Thomas Nadelhoffer on Neuroscience, Philosophy, and Law

August 12, 2010

From The Project on Law & Mind Sciences at Harvard Law School (PLMS):

Below is a fascinating and enlightening 51-minute interview of Thomas Nadelhoffer by Harvard Law Student Brian Wood. The interview, titled “Developments in Neuroscience and their Implications for Criminal Law,” lasts just over 51 minutes. It was conducted the Law and Mind Science Seminar at Harvard.


Dr. Thomas Nadelhoffer was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned degrees in philosophy from The University of Georgia (BA), Georgia State University (MA), and Florida State University (PhD). Since 2006, he has been an assistant professor of philosopy and a member of the law and policy faculty at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He is currently at Duke University as a Visiting Scholar in the Kenan Institute for Ethics.

His main areas of research include moral psychology, the philosophy of action, free will, punishment theory, and neurolaw. He is particularly interested in research at the cross roads of philosophy and the sciences of the mind. His articles have appeared in journals such as Analysis, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Mind & Language, Neuroethics, and Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. He is the coordinator of the blogs Flickers of Freedom and the Law and Neuroscience Blog. He is also a contributing author to blogs such as The Situationist, The Leiter Reports, and Experimental Philosophy.

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Table of contents:

  • What have you been working on recently? 0:22
  • What are some areas of the legal system in which this science is relevant? 1:07
  • What are the problems with the traditional approaches to using science in the criminal system, and how are new scientific methods relevant to fixing them? 2:15
  • How could these newer scientific methods be employed? 4:09
  • What are the rationales society has traditionally cited as justifying criminal punishment? 6:55
  • Can you explain what Compatibalism is? 10:17
  • Aren’t there problems with notions of moral responsibility under Compatibalism? 12:26
  • How do neuroscience, Compatibalism, and determinism relate to our notions of law? 12:55
  • What do you see as the problems with the classic approaches to punishment? 15:25
  • Is there anything especially strange about Retributivism to you? 20:37
  • Can you detail what you believe to be the just reasons for punishment and how society can punish people more justly? 23:41
  • In your view, how would you punish psychopaths under the consequentialist rationale? 30:40
  • Can you give an example of the distinctions psychopaths cannot draw? 34:50
  • What’s the most interesting experiment you have conducted? 37:01
  • Do you think these participants just misunderstood what determinism is? 38:15
  • What qualities do you believe you and other researchers and philosophers need to be successful? 40:03
  • How has what you have learned through your research influenced the way you live you life? 41:35
  • How do you see the relationship of law and mind science developing in the future? 44:55

Week 1: Jost and Stat

January 31, 2010

Use of Statistical Data in Social Science

Jost dedicates a small section of his article to discuss psychological differences between liberals and conservatives.  His hypothesis is that there are significant differences of cognitive and motivational style between liberals and conservatives.  The nine variables he uses include fear of death/mortality salience, system instability/threat, dogmatism/ambiguity intolerance, openness to experience, uncertainty avoidance, needs for order/structure/closure, integrative complexity, fear of threat and loss, and self-esteem.  Jost claims that there is a “clear tendency for conservatives to score higher on measures of dogmatism, intolerance of ambiguity, need for order, structure, and closure and to be lower in openness to experience and integrative complexity than moderates and liberals.”  While Jost seems very adamant about his claims, I am not quite convinced.

                A main issue is that statistical significance does not necessarily reflect practical significance.  According to Jost, “all effect sizes are statistically reliable, p < .001.”  This means that there are statistically significant differences of the variables between the samples.  In the referred study, however, the highest effect size listed in Table 2.2 is .50.  According to Cohen’s guideline for t-Test, this size represents a medium effect at best.  In case of self-esteem, the effect size is -.09, and this number represents small effect.  These numbers represent that the significance of the differences among variables is not big in a practical sense.  Although it is quite common that effect sizes of many educational studies are in the small to medium range, the writer is obliged to carefully state the meanings of the numbers.  Jost, however, seems to be busy solidifying his claims. 

              Assuming that his study was carefully conducted, I agree that the results may convey some meaning.  I actually would have completely believed his claim if I had not seen the appendix.  In fact, Jost’s idea is complex enough that many readers may be too exhausted to scrutinize his claims before finishing a few pages.  But, at this point, I am afraid to say that I am skeptical about the validity and reliability of his study as well as his claim about psychological differences between two different types of people.  I really need to see the details of the studies mentioned in the article.

Blog Log #5

January 30, 2010

1. Choices Worth Having: “How people make decisions and how people should make decisions.”

This is a blog by Barry Schwartz, a “professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College.  He is the author of numerous journal articles, as well as books such as The Costs of Living, The Paradox of Choice, Learning and Memory, and The Battle for Human Nature.”  The approach here seems influenced by behavioral economics and psychology.  The content looks at irrational influences of decisions as well as perverse incentives of more rational decisions.  It updates weekly with substantial, interesting posts.

