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This is the archive for November 2007

Thursday, November 29, 2007

What will the world be like 100 years from now? See what they said in 1901.

Hat tip to Open Culture | What May Happen in the Next 100 Years (Predictions from 1901)
A group of ten prominent scientists has written a letter to Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats, urging them to stop federal funding for abstinence-only programs
Recent reports in professional publications by the authors of this letter have highlighted multiple deficiencies in federal abstinence-only programs. As such, we are surprised and dismayed that the Congress is proposing to extend and even increase funding for these programs. In this letter we identify key problems with abstinence-only education. We also have attached recent scientific reports that are pertinent to the debate over these programs. We note that many of these studies have used nationally-representative data from surveys sponsored by the National Institutes of Health or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The letter reviews some of the recent research that reveals the ineffectiveness of these programs. But, as they acknowledge, abstinence-only programs rest on an ideological, not a scientific, foundation.
The recent Congressional testimony of former Surgeon General Richard Carmona underscores these critiques from mainstream health organizations. Dr. Carmona's testimony confirms the political motivations behind abstinence funding and the failure to address issues of efficacy and scientific accuracy. He suggested that ideology and theology have taken priority over women's health in the current administration. Dr. Carmona reported that the Bush administration "did not want to hear the science but wanted to, if you will, ?preach abstinence,' which I felt was scientifically incorrect."
In a recent post about the scientists' letter Amanda Marcotte urges us to reframe the issues in terms of children's health and to stop using schools to "reinforc[e] ignorance."
The more liberal view of education is that it?s about getting educated, not indoctrinated. And comprehensive sex education really epitomizes this philosophy in a way that?s easy to understand. You teach the kids all the various ways to protect themselves, and encourage them to think critically about these methods, instead of giving them as ?Do as I say (and not as I do, since I and pretty much everyone will fuck before marriage)? message.
Well said. It's time to place science of over politics and education over indoctrination. The sad thing is, we allegedly have been teaching critical thinking in schools for years, and yet, like abstinence-only programs, it appears to be ineffective for a large part of the population. Another recommendation should be that we critically examine how we teach critical thinking.

Scientists Tell Pelosi: No More Ab-only Funding |

Abstinence-only and the push against critical thinking skills | Pendagon

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I'm Not There was there, at my local theater. It's very worth seeing. Cate Blanchett and Charlotte Gainsbourg were outstanding, but there were a number of other good performances, too. Given how closely Todd Haynes tries to capture real moments (like those we see in the Pennebaker and Scorsese films) and real people (like Joan Baez and the Beatles), I found myself laughing at times as though I was watching a satire like This is Spinal Tap. I'm not sure if I was supposed to laugh, but I did. No doubt Haynes is working hard to figure out the identity thing, but I'll need to see it again before I can decipher it all. It could be about self-invention or self-deception or self-preservation, but I'm not sure who the self is that doing the inventing/deceiving/preserving. And if Dylan's a fraud, it's unclear who's being fraudulent. Apparently, that's not the kind of answer Haynes is going for. It's more about the pressures that lead to the fragmentation. And the consequences that result. I was disappointed, though, that the film never overtly captures the core-genius that runs through all these different Dylans--except in the soundtrack. Truth is, I could watch almost anything to that soundtrack.
Once again, with feeling. This, from the Guardian.
A woman with an artificial arm has been given the sense of touch following a pioneering operation to reroute some of her nerves. Claudia Mitchell, 27, lost her left arm in a motorcycle accident three years ago, but can now feel her missing hand after having nerves from her lost limb rerouted to her chest. [emphasis mine]

Now, when she touches something with her artificial hand she can feel it through a device attached to her chest.

During a four-hour operation, surgeons moved nerves from her shoulder, which normally ferry signals from the hand to the brain, and redirected them to muscles in her chest area.
Why should we think she can now feel her missing hand? Her missing hand is, well, missing. Perhaps she feels her artificial hand. The second paragraph is better. She can feel some object with her artificial hand through her chest.

At least they didn't report she was feeling qualia.

Sense of touch restored for woman with bionic arm | Science | The Guardian

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Onion is the best.
Repeatedly stabbing monkeys with sharpened objects may have an adverse effect on their health, according to a new study.

Study: Multiple Stab Wounds May Be Harmful To Monkeys
The liberal academic elite, what with their multiculturalism, environmentalism, feminism, atheism, and political correctness, are ruining everything! This is the subtle analysis of Todd J. Zywicki, the Dartmouth trustee and a law professor at George Mason University, captured on YouTube. The academic left in the modern university is compared to the Spanish Inquisition, an orthodoxy that stifled opposing (in this case right-wing) opinion. Zwicki's speech rant displays some pretty angry, hateful and yes, vicious stuff. According to an Inside Higher Ed report, he says some of his comments were taken out of context, he was speaking from notes, and he was unduly casual and informal. Perhaps, but then what does he really think?

