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'The Journal of Controversial Ideas' will launch in 2019. Is it dangerous?
Should all ideas see daylight?
- A trio of respected philosophers have decided to launch a peer reviewed journal that would allow for anonymous submissions.
- If successful, the journal could allow for important ideas that might lead to threats or harm to the author to join the debate and promote discussion.
- Critics ask if this is needed, and warn of giving dangerous people a safe space to publish horrific ideas.
Three very famous philosophers are teaming up to create an academic journal dedicated to ideas too controversial to put a name on. As you might expect, the concept itself has already gathered controversy.
The names behind a journal without names
Philosophers Peter Singer, Jeff McMahan, and Francesca Minerva have announced their intention to create the straightforwardly named The Journal of Controversial Ideas, which will begin printing next year. The organizers are no strangers to controversial ideas themselves; Dr. Minerva received death threats in response to an essay she wrote about abortion and Peter Singer's ideas on the moral permissibility of euthanizing severely handicapped infants still leads to semi-regular protests against his speaking arrangements and academic postings.
How will it work?
The idea is for this annual journal to be just like any other interdisciplinary peer-reviewed academic journal, with the same standards and rigorous review process. The only real point of interest is that anonymous submissions will be allowed in cases where academics fear that attaching their name to a submission could lead to personal or professional harm.
At the moment, the journal's potential review board is limited, and Dr. Minerva explained to Vox that the journal wouldn't be able to properly review an article on a subject like astrophysics at this time. However, this could be seen as a mere start-up problem. If it takes off, there is little doubt that experts in other fields could be brought in.
Why do they think this is needed?
In an essay written jointly by the three founders published in The Guardian, they explain exactly why set out to do this:
"Our aim in establishing the journal is only to enable academics — particularly younger, untenured, or otherwise vulnerable academics — to have the option of publishing under a pseudonym when they might otherwise be deterred from publishing by fear of death threats (which two of us have received in response to our writings), threats to their families, or threats to their careers. Pseudonymity is optional, not required. Our intention is to publish only articles that give carefully developed reasons, arguments and evidence in support of conclusions that some may find offensive or pernicious. We will not publish work that is polemical, intentionally inflammatory or ad hominem."
Is this necessary?
Perhaps naturally, many people object to the idea that this journal is needed.
Annabelle Timsit of Quartz explained that our perception of censorship in academia might be overblown, and pointed to a project by Sanford J. Ungar of Georgetown University that shows that incidents of students, facility, or department heads censoring speech is actually quite rare and tend to be limited to cases where the speakers are people who have given Nazi salutes and cheers in public or advocate for the death of people they don't like. Another study shows the political leanings of professors doesn't lead to censorship or have much effect on how students learn anyway. If these findings are accurate, the need for this journal would be in doubt.
Others have objected to the idea that ideas which would prompt backlash are entitled to this level of promotion and the authors to the protection of anonymity.Professor Laleh Khalili scorned the idea on Twitter as "a journal in which to anonymously ponder racist, sexist, transphobic, pro-colonialist, pro-exploitation ideas without fear of backlash." The Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik agreed and said that the journal would be "a safe space, one where authors do not have to deal with feedback or criticism from those at the sharp end of their 'controversial" ideas.'
Of course, the fact that two of the people behind the journal have had death threats sent to them suggests that maybe a little protection for writers peddling bold ideas might be useful.
Is it a good idea?
Even if the journal is addressing an important issue, there are debates over if such a journal is the right way to deal with the problems it seeks to solve. Professors Bradley Campbell and Clay Routledge write in an article published in Quillette that they agree that people with controversial ideas are currently at risk of personal and professional harm, but do not support the tactic of producing this journal. They explain that:
"Even while we recognize these and other threats to scholars who do work viewed as controversial, we believe the creation of The Journal of Controversial Ideas is ultimately a capitulation to the academic culture that motivated scholars to feel the need to establish such a journal."
They instead suggest that we "Let every journal be a place where controversy is welcome and there will be no reason for this one."Others have been more supportive of the idea, pointing out cases where people have been fired or treated poorly as a result of taking a controversial stance. The journal already has a board with 40 members with a variety of intellectual and ideological backgrounds, suggesting a fair amount of support. One member of the board is the conservative intellectual Robert P. George, who has disagreed with Peter Singer for years.
What do the journal's founders say?
They have responded to several critiques of their idea already.
Dr. Minerva reminds us that intellectuals have been anonymously publishing important work that could get them into trouble for centuries. Some more famous examples include Søren Kierkegaard, Thomas Paine, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Malthus. We still manage to have discussions about their ideas anyway, and the authors didn't get lynched; a win-win for all involved.
Singer and company fully explain why they feel the need for the journal in an essay published in The Guardian as a response to Ms. Malik's article. They restate that their goal is the promotion of debate and the prevention of self-censorship by academics that fear what would happen if they wrote something that offended somebody.
We live in a world were concerns over offending people are increasingly prevalent, and the risks of being personally and professionally ruined as a result of making a controversial statement are great. While the question of if this mandates the creation of a journal for anonymously published controversial essays remains debatable, but a debate is exactly what the philosophers behind it want.
Where should the line of censorship be drawn?
Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.
- The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
- The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
- It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
The Red Sea area where Neom will be built:
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A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.
- Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
- Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
- Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.
Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.
The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.
An odd find
Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock
Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.
"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."
Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.
The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."
Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.
"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."
Why understanding memory matters
Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock
"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.
If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."
Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock
Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.
Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."
Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia
At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.
Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.
In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.
Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."
He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.
If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.
- Does AI—and, more specifically, conscious AI—deserve moral rights? In this thought exploration, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, ethics and tech professor Joanna Bryson, philosopher and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider, physicist Max Tegmark, philosopher Peter Singer, and bioethicist Glenn Cohen all weigh in on the question of AI rights.
- Given the grave tragedy of slavery throughout human history, philosophers and technologists must answer this question ahead of technological development to avoid humanity creating a slave class of conscious beings.
- One potential safeguard against that? Regulation. Once we define the context in which AI requires rights, the simplest solution may be to not build that thing.