Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

The gem, mineral, and fossil show

March 24, 2017

unknownMy wife Therese had the idea of going to the gem, mineral, and fossil show held at the State Museum. To humor her, I agreed, though this isn’t really my thing. Well, something to do, a little salutary marital togetherness. I was kind of expecting a dull exhibit, but instead it was a vendor bourse, very different, quite extensive, and fascinating.

We saw some amazing and bizarre stuff; the variety mind-boggling. So many mineral names I’d never heard before, seemingly without end. Many crystals looked quite astonishing, like dramatic little sculptures.



And cool fossils. Lots of ancient cephalopods (sea creatures like squids), highly polished and beautiful; hard to believe they were not carved by cunning artists.

Many items, like those, seemed surprisingly affordable too. As a passionate collector myself (of coins), I could see how people could really get into collecting this stuff. Rocks rock!

Therese and I tend to be lookers, not buyers, at art shows and the like, and we certainly had no expectation of purchasing anything here. But when I drew attention to one small item, Therese was blown away by it. Next to all the other bigger and dramatic pieces on view, it might not have seemed like much, a very simple little thing. Indeed, its very simplicity made it dramatic in its own way. It was a piece of whiteish rock on which was perched a good sized perfect cube* of silver-black pyrite crystal, about an inch on each side. With surfaces so smooth they were mirrors. I couldn’t recall ever having seen a crystal so geometrically perfect. Therese could hardly believe this was actually made by Nature; it took some convincing.

untitled-1And this too was not terribly expensive ($45), so we bought it. No sooner had we done so, and moved on to other sellers, suddenly we started seeing similar ones, even cheaper. But none possessed quite the dramatic in-your-face perfection of ours, so I was not unpleased.

It looks other-worldly to me, as though dropped onto our planet by ethereal aliens, like something out of Kubrick’s 2001. With mystical powers.

Therese calls it spooky, saying it almost scares her, and that it changes her relationship with existence.

* Actually, it’s what’s called a rectangular prism, as the facets are not exactly square.

The Time Lords and the Leap Second

February 11, 2017

images-1My previous partner used to call me “The Time Lord” (taken from Dr. Who). Because I was a stickler for punctuality. When I was an administrative law judge, and a hearing was scheduled for 10:00, it started at 10:00 – not 10:01. (Except once or twice when I overslept.)

As you may know, a “day” is from one sunrise to another; the year has 365 days, the time it takes for the Earth to circle the Sun. Except that it actually takes 365-1/4 days. unknown-2So we have leap years. Except that it doesn’t take exactly 365-1/4 days either. So we omit the extra leap day once every 100 years. Except for every fourth century, when we don’t. This keeps things just about right.

Our “hour” is based on dividing by 24 the planet’s rotation time. The hour, minute, and second, are as long as they are simply so that 60x60x24 equals one day, with no need for any fudge factor, like with leap years. However, here too there’s a wee problem. The rotation is slowing! It actually now takes a teensy bit more than 24 hours. The discrepancy wasn’t noticed until we started measuring time with super-accurate atomic clocks.

The world actually does have Time Lords. You’ve heard of “Greenwich mean time?” That refers to all clocks being set by reference to a master clock in Greenwich, England. images-2This system’s superintendents are the Time Lords (so to speak). It’s one o’clock when they say it’s one o’clock. And to keep time absolutely accurate, since 1972 they’ve inserted, every other year or so, an extra second into the year, based on their calibration of the Earth’s current rotation time.*

A one-second adjustment might seem like no big deal. But whereas, in past epochs, people were content merely to tell time roughly by hours, lacking timepieces capable of greater accuracy, today’s world runs on global time synchronicity down to the millisecond. And it’s actually important that the exact time in New York matches the exact time in Tokyo.

For example (as Michael Lewis’s book Flash Boys, about high speed trading, illuminated), it’s crucial for financial transactions that the sequence of events – purchase orders and their execution – occur unambiguously. The extra leap second throws a monkey wrench into this. It might be no problem if, when the Greenwich Time Lords insert the leap second, all clocks and computers and time-incorporating mechanisms throughout the world automatically adjust. But of course they don’t.

There have been global gabfests trying to straighten this out. A lot of people don’t like it that some self-important British nerds get to decide what time it is, and to change it on whim. But not surprisingly the Brits are extremely reluctant to let go of this vestige of the epoch when they really did rule the world.

images-4So far, no resolution has been achieved. For a Time Lord like me, it’s terrifying to think that when my watch says it’s 10:00, it may actually be 10:00:01.


