Breathtaking Inanity

March 31, 2008

jeremiah wrightgeorge w. bush shaking finger

Nicholas Kristof has an excellent op-ed today on conspiracy theories and America’s collective intellect (or lack thereof). Kristof manages to work in Jeremiah Wright, 9/11, AIDS, evolution, and education all in one column. Pretty good.

Ten days ago, I noted the reckless assertion of Barack Obama’s former pastor that the United States government had deliberately engineered AIDS to kill blacks, but I tried to put it in context by citing a poll showing that 30 percent of African-Americans believe such a plot is at least plausible.

My point was that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright is not the far-out fringe figure that many whites assume. But I had a deluge of e-mail from incredulous whites saying, in effect: If 30 percent of blacks believe such bunk, then that’s a worse scandal than anything Mr. Wright said.

It’s true that conspiracy theories are a bane of the African-American community. Perhaps partly as a legacy of slavery, Tuskegee and Jim Crow, many blacks are convinced that crack cocaine was a government plot to harm African-Americans and that the levees in New Orleans were deliberately opened to destroy black neighborhoods.

White readers expressed shock (and a hint of smugness) at these delusions, but the sad reality is that conspiracy theories and irrationality aren’t a black problem. They are an American problem.

Jeremiah Wright’s statements that the US government created AIDS and was responsible for 9/11 disturbed me even more than his racist rants. The latter is more understandable in my eyes, whereas the former are such a departure from rational thinking that I can find no excuse for believing them. Of course, 9/11 conspiracy theories are fairly widespread in the general population too. Kristof continues:

These days, whites may not believe in a government plot to spread AIDS, but they do entertain the equally malevolent theory that the United States government had a hand in the 9/11 attacks. A Ohio University poll in 2006 found that 36 percent of Americans believed that federal officials assisted in the attacks on the twin towers or knowingly let them happen so that the U.S. could go to war in the Middle East.

And on to science education:

Then there’s this embarrassing fact about the United States in the 21st century: Americans are as likely to believe in flying saucers as in evolution. Depending on how the questions are asked, roughly 30 to 40 percent of Americans believe in each… President Bush is also the only Western leader I know of who doesn’t believe in evolution, saying “the jury is still out.” No word on whether he believes in little green men.

One thing I’d like to know here is in regards to how the question about “flying saucers” is asked. Are people asked if they have seen a flying saucer, or if they believe they exist, or if they believe there may possibly be extraterrestrial life somewhere in the universe. If it’s the latter, then I’m crazy too, because the astrobiology grants I’ve done research for NASA under are all aimed at looking for extraterrerstrial microbial life. But I think there’s a big difference between believing reports of so-called flying saucers and having a more Carl Sagan-esque view on life in the universe.

Our breathtaking collective ignorance (and/or paranoia) has an impact on public policy in a democracy as well:

Only one American in 10 understands radiation, and only one in three has an idea of what DNA does. One in five does know that the Sun orbits the Earth …oh, oops…. How can we decide on embryonic stem cells if we don’t understand biology? How can we judge whether to invade Iraq if we don’t know a Sunni from a Shiite?

And then there’s a disturbing little bit about our political process. This is one reason someone like Mike Huckabee can rise to national prominence, while many of the most education and intelligent Americans are probably disqualified from our highest office because they’re too elitist:

From Singapore to Japan, politicians pretend to be smarter and better- educated than they actually are, because intellect is an asset at the polls. In the United States, almost alone among developed countries, politicians pretend to be less worldly and erudite than they are (Bill Clinton was masterful at hiding a brilliant mind behind folksy Arkansas sayings about pigs). Alas, when a politician has the double disadvantage of obvious intelligence and an elite education and then on top of that tries to educate the public on a complex issue — as Al Gore did about climate change — then that candidate is derided as arrogant and out of touch.

And here’s a good (and true) slam on where the conservative movement as a whole is going:

The dumbing-down of discourse has been particularly striking since the 1970s. Think of the devolution of the emblematic conservative voice from William Buckley to Bill O’Reilly. It’s enough to make one doubt Darwin.

