Apocalypse Now?

My grandmother from Devon was a fey country woman and superstitious as hell.  Broken mirrors were cause for hysteria at my house and salt was always being thrown over shoulders.  Dropping a glove was a disaster and singing Christmas carols in April, a sin – “Singing songs out of season brings sorrow without reason”.  Dreaming of a birth meant a death and boasting could bring cataclysm.

My grandmother’s late conversion to Catholicism added the tales of the Book of Revelation to an already bursting catalogue of superstition.  Many occasions and occurences were evidence of the coming apocalypse and the apocalypse, as explained to me, was not an event I wanted to be around for.  So it was with a great deal of apprehension that I noted snow in late April or cold weather in July:  “And the seasons shall be as one” – a sure sign that the end was near.

I don’t know if that’s in the book but my grandmother said it was and  repeated it as often as the weather was strange.  As I remember, that was often.

I think of my grandmother when I hear people saying that the force of Hurricane Katrina and the extreme heat of the past few summers mean that theories of global warming are right, as evidenced by the current weather report.  I’m as serious about pressing governments to take immediate action to stem global warming but I’m not convinced that these interpretations of daily weather provide evidence that the planet is getting warmer.  A problem with such arguments is that the opposite can just as easily be claimed when it snows in London, England.

I’m not the only one worried about these arguments.   David Adam at The Guardian has this report on the “apocalyptic” claims being made by some environmental scientists and advocates:

Experts at Britain’s top climate research centre have launched a blistering attack on scientific colleagues and journalists who exaggerate the effects of global warming.

The Met Office Hadley Centre, one of the most prestigious research facilities in the world, says recent “apocalyptic predictions” about Arctic ice melt and soaring temperatures are as bad as claims that global warming does not exist. Such statements, however well-intentioned, distort the science and could undermine efforts to tackle carbon emissions, it says.

In an article published on the Guardian website, Dr Vicky Pope, head of climate change advice at the Met Office, calls on scientists and journalists to stop misleading the public with “claim and counter-claim”.

She writes: “Having to rein in extraordinary claims that the latest extreme [event] is all due to climate change is at best hugely frustrating and at worse enormously distracting. Overplaying natural variations in the weather as climate change is just as much a distortion of science as underplaying them to claim that climate change has stopped or is not happening.”

She adds: “Both undermine the basic facts that the implications of climate change are profound and will be severe if greenhouse gas emissions are not cut drastically.”

Dr Peter Stott, a climate researcher at the Met Office, said a common misrepresentation was to take a few years data and extrapolate to what would happen if it continues. “You just can’t do that. You have to look at the long-term trend and then at the natural variability on top.” Dramatic predictions of accelerating temperature rise and sea ice decline, based on a few readings, could backfire when natural variability swings the other way and the trends seem to reverse, he says. “It just confuses people.”

Pope says there is little evidence to support claims that Arctic ice has reached a tipping point and could disappear within a decade or so, as some reports have suggested. Summer ice extent in the Arctic, formed by frozen sea water, has collapsed in recent years, with ice extent in September last year 34% lower than the average since satellite measurements began in 1979.

“The record-breaking losses in the past couple of years could easily be due to natural fluctuations in the weather, with summer ice increasing again over the next few years,” she says.

“It is easy for scientists to grab attention by linking climate change to the latest extreme weather event or apocalyptic prediction. But in doing so, the public perception of climate change can be distorted. The reality is that extreme events arise when natural variations in the weather and climate combine with long-term climate change.”

“This message is more difficult to get heard. Scientists and journalists need to find ways to help to make this clear without the wider audience switching off.”

The criticism reflects mounting concern at the Met Office that the global warming debate risks being hijacked by people on both sides who push their own agendas and interests. It comes ahead of a key year of political discussions on climate, which climax in December with high-level political negotiations in Copenhagen, when officials will try to hammer out a successor to the Kyoto protocol.

Psychiatry & Scientology

Bruce E. Levine at AlterNet:

Scientology and establishment psychiatry have something else in common. They are both orthodoxies that deal harshly with their ex-insiders who have come to reject them. Currently, psychiatry is the more prevailing orthodoxy, and, as George Orwell explained, the mainstream press does not challenge a prevailing orthodoxy. Orwell wrote, “At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. … Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.”

It is my experience that psychiatry, Scientology and fundamentalist religions are turnoffs for genuinely critical thinkers. Critical thinkers are not so desperate to adjust and be happy that they ignore adverse affects — be they physical, psychological, spiritual or societal. Critical thinkers listen to what others have to say while considering their motives, especially financial ones; and they discern how one’s motivation may distort one’s assumptions.

