intimidating to come out as an atheist, especially in a religious community. Jillette found that having "out" atheist role models helped him feel unalone.
Henry Rollins: The One Decision that Changed My Life Forever
Punk legend Henry Rollins describes the biggest turning point in his life: the moment he decided to leave his job as manager of a Häagen-Dazs store and eventually become the lead singer of Black Flag. It was the courage to take a risk, plus a whole lot of luck, that got Rollins to where he is today.
5 Programming Languages Everyone Should Know
Java is "heavyweight, verbose, and everyone loves to hate it," but programmer Larry Wall still thinks you should know it. In this video, he offers suggestions for people interested in learning languages, as well as suggestions for those significantly less invested in computer programming.
The Importance of Unbelief
If you assume there’s no afterlife, Stephen Fry says, you’ll likely have a fuller, more interesting "now" life. The actor and comedian details the positive influence philosophers have had on his life, as well as his journey of understanding both what he believes and why he believes it.
Why be happy when you could be interesting?
We don't really want what we think we desire, says philosopher Slavoj Žižek.
James Gleick on the Common Character Traits of Geniuses
This video is part of a series on female genius, in proud collaboration with 92Y's 7 Days of Genius Festival.
The personalities of Isaac Newton and Richard Feynman were, on one level, extremely different. Biographer and former New York Times reporter James Gleick says Newton was argumentative, had few friends, and likely died a virgin. Feynman, on the other hand, loved dancing and going to parties, and had many friends in the scientific community. But in regards to their working habits, both men were solitary and had the ability to concentrate with a sort of intensity that is hard for mortals to grasp. At bottom, Gleick says geniuses tend to have a yearning for solitude which, though fruitful for their professional work, made the task of daily living more burdensome.
The Importance of Doing Useless Things
From poetry and ballet to mathematics and being clever, life is laden with frivolous pursuits that hold no bearing on our ability to survive. Yet, insists Richard Dawkins, if it weren’t for the development of these impractical activities, we wouldn’t be here.
Why monogamy is ridiculous
Dan Savage: the idea that one instance of infidelity should ruin a relationship is a new—and misguided—notion.
Dan Harris: Hack Your Brain's Default Mode With Meditation
Dan Harris explains the neuroscience behind meditation, but reminds us that the ancient practice isn't magic and likely won't send one floating into the cosmic ooze. He predicts that the exercise will soon become regularly scheduled maintenance, as commonplace as brushing your teeth or eating your veggies. Harris, an ABC News correspondent, was turned on to mediation after a live, on-air panic attack. His latest book is 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works--A True Story.
How Intellectuals Betrayed the Poor
For 40 years academics were duped into idolizing the idea of unfettered markets, says Cornel West, and now our society is paying a terrible price.
Why Some Races Outperform Others
A psychologist explains the latest research into education disparity.
Why It's So Hard for Scientists to Believe in God
Some scientists see religion as a threat to the scientific method that should be resisted. But faith "is really asking a different set of questions," says Collins.
Why Facebook Isn't Free
Internet pioneer Jaron Lanier argues that free technologies like Facebook come with a hidden and heavy cost – the livelihoods of their consumers.
How to Tell if You’re a Writer
For John Irving, the need for a daily ration of solitude was his strongest "pre-writing" moment as a child.
Your Behavior Creates Your Gender
Nobody is born one gender or the other, says the philosopher. "We act and walk and speak and talk in ways that consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman."
Are You a Liberal Snob? Take The Quiz
Charles Mrray designed this quiz to have a salutary effect on bringing to people’s attention the degree to which they live in a bubble that seals them off from an awful lot of their fellow American citizens.
Why You Should Watch Filth
John Waters defends the creation and consumption of obscene films, and recommends some of his personal favorites.
What Are You Worth? Getting Past Status Anxiety.
Writer Alain De Botton says that status anxiety is more pernicious and destructive than most of us can imagine, and recommends getting out of the game altogether.
Sheila Heen on the Psychology of Happiness and Feedback
Sheila Heen, a Partner at Triad Consulting Group and a lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, explains the psychology behind feedback and criticism. Heen is co-author of "Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well."
Are You a Psychopath? Take the Test.
Psychologist Kevin Dutton presents the classic psychological test known as "the trolley problem" with a variation. Take the test and measure you response on the psychopathic spectrum.