Really, is there anyone comparable to the late Buckley? Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and the like have certainly expanded conservative media, but they’ve consistently done it by making it ever more xenophobic and ignorant. But let’s not forget the stupidity and misleading tactics of people like Michael Moore either.

bill o'reilly fox newsrush limbaugh oxycontinmichael moore ugly

There’s no simple solution, but the complex and incomplete solution is a greater emphasis on education at every level. And maybe, just maybe, this cycle has run its course, for the last seven years perhaps have discredited the anti-intellectualism movement. President Bush, after all, is the movement’s epitome — and its fruit.

Please, oh please.


The Power of Conspiracy Theories

March 30, 2008

They’re. All. True.

9/11 world trade center dust image

Just kidding.

I’ve blogged before about the “9/11 Truth” movement/ conspiracy theories. But I came across a great summation and rebuttal of many of this sub-culture’s beliefs and suspicions that I thought was worth sharing. On eSkeptic, Phile Molé gives an account of a convention hosted by 911truth.org in Chicago, goes through details of their many spurious claims, and then has this fascinating conclusion of the “power of conspiracy theories.”

We need to return to a question posed near the beginning of this discussion: Why do so many intelligent and promising people find these theories so compelling?

There are several possible answers to this question, none of them necessarily exclusive of the others. One of the first and most obvious is distrust of the American government in general, and the Bush administration in particular. This mistrust is not entirely without basis…The revelations of Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandal, and other nefarious schemes great and small have understandably eroded public confidence in government. Couple that with an administration, that took office after the most controversial presidential election in more than a century, and one that backed out of international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol, misled citizens about the science of global warming and stem cell research, initiated a war in Iraq based on unsupportable “intelligence” about weapons of mass destruction, and failed to respond in adequately to the effects of a hurricanes in the Gulf Coast, and you have strong motivations for suspicion…

[However,] the mistakes made by our government in the past are qualitatively different from a conscious decision to kill thousands of its own citizens in order to justify the oppression of others. Most importantly, there is the fact that most of what we know about the bad decisions made by our government is only knowable due to the relative transparency with which our government operates, and the freedom to disseminate and discuss this information.

The full irony of this last point hit me while I was at the conference. Here was a group of about 400 people gathered to openly discuss the evil schemes of the U.S. government, whom they accuse of horrible atrocities in the service of establishing a police state. But if America really was a police state with such terrible secrets to protect, surely government thugs would have stormed the lecture halls and arrested many of those present…

It is notable that conspiracy theorists (and this likely applies not just to 9/11) tend to be clustered at the extreme right and left of the political spectrum–you’ll find few apathetics or moderates dedicating this much time to activities this far out of the mainstream.

Another reason for the appeal of 9/11 conspiracies is that they are easy to understand. As previously mentioned, most Americans did not know or care to know much about the Middle East until the events of 9/11 forced them to take notice…The great advantage of the 9/11 Truth Movement’s theories is that they don’t require you to know anything about the Middle East, or for that matter, to know anything significant about world history or politics. This points to another benefit of conspiracy theories — they are oddly comforting. Chaotic, threatening events are difficult to comprehend, and the steps we might take to protect ourselves are unclear. With conspiracy theory that focuses on a single human cause, the terrible randomness of life assumes an understandable order.

This may be the major thread connecting conspiracy theories to Creationism. And actually, for some believers Creationism really does function as a conspiracy theory, where they see a nefarious band of scientists denying evidence and making up fossils and such. Or just kicking the intelligent-design proponents out of academia, as the upcoming “documentary” Expelled asserts. Here Molé makes the conspiracy theory / creationism connection even more clear:

The great writer Thomas Pynchon memorably expressed this point in his novel Gravity’s Rainbow: “If there is something comforting — religious, if you want — about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.” The promiscuity of conspiracy theories toward evidence thus becomes part of their appeal — they can link virtually any ideas of interest to the theorist into a meaningful whole…

With the standards of evidence used by conspiracy theorists, there is no reason why the Freemasons, the Bavarian Illuminati, or the Elders of Zion cannot also be involved in the 9/11 plot — it just depends on what you find the most solace in believing. As it turns out, some conspiracy theorists do throw one or more of these other parties into the mix, as a popular and bogus rumor that 4,000 Jews mysteriously failed to come to work on 9/11 shows.

