April, 2014

Let’s heed the canary

Professor Rob MacKenzie


IMAGE: Smog in the city (www.istockphotos.com)

Day three of southeast-England-in-the-murk, and still a pool of smoggy gloom catches your throat and wipes out the middle distance. This little week of blogs, with which I had hoped to engage with the large-scale and chronic challenges highlighted by the University of Birmingham’s Saving Humans theme, has — in the event — mutated into reflections on a local and acute threat to health and well-being. Such a change of focus may actually be for the better; perhaps through learning what pollution ‘feels like’ the debate about how to ameliorate the pollution that surrounds us every day can be reignited.

My suspicion is that there is a window of opportunity in public engagement with issues that are difficult to perceive directly most of the time. If nothing brings air pollution to our attention — really, tangibly to our attention — then we have to rely on expert opinion and ‘white-coat fatigue’ can set in. If we have to struggle through a pea-soup of pollution each and every day then it becomes easy to regard it as unavoidable and irremediable. But, in communities in which public engagement counts, sudden and perceptible reductions in quality of life can cause a commotion and galvanise governments into action.

Having issued the smog alerts and kept the message simple, scientific commentators are now beginning to fill-in some details. The analyses may, in the end, change our diagnosis of the event quite radically, reducing the role of Saharan dust and increasing the role of chemical production of particles in air travelling to us from Europe. A more complete diagnosis will enable policy-makers to consider options to minimise the risk of a repeat of these conditions in the future. Controlling local pollution would improve our chronic exposure to pollution and provide a little more ‘head room’ within which natural particle loadings and long-range transport of pollution can vary, but car bans and the like are unlikely to be a useful measure in the middle of episodes. International action to limit emission of the gases that react in the atmosphere to form particles looks to be necessary. Certainly we should not accept that there is nothing we can do simply because the particles did not, in the main, originate from within our borders.

International environmental regulation has enabled us to avoid catastrophic damage to the ozone layer and has outlawed many environmentally persistent poisons. Where, as in these instances, technological ‘fixes’ to industrial processes reduce the emission of pollutants, the chances of binding international agreement seem relatively high. Unfortunately, for smog, improving engine efficiency and fitting stack and tailpipe filters only gets us so far; human behaviour can subvert our best efforts. To go the next step towards clean air requires joined-up ‘systems thinking’ that, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change advocated this week, seeks win-win-win solutions, recognises that there will be unintended consequences, and privileges a love of life over incomplete measures of cost and benefit.

Professor Rob MacKenzie is Director, Birmingham Institute of Forest Research and Professor of Atmospheric Science, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham.

April, 2014

The three-legged race to sustainability

Professor Rob MacKenzie


Image: Dawn Smog (istockphoto.com)

The old adage says if you want to give God a laugh, tell her your plans. I had the best of intentions of putting all the cares of everyday academic life to one side for a day in order to enjoy the Trees, People & Built Environment conference, here at University of Birmingham. Then, late on Tuesday night, news began to filter through that weather patterns had conspired to produce a situation in which local air pollution, regional-scale pollution from north and central Europe, and Saharan dust were all contributing to an air pollution episode. So, instead of musing deeply on urban sustainability and our innate connection to “nature”, I spent the day saying what amounted to the content of the third sentence of this blog. Well, truth be told, I did manage to smuggle in a few sneaky references to what I think is really the “big picture” when we are confronted by one of these environmental episodes, be it flood, or heat wave, or smog: these are symptoms of a systems failure, and the system (or system-of-system) that is failing is UK land management.


Image: Green City (istockphoto.com)

We can apply sticking plasters to a particular transport bottleneck, or a particular river, and relieve the problem for a while, only for it — or something quite different but subtly related — to pop up somewhere else. But perhaps there is another approach. I am feeling fired-up enough by Tuesday’s seminar on the biophilic city to venture an outlandishly ambitious vision: to reconfigure our relationship with “Nature” and with the City so that we break apart the old-fashioned dichotomy of town and country. Breaking these boundaries would usher-in a new view of human life: shared with every other form of life that can help us turn a linear highway to hell into a circular pattern of birth, death, regrowth. We have the visionaries to show us some of the way and we should not be scared to add to the canon of those ideas, so long as we recognise that ideas only work when in harness with strategy and serendipity. We are in a three-legged race to sustainability and, as I eventually learnt as a child, that can be an exhilarating race once you learn how not to fall over.

