Big Think Interview With Sharon Zukin
Sharon Zukin is Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and Professor of Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of Loft Living , Landscapes of Power (winner of the C. Wright Mills Award), The Cultures of Cities , and Point of Purchase. Zukin received the C. Wright Mills Award from the Society for the Study of Social Problems for Landscapes of Power, and the Robert and Helen Lynd Award for Career Achievement in Urban Sociology from the Community and Urban Sociology Section of the American Sociological Association. She holds a PhD from Columbia University and lives in New York City.
Question: How has our conception of cities changed in recent years?
Sharon Zukin: One of the interesting things about urban culture in the last half century is that urban residents are increasingly college educated, smart people with a lot of cultural capital. They might not have a lot of money but they have had fairly good jobs and a terrific interest in history and art and what we could call the esthetics of city life. So this made them look for the kinds of cities and the areas in cities that had the cobble stone streets, red brick or brownstone, or gray-stone houses and small stores that could be converted to the interesting quality of life that they sought. This is very different from their parent’s generation in the fifties or sixties of the last century because those people often tried to escape urban life which they saw as closed-in and you know, tenements and crowded streets and over imposing monolithic office towers. For the suburbs, a lot of those people of the parent’s generation left the cities because they thought the cities were going to be poor and degraded. But, it’s their children who’ve returned to cities, who have confirmed the interest of city life. But the ore of them or of us who come to cities the less space there is for low-income people who have been living in cities all along. So it’s a curious kind of culture that develops out of great appreciation for the authentic city that has been here and a tendency to impose new tastes that drive out long time residents and businesses.
Question: Where does this notion of authenticity come from?
Sharon Zukin: The idea of authenticity really comes from Shakespeare’s time and Russo’s time a Century later. When people began to realize that there is such a thing as an authentic self that could thrive in a natural or an authentic society there haven’t been too many completely authentic societies but, from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some groups of people have tried to absent themselves from society to go to a rural community let’s say to found the utopia and sometimes even to come to a working class neighborhood to live among people and live in surroundings that they think will allow them to create an authentic self. So these are people who don’t look for certain kinds of fashions to demonstrate their identity and they don’t necessarily join political groups or social movements but they to live in a space that they can identify with as an authentic space and an authentic culture.
Sometimes its neighborhoods like you know Bohemian Districts of Paris in the late Nineteenth Century or Greenwich Village, a Bohemian District of New York in the early Twentieth Century. But when those areas become too conformist or too expensive, those who seek an authentic life move elsewhere so that the center of artistic authenticity in New York moved from Greenwich Village to Brooklyn Heights in the mid-Twentieth Century and also by the 1960s to the East Village which was not called the East Village then it was part of the Lower East Side. But, I guess an enterprising real estate agent or developer said there are so many hippies living here looking for you know, for some kind of commune in the city that I’ll benefit by calling this area the East Village and connect it with the old Bohemianism of Greenwich Village. And then by the 1990s the East Village became very expensive partly because of the University expansion nearby and partly because of the attractiveness of some of the hippie and art destinations that had been created during the 1980s, so the center of authenticity then moved across the East River on the subway to Williamsburg which then became a district of Indy music banks and bars and kind of edgy performance spaces. This of course is a young sort of authenticity; it’s different from the gentrification of a more settled, slightly older population. So as rents go up the search for authenticity expands looking for other areas of the city that offer a kind of low-down but truer sense of where the self can develop.
Question: What defines the “soul” of a city?
Sharon Zukin: The soul of the city is it’s people, it’s small shops the diversity of the crowds. The hustle and bustle but not just change, rootedness, neighborhoods, streets that maintain their identity over a long period of time. Cities are always changing and it would be silly to say that a city loses its soul when it changes exactly because so many new people come, old people live, businesses die for technological, cultural, and financial reasons but the soul of a city is often felt to be in the long-time residents, the old businesses and particularly the small businesses, the small shops, the small streets. And, the people who are not the richest but they’ve been here a long time and they give the city character.
Question: What creates this craving for an “authentic” space?
Sharon Zukin: Every movement always spurs a resistance to that movement; a counter-movement, a counter-culture and in our time as in the 1960s, there was a big resistance against the standardization of overwhelmingly large organizations. In cities today, there’s been an invasion since the late 1990s of chain stores and these create visible faces of standardization. Some people have spoken of this in terms of the suburbanization of cities. And in some cities I have to say it’s a benefit to have a chain store rather than an overpriced store with terrible merchandise that does not give a good deal to consumers in the area but in general its times of homogenization that irritate people, that get under peoples skin and make them desire a more authentic kind of space to live a more authentic kind of life.
Question: How can we help prevent displacement?
