Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Survey says...

Amid all the depressing news about scientific ignorance contained in this survey (notably that two-thirds of the population supports the teaching of "intelligent design" in public school), here's some good news:
On gay men and lesbians in the military, 58 percent of those polled said they should be allowed to serve openly, a modest increase from 1994, when 52 percent agreed. Strong opposition has fallen in that time, to 15 percent from 26 percent in 1994.
Slowly but surely, the good guys are winning the fight for gay rights and it's only a matter of time before "don't ask, don't tell" is rescinded.


The approach many high school students take to learning French:
Franche est essentialement englaishe ouithe les endinges funnies et lottes de vowelles et les adjectifs en alle les places ronges.
[From this list of sentences of the form "Language X is essentially Language Y under condition Z"; via Language Log.]

A world of fantasy

I recently started reading Louis Hartz's seminal The Liberal Tradition in America, which argues that liberalism (not left-liberalism, Lockean liberalism) has always been the hegenomic political ideology in America, explaining why European conservatism, socialism, fascism, or communism never made any headway. (Among other paradoxes, what American "conservatives" are conserving is liberalism.) I came across this essay about the book in the NYTimes book review with the following delightful passage:
Not all contemporary conservatives are followers of Locke. Adherents of the Christian right, among others, are not likely to be avid readers of Locke's letter on religious toleration (even if Locke justified toleration, not on secular grounds, but on Christian principle). But the fate of today's religious right may well have been foreshadowed by what Hartz called ''the reactionary Enlightenment,'' the effort by Southern thinkers before the Civil War to find a justification for slavery. Because of the lack of a conservative tradition, the opposite of liberalism was fantasy, and so Southern thinkers invented a feudal past of honor and chivalry that never existed.

Similarly, despite the deism of Jefferson and Madison, today's religious right claims that the United States was founded as a Christian republic. Separation of church and state, they contend, is contrary to American ideals -- when it is in fact the perfect expression of them. Like a Southern slaveholder captivated by the novels of Sir Walter Scott, America's Christian conservatives live in a world of their own imagining. Hartz would have understood them perfectly.

"Why Most Published Research Findings Are False"

From the same guy who brought us a study showing that one-third of clinical studies are later contradicted by larger studies (excellent summary by Orac here), we now have a rather alarmingly titled paper arguing that more than 50% of all scientific published papers are wrong. New Scientist summarizes:
Most published scientific research papers are wrong, according to a new analysis. Assuming that the new paper is itself correct, problems with experimental and statistical methods mean that there is less than a 50% chance that the results of any randomly chosen scientific paper are true.

John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist at the University of Ioannina School of Medicine in Greece, says that small sample sizes, poor study design, researcher bias, and selective reporting and other problems combine to make most research findings false. But even large, well-designed studies are not always right, meaning that scientists and the public have to be wary of reported findings.

"We should accept that most research findings will be refuted. Some will be replicated and validated. The replication process is more important than the first discovery," Ioannidis says.
Ironically, the award system in science means that the first person gets all the credit, while there's no glory in repeating the result, and only a little more in refuting it. Inevitably, this means that "hot" fields with many competing labs are particularly susceptible to false published results, as there is both intense pressure to publish first (no one wants to be scooped!) and a strong bias for pursuing (and publishing) only positive results. This has been true, most notably, of recent research in stem cells.

Eventually, things do get sorted out; results must be repeated at some point (if for no other reason than that you often need to build on previous protocols to get to the next step in a research program). But all of this means that one should take new results with a healthy dose of skepticism.

This news will be a two-edged sword in terms of psychological effects on practicing scientists: on the one hand, obviously it's depressing that if you discover something, odds are it will turn out to be false. On the other hand, you can probably still get a paper out of it even so.

[Via Crumb Trail.]

Update, 2 September: Alex Tabarrok has a nice clear explanation of why, statistically speaking, one would expect most research findings to be false.

A Christian wedge?

One of the most remarkable aspects of the modern American religious right is that it has brought together conservatives of religions and denominations previously thought to be enemies - notably Protestants and Catholics (and to a lesser extent, Jews, hence the historically strange term Judeo-Christian tradition) - on the basis of shared policy goals (on abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, etc).