Professor Rob MacKenzie is Director, Birmingham Institute of Forest Research and Professor of Atmospheric Science, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham.

April, 2014

Trees of life

Professor Rob MacKenzie

Welcome to a week of the Saving Humans blog focused predominantly on how the plant life with which we share the planet is saving, and can do even more to save, us. First and foremost amongst the plant life-savers are the plant crops we’ve domesticated and changed beyond all recognition for efficient production of food. This week, however, the focus will be more on trees: wild woodland and forest landscapes; trees in agricultural landscapes; parks and gardens; and trees in streets. The blogs coincide with the launch of the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research (BIFoR), an event to launch Birmingham as the UK’s first biophilic city, and the Trees, People & Built Environment conference of the Institute of Chartered Foresters.

The role and importance of the world’s woodlands and forests is hard to overstate: they prevent soil erosion, help in maintaining the water cycle, check global warming by using carbon dioxide in photosynthesis, provide recreational facilities, provide economic benefits, and are home to more than half of all species. Yet despite this the UK still has only 13% of its area given over to forest and the world’s forests are subject to continuing threats from emerging disease pandemics and from environmental change.

In response to these challenges, The University of Birmingham and the UK-based JABBS Foundation have invested £20million to establish the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research (BIFOR) that will address two fundamental and interrelated challenges: the impact of climate and environmental change on woodlands; and, the resilience of trees to invasive pests and diseases.

The Institute, which has secured initial funding for  ten years, will consist of refurbished laboratories and growth facilities on-campus, along with a large-scale, ground-breaking ‘free-air carbon dioxide enrichment’ (FACE) field facility that will enable globally leading scientists to take measurements from deep within the soil to above the tree canopy. The forest-FACE facility will be one of only two currently working worldwide (the other is in Australia) and one of only two that have ever attempted the experiment on a mature, mixed, semi-natural woodland.


The Free-Air Carbon Dioxide Enrichment experiment at the Hawkesbury Institute of the environment, University of Western Sydney. Photograph courtesy Prof David Ellsworth.

The Free-Air Carbon Dioxide Enrichment experiment at the Hawkesbury Institute of the environment, University of Western Sydney. Photograph courtesy Prof David Ellsworth.

Autonomous sensors and instrumented trees will allow our scientists to take measurements continuously and remotely, over timescales ranging from seconds to decades. The facility will enable our ecologists, plant biologists, and environmental scientists to raise the concentration of CO2 in a specified area in an otherwise natural environment. By measuring the trees’ response, we will elucidate environmental risk and help developed and developing societies innovate to prepare, adapt and prosper to a future that is already set in-train by our current use of fossil fuels.

Yesterday saw the release of the Summary for Policymakers of the Working Group II contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — that is the non-technical summary of the part of the “IPCC report”, as it is known by scientists the world over, dealing with impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. The summary IPCC report weighing-up the evidence for man-made climate change was published in September 2013; the current part of the report is much about how we will feel climate change in almost every part of the Earth and in almost every part of society. The 44 pages of densely argued and comprehensively referenced text summarise many ways in which forests are under threat from climate change, each with the IPCC’s assessment of how confident they are in their statements:

“Carbon stored in the terrestrial biosphere (e.g., in peatlands, permafrost, and forests) is susceptible to loss to the atmosphere as a result of climate change, deforestation, and ecosystem degradation (high confidence). Increased tree mortality and associated forest dieback is projected to occur in many regions over the 21st century, due to increased temperatures and drought (medium confidence). Forest dieback poses risks for carbon storage, biodiversity, wood production, water quality, amenity, and economic activity.”