* Without such adjustment, the discrepancy would cumulate, and in around 20,000 years, noon and midnight would be switched.

My credo

January 18, 2017


unknownAs our political transition unfolds, I find myself caught between the Scylla of a Democratic party increasingly romanticizing socialist economics hostile to enterprise and trade, and a Republican Charybdis fallen into a dark hole of nativism romanticizing a past that won’t return and shouldn’t. Today’s real divide is between mindsets of openness and closedness. With irresponsible foolishness of every sort running rampant, trampling sound classically liberal principles, I will not give up on them, but will continue to defend them in the years ahead. Here I recap those core principles.


  • Democracy and rule of law, so government is accountable to citizens, its powers over them restricted.


  • Freedom of speech, expression, and argument. images-1No idea immune from critical examination – even if that offends or discomfits some. This is not only integral to personal freedom, it is also crucial for society to evaluate ideas and progress thereby.


  • Limited government, filling only roles that individuals cannot. People able to choose for themselves how to live and act, with society dictating only when its reasons are compelling; basically, only to protect others from harm.


  • Free market economics is the best way to grow the pie so all can prosper. images-2Profit-seeking business is how people’s needs and desires get satisfied. That is best promoted when businesses are forced to compete openly and fairly with each other, none gaining advantage through government intervention. Instead government should function to remove barriers to competition and business enterprise.


  • This does not mean businesses unregulated. They too are subject to laws to protect others from harm.


  • Inequality is the inevitable result of people striving to better themselves, and is not unjust or an evil. Successful people are not the enemy, nor the cause of want. But a market economy generates enough wealth that we can afford to give everyone a decent living standard, out of simple humanity.


  • When another country can sell us something cheaper than we can produce it ourselves, we benefit as well as they. images-3Impeding such trade only impoverishes both nations. The gains from freer global trade, through lower consumer prices, vastly exceed the costs in any jobs lost.


  • America prospers best in a world wherein democracy, free trade, and peaceful development prevail among other countries, making them too more prosperous; so promoting those values must be the core of our foreign policy. Forces in the world threatening those values must be actively combated.


  • Government spending and taxation must be brought into a sustainable balance. Heedlessly piling up excessive debt will not end well.


  • Truth and facts should be sought objectively, and should shape our beliefs, rather than our beliefs shaping what we think are facts. unknown-1Confirmation bias is the enemy of reason. We acquire truth through science, a method of rational inquiry which progresses by self-correction as more facts become known and understood.


  • No religion is better or truer than any other. All are equally false; and that false consciousness can only impede people in grappling with challenges all too real.


  • Human beings are natural animals, resulting from Darwinian evolution. Ultimately the only thing that matters in the Universe is the well being of creatures capable of feeling. All people have equal dignity and worth (except for those who imagine their kind is superior, thereby proving they are inferior).


  • Over the centuries, the increasing application of all these principles has made for enormous global progress, with ever more people able to live ever better lives. unknown-2Abandoning these principles endangers that progress.

Chaos, fractals, and the dripping faucet

January 4, 2017

Physicist Arthur Eddington said, “the Universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it’s stranger than we can imagine.”

Right off the bat are two possibilities: either it always existed, or had a beginning. Either one blows fuses in my brain. (Note: the God idea doesn’t help. The same problem applies to him.)



Which brings me to chaos.

Religionists imagine God organized creation from primordial chaos; in common parlance that word connotes a state of complete disorganization. But in science its meaning is more subtle, and much more interesting, as famously pioneered by mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot starting in the 1960s.

Take the weather. It can’t be forecasted very far because there are so many interacting factors; a tiny change in one cascades into ever bigger changes over time. images-1Thus the proverbial “butterfly effect” – one flapping its wings in Brazil can ultimately cause a storm in Canada.

Mandelbrot posed the seemingly simple question: how long is Britain’s coastline? But it’s not so simple. Measuring it on a map of course can’t account for all the little crenellations. You could take a yardstick and walk the coast, getting a much more accurate answer. unknownBut the coast between two ends of the yardstick is not exactly a straight line, so you’re under-measuring. A foot-ruler would do better, but still won’t capture irregularities within each foot. No matter how finely you measure, the true coastline will always be longer. (Does that mean it’s infinite?)

