Academics in Clown Suits

Imagine the reception an academic would get if he gave a talk in a clown suit.  Or if he sang instead of just speaking his words.  Or if his papers were written on colored paper, or in crayon.  No matter how well his work otherwise corresponded to academic norms, it would be hard to get other academics to take him seriously.   I remember when I first started writing on economics, I was scolded for formatting my papers in a two-column, single-spaced format.  While that format was common in computer science, to be taken seriously in economics a paper must be formatted as single-column, double-spaced.

Academics are well aware that these norms are relatively arbitrary, but usually assume that similar norms do not influence the content of their talks or papers.  But I strongly suspect that not only are some presentation formats considered too silly to be taken seriously, the same also applies to many topics.  That is, I suspect academics refuse to consider certain topics and theses because such things just seem silly.  Academics assume that silly-seeming topics must be unworthy of study, but this conclusion may not really be based on much analysis; it could be the same immediate unthinking reaction they would have to a prof in a clown suit.

I’m thinking of writing an oped on this subject, and so want to collect a list of candidate topics that seem unfairly ignored because they just seem silly.  Can you suggest topics for this list, and reasons why they should be considered more seriously?

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  • vanveen

    here’s one:

    do the seduction techniques peddled by reputed “pick-up artists” work? if they do, how well? i think the answers will be ‘yes’ and ‘astonishingly’, respectively. the serial process of attraction generation (approach and open, demonstrate value while concealing or even denying romantic interest, once female has shown interest force her to demonstrate non-physical qualities that are praiseworthy and attractive, and so forth) works and should be receiving some attention within the academic community (assuming they care about such things).

  • eric falkenstein

    Well, in contrast. Any idea, formatted in TeX, double spaced, that contains a vector autoregression, would receive serious consideration in the 1990’s. I’m not sure that’s true now that some journals are insisting on Times Roman as the required submission font. The main straightjacket in the profession is formatting, reference style, standard econometric or modeling set up, which must be 90% like prominent work in the field.

    But as to silliness, I think the opposite. Freakonomics has basically made everything game, because everything is traceable to incentives, thus economics, right? The only things dismissed out of hand are not ridiculous things, but rather taboo things, such as studies of race, religion and gender that have non-PC implications. Have you ever looked at the NLSY? It’s almost impossible to make dummies on gender and race become insignificant, but there’s pretty much silence on these issues.

  • Gary Becker’s dissertation on the economics of discrimination was considered silly when it first came out.

  • Jess Riedel

    To me, the biggest important-yet-ignored subject in academia concerns the effectiveness of charity (e.g. quantified in lives/dollar). I’m not sure this is because it seems silly per se, but it does seems to be dismissed out of hand.

    A related question: Is this a better subject for economists or dedicated groups like the Center for High Impact Philantropy at UPenn?

  • tim

    The technological singularity is considered silly by many academics, as evidenced by the commonly awarded epithet “Rapture of the Nerds” and other intimations of faith over science. I don’t think I need to explain here why it should be considered more seriously.

    vanveen, I think the primary reason seduction techniques are considered silly is because they are very simple truths shrouded in a fog of nonsense. It is obviously true that talking to more women will increase a man’s chances of finding a sexual partner. It is plain to see that a firm grip and steady eye contact make a better impression than a weak handshake and shifty eyes. The problem is that pick-up artists take these techniques (which are just basic observations of human interaction) and surround them with psychosexual terminology and tricks in order to sell books and DVDs to men who have already tried and failed to do the obvious. Frankly, I think they’re just selling false confidence; if you have the guts to try out your new seduction techniques, you’re actually just exhibiting more confidence, and that’s what women are attracted to.

  • Cryonics.

    The Shangri-La Diet – I can’t for the life of me think why this isn’t being studied; the original speaker seems sane, we’ve got testimonials from a number of sane people, it’s a huge problem, and a simple cheap solution – that seems to work amazingly well for many sane-sounding testifiers including econbloggers, although somehow it didn’t work for me. Why does it work for some people but not others?

  • Kevin

    “Imagine the reception an academic would get if he gave a talk in a clown suit”

    ….imagine if academics routinely dressed up in quite silly medieval clerical costumes (Cap & Gown) for graduation events — and insisted their students do the same ??

    What message does that graduation “clown” outfit send ?

