Thom Scott-Phillips’ blog

Evolution, mind & culture in the popular press.

The design of institutions & the design of the mind

What is the public sphere and how should it be organised? The question is ancient but it has been given new life and urgency by the internet and, in particular, the rise of social media, which (supposedly) provides everybody with a potential public platform unhindered by traditional, ‘elite’ gatekeepers. Yet, according to a recent paper by Kai Speikermann, Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics, the opposite may be true. That is, social media in its present form might actually undermine the functions of the public sphere. “A well-working public sphere allows citizens to learn that there are genuine disagreements among citizens that are held in good faith. Social media makes it harder to gain this insight, opening the door for populist ideology” (2020, p.50, italics added). If Speikermann is right about this, it might help to explain the widespread feeling that polarisation is growing despite the supposed openness and freedom of expression provided by digital technology.

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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

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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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A précis of ‘Speaking Our Minds’

Communication and language have always been key topics for research at the interface of cognition and culture. Rightly so, given the central role that linguistic communication plays in human social

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