Here's How to Catch a Liar, If You Really Want To
It’s very complex as to whether or not we really want to catch a liar. We think we do. What if we find out that both of our presidential candidates are lying? Then what do we do? I’m not saying they are; I never comment on anyone in office or running for office. Only after they’re out that they’re fair game. . . . Clinton said, "I didn’t have sex with that woman" and then gave her name. "That woman" is putting her at a distance from himself.
Why I Came Out at Age 81
As a teenager in the '40s, James Randi "would have gotten stoned" for being gay. But when he outed himself to the world in 2010, the reaction was "wonderful."
- Polarization and extreme partisanships have been on the rise in the United States.
- Political psychologist Diana Mutz argues that we need more deliberation, not political activism, to keep our democracy robust.
- Despite increased polarization, Americans still have more in common than we appear to.
Imagine everyday citizens engaging in the democratic process. What images spring to mind? Maybe you thought of town hall meetings where constituents address their representatives. Maybe you imagined mass sit-ins or marches in the streets to protest unpopular legislation. Maybe it's grassroot organizations gathering signatures for a popular referendum. Though they vary in means and intensity, all these have one thing in common: participation.
Participatory democracy is a democratic model that emphasizes civic engagement as paramount for a robust government. For many, it's both the "hallmark of social movements" and the gold standard of democracy.
But all that glitters may not be gold. While we can all point to historical moments in which participatory democracy was critical to necessary change, such activism can have deleterious effects on the health of a democracy, too. One such byproduct, political psychologist Diana Mutz argues, can be the lessening political tolerance.
Participation or deliberation?
In her book Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative Versus Participatory Democracy, Mutz argues that participatory democracy is best supported by close-knit groups of like-minded people. Political activism requires fervor to rouse people to action. To support such passions, people surround themselves with others who believe in the cause and view it as unassailable.
Alternative voices and ideologies — what Mutz calls "cross-cutting exposures" — are counterproductive to participation because they don't reinforce the group's beliefs and may soften the image of the opposing side. This can dampen political zeal and discourage participation, particularly among those averse to conflict. To prevent this from happening, groups can become increasingly intolerant of the other side.
"You can have a coup and maximize levels of participation, but that wouldn't be a great thing to do. It wouldn't be a sign of health and that things were going well."
As the book's title suggests, deliberative democracy fosters a different outlook for those who practice it. This model looks toward deliberation, communication, compromise, and consensus as the signs of a resilient democracy. While official deliberation is the purview of politicians and members of the court, it's worth noting that deliberative democracy doesn't mean inactivity from constituents. It's a philosophy we can use in our daily lives, from community memberships to interactions on social media.
"The idea is that people learn from one another," Mutz tells Big Think. "They learn arguments from the other side as well as learn more about the reasons behind their own views. [In turn], they develop a respect for the other side as well as moderate their own views."
Mutz's analysis leads her to support deliberation over activism in U.S. politics. She notes that the homogeneous networks required for activism can lead to positive changes — again, there are many historical examples to choose from. But such networks also risk developing intolerance and extremism within their ranks, examples of which are also readily available on both the right and left.
Meanwhile, the cross-cutting networks required for deliberative democracy offer a bounty of benefits, with the only risk being lowered levels of participation.
As Mutz writes: "Hearing the other side is also important for its indirect contributions to political tolerance. The capacity to see that there is more than one side to an issue, that political conflict is, in fact, a legitimate controversy with rationales on both sides, translates to greater willingness to extend civil liberties to even those groups whose political views one dislikes a great deal."
Of politics and summer camp
(Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
Take that! A boxing bout between two members of a schoolboys' summer camp at Pendine, South Wales, takes place in a field within a ring of cheering campmates.
Of course, listening openly and honestly to the other side doesn't come naturally. Red versus blue. Religious versus secular. Rural versus cosmopolitan. We divide ourselves into polarized groups that seek to silence cross-cutting communication in the pursuit of political victory.
"The separation of the country into two teams discourages compromise and encourages an escalation of conflict," Lilliana Mason, assistant professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, writes in her book Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity. "The cooperation and compromise required by democracy grow less attainable as partisan isolation and conflict increase."
Mason likens the current situation to Muzafer Sherif's famous Robbers Cave Experiment.
