Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Torture experts

Charles Krauthammer has an article arguing that sometimes you just have to torture, so exceptions to the McCain Amendment should be encoded in law. This is, of course, wrong, but I just want to point out one especially misguided bit:
These exceptions to the no-torture rule would not be granted to just any nonmilitary interrogators, or anyone with CIA credentials. They would be reserved for highly specialized agents who are experts and experienced in interrogation, and who are known not to abuse it for the satisfaction of a kind of sick sadomasochism Lynndie England and her cohorts indulged in at Abu Ghraib.
There are two problems with this:

1. "Highly specialized" torturers are, almost by definition, people who would tend to abuse torture for the satisfaction of a kind of sick sadomasochism. Trying to pick kind and decent people who are just inflicting excruciating pain - not just occassionally, but as their major profession - because it's a necessary evil is like trying to square a circle. Not to mention that a great deal of experience in torturing human beings will inevitably coarsen and degrade a kind and decent person to the point of developing a kind of sick sadomasochism to be satisfied by abusing torture.

2. Creating an elite force of "expert professional torturers" (let's not mince words as Krauthammer does by calling them "highly specialized agents" "experienced in interrogation") will only cause professional insularity among the torturers - a feeling that "we" know best, "they" don't know what we're dealing with in here, "we" don't need to be held accountable to "them" (i.e., the American people). The existence of specialized torturers is exactly inimical to Krauthammer's call for public, clearly-defined, well-regulated torture. See, e.g. this essay about torture by a sociologist who studied Brazilian police torturers [pdf].

Monday, November 28, 2005

Crisis is NOT danger + opportunity

For some reason it makes me very happy to learn that the cliche that the Chinese term for 'crisis' is made up of the characters for 'danger' and 'opportunity' is wrong and based on a gross misunderstanding.
The explication of the Chinese word for crisis as made up of two components signifying danger and opportunity is due partly to wishful thinking, but mainly to a fundamental misunderstanding about how terms are formed in Mandarin and other Sinitic languages. ...

The third, and fatal, misapprehension is the author's definition of jī [机] as "opportunity." While it is true that wēijī [危机] does indeed mean "crisis" and that the wēi syllable of wēijī does convey the notion of "danger," the jī syllable of wēijī most definitely does not signify "opportunity." ... The jī of wēijī, in fact, means something like "incipient moment; crucial point (when something begins or changes)." Thus, a wēijī is indeed a genuine crisis, a dangerous moment, a time when things start to go awry.
Take that, pseudo-intellectual Orientalist nonsense!

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Your brain on love

Even by the low standards of the British press's science coverage, today's gem from the Independent is appalling:
Revealed: the chemistry of love
The good news: they've discovered the love chemical inside us all. The bad news: it only lasts a year

The very source of love has been found. And is it that smouldering look exchanged across a crowded room? Those limpid eyes into which you feel you could gaze for ever? No. It's NGF, say unromantic spoilsport scientists who have made the discovery, - that's short for nerve growth factor.

And now, the really deflating news: its potent, life-enhancing, brain-scrambling effect doesn't last. It subsides within the year of first falling in love - presumably within the same period it takes lovers to notice that the object of their affections can't get the lid on the toothpaste.
First, the lame trope about scientists being "unromantic" and "spoilsport" (as if anything could be more wondrous than understanding how the profoundest emotions are created by something so relatively simple as cells and synapses). Then, the complete lack of context in explaining that nerve growth factor is required throughout development in the nervous system. Then, the implication that this finding "reveals" something about the subjective experience of love ("the bad news: it only lasts a year"), when the study is only looking at a possible biological basis for a phenomenon already well-established in psychology (that early romantic love changes to long-term attachment over time). Then, the neglect of other chemicals in the brain that have previously been tied to love, like oxytocin and vasopressin (and these actually found in the brain, not just circulating in the bloodstream as with NGF in the present study).

You could argue that getting people interested in science is worth a bit of oversimplification, but really, there comes a point when you're harming science more than you're helping it. I submit this story as yet another example under the hypothesis from The Guardian's Bad Science column I noted a few months ago:
It is my hypothesis that in their choice of stories, and the way they cover them, the media create a parody of science, for their own means. They then attack this parody as if they were critiquing science.
If you want a more serious journalistic effort about recent scientific research on the neurobiology of love, try this one.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Thanksgiving in Britain

Filed again under "random notes from Britain," some things I find amusing about being an American in the UK this Thanksgiving holiday:

1. English muffins here are just called "muffins."

2. Bagels and (real) blueberry muffins are sold in supermarkets with a little American flag icon on the packaging.

3. Yesterday I went to a Thanksgiving lunch put on by some British people. To re-create a bit of American spirit, they had decorated the room with red, white, and blue balloons and little American flags in addition to the normal pumpkins and paper turkeys. It was funny (and weirdly inappropriate) to see such patriotic decor on a holiday that's in many ways uniquely American (though Canada has one too) and forms part of the American civil religion but isn't really "about" America the way, say, the 4th of July is.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Cloning ethics

Finally, a real ethical issue about human cloning: the supply of human eggs.
South Korean cloning pioneer Hwang Woo-suk publicly apologized Thursday for ethics lapses, admitting two female scientists in his lab donated their own eggs for research, in a setback for the work that has raised worldwide hopes it could help find cures for untreatable diseases. ...

Under commonly observed international guidelines, scientists are advised to be cautious when using human subjects for research who are in a dependent relationship with them -- a precaution against exploitation.
All the nonsense about 3-day-old blastocysts being full human persons with a right to life has distracted from the real issue: how to prevent women from being exploited for their eggs, given that cloning at present is a highly inefficient process that requires hundreds of eggs - which can only be obtained by a painful, invasive procedure, to get a single successful cloned embryo.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Dover voters show some sense

It's almost enough to restore your faith in democracy...
All eight members up for re-election to the Pennsylvania school board that had been sued for introducing the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in biology class were swept out of office yesterday by a slate of challengers who campaigned against the intelligent design policy. ...

The vote counts were close, but of the 16 candidates the one with the fewest votes was Mr. Bonsell, the driving force behind the intelligent design policy.
Well, maybe not.