Solace is something all of us needed after the horrible events of 9/11, and each of us is entitled to a certain degree of freedom in its pursuit. However, there is no moral right to seek solace at the expense of truth, especially if the truth is precisely what we most need to avoid the mistakes of the past. Truth matters for its own sake, but it also matters because it is our only defense against the evils of those who cynically exploit truth claims to serve their own agendas. It is concern for the truth that leads us to criticize our own government when necessary, and to insist that others who claim to do so follow the same rigorous standards of evidence and argument.


Good News, Bad News

March 29, 2008

The World Health Organization has announced that polio has been eradicated from Somalia. This was an incredibly difficult task, given Somalia’s endemic violence and instability. And it took a huge effort:

More than 10,000 Somali volunteers and health workers vaccinated more than 1.8 million children under the age of five by visiting every household in every settlement multiple times.

However, this has happened before. Polio was eradicated from Somalia back in 2002, only to be reintroduced from Nigeria. The fact that polio was reintroduced from a country on the other side of the continent calls attention to the interrelatedness of disease control efforts in different countries (diseases know no borders) and the tragedies that occur when vaccination efforts clash with local cultures or religions.

But despite its tenuous progress in terms of total eradication, the WHO’s $4 billion polio campaign has made great steps forward:

When WHO and partners began their anti-polio campaign in 1988, the worldwide case count was more than 350,000 annually. The disease’s incidence has since been slashed by more than 99 percent and remains endemic in four countries: Afghanistan, India, Nigeria and Pakistan. Polio cases were also detected last year in Angola, Cameroon, Chad, Congo, Myanmar, Nepal, Niger and Sudan.

So that’s the good (albeit cautiously so) news. The bad news for Somalia:

Somalia’s Government Teeters on Collapse

If you read that and asked “wait, Somalia has a government?” you’re not alone. But it does have a government of sorts:

By its own admission, the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia is on life support. When it took power here in the capital 15 months ago, backed by thousands of Ethiopian troops, it was widely hailed as the best chance in years to end Somalia’s ceaseless cycles of war and suffering.

But now its leaders say that unless they get more help — international peacekeepers, weapons, training and money to pay their soldiers, among other things — this transitional government will fall just like the 13 governments that came before it.

Less than a third of the promised African Union soldiers have arrived, the United Nations has shied away from sending peacekeepers and even the Ethiopians are taking a back seat, often leaving the government’s defense to teenage Somalis with clackety guns who are overwhelmed.


Focus.

March 11, 2008

Many Doctors, Many Tests, No Rhyme or Reason

All of our investments in high-tech medicine and tons of tests, as well as the drive toward further specialization, aren’t really having an impact on public health indicators like life expectancy and child mortality. But for those who want to go into medicine (like me) the sexy, intellectually-stimulating, cutting-edge, fiscally-rewarding work is in those specialties.

We need to have a different focus.

“In an age of explosive development in the realm of medical technology, it is unnerving to find that the discoveries of Salk, Sabin, and even Pasteur remain irrelevant to much of humanity.” – Paul Farmer

“The physicians are the natural attorneys of the poor, and the social problems should largely be solved by them.” – Rudolf Virchow


Moth Memory

March 11, 2008

Retention of Memory through Metamorphosis: Can a Moth Remember What It Learned As a Caterpillar?

Yes. Awesome.

moth

Via Frontal Cortex.


Proust Really Was a Neuroscientist

March 9, 2008

I just finished Jonah Lehrer’s first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist. Lehrer is an editor for Seed magazine, blogs at the Frontal Cortex, and did a lot of the research for his book while on a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford. Proust Was a Neuroscientist was just published last November, and one of the most impressive things about it is that Lehrer is only 25.