Mitt Romney's presidential ambitions have highlighted another potential crack in the religious right: evangelical Protestant distaste for Mormonism.
As Governor Mitt Romney mulls a race for president in 2008, his strategists expect their ''family values" candidate -- who opposes gay marriage, abortion, and some forms of embryonic stem cell research -- to find a natural base of support among religious conservatives. ...

But an examination of the views of powerful Christian right groups suggests that, even as some of these voters might appreciate Romney's lifelong commitment to his church, the governor's Mormon faith could become an obstacle for others among this same group, who make up a large and vocal segment of Republican primary voters.
The Southern Baptist Convention website categorizes the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a ''cult" that is ''radically" different from historic, biblical Christianity.

A faith guide issued by the influential Christian right group Focus on the Family declares that ''God cannot be identified ... with the Mormon religion's notion of god." And each year, evangelical organizers behind the National Day of Prayer bar Mormons from speaking at their proceedings.

...Scholars say Protestant evangelicals who form the base of the Republican Party have more profound theological conflicts with the Mormon Church [than those between Protestants and Catholics]. (Despite his efforts to improve the dialogue between Mormons and Protestant evangelicals, Johnson said he doesn't believe Mormon beliefs are a ''Christian doctrine.") [**] ...

Even Joseph Smith Jr., the self-proclaimed prophet who founded the church in 1830, made a bid for the Oval Office. His campaign in 1844, the year James K. Polk beat Henry Clay, ended with his murder in June at the hands of an anti-Mormon mob.
Unfortunately, I don't see this conflict having any actual practical effect on the strength of the religious right. Romney probably won't be nominated (gay marriage ban or not), but conservative Mormons won't abandon the religious right because of that. This marriage of convenience is too strong for anything as trivial as, you know, religion, to break it up.

**For example, Google "mormons not christians".

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Explaining v. justifying rape

There's been some blogospheric discussion lately about the explaining vs. justifying distinction (Brad DeLong, Abiola Lapite, Hilzoy of Obsidian Wings), mostly with respect to whether explanations of terrorism that incorporate American foreign policy as a cause actually justify terrorism. But of course the distinction does not only apply to terrorism. One example that has just occurred to me is the blame-the-victim mentality about rape. A lot of people (usually men) react to rape - especially date rape - by saying things like, "That sucks, but she should have known better than to dress provocatively / drink so much / walk alone in a dark alley."

This attitude has been roundly and rightly criticized by feminists and other right-thinking people. It's part of a larger cultural framework that casts women as either virgins or sluts, that views women as sexual objects, that views sexual exploitation of women as the default state, that holds double standards for women and men ("boys will be boys"), and so on.

But then the blame-the-victim crowd comes out with the protest, "I'm just explaining the rapist's actions, not justifying them... responsibility isn't zero-sum, you can blame the criminal but also assign some responsibility to the victim... don't assume that I hate women, I just want to help prevent future rapes... etc." This usually sounds disingenuous (to me, anyway). I don't want to make a direct analogy to explaining/justifying terrorism, but it does seem like a useful exercise to apply the explain/justify distinction, which I am inclined to accept in the case of terrorism, to a case where I am inclined not to accept it.

It seems clear to me that one can "explain" a rape in a sensitive and non-misogynistic (and non-justifying) way - this kind of explanation motivates authorities to encourage women to watch their drinks in parties, learn self-defense, and not walk alone at night. But then there are "explanations" that do shade into justification, or at least excuse-making: "how else do you expect a hot-blooded young male to react," "she should have seen it coming," etc. (Then there are outright justifications like "Look how she dressed - she was asking for it.") This is similar to the comment Jeff Weintraub made to Brad DeLong: just because some (or most) explanations do not justify doesn't meant there aren't other explanations that do justify (or excuse, whitewash, trivialize, defend, etc.).

This example doesn't prove anything about the application of the explain/justify distinction to terrorism (e.g., "Bush should have expected post-war chaos in Iraq" is not equivalent to "that woman should have expected her date to rape her after she dressed provocatively" -- for one thing, the latter is untrue statistically even if for no other reason). But it does show that, conceptually, one can see that the explain/justify distinction is not always clear-cut, but can be blurred, so let's not be too absolutist about insisting that "to explain is not to justify."

