Shannon Spaulding: “How We Understand Others”

Mindreading is the ability to understand a person’s behavior in terms of the psychological states that caused that behavior. Spaulding argues that mindreading is central to our ability to understand and interact with others but that most contemporary views of mindreading vastly underrepresent the diversity and complexity of mindreading. She articulates a new theory of mindreading that takes into account cutting edge philosophical and empirical research on in-group/out-group dynamics, social biases, and how our goals and the situational context influence how we interpret others’ behavior. Spaulding’s resulting theory of mindreading provides a more accurate, comprehensive, and perhaps pessimistic view of our abilities to understand others, with important epistemological and ethical implications. Deciding who is trustworthy, knowledgeable, and competent are epistemically and ethically fraught judgments: her new theory of mindreading sheds light on how these judgments are made and the conditions under which they are unreliable.

Elizabeth A. Phelps: “Race and the brain: Insights from the neural systems of emotion and decisions”

Elizabeth A. Phelps
Pershing Square Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, Harvard University

November 6, 2018

Investigations of the neural systems mediating the processing of social groups defined by race, specifically Black and White race groups in American participants, reveals significant overlap with brain mechanisms involved in emotion. This talk will provide an overview of research on the neuroscience or race and emotion, focusing on implicit race attitudes. Implicit race attitudes are expressed without conscious effort and control, and contrast with explicit, conscious attitudes. In spite of sharp decline in the expression of explicit, negative attitudes towards outgroup race members over the last half century, negative implicit attitudes persist, even in the face of strong egalitarian goals and beliefs. Early research demonstrated that implicit, but not explicit, negative attitudes towards outgroup race members correlate with blood oxygenation level dependent (BOLD) signal in the amygdala – a region implicated in threat representations, as well as emotion’s influence on cognition. Building on this initial finding, we demonstrate how learning and decisions may be modulated by implicit race attitudes and involve neural systems mediating emotion, learning and choice. Finally, we draw on recent research on emotion regulation to suggest potential means to diminish the unintentional expression of negative, implicit race attitudes.

Kristen Andrews: “Normative Cognition in Great Apes”

Kristin Andrews
York Research Chair in Animal Minds and Associate Professor of Philosophy, York University

October 16, 2018

Recent research challenges the idea that adult humans are the only normative actors; from various perspectives norms are being identified in children (Hamlin et al. 2007) and great apes (Krupenye and Hare 2018; Vincent et al. 2018; von Rohr 2012, 2015). While some argue that nonhumans countenance specific human norms (e.g. Bekoff and Pierce 2009; Brosnan and deWaal 2012; Rowlands 2012), others disagree (Kitcher 2011; Korsgaard 2006; Tomasello 2016). To move beyond this impasse, I offer another approach to examining the question of moral cognition in the great apes by examining the cognitive capacities required for normative thinking. Inspired by Bicchieri 2017’s account of social norms, I present an account of animal social norms and show that there are four cognitive capacities involved in normative thinking that are early developing in humans: identification of agents; sensitivity to in-group/out-group differences, social learning of group traditions, and the conscious awareness of appropriateness. Drawing on primate and infant research, I show that these capacities of naïve normativity are part of typical human social cognitive practices, they are necessary for moral cognition on any approach to ethics, they are seen in great apes, and hence they are likely an ancient human cognitive endowment.

Jody David Armour: “Unconscious Bias: The Social Construction of Black Criminals”

Jody David Armour
Roy P. Crocker Professor of Law, University of Southern California

October 9, 2018

How do we reconcile our constitutional, political, and moral commitment to the “rule of law” with the reality of unconscious anti-black bias in police officers, prosecutors, judges, jurors, prison guards, parole boards, and probation officers? This talk will explore how social perceptions of wrongdoers—especially their race, gender, and class—determine how decision makers view their moral culpability and just desserts. Social perceivers do not make moral judgments of others on the basis of abstract principles or categorical imperatives but rather on the basis of factors within the perceivers themselves, factors such as empathy and attribution. Because of outgroup empathy bias and race-based attribution error, social perceivers like judges, jurors, and prosecutors make harsher moral judgments of black wrongdoers than of similarly situated white ones. These harsher moral judgments of black wrongdoers mean that legal decision makers will more readily find that black defendants meet the criminal law’s requirement of moral blameworthiness or “mens rea.”  In a word, black criminals are not merely found or discovered in the “fact-finding” process of a criminal trial, they are socially constructed through the biased mental processes of legal decision makers.

Siva Vaidhyanathan: “Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy”

Siva Vaidhyanathan
Robertson Professor of Modern Media Studies and Director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia

September 17, 2018

“Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy”

In Antisocial Media, Siva Vaidhyanathan explains how Facebook devolved from an innocent social site hacked together by Harvard students into a force that, while it may make personal life just a little more pleasurable, makes democracy a lot more challenging. It’s an account of the hubris of good intentions, a missionary spirit, and an ideology that sees computer code as the universal solvent for all human problems. And it’s an indictment of how “social media” has fostered the deterioration of democratic culture around the world, from facilitating Russian meddling in support of Trump’s election to the exploitation of the platform by murderous authoritarians in Burma and the Philippines.

