The US prison system continues to fail, so why does it still exist?
- The United States is the world's largest prison warden. As of June 2020, America had the highest prisoner rate, with 655 prisoners per 100,000 of the national population. But according to experts, doing something the most doesn't mean doing it the best.
- The system is a failure both economically and in terms of the way inmates are treated, with many equating it to legal slavery. American prisons en masse are expensive, brutal, and ineffective, so why aren't we trying better alternatives? And what exactly are these overstuffed facilities accomplishing?
- Damien Echols and Shaka Senghor share first-hand accounts of life both in and after prison, while political science professor Marie Gottschalk, activist Liza Jessie Peterson, historian Robert Perkinson, and others speak to the ways that America's treatment of its citizens could and should improve. "The prison industrial complex is a human rights crisis," says Peterson. "Something needs to be done."
Fifty years of research on children's toy preferences shows that kids generally prefer toys oriented toward their own gender.
- A recent meta-analysis overviewed 75 studies on children's gender-related toy preferences.
- The results found that "gender-related toy preferences may be considered a well-established finding."
- It's a controversial topic: Some people argue that these preferences stem from social pressure, while others say they're at least partly rooted in biology.
There's more gender equality in Western societies today than in the past. Inequalities still exist, of course, but research shows a general uptrend in women joining and rising within the workforce, obtaining degrees, and earning more money. The social expectations of men and women also seemed to have changed; this is harder to measure empirically, but it seems safe to say that our ideas about gender roles are more fluid today than they were, in say, the 1950s.
So, have these changes affected a crucial part of children's development: play? More specifically, as gender roles have become more fluid, have children's preferences toward gender-typed toys become more fluid, too?
The short answer seems to be no. For decades, studies have shown that boys and girls generally prefer playing with toys typically associated with their biological sex: toy trucks for boys and dolls for girls, to give a rough example.
These results have remained remarkably stable over the past 50 years, according to a 2020 meta-analysis of research on gender differences in toy preferences. Published in Archives of Sexual Behavior and titled "The Magnitude of Children's Gender‐Related Toy Interests Has Remained Stable Over 50 Years of Research," the analysis examined 75 previous studies, 113 effect sizes, and a range of toy preference measurements.
No matter what society wants, it's worth noting that there seems to be some biological drivers behind children's preferences for gender-typical toys.
The authors, Jac T. M. Davis and Melissa Hines, found "a broad consistency of results across the large body of research on children's gender-related toy preferences: children showed large and reliable preferences for toys that were related to their own gender. Thus, according to our review, gender-related toy preferences may be considered a well-established finding."
A letter to the editor in the same journal sought to challenge these findings in a separate analysis, which concluded that children actually spend less time playing with gender-typical toys these days.
The authors of that analysis speculated that the reason for this decline "might reflect social pressures in recent times for children to be less gender-typical in their behavior." In other words, the decline stems from parents wanting to be more in line with progressive ideas about gender fluidity.
However, Davis and Hines disagreed, proposing that the supposed decline appeared in the analysis only because of the specific methodology employed by the researchers. What's more, they noted that toy advertisers have been using more gender stereotypes to boost sales in recent decades—a finding that potentially complicates the claim that social pressures are causing kids to spend less time playing with gender-typical toys.
Davis and Hines concluded:
"It may be tempting to think that social changes over time might be reducing children's play with gender-related toys, given arguments that play with a broader set of toys would be beneficial for both boys and girls. Unfortunately, however, broad change in the social roles of men and women do not seem to have influenced children's toy choices, perhaps because they have been counteracted by stronger marketing of different toys to girls and boys over recent time. If society wants girls and boys to play with the full range of toys, more targeted action is probably required."
Little boy playing mathematics wooden toy at nurseryCredit: Rawpixel.com via Adobe Stock
Why are we so concerned about which toys kids play with?
But does society really want kids to play with less gender-typical toys? Some research suggests the answer is yes. A 2017 survey from Pew Research Center found that a majority of Americans considered it a "somewhat or very good thing" to steer kids toward toys and activities traditionally associated with the opposite gender (though respondents were less enthusiastic about doing so for boys than girls).
Encouraging kids to play with a wider range of toys could yield benefits. For example, a 2020 study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that when both boys and girls play with dolls, they experience heightened activation within brain regions associated with empathy and perspective-taking.
But no matter what society wants, it's worth noting that there seem to be some biological drivers behind children's preferences for gender-typical toys.
For example, studies have shown that babies tend to prefer toys oriented to their own gender, a finding that suggests their preference is innate because they're in the pre-socialization stage of development. Supporting that argument are studies showing that baby monkeys also display gender-typical toy preferences.