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Regulation of maggots and leeches

Noted in this interesting article about medical uses for flesh-eating maggots (healing festering wounds) and bloodsucking leeches (draining excess blood in hand reattachment surgery):
But neither leeches nor maggots have ever been subject to thorough regulation by the Food and Drug Administration. So the medical advisers are being asked to create general guidelines about how they should be safely grown, transported and sold.

In addressing it, officials first had to decide which part of the agency had oversight: its biological or device division.

"The primary mode of action for maggots is chewing," said Mark Melkerson, acting director of the Division of General, Restorative and Neurological Devices. "For leeches, it's the eating of blood. Those are mechanical processes." Thus, the agency decided that maggots and leeches were devices, Mr. Melkerson said.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Iraqi Articles of Confederation

Matthew Yglesias notes that Bush compares Iraq's current constitutional predicament to the constitutional predicament of the newborn United States in the 1780's, apparently to reassure us that things will work out in the end: "As Americans watch the constitutional process unfold, as we watch people work to achieve compromise and unity, we've got to remember our own history. We had trouble at our own conventions writing a constitution."

But Matt goes on to make the excellent point that American constitutional history isn't all peaches and cream after 1789:
But let's take this analogy seriously. Iraq is maybe going through something like its Articles of Confederation stage -- you've got your Whiskey Rebellion, your disorder, your confusion, etc. But in a few years, they sort things out and the elite members of the nation's dominant ethno-sectarian group will work out an agreement establishing order throughout the country. The Sunnis, naturally, will be held as chattel slaves. Kurdish land and natural resources will be slowly expropriated via a series of genocidal military campaigns.

Some decades down the road, the conflicts papered-over in the initial constitutional compromise will break out into the open leading to a horribly destructive Civil War.

The Sunnis emerge, no longer enslaved, but systematically denied basic civil, social, and economic equality. A couple decades after that, the Kurdish Wars draw to an end, with the small bands of survivors herded into undesirable bits of waste land. A hundred years or so after the conclusion of the Civil War, they begin to grant equal rights to the Sunni population and get serious about trying to address conditions on the Kurdish reservations. We can expect, in other words, that Iraq will emerge as a liberal democracy sometime around the year 2170.
Reassured now?

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Update on polio: Saudi vaccine push

Saudi Arabia is going to vaccinate all visitors under age 15 against polio.
Saudi Arabia, which gets millions of visitors each year making their pilgrimage to Mecca, has ordered all young visitors from countries with polio cases to bring proof of vaccination and will vaccinate them again when they arrive, the World Health Organization announced yesterday.

In issuing the order, which applies to everyone under age 15 from 19 countries, the kingdom is moving to stem the global spread of the polio virus, which now affects mainly Muslim countries and regions. Although the next pilgrimage, or hajj, will not reach its peak until early January, the order will take effect as soon as possible. ...

Global health experts expressed confidence that the Saudis could stop any spread of the virus in their country, even though at times up to two million pilgrims may be pressed closely together in crowds around the holy sites and in the tent cities and hostels where they will be staying.
You may recall that due to false rumors about the safety of the polio vaccine in northern Nigeria, a new polio epidemic arose there and spread to Mecca through pilgrims and to Yemen (more here) and Indonesia.

Because the pilgrimage to Mecca was perhaps the principal means by which polio was being spread through Muslim countries, this will be a big help. But the damage may already have been done:
Because many people in Indonesia travel back and forth to China, the Philippines and Malaysia, the risk of the disease spreading to those countries is very high, Dr. Aylward said.
Hopefully people keep this in mind the next time anti-vaccine activists spread unfounded rumors about the supposed inefficacy and harmfulness of vaccines.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Unpatriotic right-wingers

Mark Kleiman may have the best take so far on the question of whether left-leaning types want America to lose in Iraq:
I noted earlier that Eugene Volokh's attempt to find important American liberals who support the Iraqi insurgency had yielded a result within measurement error of nothing whatever. But Henry Farrell's search for right-wingers who falsely assert the opposite -- who claim that large segments of the American left support our enemies -- has been much more productive.

The conclusion is inescapable: Large segments of the American right are making demonstrably false charges of disloyalty, thus weakening national unity in wartime. How unpatriotic of them!