Sharon Zukin: You know I can’t emphasize enough how important laws are, zoning laws, rent controls, commercial rent controls, maybe providing apprenticeships for young people who are not going to college or people who are graduates of art schools to set up small stores. A continuation of traditional crafts, I think industry is tremendously important in every city, even in New York and there have to be spaces for all of these activities to create an procreate. It’s silly to say that a city will survive on the basis of the creative class; a city only survives on the basis of diversity, different classes of people all working and its necessary for local government to make sure there is space for everybody in the city.
I mean there really have to be, you know go to your City Council Representative, write to that person and tell them they voted wrong or they voted right on something. Utter the forbidden words like new laws, new zoning, rent control, maybe all buildings should have not just one percent for art but one percent of the space devoted to mom and pop stores. I understand that these would not necessarily be old mom-and-old-pop stores but they’d be you know new independently owned stores. There really has to be an educational effort to bring tastes together with social need. Like look at the Red Hook Food Vendors in the ball field, they were unknown outside the Latino community, I should say the Latino soccer playing and soccer watching community for almost thirty years when they sold papooses and tacos and delotes and you know whatever they were selling and making at the ball fields. They never lived in Red Hook but they came faithfully every Saturday and Sunday when the soccer leagues played and cooked and sold and eventually through the Internet, through the food blogs after around 2003, 2004 a much wider public became aware of the good food and the cultural value and I would say the social value of these immigrant food vendors.
So it became really crucial for politicians and for food bloggers and for you know ordinary people who just liked tacos to put pressure on the city government to allow those food vendors to stay in place. There was a concerted campaign by the Parks Department and the Health Department to shut them down or make them conform to existing laws which I understand and through the help of outside communities pressing the city government those food vendors were able to protect their right to sell at the park in Red Hook but it’s those, it’s those cases that show how absolutely important it is for city governments to make good policies to protect people’s rights to be in a place.
Take the Community Gardens, they enjoyed a temporary reprieve a few years ago after Mayor Giuliani, lead a campaign to convert most of them to housing sites, and you know people breathed a sigh of relief and said okay great now we have community gardens. But the community gardens are only legal until fall of this year, 2010. There has to be a New York State Law passed by the Legislature that creates a permanent right for community gardens to stay in place. I think everybody agrees that community gardens are truly important. Not just as places of rest and relaxation and nature for a neighborhood but also as places of vegetable production and urban food production is very important now as a sign of the sustainable environmental future. So there has to be some government action to protect that kind of space. It’s these examples that show how important it is for all of us to press city government to make new laws.
Question: How has the rate of gentrification increased in recent years?
Sharon Zukin: Well gentrification reached a turning point in the 1980s. I think it began in Jane Jacob’s time in the 1950s and early 1960s in cities like New York and London and other big cities of the world and then slowly attracted more and more people until gentrification reached a turning point in the 1980s and then it was all over the media. And then there were actually neighborhoods that were marketed not as outposts of difference but as places where middle-class families could safely reside and find the cheese and the dog equipment and the baby strollers and all the things that a fairly young middle-class family would want in the city except for the sterile atmosphere that was associated with the suburbs. So from the 1980s to the past couple of years gentrification really reached a crescendo and one neighborhood after another, so many cities toppled from what it had been as a working-class neighborhood, often a neighborhood for people of color or a mixed neighborhood but definitely a low-income, low rent, low key kind of place; one after another these areas became gentrified neighborhoods and hot residential markets. It isn’t until the recession of the past couple of years that there’s been a slowing maybe not a slowing of gentrification but a slowing of the new building that followed gentrification.
Question: Does gentrification function linearly or is it more of a cycle?
Sharon Zukin: Well cities do go through cycles. I don’t like think of them as cycles because that predicts that there’s going to be an end in an opposite direction from whatever we’re living through now but we should not forget that decades before the height of gentrification were decades of urban impoverishment when middle-class people moved out of cities. When businesses moved away from cities. When the urban population became poorer, less white, more discriminated against and cities represented decline not growth. So I’m not going to say that a period of growth is going to be followed by a cycle of something complete different, which will be followed by another period of growth at all. We don’t know what the future will hold but I think that the density of population in cities and the density of economic activities in cities have always been able to spark a regeneration of labor markets and then capital investment and that’s what you need to make a city vibrant. And you know that’s part of the authenticity of cities too, one side of authenticity is old and original but the other side is new and creative and it’s important for cities to encourage and sustain the initiatives that new residents develop. I hope that those new initiatives would remain small because it think it’s the small businesses, the street vendors, the little restaurants, the new services that people develop to serve people in their neighborhoods, I think it’s those places that provide the best chance for a city to grow on its own without any artificial kind of program.
Question: Is it possible to move into an affordable urban neighborhood without guilt?