A critical thinker would certainly not merely accept without analysis Fromm’s and my conclusion that American society is insane in terms of healthy human development. Perhaps a society should not be labeled insane just because it is replete with schools that turn kids off to reading, for-profit prisons that need increasingly more inmates for economic growth, a mass media that is dishonest about threats to national security, trumped-up wars that so indebt a society that it cannot provide basic health care, a for-profit health care system that exploits illness rather than promoting health, et cetera.

The whole thing is here

The Question Is The Problem

From Greg Downey at Neuranthropology:

In this week’s The Times Magazine of The NY Times, Daniel Bergner has a piece on women’s sexuality and research that’s already in preprint causing a bit of controversy as well as a convulsion of 1950s era humor in the online response. The title, ‘What do women want?’, that nugget of Freudian wonder, no doubt will raise the readership, as will the pictures of models simulating states of arousal (Greg Mitchell is in a bit of snit about them in, Coming Attraction: Preview of ‘NYT Magazine’ With Semi-Shocking Sex Images on Sunday. ‘Semi-Shocking’? I can imagine how that goes… ‘Are you SHOCKED by these photos?’ ‘Well, I’m at least SEMI-shocked, yes!’).

In particular, Bergner gives us thumbnail portraits of women engaged in sex research: Meredith Chivers of Queens University (Kingston, Ontario), Lisa Diamond of the University of Utah, and Marta Meana from UNLV, although there’s also commentary from Julia Heiman, the Director of the Kinsey Institute, and others. As with so much of contemporary science writing, we get researchers as characters, with quirky personal descriptions and accounts of meeting the author, each one standing in for a particular perspective in current scientific debates.

Chivers is portrayed as arguing that women are existentially divided ‘between two truly separate, if inscrutably overlapping, systems, the physiological and the subjective,’ Diamond is made to stand in for the ‘female desire may be dictated… by intimacy, by emotional connection,’ and Meana stands in for the argument that women are narcissists desiring to submit. Whether or not these are accurate portrayals—and they might be—the model is prevalent in science writing: get characters to represent lines of thinking, even though many of us are not so clearly signed on with a single theoretical team. Here, we know the score: Diamond arguing women want intimacy, Meana that they want a real man to take them, and Chivers that women want it all, even if they don’t realize it and contradict themselves.

The irony is that, with such a tangle, the conclusion is foreordained: women will seem enigmatic, inconsistent, and irremediably opaque. As I’ll suggest in this, I think that the conclusion is built into the way the question is being asked. If a similar question were asked about nearly any group, in nearly any domain of complex human behaviour, and then a simple single answer were demanded, the questioner would face nearly identical frustration.


One can imagine an article with the title, ‘What do diners want?’, which bemoaned the fickleness and impenetrable complexity of culinary preferences: Sometimes they want steak, and sometimes just a salad. Sometimes they put extra salt on the meal, and sometimes they ask for ketchup. One orders fish, another chicken, another ham and eggs. One day a guy ordered tuna fish salad on rye, and the next, the same guy ordered a tandoori chicken wrap, hold the onions! My God, man, they’re insane! Who can ever come up with a unified theory of food preferences?! Food preferences are a giant forest, too complex for comprehension. What do diners want?!
You get my drift. The line of questioning is rhetorically time-tested (can we say clichéd even?) but objectively and empirically nonsensical …
Interesting post.  Read the rest here

UPDATE:  Check out Shorter NYT: Girl-parts are weird, girl-brains are weirder posted by Jill Filipovic at Yes Means Yes

The Brain and the Doppelgänger

From David Biro at the Literature, Arts and Medicine blog:

One of the most exciting, recent discoveries in science has been the mirror neuron. First isolated in monkeys and later found to exist in human beings, these neurons (and groups of neurons) are active not simply when we are moving and emoting but when we observe others moving and emoting. Our brains, as it were, re-enact or mirror the movements and emotions of other people as we watch them. Although scientists are still working out the implications of this extraordinary finding, it is almost certain that the brain’s mirroring system contributes to the profoundly social nature of human beings and may well be responsible for many of our greatest collective achievements: language, social institutions, and culture (4).

Many scientists also believe that neuronal mirroring can reflect in two directions, illuminating both the external world (of others) and the internal world (of self). By constantly observing and imitating others, we not only learn about them but about ourselves: How we see and think of ourselves; the meanings we ultimately give to our most intimate and “unsharable” experiences like pain; indeed the ongoing project of human creation in general as it works to fill the world with things that possess the capacity to reflect our humanity (5).