Still, it's easy to see how social pressures might affect kids' toy preferences as they grow up. So, the question of why kids prefer the toys that they do likely boils down to a familiar answer: a tangled mix of environmental and biological factors.
"It would be extreme to claim zero influence of biology on gender differences in toy choices, and the research community is still divided on how important biology and social factors are," Davis told Big Think.
New research sheds light on the indoctrination process of radical extremist groups.
- A new study features interviews with 24 former extremists on the radicalization process.
- Financial instability, online propaganda, and reorienting events that caused them to "snap" are leading causes of indoctrination.
- The research team offers potential solutions, including exposure to diverse ideas during childhood and a tamping down of polarization and media sensationalism.
Researchers are continuing to unpack the reasons why extremists stormed the Capitol on January 6. Political scientist Robert Pape hypothesized that answers could be found in increasingly desperate economic conditions—the distance between the wealthiest and everyone else has never been so stark in America. As he dug into the data, however, a different story emerged.
"If you look back in history, there has always been a series of far-right extremist movements responding to new waves of immigration to the United States or to movements for civil rights by minority groups. [The Capitol insurrectionists] are mainly middle-class to upper-middle-class whites who are worried that, as social changes occur around them, they will see a decline in their status in the future."
Pape isn't the only researcher contemplating the path from aggrievement to insurrection. A new study, published by the RAND Corporation, takes a detailed look at the indoctrination process through interviews with white nationalists, Islamic extremists, and their family members and friends.
The researchers set out with a basic set of questions to better understand the radicalization process in the hopes of developing prevention and intervention measures.
- What factors lead individuals to join violent extremist organizations?
- How and why do extremists become deradicalized, leave their organizations, change their minds, and in some cases join the fight against radicalism?
- What can we do better to assist those who have been radicalized and prevent extremist organizations from recruiting new members?
After poring over existing research, the team conducted 36 interviews, consisting of 24 former extremists, 10 family members, and two friends. Most of the subjects were active in this millennium, with six only active before the year 2000.
The researchers discovered three major background characteristics that led people to become extremists. (1) Financial instability: In 22 cases, financial instability was key, with seven former extremists claiming this as the main reason they joined an extremist organization. (2) Mental health issues: In 17 cases, overwhelming anger predominated, but PTSD, trauma, substance abuse, and depression around physical issues also played a role. (3) Social factors: Marginalization, victimization, and stigmatization were mentioned in 16 cases.
Often, these background characteristics weren't enough. In over half the cases, there was a "reorienting event," that is, a moment that "broke" them, such as being rejected from the military, experiencing long-term unemployment, or enduring a friend's suicide. Propaganda was involved in 22 cases, predominantly through social media but also through books and music. Another factor was direct and indirect recruitment, with indirect recruitment being much more common. In other words, the individuals sought to join extremists groups. Social bonds played a role in 14 cases, including "graduating" from one organization to a more extreme group.
A Proud Boy member is armed with a gun labeled "Zombie Killer" as members and supporters of Patriot Prayer gather in Esther Short Park for a memorial for member Aaron J. Danielson in Vancouver, Washington on September 5, 2020. Credit: Allison Dinner / AFP via Getty Images
How to help extremists
Why do extremists quit? The most common reasons for leaving are feelings of disillusionment and burnout. Members grew disappointed by the failed promises of leaders or noticed hypocrisy among the ranks. Over half of the individuals were involved in failed deradicalization efforts, however, showing the resilience of these organizations even when family members and friends try to intervene.
The good news is that there is light at the end of the tunnel. An extremist isn't a lost cause. The team lists important steps for helping extremists leave hate groups as well as for preventing people from being seduced in the first place. The researchers' recommendations include:
- Exposure to diverse ideas, especially during childhood
- The development of critical thinking skills
- Participation in prosocial activities that promote positive behaviors and inclusiveness
- Exposure to different racial and cultural groups
- Addressing marginalization more broadly
- A tamping down of polarization and media sensationalism
- Better access to mental health treatment
- Targeted outreach and support for military veterans
The researchers note that this is a small study sample, so further work is necessary. Yet, these interviews offer a starting point for understanding the true scope of the problem. The reasons people become extremists are complex and multivariate. Preventing extremism therefore requires a holistic approach that addresses topics such as childhood education, poverty, mental health, ethnic and racial animosity, and the prevalence of propaganda.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
The Field Medal was created to elevate promising mathematicians from underrepresented demographics. But has it followed through on that goal?
- In a recent study, researchers collected data on the backgrounds and academic genealogy of thousands of mathematicians.
- The results revealed that mathematicians of certain backgrounds—namely, from Western countries—are significantly more likely to join elite circles in mathematics.