Sharon Zukin: on a personal level, a lot of urban dwellers live this contradiction even if they are not personally responsible for displacing a family or a tenant from a single-room occupancy hotel but it’s true that we with our consumers tastes are responsible for knocking out a lot of the old and bringing in a lot of the new. Also with the amount of rent or the amount of money we can pay to buy an apartment, we may be displacing people who don’t have that kind of money so the first step is to be aware of the cultural power that people have. The second step is to force local governments to make policies and make laws to protect people’s right to stay in the apartments or the houses that they have. This is as true of people whose mortgages are being foreclosed, as it is true of tenants whose apartment complexes or tenant or apartment houses have been bought by big investment companies that thought they were going to make a killing on these places and raise the rent but are now foreclosing on their mortgages. There have to be actions by the state, zoning laws, protections, encouragements for small businesses and long-time residents. Don’t forget people who have been in the city for a couple of years are on the way to becoming long-time residents.
Question: Are there any guilt-free ways of gentrifying?
Sharon Zukin: Well we all need a place to live right? So we have to do the best we can given our economic circumstances and our need to be close to where we work. We all need to hunt and gather to provide for ourselves and our families. That means that we all need stores and so it’s inevitable that we shape the built environment around us. There has to be some interaction between people’s needs and urban spaces but what’s really crucial is that we try to even the playing field for the people who can’t pay high rents, the people who don’t get good public services, and the people who can’t escape right because we all live in the city together. I think what city dwellers really appreciate is the diversity of the city and you can’t have diversity if everybody is a college-educated gentrifier.
Question: What is distinctive about the history of Manhattan’s Lower East Side?
Sharon Zukin: One of the most interesting areas of New York City is the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Most people know the Lower East Side as a traditional area of immigrant settlement but a lot of those immigrants were very active in the labor movement and socialist politics in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century’s so that so many blocks of the Lower East Side are filled with the shadows of the ancestors of political activists. Emma Goldman lived there. Labor leaders lived there and in fact we don’t even have to think about socialist politics during the Civil War, draft resistors put of barricades around Tompkins Square Park and through the years somehow even though those people have passed from the scene, there has been an embodiment of their spirit of resistance in that neighborhood kind of like the way African-American culture has been kept alive in Harlem and in Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn so that it’s something in the soul of a neighborhood to sustain the traditions and the politics of the past. I don’t think that its only the stones and the brick of the buildings that keep the spirit alive. It also has to be the quality of population, the kinds of businesses that are there. You can’t really have Sushi Bars in a neighborhood where so many resistors and counter-cultural movements took place.
Question: How does this change come about?
Sharon Zukin: You know one of the interesting things about this whole process that draws more and more people to the so-called authentic neighborhoods is the entrepreneurial businesses that are opened up by creative people to cater to their own community. And usually these are small businesses that provide services or provide goods that the new residents culturally crave. They have no intention or driving out old businesses but they are really visible presences on the street and they signal that these areas of the city are now safe for bigger real estate development. We used to think that it was the presence of artists that lead to gentrification but I really think that it’s the presence of the businesses that artists create; art galleries, performance spaces, bars, restaurants, that really, boutiques, that really attract people from a larger public first as visitors and then as would-be residents.
Question: How does taste become a form of power?
Sharon Zukin: In sociology we know that taste is socially made, it’s not just a matter of what you as an individual likes to eat or like to read or like to listen to. Taste really is an expression of a whole group of people who share common education and a common cultural background. That’s true not just in an ethnic sense but in the sense of position in society, occupation, profession, and when a lot of people move into a neighborhood and they form a market for lattes or they form a market for newsstands that sell the New York Times they tend to create an atmosphere, a very visible and tangible atmosphere on the street that makes other people who do not share those tastes feel uncomfortable. If they, if there are enough of the new people with the new tastes then the long-time residents feels very uncomfortable and eventually if the new residents can pay higher rents and the businesses that cater to them can pay higher rents, though maybe not the highest, they will tend to drive out the long-time residents and the old businesses.
Usually businesses cannot cater to both the old and the new because the tastes and the atmosphere are just so different. You know imagine a working class bar where mainly guys go in the evening and stand around and drink beer and dis women; that’s not the kind of place where young women like to hang out either with other women or with men. So there’s a real sense of discomfort between the old and the new residents in the businesses that cater to their different tastes. And even on the street let’s say long-time Latino residents especially men will sit on the street and play Dominos but new residents might consider that picturesque at first but then they might begin to consider it undesirable not to mention any kind of illicit or illegal activity that might go on on the street. Generally gentrifies don’t use the street as much as long-time less affluent residents and so there’s a real difference between those who want to use the public space of the street in a certain way as well as the establishments of the small businesses and those who want to use these spaces differently, more tastefully.
Question: Were does Jane Jacobs’ classic argument fall short?
