Hola from Puebla

November 6, 2009 • 9:21 pm

Greetings from Puebla! The meetings here are stimulating but exhausting; I went to the venue at 7:30 this morning and didn’t return until 8:30 p.m., and even so I missed the fireworks display (!). It is all very luxurious for us speakers, with chauffered limos, fancy hotel rooms, private minders to show us around, our own backstage dressing rooms (get that!), and fancy pyrotechnic digital introductions with LOUD rock music. What with all this hoopla, walking on stage makes you feel like a rock star (the audience is about 1200). I’m told that this technological hoopla resembles what happens during a TED conference.

The talks are, in the main, excellent, although a bit short at 20 minutes each! Highlights for me today were Frans de Waal on primate morality (he also showed some new footage of work on elephants, using the “marked forehead” design to show that pachyderms can recognize themselves as individuals); Jamie Whyte, a British philosopher whom I didn’t know, but who gave a fantastic talk on why we must not refrain from criticizing beliefs (including religion); Julian Baggini, author of the Oxford Very Short Introduction to Atheism; Randy Cohen (the New York Times ethicist); and Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist who conducted the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, who also talked about his work on Abu Ghraib (he was an expert witness for one of the defendants). Marc Hauser also gave a good talk (similar to the one he gave at Chicago) about the universality of how people solve moral dilemmas, regardless of their gender, upbringing, or faith (or lack thereof). Hauser’s work really does make a good case that morality is something innate in humans: perhaps from shared evolution, but certainly not from faith.

Curiously, both Cohen, from his decade of writing The Ethicist, and Zimbardo, from his psychological experiments, arrived at the same conclusion: there are no such things as people with inherently good or bad characters: environmental circumstances can make good-intentioned people behave badly. As Zimbardo said, “There are no bad apples, just bad barrels.” Do have a look at Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment webpage: that work, done in the ’70s, is still a sine qua non in psychology texts as it raised disturbing questions about how nice people can become evil very quickly.

I was not completely convinced by this extreme environmentalism. For one thing, it’s an easy way to exculpate people who commit antisocial or criminal acts; for another, there do seem to be some people who are of inherently good character and prone to do heroic things in circumstances where others are apathetic. On the other hand, I keep thinking of Daniel Goldhagen’s book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which showed how everyday Germans, most of whom we’d consider nice, well-meaning people, became avid supporters of the Holocaust.

Robert Wright also spoke, but mostly about his theory of how increasing non-zero-sum interactions are making society better. Thankfully, he didn’t bang on about the evolution of God.

The big draw of the conference is, of course, Sunday’s debate between Schmuley Boteach, Christopher Hitchens, Dinesh D’Souza, and Sam Harris. I’m told that Wright will also participate. Unfortunately, I’ll probably have to leave before the debate, for many of us are flying out on Sunday.

The good thing about meetings this eclectic is that they make you think. You encounter new ideas and topics far removed from your everyday fare, and it’s good to get shaken out of one’s normal milieu to see what’s going on in other spheres. People whom I’ve never met (but whom I’ve admired), like de Waal, Cohen, and Zimbardo, were truly nice guys who were glad to discuss their work with me.

There’s another spate of talks tomorrow, mostly by people I don’t know, but that makes them even more intriguing.

And I’m eating well. Photos forthcoming, but let’s just say the conference organizers are putting on the culinary dog as well. I’m told that they flew two chefs over from Europe just to cook for us. Yesterday my minders took me to a swell local restaurant to sample local specialities, including mole poblano.


Update: xoxox to the travelling Otter.

17 thoughts on “Hola from Puebla

  1. Jerry:
    This is very difficult for me to put in a few words, in public space, but I must try.
    Why Evolution Is True gathers paleontological evidence showing why Evolution must be true. Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, on the other hand, is not on the same plane and should not be mentioned in this context. It certainly does not explain why “everyday Germans, most of whom we’d consider nice, well-meaning people, became avid supporters of the Holocaust”; it does not even show how.
    Zimbardo’s experiment has the merit of asking pertinent questions. Goldhagen’s book fails even at that.
    A few lines on a blog forum would not suffice to demonstrate where Goldhagen fails. Not even another single book would suffice. This task would encompass entire libraries of historical and sociological research. Fortunately, if that’s the word in this sombre context, such libraries exist: the product of sixty years of patient, painstaking, humble scholarship. What Goldhagen succeeds in showing is what damage a young academic with an axe to grind and a huge chip on his shoulder can wreak in the public perception of his subject.

    Finally, I must disclose a personal, lifelong, burning interest in the matter. My background is similar to Goldhagen’s, I am, too, the son of a Holocaust survivor. Additionally, I had the “privilege” of spending my entire childhood in a totalitarian Communist dictatorship. This has taught me invaluable lessons in pathological social behavior: I have learnt what people become capable of (and was lucky to survive).