- The researchers issued recommendations for how elite institutions could help the Fields Medal accomplish its original goal.
As the "universal language," mathematics is commonly considered to be an egalitarian field.
After all, there's far less room for subjectivity when judging works in algebraic geometry than, say, literature or sociology. The field's objectivity should have, in theory, helped foster something like a global meritocracy over time. But has that happened?
To shed light on this question, a recent study used big data to explore the relationships between mentorships, prizes, and inclusivity within mathematics. Published in Nature's Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, the study took a close look at winners of the Fields Medal over recent decades.
The Fields Medal is commonly considered to be the Nobel Prize of mathematics. It's awarded to up to four mathematicians under the age of 40, every four years. First awarded in 1936, the Fields Medal was created in the 1930s to help promote mathematicians from historically underrepresented demographics around the world; it was also part of a larger movement to ensure the destruction of WWII didn't rupture the international mathematics community.
In the study, researchers from Dartmouth College noted that the Fields Medal has helped elevate mathematicians from underrepresented groups, such as mathematicians from Germany and Japan. However, the results also showed that many Field Medalists came from the same "ancestral tree" of high-profile mentors, suggesting the existence of a "self-reinforcing behavior among the elites."
Fields MedalCredit: Stefan Zachow via Wikipedia
"There are many sources of inequality in elite-level math and academia," lead study author Herbert Chang, a research affiliate at Dartmouth's Fu Lab, said in a press release. "Our goal was to characterize how a single factor--mentorship--plays a role, while telling a comprehensive story about mathematics."
To get a better perspective of the composition and history of elite circles in mathematics, the researchers used data from the Mathematics Genealogy Project. The project contains detailed information about the academic genealogy — such as alma mater, doctoral advisor, doctoral students — of more than 260,000 mathematicians.
(Note: The researchers defined "elite" by measuring mathematicians' associations with Field Medalists.)
The researchers also collected data on mathematicians' home countries and lingo-ethnic categories, which helped create visualizations of the migration of mathematicians and the levels of pluralism in different nations. Pluralism was defined in the study as "the proportion of elite mathematicians that are not part of the majority lingo-ethnic identity."
The results paint a visual history of the flow of mathematicians into seven key countries.
"By 1932, the Holocaust led to mass migration from Germany to the United States and other European countries, which accounts for the drop in green volume in Fig. 1a, including prominent scientist Albert Einstein," the researchers wrote.
"Similarly, we observe large amounts of outflow from Russia after the cold war, greatly diminishing the presence of Russia mathematicians after the 1990s, and the second Italian mass diaspora after WWII. Beyond forced immigration, flow analysis also reveals the movement of reintegration. Japanese mathematicians immigrated to the United States following WWII, and continued throughout the 1960s to the 1990s. Twenty years later, Japanese mathematicians flowed back toward Japan."
The results revealed significant disparities when it comes to identity and membership in elite circles. For example, a mathematician who is French and attends a top-50 institution is 6.4 times more likely to join an elite circle.
Meanwhile, an East Asian mathematician who also attends a top-50 institution is 4.5 times less likely to join an elite circle than the French mathematician, while an Indian mathematician is 6 times less likely. In general, the results showed that mathematicians from Arabic, African, and East Asian language identities were underrepresented.
"It's a privilege for a young mathematician to inherit a powerful network of relationships from an influential academic advisor," Fu said in the press release. "The growing number of doctoral degrees awarded to international mathematicians in the U.S. indicates that mathematics can be a powerful integrative force in our common humanity."
To better promote the original goal of the Fields Medal — promoting promising mathematicians from underrepresented communities — the researchers issued two recommendations:
"First, elite institutions should continue to recruit from a diverse set of communities," they wrote. "Second, prizes that balance intellectual contribution, while simultaneously broadening community, would suit the vision of an equitable society that the Fields Medal once sought to do."
"Who is under-represented within a state shifts over geography, culture, and time. The vision of equitable scientific production demands constant evolution and reflection, especially at the elite level."
For some philosophers, hope is a second-rate way of relating to reality.
While its use in the Barack Obama presidential campaign has become iconic, appeal to hope was not limited to the United States: the Leftist Greek Syriza party relied on the slogan 'hope is on the way', for example, and many other European parties embraced similar rallying cries. Since then, however, we rarely hear or see 'hope' in the public sphere.
Even in its heyday, the rhetoric of hope wasn't universally popular. When in 2010 the former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin rhetorically asked: 'How's that hopey, changey stuff working out for ya?' she tapped into a widespread skepticism that views hope as unrealistic, even delusional. Palin's skepticism (many will be surprised to hear) has long been at work in the philosophical tradition. From Plato to René Descartes, many philosophers have argued that hope is weaker than expectation and confidence since it requires belief merely in the possibility of an event, not evidence that it is likely to occur.
