I've written some recent posts about bullshit for Brainstorm.
The first one defines bullshit and describes Hunter S. Thompson's use of it on the campaign trail in 1972. And mentions a bullshit lecture on statistics I saw that was actually titled "Not Always Bullshit: A Simple Explanation of Statistics."
The second one relays what Harry Frankfurt, author of On Bullshit, had to tell me about the use of bullshit by Hillary and others on the campaign trail in 2008.
The third describes a bullshit music review in Maxim magazine, asks whether I committed the same sin in Psychology Today, and ties in material from the book How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read.
If a thought happens in a forest of neural dendrites, and no one is there to measure it, did you really think it? That's the premise of neurorealism—the bias towards believing that psychological phenomena aren't really real unless we have neuroscientific data to prove it. Further, the data can be used to make false claims appear real too—especially using the most seductive kind of brain data, neuroimages.
You can read more about it here in my story for the New York Times Magazine's 2007 Year in Ideas issue, published today.
The timing couldn't have been better. As I was writing it, a group of scientists published an op-ed in the Times titled "This Is Your Brain on Politics" that drew a scathing letter to the editor three days later co-signed by 17 eminent researchers in the field (including Anthony Wagner, in whose neuroimaging lab I worked from 2000-2002), as well as plenty of other bad press.
And last week, the neuropsychologist Daniel Amen, who makes commercial use of SPECT, published an op-ed in the LA Times arguing that we should scan the brains of all potential presidents so we can spot the types of "brain pathology" that would make one forget like Reagan, philander like Clinton, or flub words like Bush. He advocates the technique (and practically demands that the People employ his clinics) essentially as a form of Lite-Brite phrenology. His hyping of a reductionistic approach and of its political application embodies three related terms that Racine articulates in his paper: neurorealim (see above), combined with neuroessentialism* (the belief that your brain defines you as a person), deployed together to push policy changes (neuropolicy.)
On a lighter note, I considered titling the piece Crockusology, after the elusive Dr. Alfred Crockus. The tale, in brief: Since 2003, a man named Dan Hodgins has been claiming in lectures to educators and parents that a part of the brain called the crockus is four times larger in boys, supposedly explaining why "Girls see the details of experiences... Boys see the whole but not the details." In response to some questioning by prominent linguist and blogger Mark Liberman in September after one incredulous woman brought the apocryphal lump of grey matter to Liberman's attention, Hodgins further explained that "The Crockus was actually just recently named by Dr. Alfred Crockus. It is the detailed section of the brain [sic], a part of the frontal lope [sic]." The doctor and the brain area are all a big crock, but Hodgins has responded to various email inquiries with laughably vague and incorrect elaborations. This presenter's use of PowerPoint slides with pretty pictures to pilot pedagogy perhaps profiles all of Racine's terms even more prominently that the president-pestering psychologist in the newspaper piece. You can follow the gripping case history in full at Language Log.
Of course adding schematics and jargon can make any type of scientific explanation appear more valid, but they may be most potent in studies of the mind, as people have more confidence in tangible reality than in subjective accounts of experience.
Sources for the NYTM article: -Dave McCabe et al.'s in press Cognition paper "Seeing is believing: The effect of brain images on judgments of scientific reasoning" (pdf) -Deena Weisberg et al.'s 2008 Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience paper "The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations" (pdf) -Eric Racine et al.'s 2005 Nature Reviews Neuroscience paper "fMRI in the public eye" (html, pdf) -Joe Dumit (whose course "Brains and Culture" I took at MIT) was cut from the piece for space reasons, but he has a book titled Picturing Personhood: Brain Scans and Biomedical Identity and participated in a 2005 AAAS meeting session titled "Brain Imaging and the 'Cognitive Paparazzi': Viewing Snapshots of Mental Life Out of Context." *Adina Roskies may have been the first to use the term "neuroessentialism," in a 2002 Neuron paper, "Neuroethics for the New Millenium." (pdf). At least a third independent coining popped up last year on Mind Hacks.
There are so many things wrong with this interview.
First of all, it's way too meta. Instead of drawing a profile, more than anything it accentuates the interview process, which happened to be characterized by extremely poor rapport. From "None of your business." to "Is that a question?" to "You're done."
(I have to wonder if Solomon was trying to echo the dynamic that inspired this week's choice of subject to begin with.)
I think there may have been lack of good material too. Why did they print the stuff about Tony Snow? How is Wallace's parents' divorce and his brother's death 40 years ago relevant? Maybe if he had offered insightful answers to those questions, but... he misses his brother sometimes, and his dad in proud of him. Groundbreaking.
And then there's: Solomon: "Are you friends with Bill O’Reilly, the station’s emblematic conservative personality?" Wallace: "I don’t see him. He’s in New York. I am in Washington." LAME.
It's pretty much filler after "You weren't in the room."
(I'm also reminded of Ali G's painful interview with Wallace's father's colleague, Andy Rooney, which ends after two and a half minutes of grammar corrections with "I don't want to do this anymore.")
Remember Tuskegee? No, not the huge explosion in Siberia (caused by one of Nikola Tesla's experiments--wink wink.) That was Tunguska. In the Tuskegee Syphillis Study (1932-1972), hundreds of poor black men in Alabama were given shitty treatment for syphillis to see what would happen. In bad faith, the men were told they had "bad blood." No diagnosis, no informed consent.
Earlier this month, science writer Rebecca Skloot made a couple of blogposts covering the ethical implications of a new study. PolyHeme, a blood substitute, is being tested on unwitting ER patients, mostly in inner-city hospitals. The bizarro blood is creating bad press.
Meanwhile, testing on brown people has gone global, and human guinea pig positions are being outsourced overseas. Jennifer Kahn has a story in the March issue of Wired called A Nation of Guinea Pigs (not to be confused with Jeffrey Kahn's story in the March issue of Seed called The Case for Human Guinea Pigs) about how big pharm uses the population of India for cheap drug trials. They receive informed consent, but, as one doctor in the article says: "Nine out of 10 times, the patient will just ask me to make the decision about the trial for him. So what role do I play? Am I a physician, concentrating on what's best for the patient? Or am I a researcher interested in recruiting patients?"
BREAKING: Los del Río, the Spanish music duo responsible for the tragic Macarena outbreak of 1995, is revealed to be German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.
On November 20 I saw Saul Williams in concert. He's an impressive poet and an energetic performer. The only problem is, his work is very political and racially charged, and he was opening for Nine Inch Nails, a band largely followed by white, apolitical gothtards. I saw approximately (no wait, exactly) one black person in the audience.
So, early in the set, Saul was all, "Where my niggas at?!"
Apparently The Man does have a sense of humor. Or the midwest is as boring as I recall from my youth. Last week Idaho Legislature adopted a bill whose only goal was "commending Jared and Jerusha Hess and the City of Preston for the production of the movie 'Napoleon Dynamite.'"
I kid you not. I would list some funny excerpts from the bill here but there are just too flippin' many. It starts out pretty dry, but WHOO BOY it gets rolling. As I read it, I became more and more suspicious of a joke, especially when I got to:
WHEREAS, any members of the House of Representatives or the Senate of the Legislature of the State of Idaho who choose to vote "Nay" on this concurrent resolution are "FREAKIN' IDIOTS!" and run the risk of having the "Worst Day of Their Lives!" [ed: like anyone can even know that...]
But the URL is hard to fake, and the Idaho Statesman made brief mention of it on April 6, so it's the real deal. Read it for yourself.