Thinkers like Sartre, Foucault and Lacan may have been exquisitely prescient. Mimesis may well turn out to be a prerequisite or stepping stone to self-knowledge. We observe, reproduce, impose patterns, and thereby understand. We can do this with objects that happen to cross our field of vision…  But we could also do this on a more sophisticated level. If a potential doppelganger doesn’t exist we can invent one … as many artists do in their poems and paintings. After finishing his masterwork, Flaubert is famously reported to have said of his creation: Emma Bovary, ces’t moi. The re-production leads to recognition. The same thing that painters do perhaps more self-consciously in their self-portraits and in the case of Frida Kahlo, her double self-portraits. Here the dictum of philosopher Nelson Goodman is most transparently realized: Comprehension and creation go on together (6).

Read the whole thing here

Bush Deception, Manipulation & Subterfuge

From the abstract of a paper by Stephen P. Gordon, John Smyth and Julie Diehl:
The breadth of deception and manipulation of science by the Bush Administration is quite amazing, cutting across policy on endangered species, climate change, reproductive health, stem cell research, dietary science, and environmental pollution. This is a story of  suppressing and tampering with scientific findings, intimidating scientists, manipulating the membership of scientific committees, and allowing representatives of industry and social conservative groups to write Administration policies or legislative proposals.
From the section of the paper on reproductive health:

Despite evidence that abstinence-only sex education programs do not decrease unwanted pregnancies and may actually increase them, the Bush Administration has insisted that abstinence only programs be the only ones supported by the federal government. The Administration forced scientists from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to attend daylong sessions on the ―science of abstinence, conducted by nonscientists and absent of any scientific evidence. The CDC was forced to remove information on five comprehensive sex education programs supported by scientific studies from its website (Rushing, 2004).
To obscure the fact there is no scientific evidence indicating abstinence-only programs work in reducing unwanted pregnancy, the Administration measures the effectiveness of abstinence programs by tracking only participants‘ attendance and attitudes rather than the birth rate of female participants (UCS, 2004a).
The Bush Administration removed information on the effectiveness and proper use of condoms in preventing sexually transmitted diseases from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) website, and replaced it with a ―fact sheet that emphasized condom failure rates and the effectiveness of abstinence. Also removed was discussion of scientific evidence that sex education does not lead to increased sexual activity (Waxman, 2003).
Research, including a Danish study of 1.5 million women, has concluded there is no link between abortion and breast cancer. However, in 2002, The National Cancer Institute (NCI) removed from its website a fact sheet that reflected scientific consensus and replaced it with one inferring studies in this area were inconclusive (Rushing, 2004). This action resulted in so much outrage from abortion rights and breast cancer advocates as well as the scientific community that in 2003 the NCI was compelled to bring over 100 experts together to reexamine the issue. The experts concluded, again, that there is no link between abortion and breast cancer (Mooney, 2005).
In 2002, Dr. W. David Hagger, a religious conservative who had lobbied for reconsideration of the Food and Drug Administration‘s (FDA) approval of the drug RU-486 and whose scholarship included medical books with conservative religious themes, was nominated to chair the FDA‘s Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee. Previously, eminent reproductive health scientists had been nominated for this position. Following protests by scientists and others, Dr. Hager was not named the chair but he was placed on the committee (Waxman, 2003). In 2003, the acting director of the FDA‘s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research overturned the advice of two scientific panels and his own staff in refusing to approve the emergency contraceptive ―Plan B as an over-the-counter drug.
This action was taken despite the fact that the FDA is required by law to approve drugs found to be safe and effective (UCS, 2004b). In 2006, after considerable protest from the medical community and women‘s groups, the FDA approved over-the-counter nonprescription sales of Plan B by licensed pharmacists to women 18 or older, with a prescription still required for sales to women under 18.

Read the article here [pdf]

Law & Ideology, But What’s “Ideology”?

From the abstract to a paper entitled “What We Talk about When We Talk about Ideology” by Bryan D. Lammon:

much of political science scholarship quite clearly suggests that judging is ideological. What “ideological” means, however, is much less clear. A bit of reading between the lines reveals that much of judicial politics scholarship conceives of ideology predominantly as partisan politics. Along these lines, much of the scholarship presents an image of judges as consciously and actively promoting a political agenda.

