Saturday, February 27, 2021


We've had a few sunny days here of late so, while it's still been cold overnight, it's starting to look like spring. Today, we had lunch out in the garden for the first time this year, accompanied by this robin singing.


 It's not the best photo, since it's looking up at him and he's a bit further away than ideal, but it's the best that I could manage. After lunch, I spent a bit of time re-potting some lettuces that I started three weeks ago. I hope these will give us a salad harvest later in the summer, so long as they don't get eaten by slugs first.

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.