    More than anything, I have learnt that we are not even close to a truly scientific statement of the questions, let alone the answers. Simplistic formulas like Goldhagen’s “eliminationist anti-Semitism” are just slogans. We have serious work to do. One of the main tasks would be to bring a little scientific methodology, scientific rigor, and the insights of relevant scientific disciplines, to this particular field.

    1. Regarding WWII Germans, there were resisters. I have heard, in the context of the war crimes trials, that following orders was not accepted as a defense because there were soldiers who objected to concentration camp duties; they were not shot but reassigned. There also people like Schindler and his list who did what they could to oppose the system without being so overt as to get punished. What might better be said is that rigorous environmental manipulation such as practiced by the Nazis may overcome a basically good nature, but mot that such a nature does not exist.

    2. Of course one piece of historical study is never enough to answer such a large question. No historian would say their work is the final word on why people participated in the Holocaust. This is how the profession works. A historian will uncover new lines of evidence and methodology and ask important questions. This is in turn will encourage new avenues of research for which other scholars will contribute. And hopefully other professions such as psychologists, sociologists and evolutionary psychologists will join in. Just like all social sciences and science in general, peer-review and critcism help drive us to a more coherent understanding. Thus regardless of its faults, Goldhagen’s work should not be entirely dismissed. I recommend looking into other books that try to answer the same question.

  2. I am not a fan of Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist who conducted the famous Stanford Prison Experiment. That study was terrific but I have read his book “The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life” co-authored with John Boyd and found it to be the worst book I had read out of the last 100 non-fiction books. I found it to be unscientific mumbo-jumbo where the authors confuse causal and correlation effects. I also saw a TED talk that Zimbardo gave and was unimpressed.

    On the positive side, I have recently read de Waal and his work appears to show an interesting side of primate (and other organisms) morality origins and I have several of his books on my to-be-read list.

  3. The thought of your carbon footprint makes me break out in a cold sweat.

    Personal limos? Flown in chèfs? (Instead of showing what the locals are capable of!)

    I don’t know what the point of the event is, but I’m inclined to think that I disapprove.

  4. Jerry, you are swimming in great intellectual waters. I’m jealous. My small brain would be exploding trying to absorb what’s on offer at these conferences.

    I’m very glad to see science and science-informed views taking a leading role in these “big idea” and public affair events.

  5. Jerry,

    About Zimbardo’s situationist explanation of why people do bad things, you say “I was not completely convinced by this extreme environmentalism. For one thing, it’s an easy way to exculpate people who commit antisocial or criminal acts; for another, there do seem to be some people who are of inherently good character and prone to do heroic things in circumstances where others are apathetic.”

    I agree that there are dispositional (characterological) as well as environmental (situational) factors that determine behavior, but whatever the balance is between them, a full causal explanation is not exculpating. Even if Zimbardo is right that there are no inherently bad apples, only bad barrels, we still have to hold individuals accountable as a means to deter wrongful acts such as the torture at Abu Ghraib. What Zimbardo’s analysis does, crucially, is to broaden the scope of accountability to include not just individuals and their traits, but the systemic, policy and institutional factors that bring out the worst in human nature. Understanding how those factors cause individuals to act badly gives us that much more potential power to prevent wrong-doing, so it’s important not to let a narrow, dispositionist and perhaps even contra-causal conception of culpability block our appreciation of such factors.

  6. Actually, Wright’s arguments for the cultural evolution of God (the concept) are well documented and correct, in my opinion. That is, the meat of his book is decent enough.

    Where he goes off the rails is the afterword, where he argues for a teleological process for this evolution. And the whole faitheist / accommodationist spiel. I would love to know if can stomach Harris and Hitchens or he throws his lot in with D’Souza. I’d pay to see that.

    1. You won’t have to pay; the whole debate was filmed and should be available on the web. I’ll keep you all updated.

  7. In regards to your comments on the Holocaust. I recommend Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men. He shows that there are always those who are eager killers, and dissenters who will not murder no matter what. This implies that there are inherently good and inherently bad people. However these two groups constitute only 25%, while the other 75% who were ‘Ordinary Germans’ became brutal killers. Browning cites contextual forces such as conformity to the group, ideological indoctrination, routinization of the task etc. as means to allowing ordinary people to kill. The book is not without its controversy but its a fascinating work and worth the read. It raised some serious ethical questions and in the end he implies that it could easily have been me and you. An unconfortable conclusion, but an important question to look at.

  8. Hi Jerry, I was at AAI ’09 and I enjoyed your talk. If I hear in advance about this kind of event being held in Mexico, I’d be liable to make the trip. I look forward to seeing the vids posted online.

    The “Stanford Prison Experiment webpage” link is dead for me.

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