Coastline irregularities are a kind of seemingly patternless phenomenon found throughout existence. But Mandelbrot’s startling discovery was that there is a pattern. The kind of coastal irregularities you see on a world map are exactly replicated when you focus on a smaller area. No matter how small. unknown-1And this paradigm of like patterns repeating at different scales of examination occurs again and again in nature. The word for this is fractal. It is order hidden within seeming randomness, seeming chaos.

Look at the illustration. No matter the scale, no matter how much you magnify, the pattern persists. If the picture reminds you of a snowflake, it should, because snowflake formation is a good example of the phenomenon.

Environmentalists romanticize a “balance of nature,” an ecosystem in harmonious equilibrium. It turns out no such thing exists. An ecosystem works like the weather, one small perturbation sending it on an unpredictable and quintessentially chaotic path.

Chaos can also affect a system close to your own heart. In fact, it is your heart. Its normally regular beating can sometimes become chaotic in the textbook sense. That calls for attention.

images-3I read James Gleick’s book Chaos hoping for a better understanding. Frankly much of it was way too deep for me. But it described one illuminating experiment, conducted by Robert Shaw at the University of California at Santa Cruz. It involved the most mundane thing: a dripping faucet.

Shaw found that certain flow rates produced chaotic drips, with no regular intervals between them. Then all he did was measure those intervals and plot those numbers on a graph. Actually he used pairs of intervals to produce a graphing in three dimensions. Now, you might expect a truly random distribution, with the dots falling all over, patternlessly. But that’s not what Shaw found. The pattern of dots took on a distinct shape (“resembling loopy trails of smoke left by an out-of-control sky-writing plane”).

Strange attractor

Strange attractor

A shape thusly revealed is called a “strange attractor.” I was puzzled by that term until I realized it’s as though the shape attracts the data points to itself, keeping them from falling elsewhere.

This is extremely weird. While the shape acts like a magnet for data points, of course a magnet is a physical object, but the “strange attractor” is not, it’s just a concept. So what is going on here? What makes the seemingly random, chaotic drip intervals form a certain distinct shape when graphed? unknown-2The hand of God?

Of course not. Surely God wouldn’t bother to carefully regulate the dripping to produce the pattern. Yet it’s as if he did.

But why? That’s what I really wanted to understand. The book doesn’t tell me; Gleick writes as though the question never occurred to him. He even quotes John von Neumann: “The sciences do not try to explain, they hardly even try to interpret, they mainly make models . . . [which describe] observed phenomena.” In other words, science reveals what happens, but not why.

With all respect to the great von Neumann, I disagree. Why the Universe exists may be a meaningless question, but why Shaw’s faucet dripped the way it did is not. Another scientist Gleick quotes answered Einstein’s famous line by saying God does play dice with the Universe, and the dice are loaded; “the main objective of physics now is to find out by what rules were they loaded and how can we use them for our own ends.”unknown-3

Science is humanity’s great quest for understanding. Through that understanding we can control our destiny. But that’s almost a mere side effect of the real motivation: we just want to know.

Fear and loathing in chemistry sets

December 26, 2016

images-1Remember chemistry sets? Millennials won’t. They pretty much vanished about 25 years ago. These were kits sold for kids, with arrays of different chemicals in little jars, and maybe some equipment like tongs, glassware, and Bunsen burners.

People loved them. Were they out of their minds? The danger! The danger!

Well, they sure were dangerous. I don’t recall having had a store-bought chemistry set, but I did have a science bent, and one time when my parents were out, I conducted a little clandestine chemistry experiment on the kitchen counter. images-2Yes, it blew up. The countertop was damaged, but luckily I was unscathed . . . until Mom got home.

The idea of letting a kid today play with chemicals, using fragile glassware and a Bunsen burner no less, would be seen as flat-out madness. Such a parent would probably be locked up.

Actually, chemistry sets are still sold, but they’re a pale shadow, with only a few insipid substances that do nothing more than change color; and certainly no Bunsen burners. unknownI even read that the Consumer Product Safety Commission was considering banning one set because it included . . . wait for it . . . a paper clip. Yes, the dreaded paper clip. Could be swallowed.

Remember the “Bubble Boy” . . . ?