And the Spanish Inquisition? Didn't they introduce waterboarding?

Inside Higher Ed :: Speech Hits a Sore Spot at Dartmouth

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Over at The Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer wrote a nice piece in response to Paul Davies' NY Times Op-Ed. PD argues that
... both religion and science are founded on faith ? namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence....[U]ntil science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.
In a tidy exposition, JL introduces Quine's holistic account of knowledge to support Davies, concluding that
a little faith in science isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, one might even say that faith is an essential part of the scientific process.
The introduction of Quine is helpful, but I'm forced to reflect on whether "faith" is used univocally in both contexts. On Quine's account of science (aimed at knowledge of the world), the periphery of our belief system (theories) bumps up against our experiences continually (and intentionally), possibly causing reverberations that eventuate in changes to the core. Nothing is irrevisable and there is no foundation from which we can ultimately evaluate the results. We are, as the metaphor goes, adrift on a raft at sea, changing planks as necessary.

Religious epistemologies tend to be quite different. Religious belief held in faith is held in spite of new experience, not in lieu of it. There is no expectation that bumping up against the world will bring about changes in core beliefs held on faith; in fact, if anything the expectation is that faith will trump recalcitrant experience (though that has not always happened in history). These approaches are often more authoritarian and hierarchical; revelatory and foundational in just the way that Quine opposes (though his target was Logical Positivism).

"Faith" might appear in both contexts, but apart from the fact that there is a commitment to an unobservable object, its role in the acquisition of knowledge is very different. In science, as JL points out, "We accept our starting premises on faith (the invisible yet inviolable laws of science) simply because they help us make sense of totally separate layers of experience." Faith, in a religious context, may be used to make sense of some experience, but its' objects are eternally resistant to revision. So if we are going to talk about the "faith" of scientists alongside religious faith, we need to be careful.

The metaphor of the raft and the pyramid (to borrow from Ernie Sosa) should capture the difference I'm highlighting. But somehow it feels more like the difference between drifting on a raft and flying on a magic carpet.

The Frontal Cortex : The Faith of Scientists

Friday, November 23, 2007

Some recent news (from Mind Hacks) on the ethics of cognitive enhancement. An important observation comes in the last paragraph: we should be going more to improve nutrition and lifestyle as already-existing neuroenhancers. If we can't make these factors more readily available to the poor and disadvantaged, it's hard to see how Big Pharma will provide something better.
The British Medical Association has just released a report on the ethics of using medical technology to increase cognitive function and optimise the brain. Although the report looks to possible futures, many of them are already upon us.

The report is an interesting sign that cognitive enhancement, using largely physical interventions such as drugs and implants, is now a topic important enough to trouble the UK's professional medical association.

Many of the ethical concerns centre around a potential future where brain enhancing interventions are largely available to the wealthy, leading to a 'brain gap' where the less well off will have relatively poorer mental functioning because they can't access the same cognitive benefits.

However, this is exactly the situation we already have.
Soon to appear in Nature, as reported at CBC:
Babies can distinguish between people based on their actions toward a third party, U.S. researchers say.

"Infants prefer an individual who helps another to one who hinders another, prefer a helping individual to a neutral individual, and prefer a neutral individual to a hindering individual," the Yale University psychology researchers report in the edition of Nature to be published Thursday.

"The findings reported here constitute the first evidence that young infants' social preferences are influenced by others' behaviour towards unrelated third parties," they say. The findings show humans make social evaluations at a much younger age than previously thought."
The study was performed by the Yale Infant Cognition Center. You can see video of the "climber" used to display helpful or hindering action here. I always approach infant studies with a fair amount of skepticism. "Just what were they thinking?" isn't so easily answered as might be the question "Just what would I be thinking?" I haven't read the article yet, but, based on the video, I'm wondering whether the infants might not be reacting according to whether anticipated completion of a task/event initiated (starting to "climb" or roll up hill) is fulfilled or frustrated? Are blocks that successfully get to the top favored over those that start but fall back down (without any additional blocks)? What of blocks that begin with in the middle, as it were, without signaling a "goal" (just start climbing or descending)? I guess I need to know how the neutral figure was introduced.

In any case, was the infants' "judgment" based on concepts from psychology (blocks with eyes!), sociology (eye-laden blocks that interact!) or physics (patterns of block motion)? What if the blocks had no eyes?

Even babies make social judgments, study suggests | CBC

Social evaluation by preverbal infants. J. Kiley Hamlin, Karen Wynn & Paul Bloom. Nature 450, 557-559 (22 November 2007)

h/t to 3QD.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

My Neuroethics students are preparing their final projects--presentations begin Monday. I'm expecting some good papers and some very creative projects. The following would certainly earn an "A" for creativity.