Thankfully, the report also points to the many ways — e.g. agroforestry projects and reforestation of coastal mangrove swamps in Asia — in which forests can be part of a solution or, at least, an accommodation to our changing environment. This upbeat identification of opportunities to change things for the better is the perfect introduction to this week’s series of blogs, so I leave the last word to the IPCC:

“Significant co-benefits, synergies, and tradeoffs exist between mitigation and adaptation and among different adaptation responses; interactions occur both within and across regions (very high confidence). …Examples of actions with co-benefits include …(ii) reduced energy and water consumption in urban areas through greening cities and recycling water; (iii) sustainable agriculture and forestry; and (iv) protection of ecosystems for carbon storage and other ecosystem services. (IPCC, WG2 SPM, p24)”.

Professor Rob MacKenzie is Director, Birmingham Institute of Forest Research and Professor of Atmospheric Science, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham.

March, 2014

The vital role of trees: from atmospheric chemistry to architecture

Dr James Levine

As an atmospheric chemist, I am interested in the influence that trees have on the quality of air we breathe and the climate we either enjoy or ‘weather’, depending on where we live.  First off, there’s the appealing synergy between people and trees: as we breathe in oxygen and breathe out CO2, trees draw down CO2 from the atmosphere and top up our oxygen supply.  If we have an immediate need for oxygen, we have a long-term need for a habitable climate, and trees again play a vital role.  In drawing down, or sequestering CO2, they reduce the burden of this greenhouse gas (GHG) that is at the forefront of our minds as we consider the climate our children, and children’s children, will inherit.  But trees have a further, much more subtle means of influencing both air quality and climate.



The atmosphere is predominantly cleansed of gases harmful to human health, and some potent GHGs (e.g. methane), by a perhaps surprising simple chemical species, the OH radical (just an oxygen atom joined to a hydrogen atom).  Trees emit gases, so called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), that influence the abundance of OH radicals globally.  As part of Prof Rob MacKenzie’s group here at the University of Birmingham, I am involved in the Cooperative LBA Atmospheric Regional Experiment exploring the influence that the Amazon rainforest has in this regard; this is a collaboration with the University of Sao Paulo (Brazil), the University of Lancaster and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.  Of course, whilst trees affect the climate, the climate also affects trees; changes in climate also ‘feedback’ on the chemistry stemming from the VOCs trees emit.  Under Rob’s direction, the new Birmingham Institute for Forest Research will explore some of these feedbacks.  In particular, it is tasked with exploring the impact of climate change on UK woodland, both directly via changes in physical conditions (e.g. air temperature and humidity), and indirectly via changes in the incidence of, and resilience to, pests and disease.

I now have a confession to make: I lead a bit of a double life.  Atmospheric chemist by day, I’m an architecture student by night.  Trees and timber have important parts to play in architecture too, including one pertinent to reducing anthropogenic CO2 emissions.  Construction of the built environment, and the energy used to maintain a comfortable environment within it, account for around half the UK’s (and global) CO2 emissions.  If sustainably and locally sourced, timber embodies very little energy, or CO2 emissions; the CO2 locked up in the timber and ultimately released to the atmosphere (upon decay at the end of a building’s life), may be drawn down from the atmosphere by a tree grown in its place.  Timber construction is also readily compatible with approaches to radically reducing the ‘operational energy demands’ of maintaining a comfortable environment, reliant on high levels of insulation and air-tightness.  Built to the Passivhaus standard, for example, a house in the UK may require no more heating, year-round, than the warmth its occupants alone provide.  And it doesn’t stop there.

The use of trees and timber in architecture has a part to play in improving our quality of life and providing uplifting, life-affirming spaces.  Be it the oxygen they ‘breathe out’, the microclimates they yield, or the sense of well-being they inspire, research suggests trees benefit people living and working in their vicinity.  In schools, for example, they appear to increase children’s concentration and ability to learn.  The architect, Louis Kahn (1960), envisaged that “Schools began with a man under a tree who did not know he was a teacher discussing his realization with a few who did not know they were students.”  I wonder what role he imagined the tree played.  Did it simply provide shelter or did it also help cultivate a sense of security, that commodity which is recognised as key to learning?  We only have to look at David Nash’s Ash Dome  to see the potential the boughs of a tree have to offer both shelter and that peculiar sense of ‘rootedness’ a connection to the outdoors inspires.  For an exploration of the many and varied qualities we associate with trees and timber, Roger Deakin’s Wildwood – A Journey Through Trees makes a visceral and evocative read.