In the early 1950s, Sherif gathered a group of boys for a fun summer camp at Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma. At least, that was the pretense. In reality, Sherif and his counselors were performing an experiment in intergroup conflict that would now be considered unethical.
The 20 boys were divided into two groups, the Rattlers and the Eagles. For a while, the counselors kept the groups separate, allowing the boys to bond only with their assigned teammates. Then the two groups were introduced to participate in a tournament. They played competitive games, such as baseball and tug-o-war, with the winning team promised the summer camp trophy.
Almost immediately, the boys identified members of the other team as intruders. As the tournament continued, the conflict escalated beyond sport. The Eagles burned a Rattlers flag. The Rattlers raided the Eagles' cabin. When asked to describe the other side, both groups showed in-group favoritism and out-group aggression.
Most troubling, the boys wholly assumed the identity of an Eagle or Rattler despite having never been either before that very summer.
"We, as modern Americans, probably like to think of ourselves as more sophisticated and tolerant than a group of fifth-grade boys from 1954. In many ways, of course, we are," Mason writes. "But the Rattlers and the Eagles have a lot more in common with today's Democrats and Republicans than we would like to believe."
Like at Robbers Cave, signs of incendiary conflict are easy to spot in U.S. politics today.
A 2014 Pew survey found that the ideological overlap between Democrats and Republicans is much more distant than in the past. More Republicans lie further right of moderate Democrats than before and vice versa. The survey also found that partisan animosity had doubled since 1994.
In her book, Mason points to research that shows an "increasing number of partisans don't want party leaders to compromise," blame "the other party for all incivility in government," and abhor the idea of dating someone from outside their ideological group.And let's not forget Congress, which has grown increasingly divided along ideological lines over the past 60 years.
A dose of daily deliberation
Painting by Charles Francois Jalabert (1819-1901) 1846. Beaux-Arts museum, Nimes, France. Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images.
Horace, Virgil and Varius at the house of Maecenas.
A zero-sum mindset may be inevitable in a summer camp tournament, but it's detrimental if taken into wider society and politics. Yet if participatory democracy leads to the silencing of oppositional voices, a zero-sum mindset is exactly what we get. Conversely, creating networks that tolerate and support differing opinions offers non-zero benefits, like tolerance and an improvement of one's understanding of complicated issues.
Mutz wrote her book in 2006, but as she told us in our interview, the intervening years have only strengthened her resolve that deliberation improves democratic health:
"Right now, I'm definitely on the side of greater deliberation rather than just do whatever we can to maximize levels of participation. You can have a coup and maximize levels of participation, but that wouldn't be a great thing to do. It wouldn't be a sign of health and that things were going well. Democracy [must be] able to absorb differences in opinion and funnel them into a means of governing that people were okay with, even when their side didn't win."
Unfortunately, elected officials and media personalities play up incivility and the sense of national crisis for ratings and attention, respectively. That certainly doesn't help promote deliberation, but as Mutz reminded us, people perceive political polarization to be much higher than it actually is. In our daily lives, deliberative democracy is more commonplace than we realize and something we can promote in our communities and social groups.
Remember that 2014 Pew survey that found increased levels of partisan animosity? Its results showed the divide to be strongest among those most engaged and active in politics. The majority of those surveyed did not hold uniform left or right views, did not see the opposing party as an existential threat, and believed in the deliberative process in government. In other words, the extremes were pulling hard at the poles.
Then there's social media. The popular narrative is that social media is a morass of political hatred and clashing identities. But most social media posts have nothing to do with politics. An analysis of Facebook posts from September 2016, the middle of an election year, found the most popular topics centered on football, Halloween, Labor Day, country music, and slow cookers.
And what of political partisanship and prejudice? In an analysis of polarization and ideological identity, Mason found that labels like "liberal" and "conservative" had less to do with values and policy attitudes – as the majority of Americans agree on a substantial number of issues – and more to do with social group identification.
Yes, we all know those maps that media personalities dust off every election year, the ones that show the U.S. carved up into competing camps of red and blue. The reality is far more intricate and complex, and Americans' intolerance for the other side varies substantially from place to place and across demographics.
So while participation has its place, a healthy democracy requires deliberation, a recognition of the other side's point of view, and the willingness to compromise. Tolerance may not make for good TV or catchy political slogans, but it's something we all can foster in our own social groups.