This conception of ideology and ideological judicial decisionmaking, however, is quite unsatisfying. It conceives of ideology predominantly in political or partisan terms, and, bearing the influence of traditional notions of individual rationality and autonomy, it portrays judges as rational actors that can consciously impose their policy preferences through their decisions. This portrayal reflects the same conception of rational, wholly autonomous individual behavior that law and psychology is challenging. However, even if one rejects judicial politics’ conception of ideology and its influence, one still must contend with the reams of empirical research that judicial politics scholars have amassed.

You can read the rest of the abstract and download the article here [pdf]

via The Situationist

Holiday Loneliness

Katherine Mieszkowski at Salon:

Our profound need to feel connected is hardly a modern discovery. “No one would choose a friendless existence on condition of having all the other things in the world,” Aristotle wrote. Yet science is now bringing us closer to the biological roots of loneliness, revealing how it affects our mental and physical health. At the same time, philosophers have not stopped looking into the dark heart of loneliness, challenging us to face its existential roots. In very different ways, two recent books on loneliness argue that feeling chronically alone is a powerful sign to examine and strive to change our lives. And now is the season to start.

“The holidays can put us into such a harried state that we’re not actually able to connect with friends and family, to relax and enjoy their company,” says John Cacioppo, a neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of Chicago, and co-author of “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.” Worse, all those holiday rituals of togetherness can serve to highlight just how far apart from each other we really feel. “Events that throw into relief the possibility of overcoming our loneliness are sometimes those that leave us most wrung out,” says Thomas Dumm, a political scientist at Amherst College, author of “Loneliness as a Way of Life.”

While most of us can successfully weather a few hours — or days — of the holiday blues, some 20 percent of people — roughly 60 million Americans — feel sufficiently socially isolated for it to be a major source of unhappiness in their lives. In fact, many lonely people are surrounded by friends and family, yet don’t feel close to any of them. Such intimate isolation — the feeling that no one understands who you are — appears to be on the rise. A study by sociologists at Duke University and the University of Arizona found that between 1985 and 2004 the average number of friends with whom Americans felt they could “discuss important matters” had dropped from three to two. The number who said they had no one with whom they could discuss important matters more than doubled to nearly 25 percent.   [more]

Thinking Shakespeare

From Philip Davis at Literary Review:

To Shakespeare what is apparently a small matter is actually often a big deal made seemingly small only because it is happening at pace. The moment of a decision in Macbeth, of a death in Lear: they are no sooner there than gone, with hardly time for the thing to sink in. Says poor Phebe in As You Like It, at the sight of what she takes to be an angry but beautiful young man: ‘Faster than his tongue/Did make offence his eye did heal it up.’ ‘Faster’: that’s why such things strike with disproportionate emotional violence – they are big matters contained within a small space, more than one thing happening fast at a single instant. The conceptualisation comes along afterwards, like the old nurse reporting to an impatient young Juliet: slow, belated and heavy.

I believe that the conceptual language with which we talk about Shakespeare is not very good, because it is far too much after the event. In fact I also believe that, in general, our thinking about what goes on so invisibly, so microscopically in the mind, is cumbersome and restrictive. The enemy is paraphrase, the loss of original experience within a second-hand normalising language. Whereas Shakespeare at the moment of formulation offers the great creative example of what the human mind can do.

This is why one day I knocked on the door of two brain scientists: first Neil Roberts at the University of Liverpool, then Guillaume Thierry at Bangor.

Read the rest here

Altruism & Evolution

From Peter Dizikes at The Boston Globe:

In his new book “The Superorganism,” out today, [E.O.] Wilson and his co-author, Bert Holldobler, argue that natural selection operates on the group, not just the gene. The lavishly-illustrated volume examines the complex systems that help insect societies survive, from an intricate array of communication signals to the elaborate architecture of nests. But Wilson – though not Holldobler – goes further, saying altruism occurs not because animals share family ties, but because certain altruistic acts have become useful for the overall survival of insect groups.

“The close kinship of the members of these groups is a consequence, not a cause, of their evolution,” says the ever-genial Wilson in an interview at his home in Lexington. He believes altruistic (or eusocial) societies developed in ecological conditions where food was plentiful enough to allow insects to practice “progressive provisioning,” in which a mother leaves its offspring with food, as some wasps or bees do. This creates a need for others in the insect society to stand guard over the young.

Given these conditions, Wilson postulates, an insect group experiencing a single beneficial genetic mutation – such as the ability to distinguish nest mates from outsiders, a trait many insects possess – might adopt altruism as a useful social behavior.

Read the whole article here