What if the English Civil War happened ten years earlier?

A while back, Mark Kleiman posed this interesting question, on the assumption that additional Protestant troops might have made a difference in the Thirty Years' War, perhaps resulting in a decisive Protestant victory rather than the Peace of Westphalia which was basically a draw. But expert opinion, it seems, is that it probably wouldn't have made any difference.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

De Menezes didn't run from police

According to leaked documents from the official investigation into the shooting death of Jean Charles de Menezes on 22 July. The Guardian also reports here. It's outrageous: de Menezes calmly walked through the turnstiles, picked up a free newspaper, and only ran once he heard the train approaching. The officers weren't sure he was really a suspect because one of them was "relieving" himself when de Menezes left his flat. He wasn't even wearing a heavy coat. And so on.

I hope the outcome of the inquiry is not limited to punishing the police officers responsible. Errors like this reveal systemic problems with the whole system that have to be - and can be - fixed.

I've just been reading about wrongful police shootings in Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink. He suggests that when you chase someone and your heartrate goes above 175, your cognitive capacities are sharply diminished, and you become "temporarily autistic" as he puts it - unable to read someone's intentions. The mind just doesn't work as it should. Police departments have started to realize this, in banning high speed chases, having patrol officers work alone (so you don't feel the need to be brave in front of your partner), and following strict procedures when approaching a car, like standing slightly behind the driver and shining a flashlight onto the driver's lap (so there's no possibility for wrongly thinking the driver's about to shoot you). You cannot rely on human agency in these situations - you need to set up circumstances to reduce the chances of human error to as low as reasonably possible.

It's the same story with medical errors. Doctors try their hardest, but there is a limit to human ability, and at that limit, tiny modifications in the environment can make a difference. Following systematic study of fatal errors in anesthesiology, doctors cut the death rate from general anesthesia from 1 in 10,000 to less than 1 in 200,000 by seemingly trivial things like making all dials turn in the same direction and making it impossible to turn oxygen delivery down to zero.

We'll know more when the full report on the wrongful shooting of de Menezes comes out. The police officers are surely guilty of incompetence, but that isn't the whole story - I don't doubt that the "system" is guilty of incompetence too.

Statism is not creationism, part 2

Don Boudreaux once again makes a facile and fallacious comparison between creationism/Darwinism and statism/libertarianism.
Pinker says, defending the theory of natural selection against the idea of "intelligent design," that "Overcoming naive impressions to figure out how things really work is one of humanity’s highest callings."... I don’t here write to enter my two-cents in the debate between Darwinians and creationists (although, for the record, I am solidly in the Darwinian camp). I write to record that Pinker’s insight applies to society no less than to biological beings. ...

A social deist assumes that sovereign power is necessary to design and maintain the foundation, but not the superstructure, of society. That is, a social deist regards conscious design and maintenance of the ‘constitutional’ level as necessary. Upon this foundation, social order grows unplanned.

Social deists are contrasted, on one hand, with "social creationists." Social creationists are members of that species of juvenile thinkers who regard conscious, central direction by a wise and caring higher human authority as necessary for all social order – not only for the foundation, but for all, or much, of what the foundation supports.
I am fine with the Hayek-ian idea that spontaneous social order is superior to social order planned by human governments. But Boudreaux is wrong to frame this idea in terms of Darwinism v. creationism.

As I wrote before, Darwinism v. creationism is a debate about what, in fact, happened to cause the evolution of complex living things, not about which way would be better. As it happens, creationism is false, but one could easily argue that it would be nicer if it were true. Natural selection is cruel and wasteful; it works by relying on prodigious over-reproduction and death (or reproductive failure) of the less fit. To get to a well-adapted life form, you must go through (i.e., kill) millions upon millions of less-well-adapted life forms. By any human moral standards, it's not a "nice" way to go about making life. How much kinder and gentler if a benevolent old man with a beard really did just say "Let there be tigers" on October 28, 4004 BC and lo, there were tigers!