Understanding what tolerance means in a highly polarized America
- Australian scientists found that bodies kept moving for 17 months after being pronounced dead.
- Researchers used photography capture technology in 30 minute intervals everyday to capture the movement.
- This study could help better identify time of death.
We're learning more new things about death everyday. Much has been said and theorized about the great divide between life and the Great Beyond. While everyone and every culture has their own philosophies and unique ideas on the subject, we're beginning to learn a lot of new scientific facts about the deceased corporeal form.
An Australian scientist has found that human bodies move for more than a year after being pronounced dead. These findings could have implications for fields as diverse as pathology to criminology.
Dead bodies keep moving
Researcher Alyson Wilson studied and photographed the movements of corpses over a 17 month timeframe. She recently told Agence France Presse about the shocking details of her discovery.
Reportedly, she and her team focused a camera for 17 months at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), taking images of a corpse every 30 minutes during the day. For the entire 17 month duration, the corpse continually moved.
"What we found was that the arms were significantly moving, so that arms that started off down beside the body ended up out to the side of the body," Wilson said.
The researchers mostly expected some kind of movement during the very early stages of decomposition, but Wilson further explained that their continual movement completely surprised the team:
"We think the movements relate to the process of decomposition, as the body mummifies and the ligaments dry out."
During one of the studies, arms that had been next to the body eventually ended up akimbo on their side.
The team's subject was one of the bodies stored at the "body farm," which sits on the outskirts of Sydney. (Wilson took a flight every month to check in on the cadaver.)Her findings were recently published in the journal, Forensic Science International: Synergy.
Implications of the study
The researchers believe that understanding these after death movements and decomposition rate could help better estimate the time of death. Police for example could benefit from this as they'd be able to give a timeframe to missing persons and link that up with an unidentified corpse. According to the team:
"Understanding decomposition rates for a human donor in the Australian environment is important for police, forensic anthropologists, and pathologists for the estimation of PMI to assist with the identification of unknown victims, as well as the investigation of criminal activity."
While scientists haven't found any evidence of necromancy. . . the discovery remains a curious new understanding about what happens with the body after we die.
Researchers from MIT and elsewhere have developed a system that measures a patient's pain level by analyzing brain activity from a portable neuroimaging device.
The system could help doctors diagnose and treat pain in unconscious and noncommunicative patients, which could reduce the risk of chronic pain that can occur after surgery.
Pain management is a surprisingly challenging, complex balancing act. Overtreating pain, for example, runs the risk of addicting patients to pain medication. Undertreating pain, on the other hand, may lead to long-term chronic pain and other complications. Today, doctors generally gauge pain levels according to their patients' own reports of how they're feeling. But what about patients who can't communicate how they're feeling effectively — or at all — such as children, elderly patients with dementia, or those undergoing surgery?
In a paper presented at the International Conference on Affective Computing and Intelligent Interaction, the researchers describe a method to quantify pain in patients. To do so, they leverage an emerging neuroimaging technique called functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), in which sensors placed around the head measure oxygenated hemoglobin concentrations that indicate neuron activity.
For their work, the researchers use only a few fNIRS sensors on a patient's forehead to measure activity in the prefrontal cortex, which plays a major role in pain processing. Using the measured brain signals, the researchers developed personalized machine-learning models to detect patterns of oxygenated hemoglobin levels associated with pain responses. When the sensors are in place, the models can detect whether a patient is experiencing pain with around 87 percent accuracy.
"The way we measure pain hasn't changed over the years," says Daniel Lopez-Martinez, a PhD student in the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology and a researcher at the MIT Media Lab. "If we don't have metrics for how much pain someone experiences, treating pain and running clinical trials becomes challenging. The motivation is to quantify pain in an objective manner that doesn't require the cooperation of the patient, such as when a patient is unconscious during surgery."
Traditionally, surgery patients receive anesthesia and medication based on their age, weight, previous diseases, and other factors. If they don't move and their heart rate remains stable, they're considered fine. But the brain may still be processing pain signals while they're unconscious, which can lead to increased postoperative pain and long-term chronic pain. The researchers' system could provide surgeons with real-time information about an unconscious patient's pain levels, so they can adjust anesthesia and medication dosages accordingly to stop those pain signals.