For these philosophers, hope is a second-rate way of relating to reality, appropriate only when a person lacks the requisite knowledge to form 'proper' expectations. The radical Enlightenment philosopher Baruch Spinoza gives voice to this opinion when he writes that hope indicates 'a lack of knowledge and a weakness of mind' and that 'the more we endeavour to live by the guidance of reason, the more we endeavour to be independent of hope'. According to this view, hope is particularly unsuitable as a guide to political action. Citizens should base their decisions on rational expectations about what governments can achieve, rather than letting themselves be motivated by mere hope.
This skepticism should be taken seriously and can indeed point us toward a better understanding of the rise and fall of the rhetoric of hope. So is there space for hope in politics?
We need to be precise about what kind of hope we are talking about. If we are considering what individuals hope for, any policy that has consequences for people's lives will be tied to hope in some way – whether this is hope for that policy's success or hope for its failure. The generation of such hope isn't necessarily good or bad; it is simply a part of political life. But when political movements promise to deliver hope, they are clearly not speaking of hope in this generic sense. This particular rhetoric of hope refers to a more specific, morally attractive and distinctively political form of hope.
Political hope is distinguished by two features. Its object is political: it is hope for social justice. And its character is political: it is a collective attitude. While the significance of the first feature is perhaps obvious, the second feature explains why it makes sense to speak of hope's 'return' to politics. When political movements seek to rekindle hope, they are not acting on the assumption that individual people no longer hope for things – they are building on the idea that hope does not currently shape our collective orientation toward the future. The promise of a 'politics of hope' is thus the promise that hope for social justice will become part of the sphere of collective action, of politics itself.
Even so, the question remains whether political hope is really a good thing. If one of the tasks of government is to realise social justice, would it not be better for political movements to promote justified expectations rather than mere hope? Is the rhetoric of hope not a tacit admission that the movements in question lack strategies for inspiring confidence?
The sphere of politics has particular features, unique to it, that impose limitations on what we can rationally expect. One such limitation is what the American moral philosopher John Rawls in 1993 described as the insurmountable pluralism of 'comprehensive doctrines'. In modern societies, people disagree about what is ultimately valuable, and these disagreements often cannot be resolved by reasonable argument. Such pluralism makes it unreasonable to expect that we will ever arrive at a final consensus on these matters. To the extent that governments should not pursue ends that cannot be justified to all citizens, the most we can rationally expect from politics is the pursuit of those principles of justice on which all reasonable people can agree, such as basic human rights, non-discrimination, and democratic decision-making. Thus, we cannot rationally expect governments that respect our plurality to pursue more demanding ideals of justice – for example, via ambitious redistributive policies that are not justifiable relative to all, even the most individualistic, conceptions of the good.
This limitation stands in tension with another of Rawls's claims. He also argued, in 1971, that the most important social good is self-respect. In a liberal society, the citizens' self-respect is based on the knowledge that there is a public commitment to justice – on the understanding that other citizens view them as deserving fair treatment. However, if we can expect agreement on only a narrow set of ideals, that expectation will make a relatively small contribution to our self-respect. Compared with possible consensus on more demanding ideals of justice, this expectation will do relatively little to make us view other citizens as being deeply committed to justice.
Fortunately, we need not limit ourselves to what we can expect. Even though we are not justified in expecting more than limited agreement on justice, we can still collectively hope that, in the future, consensus on more demanding ideals of justice will emerge. When citizens collectively entertain this hope, this expresses a shared understanding that each member of society deserves to be included in an ambitious project of justice, even if we disagree about what that project should be. This knowledge can contribute to self-respect and is thus a desirable social good in its own right. In the absence of consensus, political hope is a necessary part of social justice itself.
So it is rational, perhaps even necessary, to recruit the notion of hope for the purposes of justice. And this is why the rhetoric of hope has all but disappeared. We can seriously employ the rhetoric of hope only when we believe that citizens can be brought to develop a shared commitment to exploring ambitious projects of social justice, even when they disagree about their content. This belief has become increasingly implausible in light of recent developments that reveal how divided Western democracies really are. A sizable minority in Europe and the US has made it clear, in response to the rhetoric of hope, that it disagrees not only about the meaning of justice but also with the very idea that our current vocabulary of social justice ought to be extended. One can, of course, still individually hope that those who hold this view will be convinced to change it. As things stand, however, this is not a hope that they are able to share.
This Idea was made possible through the support of a grant to Aeon magazine from Templeton Religion Trust. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Templeton Religion Trust.
Funders to Aeon Magazine are not involved in editorial decision-making, including commissioning or content approval.