A Fist Fight at the New York Times?

Jonathon Chait seems to be trying to get a fist fight going at the New York Times. He claims in New York Magazine that a recent column by Paul Krugman was actually an attack on David Brooks. Brooks claimed that we have spent huge sums on anti-poverty efforts with no success and that the problem of poverty is due to poor people lacking middle class values. I side with Krugman on the question of whether government expenditures make a difference on poverty. But I think Krugman and other critics of Brooks are unfairly misreading Brooks’ claim. Living in poverty stresses…

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Behavioral Science May Prove to Be Our Most Important Science

Science has changed our world. We take for granted the impact of the physical and biological sciences on our world, forgetting that it once took months to get from the East coast to the West coast or to communicate with someone across the ocean. Science has dramatically improved our health too. In nineteenth century England more than 100,000 people died of cholera before John Snow showed that contaminated water was the cause of cholera. It might seem that no such stunning changes are possible when it comes to human behavior. We continue to have significant problems with crime, drug abuse,…

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Perhaps We Can Prevent Terrorism

Does it seem like we are winning the “war” on terror? Events in Paris, Syria, Iraq, and Libya in recent weeks make it hard to be optimistic. We should not be surprised. Our pursuit of this “war” conflicts with scientific understanding of human behavior. When people are attacked, their biologically driven response is to counterattack. Yet we continue to pursue a military strategy that focuses narrowly on apprehending or attacking terrorists, while ignoring the collateral effects our actions have in inciting terrorism in the first place. Our science is consistent with the bumper sticker observation that “We are making terrorists…

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Selection By Consequences: Recovering Skinner’s Key Insight About Learning As An Evolutionary Process

Until recently, evolutionary psychologists considered behavioristic accounts of human behavior incompatible with evolutionary theory. They characterized B.F. Skinner’s work merely as part of the “standard social science model” and gave it scant attention. But Skinner was in fact an evolutionist who extended evolutionary thinking to the selection of behavior. He argued that the open-ended capacity for behavioral and cultural change was itself an evolved capacity of the organism and an evolutionary process in its own right. In essence, we could study behavioral development according to the same principles of variation and selection by consequences that were involved in genetic selection…

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Climate Change, and the Evolution of a Social Movement

I am excited to see the formation of the Social Evolution Forum. We are building a network of scientific disciplines around an evolutionary perspective, including an evolutionary approach to cultural evolution. It has the potential to bring science and practice together around the goal of evolving far more nurturing societies. We have people in economics, biology, psychology, sociology, psychiatry, and anthropology. In an earlier essay, I described how a large, wealthy, and sophisticated coalition of business interests has outcompeted the sectors of society concerned about human wellbeing and how the Evolution Institute and a host of other organizations have the…

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Why Sustainability Needs Prevention Science

Timothy Waring and Ethan Tremblay’s theoretical analysis of an evolutionary approach to sustainability science is useful for clarifying the contextual influences on sustainable practices.  In that regard, it may be helpful to connect this theoretical analysis to some specific problems of sustainability that must be addressed if catastrophic climate change is to be prevented.  The beauty of an evolutionary analysis is that it can pinpoint malleable contextual variables that affect the behaviors of individuals and the actions of groups or organizations (Biglan & Hayes, 2016).  This is not to say that one must pursue such an agenda—one can analyze contexts affecting…

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Choosing Goals for Intentional Cultural Evolution

I wholeheartedly endorse Peter Richerson’s call for scientists to become advocates.  As he suggests, the traditional image of the “objective” scientist, above the fray, was never accurate.  And we have come to a point in the evolution of societies where the human sciences must play a pivotal role.  I say this in the context of the growing evidence that climate change risks catastrophic outcomes for humans and thousands of other species 1. In our paper in Brain and Behavior Sciences, we argued that evolutionary theory provides a framework for intentionally influencing cultural evolution. In the spirit of this view, Dennis…

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Rejoinder to Gary Guttings Doubts about the Behavioral Sciences

Gary Gutting, Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame published an opinion piece this week on the New York Times Opinionater pages. In it, he asserts that “we need to develop a much better sense of the severely limited reliability of social scientific results” and that “Given the limited predictive success and the lack of consensus in social sciences, their conclusions can seldom be primary guides to setting policy. At best, they can supplement the general knowledge, practical experience, good sense and critical intelligence that we can only hope our political leaders will have.” Dr. Gutting is woefully uninformed about the effectiveness of…

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Materialism, Nurturance, and Global Warming

I have been writing a lot about the fact that behavioral scientists have made a great deal of progress on how to prevent virtually all of the most common and costly problems of human behavior, including depression, crime, and academic failure. In essence, we have figured out how to help families, schools, and to some extent communities, become less coercive and more nurturing. More loving societies are realistically within our grasp. But the progress is threatened by global warming.  Here are the predicted consequences of a 1 degree Celsius increase in global temperatures, as enumerated by the National Academy of Sciences.…

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Strategies for Reducing Family Poverty

Lane County has begun an unprecedented effort to address the problem of poverty. Public and private organizations are coming together and putting in place efforts to improve the economic self-sufficiency of Lane County’s citizens and to see to it that children living in poverty get the evidence-based programs that will help them develop the skills needed to escape from poverty. Poverty is a big problem.  The U.S. has the highest rate of child poverty of any economically developed nation. More than 20 percent of those under 18 are living in poverty. Older people have much lower rates.  Here in Lane County we…

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