Monday, 5 February 2007


Is a rock more capable of feeling hungry than a sentient robot? Would you rather harm the Mona Lisa than Lucas Dobson, a heroin addict desperately searching for his next fix? These are the sorts of far-reaching questions that have allowed Harvard psychologists to research the way we (Internet users with too much time on our hands) perceive the minds of others. Even you can take the test here. Prove that your mother was wrong when she said that you'd never amount to anything.
Over 2000 Internet users answered the call to waste some time participating in this test. The results were that humans perceive the minds and morals of their fellow man along two dimensions: agency and experience. Experience is defined as the ability to feel emotions; agency is defined as the ability to exercise judgement and self-control. This is ground-breaking and fascinating because, according to the press release, there has always been a tradition which views the minds of humans along a single dimensional continuum. Never before have psychologists realised that we are capable of perceiving, say, something with experience but no agency (a newborn?) or with agency but no experience (the idea of God?). It would seem we have a lot to thank this team for.
It may not have been clear to people who lack the razor sharp intuitions of the psychologists behind this research that I was being sarcastic. I was. The research, or at least the presentation of same in this press release, is utterly facile and probably - I'm being generous here- a complete waste of the talents involved. The most galling part is that the press release is worded as if they had invented the wheel or discovered a cure for cancer. The only statement of any note in it is the fact that some people think an unborn foetus has experience and some don't. I want to end this on a high note, so let's all put our hands together for the Harvard team having conducted an electoral issue public opinion poll. It's been a good day for science.

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