So what has motivated this brief reflection on the role of trees in relation to my dual interests in atmospheric chemistry and architecture?  It is the Trees, People and the Built Environment II conference, taking place in Birmingham this week.  Trees clearly have a vital role, be it at present or with a view to the future, and I look forward to learning in the next few days about many more, perhaps equally diverse, facets to this.

Kahn, L. I. (1960). Form and Design (1960). In R. Twombly (Ed.), Kahn (pp. 62-74). New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

Dr James Levine is a Research Fellow at the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham.

March, 2014

Starting a Conversation about Imperfect Cognitions. Lisa Bortolotti


This week, Ema and I have been writing about some of the issues we are working on as part of the Epistemic Innocence project.

One of the goals of the project is to start a conversation about imperfect cognitions, among academics from different backgrounds, and involving also the general public. In this spirit, Ema and I created and are still developing a network of researchers (psychologists, philosophers, psychiatrists) interested in discussing the potential pragmatic and epistemic benefits of inaccurate beliefs and memories. The result is a lively blog, called Imperfect Cognitions, where people regularly post news about their research, submit relevant conference announcements and reports, and present new books in the field. We hope to further expand the network in the near future, and we are very proud that so far it includes researchers at different stages of their academic career, from graduate students to professors, and from different geographical areas.

Our first project-related event was a public engagement activity which Kengo Miyazono organised during the Arts & Science Festival at the University of Birmingham. On 17th March, we invited Dr Matthew Broome (Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford) to talk to a general audience about his experience of the relationship between psychiatric diagnosis and responsibility for criminal action. He described an interesting case of a man attacking his neighbour as a result of suffering from delusions and hallucinations, and kicked off a lively discussion. The presentation was followed by discussion groups on the Anders Breivik case in Norway and other high profile cases of people whose accountability for criminal action has been assessed on the basis of the nature of their psychiatric symptoms or diagnoses. Additional information about the event and some follow-up resources have been made available to participants on the event website.

Another initiative we have promoted is an online reading group in the philosophy of mind and psychology hosted by the Philosophy Department blog at the University of Birmingham. Currently, we are reading an exciting new book by Jakob Hohwy (philosopher and cognitive scientist at Monash University in Melbourne, and member of the Imperfect Cognitions network). The book is entitled The Predictive Mind (OUP, 2013) and explores and defends the theory that the brain is essentially a hypothesis-testing mechanism, attempting to minimise the error of its predictions about the sensory input it receives from the world.


And this is just the beginning… In October 2014, I shall start a new five-year project, funded by the European Research Council, and called PERFECT (Pragmatic and Epistemic Role of Factually Erroneous Cognitions and Thoughts), where the notion of epistemic innocence will be developed in collaboration with a team of postdoctoral researchers and PhD students. As part of PERFECT, I shall organise three academic workshops and three meetings with clinicians and service users, as well as a final two-day conference to explore all the implications of the notion of epistemic innocence for philosophy of mind and epistemology, psychological research into normal and abnormal cognition, and clinical interventions in mental health.

March, 2014

Saving Humans from Implicit Bias. Ema Sullivan-Bissett


This week Lisa and I have been writing about our research on the Epistemic Innocence Project. This is the fourth in a series of five posts. I will be briefly discussing implicit bias, why it is harmful, and why investigating the epistemic status of implicit bias might be important when we are thinking about how to tackle it.

By implicit bias I will follow Jules Holroyd in meaning something like the following:

An individual harbors an implicit bias against some stigmatized group (G), when she has automatic cognitive or affective associations between (her concept of) G and some negative property (P) or stereotypic trait (T), which are accessible and can be operative in influencing judgment and behaviour without the conscious awareness of the agent. (Holroyd 2012: 275)

Worryingly, empirical work has shown that such biases are held by ‘most people’, even those people who avow egalitarian positions, or are members of the targeted group (Steinpreis et al. 1999). You can discover your own implicit biases by taking the tests here (warning: results may be very disconcerting!)

Implicit biases can affect decisions and actions, often negatively. For example, it is well documented that a female CV is rated less well than a male CV (even when those CVs are otherwise identical) (Steinpreis et al. 1999), and that when asked whether they saw a hand tool or a gun, participants who previously saw a black face instead of a white face are more likely to respond that they saw a gun (Payne 2006). The implications of this should be obvious: implicit biases put stigmatized groups at a distinct disadvantage.