Sharon Zukin: In the 1960s, Jane Jacobs’s criticism of the massive urban renewal tactics of the federal and local governments was tremendously important. What she said empowered people not just to take action against the brutal results of urban renewal plans but also to look around themselves and to see the good things in cities and the very desirable amenities of their neighborhoods. By the 1980s and 1990s, Jacobs’ writing had become sacred a couple of generations of urban planners and by the 2000s, many urban planner and by this I mean officials not staffs, urban planning officials walk around and flatter themselves that they are partisans of Jane Jacobs’ ideas by which they mean they speak for the authentic character of cities. They speak for neighborhood identities but what they neglect and what Jacobs herself did not emphasize was the people who live in cities. Now everybody know Jane Jacobs Ballet of the Street where she praises the merchants and the people who pass by on her block and the women who were not in the labor force at that time so they sat and looked out their living room windows at the street and they all put themselves together as eyes on the street, keeping the street safe and making a sociable place on the street so it seems as though Jane Jacobs was very concerned with people. In fact, she gave no thought to the forces that displace people from streets like hers or the forces that are able to keep people living, working, and doing business on these streets. For Jacobs it turned out to be all about the buildings. For us it’s all about the people and trying to keep the people as well as many of the buildings in place so the big weak spot of Jacobs work is that she didn’t pay attention to culture, the culture of the people who were there and to capital, social capital of the neighbors and the merchants and the cultural capital that she as a proto-gentrifier or what David Brooks calls The First Bo-Bo brought to her street and to urban life. If urban planners today could just focus on policies and laws to keep the people in place that would be a really great improvement on Jacobs’ writing.
Recorded on: February 3, 2010
A conversation with the CUNY sociologist and author of "Naked City."
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Quantum theory has weird implications. Trying to explain them just makes things weirder.
- The weirdness of quantum theory flies in the face of what we experience in our everyday lives.
- Quantum weirdness quickly created a split in the physics community, each side championed by a giant: Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr.
- As two recent books espousing opposing views show, the debate still rages on nearly a century afterward. Each "resolution" comes with a high price tag.
Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, two giants of 20th century science, espoused very different worldviews.
To Einstein, the world was ultimately rational. Things had to make sense. They should be quantifiable and expressible through a logical chain of cause-and-effect interactions, from what we experience in our everyday lives all the way to the depths of reality. To Bohr, we had no right to expect any such order or rationality. Nature, at its deepest level, need not follow any of our expectations of well-behaved determinism. Things could be weird and non-deterministic, so long as they became more like what we expect when we traveled from the world of atoms to our world of trees, frogs, and cars. Bohr divided the world into two realms, the familiar classical world, and the unfamiliar quantum world. They should be complementary to one another but with very different properties.
The two scientists spent decades arguing about the impact of quantum physics on the nature of reality. Each had groups of physicists as followers, all of them giants of their own. Einstein's group of quantum weirdness deniers included quantum physics pioneers Max Planck, Louis de Broglie, and Erwin Schrödinger, while Bohr's group had Werner Heisenberg (of uncertainty principle fame), Max Born, Wolfgang Pauli, and Paul Dirac.
Almost a century afterward, the debate rages on.
Einstein vs. Bohr, Redux
Two books — one authored by Sean Carroll and published last fall and another published very recently and authored by Carlo Rovelli — perfectly illustrate how current leading physicists still cannot come to terms with the nature of quantum reality. The opposing positions still echo, albeit with many modern twists and experimental updates, the original Einstein-Bohr debate.
I summarized the ongoing dispute in my book The Island of Knowledge: Are the equations of quantum physics a computational tool that we use to make sense of the results of experiments (Bohr), or are they supposed to be a realistic representation of quantum reality (Einstein)? In other words, are the equations of quantum theory the way things really are or just a useful map?
Einstein believed that quantum theory, as it stood in the 1930s and 1940s, was an incomplete description of the world of the very small. There had to be an underlying level of reality, still unknown to us, that made sense of all its weirdness. De Broglie and, later, David Bohm, proposed an extension of the quantum theory known as hidden variable theory that tried to fill in the gap. It was a brilliant attempt to appease the urge Einstein and his followers had for an orderly natural world, predictable and reasonable. The price — and every attempt to deal with the problem of figuring out quantum theory has a price tag — was that the entire universe had to participate in determining the behavior of every single electron and all other quantum particles, implicating the existence of a strange cosmic order.
Later, in the 1960s, physicist John Bell proved a theorem that put such ideas to the test. A series of remarkable experiments starting in the 1970s and still ongoing have essentially disproved the de Broglie-Bohm hypothesis, at least if we restrict their ideas to what one would call "reasonable," that is, theories that have local interactions and causes. Omnipresence — what physicists call nonlocality — is a hard pill to swallow in physics.