  • Tim Tyler

    Some of ‘my’ pet downtrodden theories: panspermia, clay origin of life, digital physics, AAH, MaxEnt, simulism, the adapted universe, memetics, and most futurism.

  • *insert reference to Aubrey de Grey’s beard*

  • Martin

    Happiness research used to be considered frivolous.

    Also, I’m reminded of this:

    “If adults were subjected to the same indignities as children . . .


    Lobbyist: If you fail to pass this proposition, it will lead to the deaths of thousands. Any questions?

    Senator: Why are you wearing a sailor suit?

    Lobbyist: My children decided to dress me this way, on a whim. I told them it was an important day for me, but they wouldn’t listen.

    Senator: It’s adorable.

    Lobbyist: O.K. . . . but do you agree with the proposition? About the war?

    Senator: Put on the cap.”

  • Carl Shulman

    Sex research used to be sillier, but is becoming less so, possibly due to Viagra (if you can make billions of dollars from studying something, it tends not to stay silly). Here’s a study linking genetics and premature ejaculation:

    The genetics of ‘normal variation,’ e.g. earlobe attachment, eye color, etc, is of significant interest to people but is generally considered silly. This may be because of the influence of medicine over research on human genetics, but private companies like 23andme are exploring it.

    The empirical study of religious and supernatural claims, e.g. clinical trials testing prayer for health, is often considered silly, even when many millions believe in the claims and the cost of studies that could falsify the claims is low. Scientists believe that they already know the results that would stem from such research, so consider the effort to acquire evidence for the biased public silly.

  • tim, your analysis of vanveen’s question seems tailored to Robin’s point. There is frighteningly effective stuff going on in that field, borrowing from NLP, evolutionary psychology, and yes, simple unscientific studies of behavior. When you dismiss the whole field as “a fog of nonsense,” it sounds like you’re saying that the process that humans use to select a mate is simple enough to be wholly understood by anyone with common sense, and therefore unworthy of study.

    I think the field of self-help, i.e. those works that suggest concrete ways to make changes to one’s life/outlook/personality, etc., which includes the pickup artist field, is seen as the “silly” counterpart to the more “serious” study of psychoanalysis, which, in my experience, tends to be much less proscriptive. My guess would be that the lure of seeing the human brain as an unsolvable mystery, which can only be vaguely described, but never deeply scientifically understood, is very strong.

  • steven

    Geoengineering schemes, nuclear pulse propulsion, multiverse theories, molecular nanotech, transhuman intelligence, existential risks, anything else having to do with transhumanism and the singularity or with the long-term future of civilization in general.

  • The point that one can get in trouble for violating disciplinary norms is certainly correct. But those norms can be tweaked and fooled with sometimes. I agree with the point that after Freakonomics, pretty much anything is fair game now in economics, within some distant bounds, arguably the more weird the better if a proper link can be made. The point about formatting may be more to the point, however. Editors do discriminate against papers that look “odd” or worse, “out of date.”

    I suspect that one could get away with making a presentation in a clown suit, and I suspect it has been done. All a matter of the right framing.

    However, I do find the clothing norms in academic disciplines somewhat amusing, although in general they are a lot more relaxed than they used to be. Was a time when everybody wore suits and ties all the time (back when there were no women around, except as secretaries). Today, well, clown suits may be a bit much, but pretty sloppy clothing is fine in most places, indeed is preferred in some places.

    Thus, I have had the amusing experience more than once of hearing physicists mock economists over clothing. The de rigueur clothing among physicists (most of the time, anyway) is distinctly downscale, blue jeans with crummy shirts, and so on. I have heard this bragged about and cited as evidence of some superiority of physicists over the supposedly overdressing economists, although there are plenty of economists who do not wear suits and ties all time, indeed most, as near as I can tell.

    The first time I ran into this, amusingly enough, was at a standing room only session at the AEA on econophysics, with Doyne Farmer making this point, while his co-panelists were in suits. One was an economist, Blake LeBaron, and the other was the mathematician, Benoit Mandelbrot (who would be a much more deserving Nobel recipient this year than any of the clowns being posed by the prediction markets), whose suit was distinctly rumpled. However, it was my observation that Doyne’s casual clothes were distinctly upscale designer label, western wear, probably more expensive than at least Mandelbrot’s old rumpled suit.

