Thursday, February 18, 2021

Raising the voting age?

I’ve recently been discussing the voting age with my 2nd/3rd year democratic theory students. Our time this year was mostly focused on whether to lower the voting age (for instance, to 16) or whether we might implement some form of test, as well as or instead of relying on an age threshold.

I didn’t really discuss whether the voting age should be raised, though of course many of the arguments against lowering it can also be used to advocate raising it. There’s no reason to think that we have the right balance at present. However, I just stumbled across this provocative 2017 post by Robert Ringer, which advocates raising the voting age to at least 25, preferably 30. I wish I’d seen it earlier, as it might have made for a good discussion prompt.

Interestingly, Ringer titles his post ‘Putting an End to Child Voting’ but that’s a rather misleading characterisation of his aim. He refers, in the first paragraph, to “18 year old children” but it’s not clear whether he thinks of 24 year olds (and even 29 year olds) as ‘children’. Maybe so, but – of course – they’re legally adults, so what he proposes is in fact to deny voting rights to some adults.

Though he concedes that some people are mature at 18, while others are not even at 40, the main support for his thesis is an article on the teen brain – seemingly this one – reporting that teenagers are more emotional and less rational than adults.

It’s somewhat surprising that he accepts this at face value, given that he later disparages colleges for misinforming many young people about history and economics. Maybe he thinks psychology is more objective, despite the well-known ‘replicability crisis’.

In any case, even if we accept these findings – that people’s brains tend to be more emotional and less ‘rational’ up until around age 25 – it doesn’t follow that this is reason to disenfranchise anyone.

First of all, this would be to derive a normative conclusion (a view about what we ought to do) from empirical facts (descriptions of what is the case). As Hume pointed out, it is difficult to see where the normativity comes from in such supposed inferences. It seems that one must rely on an implicit (normative) premise that people ought to be excluded from the franchise if they are not rational.

This brings us to a second question, as to whether ‘rational’ thought trumps emotional reasoning. That’s too large an issue for me to explore here, but feminist scholars such as Carol Gilligan and Genevieve Lloyd have criticised the conflation of rationality with maleness and pointed out that emotional thinking may be a good thing, at least in some cases. As I say, this is not something I can do justice to here, as it’s beyond my expertise anyway, but it’s certainly not obvious that ‘rational’ thought is better than ‘emotional’ thought, or even that there’s a clear binary here to begin with.

Third, even if we do think that voters should be rational, it may be better to test for rationality directly, rather than relying on age as a proxy for the development of rational thought. While this would be an argument for eradicating age thresholds altogether, rather than a defence of the status quo, it does suggest that Ringer’s proposal of raising the threshold is simply the wrong response to the alleged problem of irrational voters.

Finally, if we were to accept Ringer’s claim that ‘children’ of 24 are not sufficiently rational or responsible to be trusted with the vote, this might have wider implications. Perhaps, for instance, they ought not to be held criminally responsible for their actions either? And, given that ‘no taxation without representation’ was a founding principle of American independence, maybe they shouldn’t be expected to pay taxes until they’re old enough to vote. (I suspect that Ringer isn’t particularly keen on government taxation anyway, but I don’t know whether he’d favour an exemption for ‘children’ while having to pay himself…)

As I said, this would have made a good discussion prompt…

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Nudging people to use bins

I noticed these new litter bins near me the other week, though I didn't have my camera at the time (and it was dark anyway). I wanted a photo because they're a good example of a non-paternalistic nudge. Presumably, this message has been found to reduce littering by shaming those who would otherwise drop their rubbish on the ground.

I don't actually know how effective these are. I would have hoped that, if people were close enough to a bin, they would use it anyway. That is, I assume most littering happens because there is not a bin handy, so a message on the bin is not a lot of help.


Perhaps that's naive of me. There certainly is plenty of litter in this area, suggesting that people won't go far in order to use a bin. Maybe this message will reinforce an anti-littering norm. It still seems odd that the new 'nudge bin' is sited next to an older bin though. Spreading bins around might have done more to reduce littering.

Edit to add: I just noticed that this seems to be post 1,500 on this blog. A fitting subject for this milestone, since most of them have probably been talking rubbish...

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

In praise of predatory publishing

I mentioned recently that I'd been thinking about publishing advice for postgraduate students. Following on from that, I thought it worth drawing attention to this provocative paper from Keith Burgess-Jackson*, in which he advocates publishing in so-called 'predatory' journals, rather than so-caled 'reputable' ones. This, he suggests, means that he can say what he wants - with less need to pander to editors or reviewers - and reach a larger audience.

I think there's some interesting food for thought here. I like the line about audiences: "Writers want to be read.... A writer without an audience is a diarist" (p. 2). I might use that one, when talking about the motives to publish.

However, I'm rather surprised to read that he has "never received a useful comment from a reviewer--in nearly four decades of publishing" (p. 7). To be sure, there are plenty of unhelpful reviewer comments. I wouldn't necessarily say that they were stupid, but more that reviewers sometimes fail to distinguish between an objection to a view and a reason to reject publication, or want you to write the paper that they would have written, or whatever.


Everyone with enough experience also has bad experiences to share. But even the 'bad' reviews can have evidential value, for instance showing ways in which the argument is open to misinterpretation. And I've definitely had helpful, constructive reviews that have improved my work, even where rejecting it. If someone hasn't had that experience, it seems to me that they've either been incredibly unlucky or just they've failed to appreciate comments that are actually (or would have been) useful.