In our project, one of the things we are interested in is the epistemic status of beliefs based on implicit biases. I think that at least some of these beliefs are what we are calling epistemically innocent. A belief is epistemically innocent if it meets the following two conditions:

1. Epistemic Benefit: The belief delivers some significant epistemic benefit to an agent at a time (e.g., it contributes to the acquisition, retention or good use of true beliefs of importance to that agent).

2. No Relevant Alternatives. Alternative beliefs that would deliver the same epistemic benefit are unavailable to the agent at that time.

I suggest some reasons for thinking some beliefs based on implicit bias meet these conditions, in my post on our project blog.

Let’s assume that I’m right about the epistemic status of beliefs based on implicit bias; that they are at least sometimes epistemically innocent. Why does this matter? I am interested in the following question: if beliefs based on implicit bias are epistemically innocent, does this have implications for how we ought to tackle implicit biases? I think the answer to this question is yes, which is why it is really important to work out whether beliefs based on implicit bias are, as I suspect, epistemically innocent. If they are, we need to rid them of this status, we need to make it the case that beliefs based on implicit bias are not epistemically innocent, and we should do this by making alternative beliefs available (that is, we should stop beliefs based on implicit bias from meeting the No Relevant Alternatives condition).

We should seek to make people aware of their biases, and more ambitiously, make it the case that they do not have them in the first place. One way to do this is to expose people to counter-stereotypes, studies have shown that expose to counterstereotypical exemplars (women, black people) can reduce implicit bias or the manifestations thereof (Saul 2012: 259) (examples of counterstereotypes include the photo of Martin Luther King above, and Marie Curie below).


If beliefs based on implicit bias are epistemically innocent, such that alternative beliefs are not available, this suggests that we need to raise awareness of implicit bias, which might help us understand the phenomenon better and work towards controlling the influence it has over our beliefs, and present us with alternative epistemically more worthy, beliefs.

March, 2014

Distorted Memories and the Self. Lisa Bortolotti


A distorted memory is a report of a past event where the past event is misrepresented in some key respect, for instance incorrectly located in place or time. There is no awareness of the distortion and, thus, no intention to deceive. Consider the following case. A woman with Alzheimer’s disease has a vivid recollection of walking on the beach with her parents. She believes the trip occurred that very morning, when actually the trip occurred sixty years earlier, when she was a girl. Such a memory is inaccurate and engenders a number of false beliefs (e.g., that the woman’s parents are still alive, and that she is still young). Thus, it has obvious epistemic costs. However, in a context in which access to autobiographical memories is limited and declining, as in dementia, one such vivid recollection may help the woman connect with important aspects of her personal history in the absence of other reliable information. Her distorted memory may be instrumental to her retaining some important information about herself, despite the gaps and the inconsistencies.

The book Contented Dementia by Oliver James argues that it is possible to enhance wellbeing in people with Alzheimer’s disease by not challenging and often actively encouraging the person to revisit memories and form beliefs that can be partially inaccurate. For instance, the person with dementia may present herself as “the able gardener” or “the good bridge player”, remembering her past achievements and erroneously believing that the relevant skills have been preserved. The proposed method requires that the caregiver be supportive of the person’s distorted memories and delusional beliefs in order to minimize stress, increase wellbeing, and build a working interpersonal relationship that is likely to bring mutual contentment. But the method is predictably controversial. Even if it were successful in achieving its goal, that is, making the life of people with Alzheimer’s disease more pleasant, the concern is that the whole life of the person with dementia may end up following a carefully worded script, involving many repetitions and deceptions. Many feel uneasy about this, because they sense that there is a trade-off: the person with Alzheimer’s disease attains happiness at the expense of knowledge, and her life lacks authenticity.