  • Henrico Otto

    Turkish astronmers have that problem all the time. . . .

  • steven

    Also: utilitarian analysis of historical episodes or current controversies, with actual numbers and stuff. (Or maybe it just doesn’t interest anyone, I don’t know.)

  • haig

    I’m reminded of a story told by the recently past computer science professor Randy Pausch in his last lecture.

    He described taking leave of his academic position for a short time to pursue an opportunity of a lifetime and work for Disney imagineering designing some VR attractions. Being an academic, he got the group at imagineering to write a research paper on their work and submit it to SIGGRAPH. No one in the imagineering group had submitted to journals before, them being engineers who made stuff instead of writing about it, and they wanted to put an image on their title page (creative folk like visuals, and i don’t blame them). This simple addition to the standard paper format caused a stir and was ‘unprecedented’. Yes, a simple graphic on the title page was problematic for the reviewers of a graphics special interest group.

  • Will Pearson

    The potential for a decrease in easy to get resources to have a long lasting negative impact on economies. That is we won’t necessarily easily transition to another equivalent resource. This is obviously from an economists point of view rather than an oil engineers point of view.

  • tim

    Arthur, I’m not suggesting that studying seduction is silly, but that studying the techniques taught or endorsed by pick-up artists is considered silly because most of them are quacks. A quick Google search turns up a host of books and websites that are no different than penis enlargement ads or dating sites; get into her pants in five easy steps! Have her begging for more! How to get laid every single night! It seems every Casanova who’s read an article on NLP thinks he’s a seduction expert. Academics won’t study something seriously if it is not only wearing a clown suit but carrying a catalogue of used cars and perpetual motion machines.

    Now, it’s certainly worth studying NLP, evolutionary psychology, and behaviour, and studying how those may apply to successful dating and mating seems worthwhile enough. You’ll get more pseudo-science and psychobabble from a pick-up artist than useful experimental data, though.

  • I agree with Carl Shulman for the empirical study of religious and supernatural claims.

    A posteriori evaluation of predictions/opinions/recommendations for experts/politicians/etc.

    Anything related to laws.

    Some of those (none of the earliest…):

  • Being unaffiliated is silly. Try to publish a paper if you’re not working for either a university or a research institution. In some cases, you can’t even register on a journal’s website just to submit a paper if you’re unaffiliated.

    Have you ever seen a paper published with no affiliations? And yet most of the significant research done prior to the mid-19th century was done by wealthy men of leisure with no affiliations.

    Not having funding is silly. If you can’t say, “This work was funded by DARPA contract 09873-234-XN17”, you’re not to be taken seriously. You’re doing research that you weren’t paid for up-front? What kind of craziness is that?

  • Using ordinary, simple English is silly. If you did something, and you write, “We retrieved the data from Genbank” instead of “The data was taken from Genbank”, that’s silly.

    Describing your work completely, including mistakes that people might run into trying to replicate it, is silly. It would be undignified to write, “We had to randomize the list of proteins before culling it by percent identity, because the Pisces website culling program starts at the front of the list and culls left-to-right, which gives highly biased results if you don’t randomize,” even though no one will be able to reproduce your experiment without that information.

    Trying to publish a hyperlinked document in a web-only journal is still silly. A hyperlinked dissertation is also still silly AFAIK, allegedly because it doesn’t meet the U of Michigan dissertation archives format. (UMich archives all US dissertations.)

  • vanveen

    “but that studying the techniques taught or endorsed by pick-up artists is considered silly because most of them are quacks.”

    don’t mistake [effective] marketing techniques for quackery. the ‘good’ seduction ‘literature’ (The Venusian Arts Handbook) catalogues the heuristics females use to select mates. the rules (and there are very specific rules) of the game aren’t as obvious as you seem to imply. i’m not sure if you’ve been out and about recently, but almost all men are completely incapable of attracting women. “so, uh, what do you take in school?” or “youre really hot!”

    and fwiw, -all- of the basics of seduction come directly from informal experiments (“approaches”) on thousands of women. it isn’t theoretical hokum lifted from pop ev-psych books and NLP tapes. much of that stuff is just there to keep unmotivated ‘aspiring’ PUAs buying books and clicking links.

    i should quickly add that im not a PUA endorsing his favorite subculture. i happen to have a few friends who are and they bed women with an ease that would make you uncomfortable.