Joining Lopez-Martinez on the paper are: Ke Peng of Harvard Medical School, Boston Children's Hospital, and the CHUM Research Centre in Montreal; Arielle Lee and David Borsook, both of Harvard Medical School, Boston Children's Hospital, and Massachusetts General Hospital; and Rosalind Picard, a professor of media arts and sciences and director of affective computing research in the Media Lab.
Focusing on the forehead
In their work, the researchers adapted the fNIRS system and developed new machine-learning techniques to make the system more accurate and practical for clinical use.
To use fNIRS, sensors are traditionally placed all around a patient's head. Different wavelengths of near-infrared light shine through the skull and into the brain. Oxygenated and deoxygenated hemoglobin absorb the wavelengths differently, altering their signals slightly. When the infrared signals reflect back to the sensors, signal-processing techniques use the altered signals to calculate how much of each hemoglobin type is present in different regions of the brain.
When a patient is hurt, regions of the brain associated with pain will see a sharp rise in oxygenated hemoglobin and decreases in deoxygenated hemoglobin, and these changes can be detected through fNIRS monitoring. But traditional fNIRS systems place sensors all around the patient's head. This can take a long time to set up, and it can be difficult for patients who must lie down. It also isn't really feasible for patients undergoing surgery.
Therefore, the researchers adapted the fNIRS system to specifically measure signals only from the prefrontal cortex. While pain processing involves outputs of information from multiple regions of the brain, studies have shown the prefrontal cortex integrates all that information. This means they need to place sensors only over the forehead.
Another problem with traditional fNIRS systems is they capture some signals from the skull and skin that contribute to noise. To fix that, the researchers installed additional sensors to capture and filter out those signals.
Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
An emerging neuroimaging technique called functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) could help detect pain.
Personalized pain modeling
On the machine-learning side, the researchers trained and tested a model on a labeled pain-processing dataset they collected from 43 male participants. (Next they plan to collect a lot more data from diverse patient populations, including female patients — both during surgery and while conscious, and at a range of pain intensities — in order to better evaluate the accuracy of the system.)
Each participant wore the researchers' fNIRS device and was randomly exposed to an innocuous sensation and then about a dozen shocks to their thumb at two different pain intensities, measured on a scale of 1-10: a low level (about a 3/10) or high level (about 7/10). Those two intensities were determined with pretests: The participants self-reported the low level as being only strongly aware of the shock without pain, and the high level as the maximum pain they could tolerate.
In training, the model extracted dozens of features from the signals related to how much oxygenated and deoxygenated hemoglobin was present, as well as how quickly the oxygenated hemoglobin levels rose. Those two metrics — quantity and speed — give a clearer picture of a patient's experience of pain at the different intensities.
Importantly, the model also automatically generates "personalized" submodels that extract high-resolution features from individual patient subpopulations. Traditionally, in machine learning, one model learns classifications — "pain" or "no pain" — based on average responses of the entire patient population. But that generalized approach can reduce accuracy, especially with diverse patient populations.
The researchers' model instead trains on the entire population but simultaneously identifies shared characteristics among subpopulations within the larger dataset. For example, pain responses to the two intensities may differ between young and old patients, or depending on gender. This generates learned submodels that break off and learn, in parallel, patterns of their patient subpopulations. At the same time, however, they're all still sharing information and learning patterns shared across the entire population. In short, they're simultaneously leveraging fine-grained personalized information and population-level information to train better.
The personalized models and a traditional model were evaluated in classifying pain or no-pain in a random hold-out set of participant brain signals from the dataset, where the self-reported pain scores were known for each participant. The personalized models outperformed the traditional model by about 20 percent, reaching about 87 percent accuracy.
"Because we are able to detect pain with this high accuracy, using only a few sensors on the forehead, we have a solid basis for bringing this technology to a real-world clinical setting," Lopez-Martinez says.
What one is likely to find is radical polarization – different groups of people living in different worlds, populated with utterly different facts.
In my mind, the crucial issue right now isn't what people hear, but whom people believe.
Bubble or cult?
My research focuses on “epistemic bubbles" and “echo chambers." These are two distinct ideas, that people often blur together.
An epistemic bubble is what happens when insiders aren't exposed to people from the opposite side.
An echo chamber is what happens when insiders come to distrust everybody on the outside.