I won't be recommending this paper or its approach to our PGR students. Even if there's something to be said for this advice, it doesn't seem suited to PhD students aspiring to an academic career after graduation. Rightly or wrongly, the 'prestige' of where they publish matters, more so than the number of downloads. And, in any case, I suspect that these reputable journals are more likely to be read by fellow researchers rather than, say, students desperately searching for anything on their assigned essay topic.

*Interestingly, I don't seem able to find a webpage for him, even though he appears to be a tenured associate professor.

Sunday, January 24, 2021


 We don't get snow too often down here, unlike when I lived in Scotland, so this was a rare photo opportunity.

This picture was taken about 9:45am. Already now (3pm) the snow is almost all gone.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Publishing Advice for PhD Students: A Preliminary Review

 I don’t follow the philosophy blogosphere that closely any more. Many of the blogs that I used to follow are now dead or almost so. Some well-established sites, like Crooked Timber and Leiter Reports, still seem to be going, but I rarely visit.


Still, this recent piece of advice for graduate students caught my eye. Apparently it caused a bit of a stir on social media, but I didn’t hear about that until afterwards. I see why some of the advice is controversial, but there’s no denying that the author has published a lot for a PhD student, so the advice clearly works – at least for him.


This was interesting to me, not only because I can certainly still learn from advice myself, but also because I’m scheduled to give some advice to our own PhD students later this semester. I don’t know exactly what I’ll cover/say just yet. If I write up something, then I may share it here. In the meantime though, I have been exploring some other advice, to see what’s already out there. This post is essentially my own literature review and notes.


Daily Nous have previous history here, having also featured this guest post from Jason Brennan, in which he advises writing for 20 hours a week (four hours per working day). No doubt this is why he is also very prolific, with 20 books published or forthcoming. To be clear though, he isn’t recommending being a workaholic; he suggests that most people spend too long on other tasks, such as email or preparation for teaching, when they could instead by writing.


Michael Huemer shares this advice on publishing, which takes a blunt and at times jaded/cynical tone. Maybe the comments on longwindedness and the randomness of peer review are probably slightly exaggerated, but it strikes me as realistic on many points. For instance, once you’ve published a bit, “Many people will vaguely know who you are but not actually have read anything of yours”. That sounds about right. There are plenty of people whose work I know of, but don’t have time to read it unless (i) I need to cite it in my own work, (ii) I need to teach it, or (iii) I’m asked to review it (usually anonymously). And, even though he’s often critical of academic publishing, there’s some good advice here, particularly I think on citations.


While Huemer is probably right that referees can be bad in various ways and for various reasons, and sometimes the best response is simply to send the paper off again and hope for a different outcome, it should be noted that even ‘bad’ reports (by which I do not simply mean critical ones, but ones that misread the paper) can be helpful.


Lewis Powell has a recent post focused on highlighting the evidential value of bad referee reports. It may well be that a referee is not an ideal reader. They may be careless or inattentive. However, they are actual readers. If a referee managed to misunderstand something, then it shows that another reader might also misunderstand that point. As he puts it, the aim should not simply be to make it so that a careful reader can get your point, but so that even a careless reader cannot miss your point.


Finally, for now, John Danaher has a pair of posts on writing and publishing articles, again focused on philosophy but probably somewhat applicable elsewhere. One thing I liked about the former is his observation that people are more likely to share successes than failures (apart perhaps from occasional griping at unreasonable referee reports).


Regarding his actual writing process, he suggests detailed planning (4-10 sides of A4) then writing 1,000-2,000 words per day, usually in a couple of hours in the morning. Unlike Hendricks and Brennan, above, he doesn’t say that this has to be two hours every day – only when actually working on a paper.


He says he’s more likely to submit to a journal before seeking comments from friends or colleagues. That may work for him, though it’s probably not good advice for inexperienced authors (and, of course, it produces more refereeing work for journals). It seems he, at least, has had some genuinely constructive referee reports – his piece on writing quotes one that says his paper is wrong, but nonetheless a useful contribution – though he also mentions going through the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) after rejections. Preparing for failure comes up in both pieces.


Having looked at some of what’s already out there, I don’t know whether I’ll have anything particularly ‘new’ to add. As I said, if I do find time to write up my own thoughts, then I’ll probably share them here (likely in March).

Monday, January 18, 2021

We found a "Paley's watch"

 While on one of our regular lockdown walks in the woods, we stumbled upon this arrangement of leaves, sticks, and stones:

It's a shame that I don't teach philosophy of religion any more, because this would be a useful example to illustrate teleological (or 'design') arguments - the classic example is William Paley's watch. While we don't know who made this, or why, we immediately assume purposive design, rather than natural chance.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

New Blog Title

 I officially 'announced' a change of emphasis on the blog last month. Of course, there's never been much of a formal content policy, so I'll continue to post a variety of things that interest me, as I always have done. And this is likely to evolve over time, as it always has done.

Nonetheless, I decided that it was about time that I changed the blog's title. I never really gave much thought to the old one, when I started. I called it 'Praesidium' (Latin for guardian) in reference to an old school newspaper that I was once involved in (the 'Grammar Guardian'). However, this has never really been a 'news' blog.

I only recently discovered that you could change the title of a blog, having never really bothered to look into this. But now I've got round to it, this blog is now simply 'Ben's Bits and Blogs' which seems to better reflect its content (as well as involving some alliteration and a bit of a pun).

The URL, of course, remains unchanged so if anyone has ever linked here the link should not be affected.