  • Toni

    Psychedelic drug use. You’re probably an acid head or some LSD hippie if you’re interested in that stuff.

    Yet many of the most fundamental questions regarding e.g. depression would probably be best understood by studying the effects of ecstasy, for instance (it’s effect is the exact opposite of most commonly used depression drugs).

  • vanveen

    “the empirical study of religious and supernatural claims.”

    the scientific method cannot falsify ‘supernatural’ or religious claims. miracles are, by definition, rare and unpredictable events within reality. it is very easy for a stalwart believer to write the ‘scientific evidence’ off as irrelevant by claiming that the conditions under which their favorite ‘miracle’ occurred are not replicable. this is a perfectly legitimate (though of limited persuasive merit to most academic types) reply, too.

    we should spend exactly zero dollars applying the scientific method to problems for which it is was not designed unless, of course, doing so would be especially amusing.

  • obviously a kook


    A good site on the subject by a high-achieving scientist:

  • “Turkish astronmers have that problem all the time.”

    So glad I’m not the only one who thought of that!

    I game is a phenomenal suggestion. Serious people study persuasion and decision making in all other forms. It’s perfectly legit, e.g., to study how juries think. It’s legit to study how buyers and sellers think. Why isn’t it legit to study how potential sexual partners think?

    How do people decide to have sex with each other? Does game persuade women to have sex with men? That seems interesting and entirely worthy of study.

    “tim” thinks that game unworthy of study because there are crank websites about game. Isn’t that argument fallacious? Sounds like guilt by association.

    Does “tim” really think we should reject an entire subject because there are a lot cranks out there?

    Should we stop studying astrophysics because of “The Tao of Physics”; or because there are a lot of people who reach write kooky things about atoms?

  • I didn’t think ecstasy was a psychedelic drug.

  • Anabolic androgenic steroids (AAS) – myths and health uses.

    Is “‘roid rage” a myth. (I think it is.) Can AAS be used for health purposes: to treat, e.g., depression?

    Why aren’t AAS studied more? What’s the bias?

    Is the anti-testosterone bias the product of an anti-male bias? In the media, there plenty of stories bout the dangers of testosterone. Why? Is testosterone really the case of so much harm? Is it, on balance, actually a positive?

  • There’s lots of research like this:

    “a sample of 737 male and female MBA graduates from the years between 1973 and 1982 was used to explore how facial attractiveness relates to starting and later salaries. Results indicated that more attractive men had higher starting salaries and they continued to earn more over time. For women, there was no effect of attractiveness for starting salaries, but more attractive women earned more later on in their jobs. By 1983, men were found to earn $2600 more on the average for each unit of attractiveness (on a 5-point scale) and women earned $2150 more.”

    But what about an average-looking employee? Knowing that an extra 2.6K is sitting out there per “attractiveness unit” each year seems to imply that there might be serious economic value in rhinoplasty or going blonde. If an average-looking employee dyes their hair, gets a spray tan & switches to blue-colored contacts, does their salary likewise increase?

    How much is rational to spend in looking cuter for work in expectation of that extra nut? And since the hot=$$$$$ effect doesn’t seem to kick in right away, when in one’s career should one do it?

  • Is “‘roid rage” a myth. (I think it is.) Can AAS be used for health purposes: to treat, e.g., depression?

    Why aren’t AAS studied more? What’s the bias?

    I wondered about that recently during a visit to my physical therapist. The room was filled with people who had had injuries and were trying to strengthen damaged or atrophied muscles. It seemed obvious that some anabolic steroids would greatly increase the efficacy of physical therapy.

    A brief literature search showed that there are some good theoretical reasons for thinking testosterone might be dangerous, typically involving an association between testosterone use and some biomarker, such as PSAs or blood pressure. They also have nasty side effects, like baldness, sweating, high blood pressure, and insomnia. But I haven’t found one single decent study that shows that people (or even rats) using non-oral testosterone have higher incidence of any disease, unless you count baldness.

    Also, in cases where doctors do adminster anabolics, they almost invariably administer testosterone, the natural anabolic, which has much stronger side-effects than the synthetic anabolics that were developed specifically to avoid the side-effects. (This may be because the FDA would have to approve the synthetics; I don’t know.)