Credit: Public domain
Yet, the quantum phenomenon of superposition insists on keeping things weird. Here's one way to picture quantum superposition. In a kind of psychedelic dream state, imagine that you had a magical walk-in closet filled with identical shirts, the only difference between them being their color. What's magical about this closet? Well, as you enter this closet, you split into identical copies of yourself, each wearing a shirt of a different color. There is a you wearing a blue shirt, another a red, another a white, etc., all happily coexisting. But as soon as you step out of the closet or someone or something opens the door, only one you emerges, wearing a single shirt. Inside the closet, you are in a superposition state with your other selves. But in the "real" world, the one where others see you, only one copy of you exists, wearing a single shirt. The question is whether the inside superposition of the many yous is as real as the one you that emerges outside.
To Einstein, the world was ultimately rational... To Bohr, we had no right to expect any such order or rationality.
The (modern version of the) Einstein team would say yes. The equations of quantum physics must be taken as the real description of what's going on, and if they predict superposition, so be it. The so-called wave function that describes this superposition is an essential part of physical reality. This point is most dramatically exposed by the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics, espoused in Carroll's book. For this interpretation, reality is even weirder: the closet has many doors, each to a different universe. Once you step out, all of your copies step out together, each into a parallel universe. So, if I happen to see you wearing a blue shirt in this universe, in another, I'll see you wearing a red one. The price tag for the many-worlds interpretation is to accept the existence of an uncountable number of non-communicating parallel universes that enact all possibilities from a superstition state. In a parallel universe, there was no COVID-19 pandemic. Not too comforting.
Bohm's team would say take things as they are. If you stepped out of the closet and someone saw you wearing a shirt of a given color, then this is the one. Period. The weirdness of your many superposing selves remains hidden in the quantum closet. Rovelli defends his version of this worldview, called relational interpretation, in which events are defined by the interactions between the objects involved, be them observers or not. In this example, the color of your shirt is the property at stake, and when I see it, I am entangled with this specific shirt of yours. It could have been another color, but it wasn't. As Rovelli puts it, "Entanglement… is the manifestation of one object to another, in the course of an interaction, in which the properties of the objects become actual." The price to pay here is to give up the hope of ever truly understanding what goes on in the quantum world. What we measure is what we get and all we can say about it.
What should we believe?
Both Carroll and Rovelli are master expositors of science to the general public, with Rovelli being the more lyrical of the pair.
There is no resolution to be expected, of course. I, for one, am more inclined to Bohr's worldview and thus to Rovelli's, although the interpretation I am most sympathetic to, called QBism, is not properly explained in either book. It is much closer in spirit to Rovelli's, in that relations are essential, but it places the observer on center stage, given that information is what matters in the end. (Although, as Rovelli acknowledges, information is a loaded word.)
We create theories as maps for us human observers to make sense of reality. But in the excitement of research, we tend to forget the simple fact that theories and models are not nature but our representations of nature. Unless we nurture hopes that our theories are really how the world is (the Einstein camp) and not how we humans describe it (the Bohr camp), why should we expect much more than this?
Maybe eyes really are windows into the soul — or at least into the brain, as a new study finds.
- Researchers find a correlation between pupil size and differences in cognitive ability.
- The larger the pupil, the higher the intelligence.
- The explanation for why this happens lies within the brain, but more research is needed.
What can you tell by looking into someone's eyes? You can spot a glint of humor, signs of tiredness, or maybe that they don't like something or someone.
But outside of assessing an emotional state, a person's eyes may also provide clues about their intelligence, suggests new research. A study carried out at the Georgia Institute of Technology shows that pupil size is "closely related" to differences in intelligence between individuals.
The scientists found that larger pupils may be connected to higher intelligence, as demonstrated by tests that gauged reasoning skills, memory, and attention. In fact, the researchers claim that the relationship of intelligence to pupil size is so pronounced, that it came across their previous two studies as well and can be spotted just with your naked eyes, without any additional scientific instruments. You should be able to tell who scored the highest or the lowest on the cognitive tests just by looking at them, say the researchers.
The pupil-IQ link
The connection was first noticed across memory tasks, looking at pupil dilations as signs of mental effort. The studies involved more than 500 people aged 18 to 35 from the Atlanta area. The subjects' pupil sizes were measured by eye trackers, which use a camera and a computer to capture light reflecting off the pupil and cornea. As the scientists explained in Scientific American, pupil diameters range from two to eight millimeters. To determine average pupil size, they took measurements of the pupils at rest when the participants were staring at a blank screen for a few minutes.
Another part of the experiment involved having the subjects take a series of cognitive tests that evaluated "fluid intelligence" (the ability to reason when confronted with new problems), "working memory capacity" (how well people could remember information over time), and "attention control" (the ability to keep focusing attention even while being distracted). An example of the latter involves a test that attempts to divert a person's focus on a disappearing letter by showing a flickering asterisk on another part of the screen. If a person pays too much attention to the asterisk, they might miss the letter.