The point of Darwinism isn't to say that natural selection is a better way to generate complex life than God - but to say that natural selection is a plausible way, and God is not necessary to explain the current state of the biosphere. In contrast, the point of libertarianism or anarchism is to say that catallaxy is a better way to generate social order than central planning. It's one thing to argue that central planning isn't necessary for social order, and quite another to argue that centrally planned order is inferior to spontaneous order. It might or might not be, but the analogy to the evolution/creationism debate fallaciously tries to imply that the anarchism/statism argument has already been won by the biologists. The analogy is incorrect and merely confuses matters.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Pox parties

Tyler Cowen reports that it's becoming popular in New Zealand to take your kids to "pox parties," in order to infect them with measles, chickenpox, etc. so they don't need the supposedly "dangerous" vaccines. Needless to say, this is incredibly stupid:
[I]ntentional exposure to diseases through pox parties is risky. Measles can lead to pneumonia and, in one in 1000 cases, an inflammation that can lead to permanent brain damage. During a 1991 epidemic, seven unimmunised people died.

By comparison, there has never been a death associated with the measles vaccine, and the chance of brain damage is one in a million.

Even chickenpox is not benign. Between 1980 and 1993, nine New Zealanders – including six children - – died of the disease. Up to 200 chickenpox cases a year result in hospitalisation and one to two in long-term disability or death. [Note that New Zealand's population is about 4 million --ed.]
As far as we know, the MMR vaccine is perfectly safe. There's also a safe and pretty effective (85%) chickenpox vaccine. Just to supplement the measles statistics from the New Zealand article:
Risk of serious adverse event following chickenpox vaccination (not even necessarily caused by the vaccination): 1 in 50,000

Risk of hospitalization from chickenpox*: 1 in 500 for children, 1 in 125 for adults

Risk of pain and suffering from chickenpox: 100%

Risk of death from chickenpox vaccination: no one has ever died from chickenpox vaccination

Risk of death from chickenpox*: 1 in 100,000 for children, 1 in 4,000 for adults (most victims were immunologically normal and healthy)
*Source: Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases

Friday, August 12, 2005

Evolution v. religion: the problem of evil and the problem of design

Abiola Lapite argues that evolution cannot be compatible with an omnipotent, benevolent, activist God, due to the problem of evil:
Simply put, there is no room in the universe of Darwinian struggle and pitiless death for a benevolent, omnipotent, activist deity of the kind put forward by Judaism and its more popular offspring.
This is manifestly true, but it's not the point of conflict between evolution and religion that I would focus on. After all, the problem of evil isn't just true for evolution - it's true for, well, all of reality. Even if God did create the world 6,000 years ago, it would still be true that all sorts of horrible suffering goes on in the animal world, not to mention famines, natural disasters, and man's inhumanity to man in the human world. Some solutions are at least plausible for Deist gods, but not for the kind of interventionist God postulated by the great monotheistic religions. In any case, it doesn't take Darwin to raise the problem of evil.

The real Darwinian threat to religion is "Darwin's dangerous idea," the one that this blog is named after. It's the idea that all the fantastic complexity of life, humanity and consciousness was never designed, but happened on its own through a mindless, stupid, blind algorithmic process: natural selection. Cranes, not skyhooks. Complexity from the bottom up, not the top down. The watchmaker is not only blind - he's not even a real person.

This is the point on which evolution cannot be reconciled with most forms of religion. Insofar as religion is about ascribing meaning and intent to the natural world, a meaningless and intentless natural selection fundamentally contradicts the whole religious outlook. I wasn't surprised when the Catholic Church clarified its position on evolution as being that evolution-as-common-descent might be true, but evolution-as-unplanned-mindless-algorithm is definitely false - because the latter leaves no room for the Catholic God.

This common descent v. mindless natural selection distinction means that whether or not evolution and religion are compatible depends on what you mean by evolution. If you mean Darwinian evolution in its full glory, then they are not compatible (excepting Deist non-interventionist gods). If you mean evolution as common descent and gradual modification, then - they might be compatible. I think it's possible (and not logically inconsistent) to be a practicing biologist, understanding how random mutations spread through a population through natural selection and how protein domains are conserved across species and so on, while retaining some belief in the back of one's head that the mutations just appear random, and God is working in mysterious ways in the background. It's still a failure to take Darwinian evolution to its final philosophical conclusion, but doesn't conflict with the scientific theory of evolution itself, in that science just ignores "mysterious ways" that can't be observed, inferred, or falsified.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Manipulative malaria

Via Foreign Dispatches, Carl Zimmer reports a finding published in PLoS Biology that the P. falciparum malaria parasite actually makes infected humans smell more attractive to mosquitoes, thus increasing its chances of propagation.
They set up three tents, each large enough for a person to sleep in. A fan pumped air from the tents into a central chamber swarming with about 100 mosquitoes. Mosquitoes that were attracted to one of the tents would fly toward it, only to become stuck in a trap.