  • Douglas Knight

    Arbitrary details like single-spacing seem to me very different from the issue of silly content or even silly format. Arbitrary details sound more like guild handshakes, tests for whether it’s OK to ignore someone. I guess a test of this is whether someone established could get away with two columns. If the established person is known for working on a certain topic, I expect people would read a single-spaced document. But if the established person moves into a silly area, that’s another matter.

  • Trevor

    Studying seduction also fails to improve the overall happiness of the world. It’s not like the discovery of some new seduction technique would mean that now every guy could have a smoking hot girlfriend. The total supply of women doesn’t change.

    On the other hand studies of relationship maintenance, the Mars-Venus sort of stuff, actually improves the sum total of human happiness. These are taken fairly seriously. Academics do care about doing things that make the world better and don’t just redistribute the happiness.

  • Benquo


    Is men’s well-being really the only thing at stake here? While the “total supply of women” (and I assume you mean thus the total supply of desirable women) may not change when more men learn seduction techniques, the total supply of desirable men increases. So women should be happy that more men are learning to play the game.

  • Medical treatments using bacteriophages have been dismissed and/or ignored in the U.S. and Western Europe mostly due to the bulk of the research being published in Russian. It is assumed that if research is important enough, it will be published in English.

  • Carl Shulman

    I suggest that Robin and Eliezer do a episode wearing clown suits.

  • Jack

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned extra terrestrial intelligence. The relevant sub-topic for me is causes and implications of the so-called “Great Silence” (the evident fact that Earth has not contacted E.T.s even while the Drake Equation would seem to predict a crowded sky), what does this mean for “Active SETI/ METI”, what the implications are for the survival of human race, biogenesis etc.

    Obviously experimental evidence isn’t abundant but scholarly work could probably incorporate biology, astronomy, physics, history (the rise of civilizations and encounters between advanced-primitive societies). Even if hypotheses aren’t immediately falsifiable the need to formulate some reasonable set of assumptions and protocols for dealing with Extra Terrestrial civilizations is important because otherwise we’ll be at a loss when we do make contact (even if contact is first make by radio signals and we had plenty of time to figure out a response we would still want an accepted method for organizing the response and would want to have hypotheses regarding the reaction of human populations to the news that we aren’t alone).

    Finally, legal scholarship on implications METI has on free speech. Ostensibly sending out powerful, concentrated radio signals should be covered by the first amendment but the potentially disastrous results of such signals suggest a need to restrict them.

  • komponisto

    I suggest that Robin and Eliezer do a episode wearing clown suits.

    Seriously, this is an excellent suggestion — clown suits or not!

  • Vladimir Golovin

    clay origin of life

    Tim (Tyler), if you mean the inorganic replicator theory of Graham Cairns-Smith, there was a news article recently about an attempt to test this theory. If I remember the article correctly, the mutation factor was found to be stronger than the heredity factor, resulting in a low-fidelity replication, as Dawkins would have called it.

    (But the theory is still fascinating to me anyway. I’m still going to read the book, just for the fun of it.)

  • bruce

    Eliezer: You might want to look into Arthur De Vany’s Evolutionary Fitness ( or Cordain’s Paleo Diet recommendations ( Both have similarities to low carb diets in that starches are eliminated (compare to Protein Power, for example), but the mentioned diets further eliminate grains and legumes and other preagricultural foods. As prescribed neither diet is really low carb–you’re supposed to eat plenty of vegetables and some fruit and nuts. Regardless of whether or not you agree with the evolutionary synthesis being pushed by people like De Vany and Cordain, there is little doubt that metabolic syndrome is caused by fast acting carbohydrate and the inevitable insulin resistance caused by it. Since big names interest you, Nassim Taleb follows De Vany’s diet. I’ve done very little to support either diet, but they speak for themselves. I hope making you aware of them is enough.

  • matt

    How to make the dating market more efficient

    I think the reason “the game” methods aren’t taken seriously is because it’s taboo to reduce ‘attracting a mate in the 21st century’ to mere behavioral patterns. People, and women especially, don’t like to think of themselves as pawns in the empty causal universe. Our knee jerk reaction to such proposals like the Mystery Method is to shrug it off and label it as “too simplistic.”