Matthew Denith: Investigating Conspiracy Theories

Lecture: “Investigating Conspiracy Theories: The case for treating conspiracy theories seriously, even the (apparently) ridiculous ones”

The term ‘conspiracy theory’ gets a bad rap in public discourse. Recent academic work – particularly in History, Philosophy and Sociology – has convincingly argued that conspiracy theories do not deserve their bad reputation; conspiracies don’t just happen but many pejoratively-labelled ‘conspiracy theories’ have turned out to be warranted. But what would it be like to treat such theories seriously enough to engage in a systemic investigation of them? How do we sort good theories from bad? What counts as evidence for or against a conspiracy? Just who would investigate such theories? Drawing together a swath of recent academic work on these things we call ‘conspiracy theories’ I argue that we ought to treat conspiracy theories seriously and investigate them, even if that means sometimes we have to ponder whether alien shape-shifting reptiles run our governments.

Speaker: Matthew Dentith is  author of Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories, Co-host and producer of the Podcaster’s Guide to the Conspiracy Podcast. Dentith has published numerous papers in such venues as Social Epistemology, Episteme, Skeptic,and The Fortean Times.


Jack Bratich: “If Everyone is a Conspiracy Theorist, is Anyone?”

Jack Bratich, Associate Professor of Journalism & Media Studies, School of Communication & Media
Rutgers University

“If Everyone is a Conspiracy Theorist, is Anyone? Trumpism, Mutually Assured Disqualification, and Communications Warfare”

Jack Bratich is author of Conspiracy Panics: Political Rationality and Popular Culture, as well as co-editor of Foucault, Cultural Studies, and Governmentality, (with Cameron McCarthy and Jeremy Packer, 2003). He takes a critical approach to the intersection of popular culture and political culture and studies media culture as an intersection of power, knowledge, and subjectivity.


John L. Jackson, Jr: “What’s Love Got to Do With It?”

John L. Jackson, Jr.
Richard Perry University Professor, Dean, School of Social Policy & Practice
University of Pennsylvania

“What’s Love Got to Do with It?: Race, Conspiracy Theories, and Contemporary Hip-Hop Culture”

Dr. Jackson’s research examines racial and class-based differences in contemporary urban environments, including a focus on how urbanites themselves theorize and deploy those differences in everyday interactions. He is author of several books, including Impolite Conversations: On Race, Class, Sex, Religion, and Politics (co-written with Cora Daniels, 2014), and Thin Description: Ethnography and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, 2013. He has also been involved—as producer, director, etc.—in the creation of several films, including Bad Friday: Rastafari After Coral Gardens (2010) and African-Americans and the Bible.

John L. Jackson, Jr. is Dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice and the Richard Perry University Professor of Communication, Africana Studies, and Anthropology.

Joseph Uscinksi: “Conspiracy Theories are for Losers”

Joseph Uscinski
Associate Professor of Political Science
University of Miami

“Conspiracy Theories are for Losers”

Americans have believed in conspiracy theories since before the United States united. A ceaseless array of conspiracy accusations have demonized witches, Freemasons, foreigners, red coats, black helicopters, Mormons, Muslims, Jews, fifth columns, the government, and more recently, Vladimir Putin. The common assumption is that conspiracy theories are nothing more than the delusions of paranoid minds trying to make sense of an ever more complicated world. However, the evidence tells a different story. In this talk, Professor Uscinski will show that conspiracy theories follow a strategic logic: they are tools used by the powerless to attack and defend against the powerful. Conspiracy theories must conform to this logic, or they will not be successful. In this way, conspiracy theories are for losers.

Joseph Uscinski is associate professor of political science at University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida and co-author of American Conspiracy Theories (Oxford, 2014).

Lee Basham: “Governing by Crisis: How Toxic Truths Subvert Mainstream Investigation”

Lee Basham
Professor of Philosophy, South Texas College

“Governing by Crisis: How Toxic Truths Subvert Mainstream Investigation”

We live in an information hierarchy where a few control what most believe about important events and the causes of these. The basic institutions of this hierarchy are mainstream media and national law enforcement. Conspiracy theorists often accuse both of covering up extreme government crimes and deceptions; a shadow government controls what they tell us and more importantly, what they don’t. The typical response to this allegation is that these institutions are in the business of reliably revealing political conspiracies, not covering them up. Unfortunately, our best justifications for this hope fail. Worse, cover-up does not require descending control of information by high-placed conspirators. Instead, the problem is built into the foundation forces of our information hierarchy. Some conspiratorial scenarios are too toxic for our institutions of public information to investigate, let alone disseminate. Cover-up by our information hierarchy through intentional neglect of investigation, not descending control by a shadow government, becomes predictable. The danger this poses is extreme.

Lee Basham is a professor of philosophy at South Texas College and the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley. He is author of a number of professional articles and book chapters on issues surrounding contemporary conspiracy theories.