The conclusions of the research were that having a larger baseline pupil size was related to greater fluid intelligence, having more attention control, and even greater working memory capacity, although to a smaller extent. In an email exchange with Big Think, author Jason Tsukahara pointed out, "It is important to consider that what we find is a correlation — which should not be confused with causation."
The researchers also found that pupil size seemed to decrease with age. Older people had more constricted pupils but when the scientists standardized for age, the pupil-size-to-intelligence connection still remained.
Why are pupils linked to intelligence?
The connection between pupil size and IQ likely resides within the brain. Pupil size has been previously connected to the locus coeruleus, a part of the brain that's responsible for synthesizing the hormone and neurotransmitter norepinephrine (noradrenaline), which mobilizes the brain and body for action. Activity in the locus coeruleus affects our perception, attention, memory, and learning processes.
As the authors explain, this region of the brain "also helps maintain a healthy organization of brain activity so that distant brain regions can work together to accomplish challenging tasks and goals." Because it is so important, loss of function in the locus coeruleus has been linked to conditions like Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's, clinical depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
The researchers hypothesize that people who have larger pupils while in a restful state, like staring at a blank computer screen, have "greater regulation of activity by the locus coeruleus." This leads to better cognitive performance. More research is necessary, however, to truly understand why having larger pupils is related to higher intelligence.
In an email to Big Think, Tsukahara shared, "If I had to speculate, I would say that it is people with greater fluid intelligence that develop larger pupils, but again at this point we only have correlational data."
Do other scientists believe this?
As the scientists point out in the beginning of their paper, their conclusions are controversial and, so far, other researchers haven't been able to duplicate their results. The research team addresses this criticism by explaining that other studies had methodological issues and examined only memory capacity but not fluid intelligence, which is what they measured.
A Harvard professor's study discovers the worst year to be alive.
- Harvard professor Michael McCormick argues the worst year to be alive was 536 AD.
- The year was terrible due to cataclysmic eruptions that blocked out the sun and the spread of the plague.
- 536 ushered in the coldest decade in thousands of years and started a century of economic devastation.
The past year has been nothing but the worst in the lives of many people around the globe. A rampaging pandemic, dangerous political instability, weather catastrophes, and a profound change in lifestyle that most have never experienced or imagined.
But was it the worst year ever?
Nope. Not even close. In the eyes of the historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick, the absolute "worst year to be alive" was 536.
Why was 536 so bad? You could certainly argue that 1918, the last year of World War I when the Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million people around the world, was a terrible year by all accounts. 1349 could also be considered on this morbid list as the year when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe, with up to 20 million dead from the plague. Most of the years of World War II could probably lay claim to the "worst year" title as well. But 536 was in a category of its own, argues the historian.
It all began with an eruption...
According to McCormick, Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University, 536 was the precursor year to one of the worst periods of human history. It featured a volcanic eruption early in the year that took place in Iceland, as established by a study of a Swiss glacier carried out by McCormick and the glaciologist Paul Mayewski from the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono.
The ash spewed out by the volcano likely led to a fog that brought an 18-month-long stretch of daytime darkness across Europe, the Middle East, and portions of Asia. As wrote the Byzantine historian Procopius, "For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year." He also recounted that it looked like the sun was always in eclipse.
Cassiodorus, a Roman politician of that time, wrote that the sun had a "bluish" color, the moon had no luster, and "seasons seem to be all jumbled up together." What's even creepier, he described, "We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon."
...that led to famine...
The dark days also brought a period of coldness, with summer temperatures falling by 1.5° C. to 2.5° C. This started the coldest decade in the past 2300 years, reports Science, leading to the devastation of crops and worldwide hunger.
...and the fall of an empire
In 541, the bubonic plague added considerably to the world's misery. Spreading from the Roman port of Pelusium in Egypt, the so-called Plague of Justinian caused the deaths of up to one half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire. This, in turn, sped up its eventual collapse, writes McCormick.
Between the environmental cataclysms, with massive volcanic eruptions also in 540 and 547, and the devastation brought on by the plague, Europe was in for an economic downturn for nearly all of the next century, until 640 when silver mining gave it a boost.
Was that the worst time in history?
Of course, the absolute worst time in history depends on who you were and where you lived.
Native Americans can easily point to 1520, when smallpox, brought over by the Spanish, killed millions of indigenous people. By 1600, up to 90 percent of the population of the Americas (about 55 million people) was wiped out by various European pathogens.
Like all things, the grisly title of "worst year ever" comes down to historical perspective.
In each of our minds, we draw a demarcation line between beliefs that are reasonable and those that are nonsense. Where do you draw your line?