The researchers asked parents in western Kenya to allow them to test their children for malaria. For each round of the experiment, they chose one uninfected child in an early stage of infection and a child who was carrying gametocytes. The children slept for a few hours in the tents, and the scientists checked the traps to measure how many mosquitoes had been attracted to each child.

After studying 12 sets of children, the scientists discovered a striking pattern. "Gametocyte-infected children attracted about twice as many mosquitoes as either uninfected ones or ones infected with nontransmissible stages," Dr. Koella said. "The results really jump out."
Disturbing, yet fascinating. Of course, as a general strategy of infectious agents, this is no aberration - even the common cold virus has a "strategy" of increasing its transmission, by inducing coughing in its victims. Similarly for tuberculosis (coughing), cholera (diarrhea), rabies (aggression), etc.

To counter the optimistic note at the end of Zimmer's article, I have doubts about the practicality of blocking the mosquito-attracting effect. Obviously, the science is fascinating and we should learn all we can about how the plasmodium parasite functions - but even if we discover the mechanism by which the parasite makes people smell attractive to mosquitoes and can interfere with it, this will only stop the transmission to the next victim, not help or cure the presently infected person. Stopping transmission is great, of course, but depending on how risky/invasive the medical intervention would be, you might be hard-pressed to convince someone to undergo medical treatment that would bring zero benefit to them (other than fewer mosquito bites) and only a diffuse benefit to those around them. (This is a problem associated with transmission blocking vaccines in general.) Rather like the reason so many people these days are reluctant to get vaccines when they can just ride off the herd immunity of those around them.

Update, 12 August: In comments, Sennoma points out that there would be a direct benefit to the infected person, because fewer mosquito bites would translate into a lower risk of being reinfected during/after treatment.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

(Re)claiming essentialism

It's common to see arguments resting on the idea that there exists some pure, "real" version of something (an ideology, religion, organization, institution, person, etc) which has been corrupted or perverted by some more recent manifestation of that thing. I've been thinking recently about two examples of this form of essentialist thinking: the idea that "real" Islam is peaceful and radical Islamists have "perverted" Islam, and the idea that the "real" America is a place of freedom, democracy, equality, etc. and the modern GOP betrays everything that America stands for even as it invokes America to justify its policies. These are arguments that I'm quite fond of (in one post about extraordinary rendition, I echoed the poignant question, "What has happened to our country?" as if there were some Golden Age of America where torture did not happen), but they are certainly problematic.

After all, what can "real" Islam and "real" America possibly refer to? I trust no one seriously believes in Platonic Forms anymore, and certainly not for ideologies/movements/polities as amorphous and vehemently contested as "Islam" and "America." Empirically, no one can deny that aspects of Islam have been violent, or that America hasn't always been on the side of the angels. Is the "real" thing to which the essentialist appeals a mere figment of the imagination?

In a word, yes, but the story doesn't end there. Essentialism has a powerful intuitive appeal - hence the enduring popularity of Rousseau's idea that we all have an "authentic" self that can be obscured by the personas we act out, which mutated into Freud's unconscious ("Oh, that's not what you really think"). This power can be harnessed for rhetorical ends even though it is empirically unfounded and even conceptually incoherent.

Mark Kleiman had a post a while back noting that emphasizing good aspects and de-emphasizing bad aspects of American history when teaching schoolchildren is a good way to get them to believe later on that doing bad things is "un-American." I think this is true - it's certainly how I was brought up and why I believe that torture is un-American even though plenty of Americans have tortured prisoners in the past. The power of this rhetorical schema lies in the power of American national identity - if we liberals can reclaim (or claim) American patriotism onto our side, we harness all the emotional attachment of "America" for good rather than evil.