An epistemic bubble, for example, might form on one's social media feed. When a person gets all their news and political arguments from Facebook and all their Facebook friends share their political views, they're in an epistemic bubble. They hear arguments and evidence only from their side of the political spectrum. They're never exposed to the other side's views.
An echo chamber leads its members to distrust everybody on the outside of that chamber. And that means that an insider's trust for other insiders can grow unchecked.
Rush Limbaugh and the Fox News team, they said, systematically manipulated whom their followers trusted. Limbaugh presented the world as a simple binary – as a struggle only between good and evil. People were trustworthy if they were on Limbaugh's side. Anybody on the outside was malicious and untrustworthy.
In that way, an echo chamber is a lot like a cult.
Echo chambers isolate their members, not by cutting off their lines of communication to the world, but by changing whom they trust. And echo chambers aren't just on the right. I've seen echo chambers on the left, but also on parenting forums, nutritional forums and even around exercise methods.
In an epistemic bubble, outside voices aren't heard. In an echo chamber, outside voices are discredited.
Is it all just a bubble?
Many experts believe that the problem of today's polarization can be explained through epistemic bubbles.
Do social media feeds limit people's ability of being exposed to a wider variety of views?
According to legal scholar and behavioral economist Cass Sunstein, the main cause of polarization is that internet technologies have made the world such that people don't really run into the other side anymore.
Many people get their news from social media feeds. Their feeds get filled up with people like them - who usually share their political views. Eli Pariser, online activist and chief executive of Upworthy, spotlights how the invisible algorithms behind people's internet experience limit what they see.
For example, says Pariser, Google keeps track of its user's choices and preferences, and changes its search results to suit them. It tries to give individuals what they want – so liberal users, for example, tend to get search results that point them toward liberal news sites.
If the problem is bubbles, then the solution would be exposure. For Sunstein, the solution is to build more public forums, where people will run into the other side more often.
Do social media feeds limit people's ability of being exposed to a wider variety of views?
The real problem is trust
In my view, however, echo chambers are the real problem.
Moreover, bubbles should be easy to pop: Just expose insiders to the arguments they've missed.
But this doesn't actually seem to work, in so many real-world cases. Take, for example, climate change deniers. They are fully aware of all the arguments on the other side. Often, they rattle off all the standard arguments for climate change, before dismissing them. Many of the standard climate change denial arguments involve claims that scientific institutions and mainstream media have been corrupted by malicious forces.
What's going on, in my view, isn't just a bubble. It's not that people's social media feeds are arranged so they don't run across any scientific arguments; it's that they've come to systematically distrust the institutions of science.
This is an echo chamber. Echo chambers are far more entrenched and far more resistant to outside voices than epistemic bubbles. Echo chamber members have been prepared to face contrary evidence. Their echo-chambered worldview has been arranged to dismiss that evidence at its source.
They're not totally irrational, either. In the era of scientific specialization, people must trust doctors, statisticians, biologists, chemists, physicists, nuclear engineers and aeronautical engineers, just to go about their day. And they can't always check with perfect accuracy whether they have put their trust in the right place.
An echo chamber member, however, distrusts the standard sources. Their trust has been redirected and concentrated inside the echo chamber.
To break somebody out of an echo chamber, you'd need to repair that broken trust. And that is a much harder task than simply bursting a bubble.
- A new study from Russia's Higher School of Economics details the many disadvantages of freelancing.
- Problems with the gig economy include longer working hours, working on weekends and holidays, and no employee benefits.
- New legislation in California is attempting to address these issues, but may harm more than it helps.
We always romanticize the other side. To office workers, working from home seems like a dream. And there are advantages to contract work, but you rarely hear about the disadvantages from employers. A new study, published in Public Opinion Monitoring, details many of the challenges of surviving in the "gig economy."
Two researchers at Russia's National Research University Higher School of Economics (HSE), Denis Strebkov and Andrey Shevchuk, wanted to better understand the downsides of independent contracting. Beyond the perceived freedom such a career choice entails, they say:
"Freelancers often work at times when others are relaxing: in the evening, at night, on holidays, and on weekends. This disrupts one's work-life balance and negatively affects one's health, personal well-being, and social life."