- Conspiracy theories exist on a spectrum, from plausible and mainstream to fringe and unpopular.
- It's very rare to find someone who only believes in one conspiracy theory. They generally believe in every conspiracy theory that's less extreme than their favorite one.
- To some extent, we are all conspiracy theorists.
The following is an excerpt from the book Escaping the Rabbit Hole by Mick West. It is reprinted with permission from the author.
If you want to understand how people fall for conspiracy theories, and if you want to help them, then you have to understand the conspiracy universe. More specifically, you need to know where their favorite theories are on the broader spectrum of conspiracies.
What type of person falls for conspiracy theories? What type of person would think that the World Trade Center was a controlled demolition, or that planes are secretly spraying chemicals to modify the climate, or that nobody died at Sandy Hook, or that the Earth is flat? Are these people crazy? Are they just incredibly gullible? Are they young and impressionable? No, in fact the range of people who believe in conspiracy theories is simply a random slice of the general population.
There's a conspiracy theory for everyone, and hence very few people are immune.
Many dismiss conspiracy theorists as a bunch of crazy people, or a bunch of stupid people, or a bunch of crazy stupid people. Yet in many ways the belief in a conspiracy theory is as American as apple pie, and like apple pie it comes in all kinds of varieties, and all kinds of normal people like to consume it.
My neighbor down the road is a conspiracy theorist. Yet he's also an engineer, retired after a successful career. I've had dinner at his house, and yet he's a believer in chemtrails, and I'm a chemtrail debunker. It's odd; he even told me after a few glasses of wine that he thinks I'm being paid to debunk chemtrails. He thought this because he googled my name and found some pages that said I was a paid shill. Since he's a conspiracy theorist he tends to trust conspiracy sources more than mainstream sources, so he went with that.
Why do people believe in conspiracy theories? | Michio Kaku, Bill Nye & more | Big Think www.youtube.com
I've met all kinds of conspiracy theorists. At a chemtrails convention I attended there was pretty much the full spectrum. There were sensible and intelligent older people who had discovered their conspiracy anything from a few months ago to several decades ago. There were highly eccentric people of all ages, including one old gentleman with a pyramid attached to his bike. There were people who channeled aliens, and there were people who were angry that the alien-channeling people were allowed in. There were young people itching for a revolution. There were well-read intellectuals who thought there was a subtle system of persuasion going on in the evening news, and there were people who genuinely thought they were living in a computer simulation.
There's such a wide spectrum of people who believe in conspiracy theories because the spectrum of conspiracy theories itself is very wide. There's a conspiracy theory for everyone, and hence very few people are immune.
The Mainstream and the Fringe
One unfortunate problem with the term "conspiracy theory" is that it paints with a broad brush. It's tempting to simply divide people up into "conspiracy theorists" and "regular people" — to have tinfoil-hat-wearing paranoids on one side and sensible folk on the other. But the reality is that we are all conspiracy theorists, one way or another. We all know that conspiracies exist; we all suspect people in power of being involved in many kinds of conspiracies, even if it's only something as banal as accepting campaign contributions to vote a certain way on certain types of legislation.
It's also tempting to simply label conspiracy theories as either "mainstream" or "fringe." Journalist Paul Musgrave referenced this dichotomy when he wrote in the Washington Post:
Less than two months into the administration, the danger is no longer that Trump will make conspiracy thinking mainstream. That has already come to pass.
Musgrave obviously does not mean that shape-shifting lizard overlords have become mainstream. Nor does he mean that flat Earth, chemtrails, or even 9/11 truth are mainstream. What he's really talking about is a fairly small shift in a dividing line on the conspiracy spectrum. Most fringe conspiracy theories remain fringe, most mainstream theories remain mainstream. But, Musgrave argues, there's been a shift that's allowed the bottom part of the fringe to enter into the mainstream. Obama being a Kenyan was thought by many to be a silly conspiracy theory, something on the fringe. But if the president of the United States (Trump) keeps bringing it up, then it moves more towards the mainstream.
Both conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists exist on a spectrum. If we are to communicate effectively with a conspiracy-minded friend we need to get some perspective on the full range of that spectrum, and where our friend's personal blend of theories fit into it.
It's very rare to find someone who only believes in one conspiracy theory. They generally believe in every conspiracy theory that's less extreme than their favorite one.
There are several ways we can classify a conspiracy theory: how scientific is it? How many people believe in it? How plausible is? But one I'm going use is a somewhat subjective measure of how extreme the theory is. I'm going to rank them from 1 to 10, with 1 being entirely mainstream to 10 being the most obscure extreme fringe theory you can fathom.
This extremeness spectrum is not simply a spectrum of reasonableness or scientific plausibility. Being extreme is being on the fringe, and fringe simply denotes the fact that it's an unusual interpretation and is restricted to a small number of people. A belief in religious supernatural occurrences (like miracles) is a scientifically implausible belief, and yet it is not considered particularly fringe.