This is a well-rehearsed problem in psychology: Ulric Neisser argued that memory plays a double function, aiming at the same time at veracity and utility. As he and many others after him have observed, these two aims can conflict. We can feel better about a past event by putting a positive spin on that event, but the ensuing memory may not represent reality faithfully. The point we want to make in the Epistemic Innocence project is that the trade-off view of the relationship between pragmatic and epistemic benefits of distorted memories may be too simplistic. What if distorted memories played an important role in the retention of true beliefs about the self? This line of thought does not amount to a vindication of any specific approach to dementia care. It does not necessarily follow from this that distorted memories should go unchallenged, or that caregivers should live in the often delusional world of the people with dementia. Rather, the suggestion is that we should reconsider the role of memory distortions in the overall cognitive economy of the clinical population and of the individual, and make sure that interventions and interpersonal regulation are informed by what we discover about the epistemic features of distorted memories.

If you want to know more about how the Epistemic Innocence project addresses the issue of distorted memories, you can read relevant posts on the Brains blog and the Imperfect Cognitions blog.


March, 2014

Saving Humans with Delusions. Ema Sullivan-Bissett

This is the second in a series of five posts Lisa and I are writing on our Epistemic Innocence Project.


In this post I will write about delusional beliefs, whether they might be epistemically innocent, and why this matters.

Here is where we have got to with what we mean by epistemic innocence. A cognition is epistemically innocent if it meets the following two conditions:

1. Epistemic Benefit: The cognition delivers some significant epistemic benefit to an agent at a time (e.g., it contributes to the acquisition, retention or good use of true beliefs of importance to that agent).

2. No Relevant Alternatives. Alternative cognitions that would deliver the same epistemic benefit are unavailable to the agent at that time.

The fifth addition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines delusions as ‘Fixed beliefs that are not amenable to change in light of conflicting evidence […]’ (DSM-V). Examples of delusion include: thought insertion (these thoughts are not my own), Capgras (my husband has been replaced by an imposter), Cotard (I am dead), Somatoparephrenia (this is not my arm but my mother’s), erotomania (George Clooney is in love with me), perceptual bicephaly disorder (I have two heads). One of our network members, Richard Dub, has designed some great icons representing common delusions, which can be viewed here.

Delusional beliefs have a bad reputation when it comes to their complying with epistemic standards. They are usually false, lacking in empirical support, and are inconsistent with the subjects’ other beliefs and behaviour. With respect to the first inconsistency, during one interview, a subject with delusions claimed that her husband was a patient in the hospital where she was a patient, and that her husband had died four years ago and was cremated (Breen et al. 2000). With respect to the second inconsistency, that between the delusional belief and the subject’s behaviour, subjects with the Capgras delusion—the delusion that their loved one has been replaced by an imposter—may worry that their loved one has disappeared, but they may also act in a cooperative way with the alleged imposter (see Lucchelli and Spinnler 2007). Delusional beliefs may also be unresponsive to counterevidence. It is part of the DSM-V definition of delusions that they are ‘not amenable to change in light of conflicting evidence’ (DSM-V).

In the project we are interested in whether or not delusional beliefs meet the conditions on epistemic innocence. I think that they do, and suggest some reasons for thinking so in my post on the project blog.

Determining whether delusional beliefs are epistemically innocent might have ramifications for treatment in the clinical domain. Clinical interventions may be justified by the claim that they enhance the wellbeing of the patient, but whether this is true may well depend in part on the epistemic status of delusional beliefs. For instance, Daniel Freeman and colleagues suggest that ‘[c]hallenging or evaluating delusional explanations should be done only in the context of an alternative explanation that the patient finds acceptable’ (Freeman et al 2004: 679). If the patient with a delusion does not have an alternative belief available to explain the experiences she is having (No Relevant Alternatives condition), and further, if the delusional belief bestows some epistemic benefit she would not otherwise have (Epistemic Benefit condition), challenging the delusion may not be good for her wellbeing. It is in this sense that reflecting on epistemic innocence may inform clinical decisions.

March, 2014

The Stigma Associated with Mental Illness. Lisa Bortolotti


In January 2014 in the UK a new parliamentary enquiry was launched into mental health equality. Mental health charities (Rethink Mental Illness and Mind) and the Royal College of Psychiatrists urged Parliament to investigate how the Government can give mental health equal priority to physical health and improve the quality of life of people living with mental illness. One issue affecting quality of life in general, and health services in particular, is the stigma associated with mental illness. What philosophers can do is to provide cogent arguments to undermine some of the widespread but inaccurate claims that contribute to the stigmatisation of people with mental illness, and inform both psychological research into psychiatric disorders and clinical interventions.