Proust was a neuroscientist Sandwiched between an introduction called “Prelude” and a postcript titled “Coda,” Proust presents eight chapters on 19th century figures who anticipated a discovery of modern neuroscience in their art. Authors Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf are profiled along with chef Auguste Escoffier, painter Paul Cezanne, and composer Igor Stravinsky.

Proust is an intellectual tour de force; you get excellent descriptions of the techniques and discoveries of neuroscience alongside biography of fascinating cultural figures and accessible criticism of their works. Given my background studying biochemistry, the science wasn’t that in-depth, but the literary history is something I really needed. My dad is an art professor, so I’m generally more familiar with the great art of history than great literature.

And that’s exactly the point. My friend Jimmy recommend CP Snow’s The Two Cultures a couple years ago. Snow’s classic little text is a call for more communication between the humanities and the sciences. Lehrer summarizes the philosophy behind his book in its Coda by beginning with Snow’s argument for a Third Culture of artists and scientists enjoying knowledge from both spheres. Lehrer’s critique:

Snow turned out to be prophetic, at least in part. The third culture is a now a genuine cultural movement. However, while this new third culture borrows Snow’s phrase, it strays from his project… The third culture today refers to scientists who communicate directly with the general public. They are translating their truths for the masses… From Richard Dawkins to Brian Greene, from Steven Pinker to E.O. Wilson, these scientists do important scientific research and write in elegant prose. Because of their work, black holes, memes, and selfish genes are now part of our cultural lexicon.

He then summarizes the theme of Wilson’s Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge–a book I enjoyed immensely but felt ultimately fell short–with this quote from Consilience:

The central idea of the consilience world view is that all tangible phenomena, from the birth of stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences, to the laws of physics.

This is a statement with which I can’t argue, but also find dissatisfying. Jonah’s response?

Wilson’s ideology is technically true but, in the end, rather meaningless…When some things are broken apart, they are just broken. What the artists in this book reveal is that there are many different ways of describing reality, each of which is capable of generating truth.

And on a derogatory reference to Virginia Woolf by Steven Pinker:

But if Pinker is wrong to thoguhtless attack Virginia Woolf (seeing an enemy when he should see an ally), he is right to admonish what he calls “the priests of postmodernism.” Too often, postmodernism…indulges in cheap disavowals of science and the scientific method. There is no truth, postmodernists say, only differing descriptions, all of which are equally invalid. Obviously, this idea very quickly exhausts itself. No truth is perfect, but that doesn’t mean all truths are equally imperfect. We will always need some way to distinguish among our claims.

The reception for Lehrer’s first offering hasn’t been completely positive (see a rather critical review at Slate) but it seems that most of the complaints I’ve read center around small quibbles with Lehrer’s points or a misunderstanding of the overall thesis. To be sure, I was skeptical going in; it seems that every critique of the epistemology of the likes of Wilson I’ve read has been cover to a religious or postmodern agenda (or both).

Proust Was a Neuroscientist was so refreshing because it was written by someone with an obvious knowledge of and respect for science on a level commensurate with its accomplishments. Because Lehrer can write compelling prose about neuroscience while admitting that our mind really is just the machine and not the ghost, he can also write convincingly about the value of art in giving us knowledge about our human experience.


A Tale of Two Cities

September 26, 2007

Cambridge and Malibu, that is. It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…

I just read two very different articles over at Beliefnet that compliment each other well. One is by Michael Shermer, a Christian who attended Pepperdine University, got interested in science, and later became an atheist. His article is titled Atheists are Spiritual, Too. An excerpt:

Spirituality is a way of being in the world, a sense of one’s place in the cosmos, a relationship to that which extends beyond ourselves. There are many sources of spirituality; religion may be the most common, but it is by no means the only. Anything that generates a sense of awe may be a source of spirituality-art, for example.

Shermer describes taking scientists including Gould and Dawkins to visit the Mt. Wilson observatory in California.