    And Tim,

    The Game doesn’t teach you confidence, it teaches you a plan of action.
    There are plenty of guys out there that are confident enough to approach girls, but keep failing.

    “Now, it’s certainly worth studying NLP, evolutionary psychology, and behaviour, and studying how those may apply to successful dating and mating seems worthwhile enough.”

    If you read The Game you’d realize that its methods are derived from NLP and evolutionary psychology.

  • Heath


    ampakines (modafinil, adrafinil)


    nutritional/supplementation strategies for neurotransmitter support (this stuff is taken seriously, but not in the context of enhancement beyond normal, healthy adults)

  • 1)Whether recreational runners should run barefoot instead of shod, for the avoidence of knee problems in middle age.

    2)Barefoot lifestyle to delay the onset of peripheral neuropathy in diabetes.

    The Society for Barefoot Living surely qualifies as silly (or very silly). Nevertheless, topics important enough for academic research do emerge.

    Exercise confers substantial health benefits on sedentary workers. Running is a popular form of exercise. The anecdotes are that many middle aged runners give up due to knee problems. This is presumed to lead to a decline in health due to failing to substitue other forms of exercise. The claim is that running barefoot invokes a different gait that puts lower shock loads on the knee joints, sufficient to avoid knee problems, continue with exercise, obtain long term health benefits. The topic seems straight forward to research. It looks cheap to research, with the possibility of health pay offs much larger than the cost of research. It looks undoable because it is so silly.

    The complications of diabetes include foot ulcers, sometimes leading to gangrene and amputation. We can work one or two steps backwards up the causal chain. Peripheral neuropathy precedes ulcers and allows minor injuries to pass unnoticed and become infected. Circulation seems somehow implicated as a cause of peripheral neuropathy. The anecdotes on the Society for Barefoot Living mailing list are that walking barefoot to go places, (shops, work, recreation) leads to large improvements in the circulation of the blood in the foot (in the normal population) and this is able to reverse the early stages of peripheral neuropathy in diabetics. This again looks to be cheap to research not least because diabetics need close monitoring anyway because of the substantial burden of long term morbidity resulting from foot ulcers. Yet the idea that diabetics should stop wearing shoes is too silly to be considered.

  • anki

    One big topic for me (which you would be insane to touch in an American publication) would be the meta-topic of what topics are taboo as a result of the normative assumptions about life and society that Christianity has bequeathed us? I would suggest, from just this thread, the study of: nootropics, psychedelic drug use (as well as any kind of drug use that gives pleasure [or even anything that give pleasure, period]), longevity, and the empirical study of religion.

    And to be clear, I don’t mean specifically that scientists avoid these topics and others because of fear from religious people or because they were raised with religion, etc., but that they avoid them because the normative Christian assumptions are ingrained to a lesser and greater extent in the minds of every single one of them, regardless of whether they’re religious or not.

  • Topic: which psychedelic drugs offer the best experiences for the least physical harm?

    The vast majority of non-medical drug discussion is merely “drugs are bad (or illegal)”. The second group is, “here are the harmful medical effects from this particular drug”. But nobody seems to rigorously investigate, if you wanted to choose a drug-based experience, which chemical or application style would be the best choice? Or even: can we manufacture new drugs, that have heightened psychedelic effects, while minimizing harmful side effects?

  • Tim Tyler

    Yes. I notice that Kahr’s experiment gets a third of the article on – totally out of proportion compared to its actual value. On my site, it only gets a one-line mention on the “links” page.

  • Or even: can we manufacture new drugs, that have heightened psychedelic effects, while minimizing harmful side effects?

    The psychedelic effects ARE harmful side effects. The price is acceptance of what you’re seeking to purchase.

    If you change the course of a river, the new ground it flows across begins to erode. You cannot cause the brain to malfunction without causing it harm, if only because the wiring of the brain is part of a feedback mechanism. Alter its functioning and you alter its structure. Trip on LSD, cause the activity of one subsystem to spill into another, and you’ve sensitized the connections between them, potentiated a new set of relationships. Divert the river and you carve a new course.

  • Z. M. Davis

    “Can you suggest topics for this list, and reasons why they should be considered more seriously?”

    Sorry to be so late, but I’d like to nominate self-directed education, or unschooling. As long as our institutions of social science are bound up with our schools, it’s probably going to be difficult to get good science about alternatives to schooling.

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