A commonly held view about mental illness is that those who suffer from it are different from the “normal” population in quite radical ways. It is controversial what the difference is. Those attracted to a strong medical model of mental illness tend to believe that people suffering from it are damaged and diseased, due to genetic predisposition or trauma and abuse. Those attracted to a forensic model of mental illness tend to believe that people suffering with mental illness are irrational, weak-willed and prone to other character failures. The radical difference view is that damage, weakness, or a combination of the two compromises the autonomous decision making of people with mental illness, and prevents them from making a valuable contribution to society.


In the Epistemic Innocence project (funded by an AHRC fellowship awarded to me in September 2013, and featuring Ema as a research fellow), we aim to dispel some of the myths surrounding mental illness by arguing that the cognitions featuring as symptoms of psychiatric disorders (delusional beliefs, distorted memories, confabulated narratives) are on a continuum with cognitions we all experience on an everyday basis. They are “imperfect” as they can be inaccurate, they are not well-supported by the available evidence, and they are often not shared by others. But they may also have benefits of a pragmatic and an epistemic nature. It is widely recognised that, say, an inflated conception of myself will increase my confidence and make me feel better about myself (thus having some pragmatic benefits). But if such a conception of myself is false, it will lead to further false beliefs and inaccurate predictions, and the idea that it might contribute to the acquisition and retention of true beliefs (and thus have epistemic benefits) sounds implausible.

In the next four posts this week Ema and I will attempt to make this idea more plausible by describing how some imperfect cognitions have epistemic benefits and gain a sort of epistemic innocence. Our argument will apply to the beliefs, memories and narratives that are symptoms of mental disorders such as schizophrenia and dementia, but also to everyday beliefs, memories and narratives in the non-clinical population. Distortions of reality are a common feature of human cognition, not the exception to the rule, and any theory of the mind or account of mental illness that does not acknowledge this idealises the capacities of human agents and fails to meet the criteria for psychological realism.

The themes of the Epistemic Innocence project will be further explored in a workshop hosted by the University of Birmingham. It is entitled “Costs and Benefits of Imperfect Cognitions”, and will be held on 8th and 9th May 2014. The workshop will promote exchange between philosophers and psychologists on the potential pragmatic and epistemic benefits and costs of beliefs, memories, implicit biases, and explanations. It is funded by an AHRC Fellowship awarded to myself. The Analysis Trust provided bursaries to the graduate students attending. There may still be some places are available should you be interested (just contact Ema by March 27th at the latest). Speakers include Katerina Fotopoulou (Senior Lecturer, Psychoanalysis Unit, Psychology and Language Sciences Division, University College London), Martin Conway (Professor and Head of the Department of Psychology, City University London), Ryan McKay (Senior Lecturer, Department of Psychology, Royal Holloway) and Maarten Boudry (Post-doctoral Researcher, Philosophy, University of Ghent), Miranda Fricker (Professor of Philosophy, University of Sheffield), Jules Holroyd (Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Nottingham), Petter Johansson and Lars Hall (members of the Choice Blindness Group, Philosophy and Cognitive Science, University of Lund).

Our plan for the week is as follows. Ema will talk about epistemic status of delusional beliefs on Tuesday (tomorrow), I shall address the potential benefits of distorted memories on Wednesday, and Ema will come back on Thursday to discuss beliefs based on implicit bias. On Friday, I shall tell you about what else we are doing to engage junior and senior researchers from different disciplinary backgrounds and the general public in the themes of the project.

March, 2014

Next week’s bloggers of the week. Ema Sullivan-Bissett and Lisa Bortolotti


Lisa Bortolotti (right hand avatar) is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Birmingham. Ema Sullivan-Bissett is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy at the University of York and Research Fellow in the Philosophy Department at the University of Birmingham. Lisa and Ema work in Philosophy of Mind and Epistemology, and are especially interested in beliefs and delusions. They are currently working on the Epistemic Innocence project, funded by an AHRC Fellowship awarded to Lisa last September. Next week they will be blogging about the project and its wider societal implications.


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