The author giving a talk on the paradox of choice:

Read the rest of this entry »

Blog Log #3

January 30, 2010

1. Contexts Discoveries, my favorite of this bunch, offers quick, easily-digestible summaries of recent sociological research. They appear in bite size bubbles on the homepage.  Three conclusions I found particularly interesting/random are:

“You might guess that women who play rugby would challenge gender stereotypes, but often their behavior ends up reinforcing gender inequality.”


“If a website mislabels an unpopular song as popular, listeners are more likely to say they like the song. However, there are some truly good songs that people like no matter how they are labeled.”


“What do conservative Christian men and Goths have in common? They’re both expanding the options for being masculine.”

2. Deception Blog

Deception Blog contains a collection of article summaries, news updates, and analyses that relate to current psychological research on deception.  Topics include studies of: voice analysis to detect deception, lie detector tests, witness credibility and the credibility of 911 callers, and lying in a non-native language.

3. Deliberations

Deliberations is a blog about juries and jury trials run by a trial lawyer and jury consultant, formerly of Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren, SC in Milwaukee.  The blog focuses on why juries perceive things the way they do, and how this affects their decisions, and looks at everything from academic studies to the outcomes of recent jury trials to illuminate this topic.

4. Developing Intelligence

Developing Intelligence is a blog by Chris Chatham, a second-year graduate student in Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  To be honest a lot of the content went over my head, but those who know a bit more about cognitive neuroscience may want to check it out.

5. Dr. X’s Free Associations

I’m not entirely clear what’s holding this one together—although I’m guessing by the title “free associations” that I probably shouldn’t be.  Most of the other blogs it links to are psych-related, and most of the substantive articles (i.e. those that aren’t old black and white pictures or videos of cats showing up bears) are as well.

6. Everyday Sociology

Everyday Sociology, my runner-up choice of this group of blogs, contains a variety of posts by sociologists on a range of commonly-discussed issues, such as politics, religion, race, inequality, and links these to pop culture and everyday life.  Recent posts discuss topics such as: colorism, the favoring of lighter-skinned Black Americans with respect to various forms of opportunities, such as employment opportunities; and, the theme of dominance as seen in two recent movies, Avatar and The Blind Side, in which a person from the dominant group “saves” the subordinate group.

Blog Log #2

January 30, 2010

[Part I. Blog Summaries]

1. 3 Quarks Daily    

     I have just learned that James Joyce was allegedly the first one who used the word “three quarks” in Finnegans Wake.  The creator of this site claims that they present interesting items in science, design, literature, current affairs, art, and other things on a daily basis.

2. Advances in the History of Psychology  

     This site has three main goals.  First one is to announce publications, conferences, and other events of the history of psychology.  They occasionally make comments and review important issues in the area.  The last goal is to publish reports on the site development.

3. Blackprof 

    The site is inaccessible as of Friday 1/29/10 at 9:38 pm.

    Still unavailable on Saturday 1/30/10 at 5:07 pm

4. Blind Taste 

     Blind Taste is created by Robin Goldstein, a Harvard graduate who earned a J.D. from Yale.  He is quite a prolific person who is into culinary.  He wrote The Wine Trials and Fearless Critic series. 

5. The British Psychological Society Research Digest  

     British psychologists’ blog

6. Brain Blogger 

     Assuming the postion of biopsychosocial perspective, this website that covers neuroscience, neurology, psychology, psychiatry, health, and health care.

7. Channel N  

     They claim that they are the largest and oldest mental health social network on the Internet.  Various mental health professionals offer mental health information.  A recent inquiry from a user includes “Panty Wearing Among Males.”

[Part II. A Review on BPS Research Digest Post]

 tDCS and Lying Skills

While it is very controversial, many researchers have considered some type of brain stimulation therapeutic.  Some researchers and medical doctors claim that ECT is an effective treatment for severe depression.  According to Dr. Alan Stone, lately approximately 40 patients a week receive Electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT, at McClean hospital.  This therapy, however, is aversive because it causes an artificial seizure on a person.  Moreover, memory loss is severe in some cases.

     As an alternative, Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation, or tDCS, has been introduced.  This is as a technique in which a subject receives small electric current on the scalp.  This technique has a potential to replace ECT as a depression treatment method.

     January 25th’s post on BPS Research Digest, however, features an interesting study by Ahmed Karim, who used tDCS to improve people’s ability to lie.  In this study, the subjects participated in a money stealing game.  The participants were told that they could keep the money if they successfully deceive the detective. 

     This study includes three experiments. The first experiment creates a virtual lesion that inhibit brain activities by giving the subjects a 13 minute long stimulation.  This experiment uses anodal stimulation.  The second experiment  gives the subject cathodal stimulation that excites brain activities.  The third experiment is similar to the first one except that the researchers used Stroop test.

     The important result discovered here is that the inhibition created by anodal stimulation enhances someone’s lying ability.  While someone could claim that human conscience is located at the prefrontal cortex, this is certainly a hasty conclusion.