Thom Scott-Phillips’ blog

Evolution, mind & culture in the popular press.

A natural experiment of gradual & contingent cultural causation

A new study about some old news, with results that demonstrate the promiscuous and highly contingent nature of cultural causation.

In April 1989 Liverpool and Nottingham Forest were scheduled to play an FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough stadium, Sheffield (FA Cup semi-finals have always been scheduled at neutral venues). Shortly after kick-off it became apparent that there was severe overcrowding in one of the standing areas holding Liverpool supporters. The game was first paused and then abandoned, as the reality of the situation became apparent. The pen was overcrowded and there was a fatal crush of people, leaving 96 dead and 766 injured. It remains the worst disaster in British sporting history. Over the course of time it has emerged that the root cause was the decision by the police match commander, chief superintendent David Duckenfield, to order one of the large exit gates to be opened just before kick-off. This was an attempt to ease overcrowding outside the stadium, but it caused a rush of supporters into one relatively small area.

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Signalling signalhood as a means of protest

A few days ago Kazakh police detained a young man holding a poster in Abay Square in Oral, Western Kazakhstan. The poster, however, was blank, and Aslan Sagutdinov was later released without charged. Apparently the authorities could not agree what to charge him with. It’s like this old Soviet joke. A policeman approaches and detains a man handing out leaflets in Red Square. Looking at the leaflets he finds them blank. “Why are they blank?”, he asks. “Why write anything?”, says the man. “Everyone understands.”

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Open science, open society

In the latest issue of the Times Literary Supplement, David Runciman reviews ‘Rethinking the Open Society: New Adversaries and New Opportunities’ (paywall). The book is a collection of essays,

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How human are the dehumanised?

Developmental psychologist Paul Bloom recently published an article in The New Yorker about dehumanisation. He argued – drawing on research from many subfields in philosophy, psychology, anthropology and sociology – that the way we often think about things like slavery, genocide and misogyny is in some respects upside down. The problem isn’t that people sometimes see others as not human, it’s that they see others as very human indeed – with all that that entails.

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Reflections on the Speaking Our Minds book club

I can say without reservation or qualification that the Speaking Our Minds (SOM) book club was the single most challenging and rewarding intellectual experience of my career to date. Every day for

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