As we were standing beneath the magnificent dome housing the 100-inch telescope, and reflecting on how marvelous-even miraculous-this scientistic visage of the cosmos and our place in it all seemed, Dawkins turned to me and said, “All of this makes me proud of our species.”

Alister McGrath, on the other hand, has a piece entitled Breaking the Science-Atheism Bond, in which he describes his own pilgrimage from atheism to Christianity.

The faith McGrath found sounds more reasonable than the faith Shermer left (Shermer’s is remarkably similar to some strains of the tradition in which I grew up). Also, the atheism Shermer developed seems to be better defined then what McGrath held; from McGrath’s article, it sounds like he confuses atheism with positive belief that there is no God, which is of course a view only held by a small minority of atheists. I’d like to hear them dialogue sometime.


Nary a Whisper

July 17, 2007

Props to Laelaps for a great post on the “Strange Silence About Paleoanthropology from Creationists.” It’s worth a read.


Checklist for Quacks

July 13, 2007

Have you ever sat down and wondered, “Am I a scientific quack?” Well, probably not. But I’ve met enough True Believers in pseudoscience to give myself pause. What I really am the person to come up with a scientific breakthrough? How will anyone ever believe me? Doesn’t science trudge along, a la Thomas Kuhn, in the dominant paradigm until the evidence suggesting otherwise is just too overwhelming to ignore? What if I’m part of the new paradigm that will supplant the old, and I want to get the word out?

After all, weren’t many breakthroughs originally derided? Who believed the Earth actually revolved around the Sun? Who knew that Helicobacter pylori bacteria played a role in ulcers? Who knew that RNA interference played such a large role in cell function? Or that cells were programmed to self-destruct as a natural part of development? Or that a thing as wacky as prions actually existed? (After heliocentricity, these ideas won the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology in 2005, 2006, 2002, and 1997, respectively).

Luckily for all of us, Cosmic Variance has compiled an Alternative-Science Respectability Checklist. Excerpts follow:

Believe me, I sympathize. You are in possession of a truly incredible breakthrough that offers the prospect of changing the very face of science as we know it, if not more. The only problem is, you’re coming at things from an unorthodox perspective… Perhaps you have been able to construct a machine that produces more energy than it consumes, using only common household implements; or maybe you’ve discovered a hidden pattern within the Fibonacci sequence that accurately predicts the weight that a top quark would experience on Ganymede, expressed in femtonewtons; or it might be that you’ve elaborated upon an alternative explanation for the evolution of life on Earth that augments natural selection by unspecified interventions from a vaguely-defined higher power. Whatever the specifics, the point is that certain kinds of breakthroughs just aren’t going to come from a hide-bound scholastic establishment; they require the fresh perspective and beginner’s mind that only an outsider genius (such as yourself) can bring to the table.

No sarcasm there. Rule 1:

Acquire basic competency in whatever field of science your discovery belongs to.

But! But! Seems a bit demanding, doesn’t it?

Now, you may object that steering clear of such pre-existing knowledge has played a crucial role in your unique brand of breakthrough research, and you would never have been able to make those dazzling conceptual leaps had you been weighed down by all of that established art. Let me break it down for you: no.

Rule 2:

Understand, and make a good-faith effort to confront, the fundamental objections to your claims within established science.

Continuing:

Scientific claims — whether theoretical insights or experimental breakthroughs — don’t exist all by their lonesome. They are situated within a framework of pre-existing knowledge and expectations. If the claim you are making seems manifestly inconsistent with that framework, it’s your job to explain why anyone should nevertheless take you seriously…. If you claim that the position of Venus within the Zodiac affects your love life, you’re not only positing some spooky correlation between celestial bodies and human affairs; your theory also requires some sort of long-range force that acts between you and Venus, and there aren’t any such forces strong enough to be relevant.

And finally, Rule 3:

Present your discovery in a way that is complete, transparent, and unambiguous.

Not likely. But in case someone still needs convincing, have them submit their theory to the Crackpot Index.