There are many reasons for working at odd times. I've been an independent contractor for dozens of companies since 2004. Living in Los Angeles, I often need to communicate with New York. In my current role in blockchain, my company works with contractors in Russia, Germany, and Poland, and formerly worked with a team in Singapore. Meetings are a sacrifice for everyone involved; timing is rarely convenient for all.
Working from home often means being connected from sunrise to sunset (and beyond). There is no clocking in or out, though there is flexibility within those constraints. In some ways, freelancing is more appealing than being parked in one place for eight to 10 hours a day. One of my last full-time jobs, at the Discovery Channel, required that I sit in a cubicle for over thirty hours a week that I didn't need to actually be there. It was painful, idly watching the minutes of your life pass by.
The Highs and Lows of Self-Employment
Society changes, our concept of work along with it. Strebkov and Shevchuk discuss the financial challenges of non-employee compensation. Contract workers do not receive health (among other) benefits. No paid time off. Taxes are on the contractor, which can be an accounting nightmare when you work for multiple companies. While job security rarely exists anywhere, it is much harder for companies to let go of full-time staff than contractors.
Then there's time spent working. Citing data from a 2017 study of 12,400 people, the team notes that a third of freelancers never work more than 35 hours a week — the standard work week in Russia is, like America, 40 hours. Yet half of freelancers work over 45 hours, with 27 percent working in excess of 60 hours.
Forget a Monday-to-Friday schedule. Only 10 percent of freelancers never work in the evening or late into the night, compared to 65 percent of full-time workers; 2 percent of freelancers do not work on weekends of holidays, while that number for full-time staff is 34 percent. Almost two-thirds of contractors work nights and weekends, with only 22 percent of full-time workers claiming such.
This affects the mental health of contractors, say Strebkov and Shevchuk. Balancing family and relationships with work is a constant challenge. Working late into the night affects circadian rhythms, messing with sleep cycles, which negatively impacts mental health as well. The researchers conclude:
"Self-employment proves to be very time-consuming. When opting for autonomy, freelancers fall into the trap of 'self-exploitation and self-sale' rather than traditional 'exploitation.'"
In America, the gig economy has come under scrutiny by politicians. Criticism aimed at Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash has resulted in the California state legislature passing a bill that requires many companies to treat freelancers as employees. The law is meant to counter the leverage corporations hold over contract workers. Sadly, if passed by Gov. Newsom, it might do more harm than good to the state's large community of contractors.
For example, session musicians are covered under this potential law, meaning that record labels will have to hire each musician stepping into the studio to play guitar or sing back-up instead of receiving a session fee. As Bill Hochberg writes in Forbes, not only are labels threatening to move to New York and Nashville, it would also impact the quality of music, with more producers choosing to use samples and pre-recorded tracks instead of hiring live artists.
There's also a wide range of industries getting an exemption, causing you to wonder what type of lobbying was done behind the scenes. Hochberg continues,
"Curiously, many kinds of workers were granted exemptions from the new law, including insurance brokers, doctors, dentists, lawyers, architects, engineers, private investigators, accountants, investment agents, salespeople, real estate agents and commercial fishermen, among others."
Meanwhile, in New York, a movement to unionize yoga is underway, which could have the same negative impact as the California law. While focused on larger companies, such as YogaWorks and CorePower Yoga, independent studios would suffer (and a number of them be forced to close) if every teacher is treated as an employee. It's hard to square offering health coverage to someone that's only working two hours a week.
The problem with sweeping legislation like the above is it rarely considers the larger picture. More intervention on behalf of employees is needed. When it was revealed that DoorDash was using customer tips as wages, those drivers need legislation. While it might not be illegal for Jeff Bezos to cut healthcare benefits for 1,900 part-time Whole Foods employees, it's unacceptable that the richest man on the planet is cutting these corners. If the government won't step in, public pressure should ensue.
Sadly, you can't paint the employment picture with sweeping legislation, as once again, it is those that are purportedly being protected that will be hurt the most. Session musicians rely on random phone calls for studio and live gigs; yoga instructors cobble together a living from traveling to different studios. Take away that and you're greatly limiting their options.
The freelance life has never been easy. Instead of targeting individual industries (and strangely exempting others), our leaders should be looking into instituting universal healthcare and raising the minimum wage, so at the very least everyone is being offered a fair shot. Whether working in an office or from your couch, having the basics covered would alleviate at least some of the tension all workers face.