So it is, in a way, with "real" Islam. I wrote the following in a comment to this post by Abiola Lapite:
The claim that genuine Islam is peaceful (or whatever) seems to me at least partly a rhetorical ploy aimed to reclaim (or claim) Islam away from the Islamists. There is a conflict within Islam between liberal and reactionary strains and it seems like a sensible move for each side to say they are the "real" Islam. For Western politicians to say that the liberal strains are the real Islam is to signal support for that side within the intra-religious conflict, as opposed to blanket opposition to all forms of Islam. As for those liberals who silently acquiesce in Islamism, the schema that Islamists have "betrayed" Islam can be a useful tool to spur them to opose Islamism more openly.
Rather than assault the faithful full-on with an attack on "Islam," one makes the rhetorical move that the liberal strains are more true to the "real" spirit of Islam, thus harnessing the emotional attachment to "Islam" for good rather than for evil.

In a way, I've suggested that though essentialism may not be analytically helpful (or correct, or even coherent), it can be a powerful tool rhetorically and politically. I suppose one could say this is a cynical or disingenous form of argument if used in full recognition of its analytical inadequacy. Maybe it is; maybe it should appear with an asterisk at the end ("*statement meant rhetorically, not factually"). But as political speech - a genre full of analytically empty but rhetorically powerful schemas - it seems par for the course. Thoughts, anyone?


I'm going on vacation for a couple weeks, so posting will be sporadic after today. If you have any biology or neuroscience related topics that you'd like me to post about when I get back, leave a suggestion in comments!

Avian flu vaccine developed

Amidst all the worrying developments on the avian flu front (Tyler Cowen points out that you are more likely to die of avian flu than a terrorist attack), now comes some good news:
Government scientists say they have successfully tested in people a vaccine that they believe can protect against the strain of avian influenza that is spreading in birds through Asia and Russia. ...

In interviews over recent days, Dr. Fauci has said that tests so far had shown that the new vaccine produced a strong immune response among the small group of healthy adults under age 65 who volunteered to receive it, although the doses needed were higher than in the standard influenza vaccine offered each year.
There's still more tests to be done, though, so in some ways it's a race against time to see if we can finish vaccine development before avian flu spreads to humans:
The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, said that although the vaccine that had undergone preliminary tests could be used on an emergency basis if a pandemic developed, it would still be several months before that vaccine was tested further and, if licensed, offered to the public. ...

The additional tests are needed in part to determine the optimal dose of vaccine; how many shots people will need for protection; and whether adding another ingredient called an adjuvant to the vaccine could raise the potency of lower doses, stretching the number of people that could be protected. Even when these tests are completed, more time will be needed before the Food and Drug Administration can license the human vaccine and before policy makers determine when and how it should be administered.
And then there's the problem of actually making enough vaccine - again, quickly enough that people can get vaccinated before the avian flu becomes widespread:
"We don't have all the vaccine we need to meet the possible demand. The critical issue now is, can we make enough vaccine, given the well-known inability of the vaccine industry to make enough vaccine?"

Because the vaccine is made in chicken eggs, "a potential major stumbling block" to successful mass production is the number of eggs farmers can supply manufacturers, Dr. Fauci said.

If manufacturers can overcome such hurdles, the new vaccine could go far in averting a possible pandemic of human influenza, Dr. Fauci said.
Keep your fingers crossed, everyone.

Update, 8 August: Better keep them double-crossed.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Censoring controversial movies

I shouldn't be surprised by the news that the film adaptation of The Da Vinci Code may play down or even eliminate the central premise of the book - namely, that Jesus had a child with Mary Magdalene intended to be his heir, and the Catholic Church went to extreme lengths to suppress the truth and the "sacred feminine." The same thing is apparently happening with the film adaptation of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, in which religion is portrayed as evil, a force that represses humanity and all that is good and free in life.

Still, I can't help but gape incredulously. It's as though someone were to do a film adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ but took out all the stuff about the last temptation. Or tried to make Harry Potter palatable to the religious right by taking out all the magic. Really, what's the point?

Bush and "intelligent design"

So Bush has endorsed the teaching of "intelligent design" in American schools, using the patently disingenuous justification, "so people can know what the debate is about." Look, if you want kids to know what the debate is about, then have a lesson about it in social studies, "current events," religion, or philosophy. The scientific arguments for evolution (and, implicitly, against creationism) are already well-covered in standard science textbooks. In science class, we teach science, and intelligent design is not science - it's a non-explanation explanation that relies simply on the God of the Gaps to claim that we will never know that which we do not currently know.