Let's start with a simple list of actual conspiracy theories. These are ranked by extremeness in their most typical manifestation, but in reality, the following represent topics that can span several points on the scale, or even the entire scale.
- Big Pharma: The theory that pharmaceutical companies conspire to maximize profit by selling drugs that people do not actually need
- Global Warming Hoax: The theory that climate change is not caused by man-made carbon emissions, and that there's some other motive for claiming this
- JFK: The theory that people in addition to Lee Harvey Oswald were involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy
- 9/11 Inside Job: The theory that the events of 9/11 were arranged by elements within the US government
- Chemtrails: The theory that the trails left behind aircraft are part of a secret spraying program
- False Flag Shootings: The theory that shootings like Sandy Hook and Las Vegas either never happened or were arranged by people in power
- Moon Landing Hoax: The theory that the Moon landings were faked in a movie studio
- UFO Cover-Up: The theory that the US government has contact with aliens or crashed alien crafts and is keeping it secret
- Flat Earth: The theory that the Earth is flat, but governments, business, and scientists all pretend it is a globe
- Reptile Overlords: The theory that the ruling classes are a race of shape-shifting trans-dimensional reptiles
If your friend subscribes to one of these theories you should not assume they believe in the most extreme version. They could be anywhere within a range. The categories are both rough and complex, and while some are quite narrow and specific, others encapsulate a wide range of variants of the theory that might go nearly all the way from a 1 to a 10. The position on the fringe conspiracy spectrum instead gives us a rough reference point for the center of the extent of the conspiracy belief.
Credit: "Escaping the Rabbit Hole" by Mick West
Figure 3 is an illustration (again, somewhat subjective) of the extents of extremeness of the conspiracy theories listed. For some of them the ranges are quite small. Flat Earth and Reptile Overlords are examples of theories that exist only at the far end of the spectrum. It's simply impossible to have a sensible version of the Flat Earth theory due to the fact that the Earth is actually round.
Similarly, there exist theories at the lower end of the spectrum that are fairly narrow in scope. A plot by pharmaceutical companies to maximize profits is hard (but not impossible) to make into a more extreme version.
Other theories are broader in scope. The 9/11 Inside Job theory is the classic example where the various theories go all the way from "they lowered their guard to allow some attack to happen," to "the planes were holograms; the towers were demolished with nuclear bombs." The chemtrail theory also has a wide range, from "additives to the fuel are making contrails last longer" to "nano-machines are being sprayed to decimate the population."
There's also overlapping relationships between the theories. chemtrails might be spraying poison to help big pharma sell more drugs. JFK might have been killed because he was going to reveal that UFOs were real. Fake shootings might have been arranged to distract people from any of the other theories. The conspiracy theory spectrum is continuous and multi-dimensional.
Don't immediately pigeonhole your friend if they express some skepticism about some aspect of the broader theories. For example, having some doubts about a few pieces from a Moon-landing video does not necessarily mean that they think we never went to the Moon, it could just mean that they think a few bits of the footage were mocked up for propaganda purposes. Likewise, if they say we should question the events of 9/11, it does not necessarily mean that they think the Twin Towers were destroyed with explosives, it could just mean they think elements within the CIA helped the hijackers somehow.
Understanding where your friend is on the conspiracy spectrum is not about which topics he is interested in, it's about where he draws the line.
The Demarcation Line
While conspiracy theorists might individually focus on one particular theory, like 9/11 or chemtrails, it's very rare to find someone who only believes in one conspiracy theory. They generally believe in every conspiracy theory that's less extreme than their favorite one.
In practical terms this means that if someone believes in the chemtrail theory they will also believe that 9/11 was an inside job involving controlled demolition, that Lee Harvey Oswald was just one of several gunmen, and that global warming is a big scam.
The general conspiracy spectrum is complex, with individual theory categories spread out in multiple ways. But for your friend, an individual, they have an internal version of this scale, one that is much less complex. For the individual the conspiracy spectrum breaks down into two sets of beliefs — the reasonable and the ridiculous. Conspiracists, especially those who have been doing it for a while, make increasingly precise distinctions about where they draw the line.
The drawing of such dividing lines is called "demarcation." In philosophy there's a classical problem called the "demarcation problem," which is basically where you draw the line between science and non-science. Conspiracists have a demarcation line on their own personal version of the conspiracy spectrum. On one side of the line there's science and reasonable theories they feel are probably correct. On the other side of the line there's non-science, gibberish, propaganda, lies, and disinformation.
Credit: "Escaping the Rabbit Hole" by Mick West
I have a line of demarcation (probably around 1.5), you have one, your friend has a line. We all draw the line in different places.