Actually, what's ironic is that even if "intelligent design" were true, this wouldn't technically prove Darwinism wrong. Daniel Dennett has pointed out that even if life on Earth actually does turn out to be "irreducibly complex" (a very dubious proposition), we might very well have been created by some alien life forms who themselves evolved by Darwinian natural selection. After all, "intelligent design" doesn't have the hubris to claim that it is theoretically impossible for life to evolved ever - it claims that it is impossible for life as it exists on Earth to have evolved. Who's to say the "intelligent designer" didn't itself evolve? The idea of Darwinian natural selection - blind, unintelligent, algorithmic natural selection - is not ultimately dependent on evolution-as-we-know-it-on-Earth being true (though, obviously, all available empirical evidence indicates that evolution as we know it on Earth is, in fact, true). That this conclusion is unacceptable to IDers only goes to show that "intelligent design" is merely a code word for "life was created by the eternal, omnipotent God of the Bible."

Update, 4 Aug: Post updated to get Google to link intelligent design here, as per Sean Carroll's suggestion.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Anosognosia and the mind-body problem (literally)

Via the NYTimes comes news of this study (Pubmed link) showing that damage to the supplementary motor cortex (see simplified diagram at bottom of post) causes a fascinating syndrome called "anosognosia" in which patients are paralyzed but persistently deny the paralysis, often coming up with elaborate confabulations to explain away why they cannot move their arm:
Dr. Anna Berti sits facing a patient whose paralyzed left arm rests in her lap next to her good right arm. "Can you raise your left arm?" Dr. Berti asks.

"Yes," the patient says. The arm remains motionless. Dr. Berti tries again. "Are you raising your left arm?" she asks.

"Yes," the patient says. But the arm still does not move. ... If prodded for hours, patients will make up stories to explain their lack of action, Dr. Berti said.

One man said his motionless arm did not belong to him. When it was placed in his right visual field, he insisted it was not his. "Whose arm is it?" Dr. Berti asked.

"Yours," he said. "Are you sure?" Dr. Berti persisted. "Look here, I only have two hands."

The patient replied: "What can I say? You have three wrists. You should have three hands."
The NYTimes does a fairly good job of explaining the theory behind why damage to the premotor cortex would create this strange perception in anosognosic patients, so I won't rehash it. (It's very interesting, so do read the article!) What I want to address is this bit:
This denial, Dr. Berti said, was long thought to be purely a psychological problem. "It was a reaction to a stroke: I am paralyzed, it is so horrible, I will deny it," she said.

But in a new study, Dr. Berti and her colleagues have shown that denial is not a problem of the mind. Rather, it is a neurological condition that occurs when specific brain regions are knocked out by a stroke.
This is a false distinction. All psychological phenomena are rooted in neurology, because the mind is the product of the brain. Now, it is meaningful to talk of some phenomena as being "higher-order" and others as "lower-order" in terms of how easily they can be explained by the biology. In this case, we could distinguish the kind of denial caused by crude brain damage (anosognosia) and the kind of denial caused by, say, a traumatic childhood (or whatever; I'm not up on my psychoanalysis). But it is not meaningful to talk of mental phenomena as if they existed in a separate plane from biological phenomena. Even denial caused by a trauamtic childhood (or whatever) would still be implemented as a neurobiological level by neurons, synapses, and so on. It is nonsensical to talk about something as being "purely" a psychological problem.

The Scientist

Check it out: This blog has been linked to by The Scientist* (free registration required) as an example of a "science blog," along with several others. So this is cool, actual journalists read Universal Acid (or, um, know how to use Google...).

Anyway, for those of you coming from The Scientist, click here to find out what this blog is all about, and check "Favorite Posts" on the sidebar for some samples.

*In a typical example of biologists' self-importance (myself included), The Scientist actually just covers life sciences, and mostly biomedical sciences at that. Because, you know, if you're not a biologist, you're not a scientist...

Monday, August 01, 2005

Oedipus Rex retold using personalized license plates

I rediscovered this link today. A sample:

Read the rest!