But no doubt old-time chemistry sets did cause some injuries. However, when I googled the phrase “children killed by chemistry sets” (yes, intensive research goes into these blog posts), I couldn’t find a single case. But one commentary that came up said chemistry sets in fact taught kids safety. You learn by doing. (I certainly learned from that kitchen mishap.) Whereas today’s kids are so overprotected from every conceivable danger that they don’t properly develop the concept of danger. unknown-1I wonder if this is a cause for a modern behavior that really is insanely hazardous (killing thousands annually): texting while driving.

Chemistry sets also taught kids about, well, chemistry, and science more generally. My googling, while it turned up no death stories, did turn up kids who developed a love of science from those chemistry sets and went on to scientific careers. Maybe the demise of chemistry kits is one small reason why we’re producing fewer scientists.

Yet another casualty of our twisted mentality about fears and dangers. Both fear and its lack can be irrational, and we often get it wrong both ways. How many people have ever sent a text expressing fear about GM foods (no danger at all) – while driving? And too often we vent fears about good things (like GM, and child science kits) but not truly bad things (like guns in the home which, unlike chemistry sets, kill kids in droves).

unknown-2Another good thing that has suffered from this syndrome is the childhood fun of Halloween. Do you know how many kids were ever actually poisoned by Halloween candy?

Precisely one. His father did it to collect insurance.

Is reality real?

December 10, 2016

Bishop Berkeley, a 1700s philosopher, was the first to question the existence of a material reality outside our minds. unknownIn my 2009 Optimism book, I quoted an article by Professor Robert Lanza similarly arguing that reality is just a figment of mental activity – literally – “the trees and snow evaporate when we’re sleeping. The kitchen disappears when we’re in the bathroom.”

But (I wrote) if our perceptions create reality, then what creates our perceptions? Though you might question a reality that was yours alone, the fact that we all experience essentially the same reality corroborates it. images-1This isn’t a mass delusion. Madonna was right: we are living in a material world.

Lanza has meantime authored, together with astronomy writer Bob Berman, some books on “biocentrism,” carrying the argument further, and even using it to deem death an illusion. My wife and I debated about this, and she smacked me with an article in The Atlantic, (“The Case Against Reality”), interviewing Donald Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science.

Hoffman starts with the idea that our ancestors whose perceptions best matched reality would have had a competitive evolutionary advantage. Very plausible, he says, but “utterly false.” images-2Evolution, according to Hoffman, really hinges instead on “fitness functions” – “an organism that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but is just tuned to fitness.”

Hoffman invokes here as metaphor a computer’s desktop interface. It might show a blue rectangular icon in a lower right screen position – but those characteristics reveal nothing true about that file or anything in the computer. images-3The icon guides our behavior while hiding a complex reality we don’t need to know. Similarly, if I see a snake, it’s “a description created by my sensory system to inform me of the fitness consequences of my actions.”

But, like Lanza and Berman, Hoffman goes further, arguing that experienced perceptions are all there is, and what is perceived doesn’t really exist. This, he says, is what quantum mechanics tells us: “there are no physical objects.” So, “[j]ust like you have your own headache, you have your own moon” that you see. Thus, Hoffman derides most neuroscientists for focusing on “a physical brain,” an idea archaically rooted in 300-year-old Newtonian physics, when we’ve learned from more modern quantum physics “that classical objects – including brains – don’t exist.”

Let’s see if I can demystify this.

Hoffman’s perception-versus-fitness argument entails a false dichotomy. Simply put, accurate perception is one element of fitness. All else equal, an organism with better perceptual accuracy is more fit, and has a competitive advantage. images-4Seeing a snake may be like seeing a desktop icon, in guiding behavior, without needing to know anything about the underlying reality. Yet an ability to distinguish snakes from sticks, and some knowledge of a snake’s underlying reality (how it behaves), are important “fitness functions.”

It’s been said that if you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t. This applies to Hoffman, Lanza, Berman, and Deepak Chopra – another philosophical quack who similarly misuses catch phrases from quantum physics to propound nonsensical woo-woo propositions. (I noticed the first blurb for the latest Lanza-Berman book is from Deepak Chopra.)

Specifically, the Hoffman article says experiments have shown “that if we assume that the particles that make up ordinary objects have an objective, observer-independent existence, we get wrong answers.” Hence “[t]here are no public objects sitting out there in some pre-existing space.” But that second sentence simply does not follow from the first; it’s an absurd leap. While quantum physics does tell us some very queer things about particle behavior at the subatomic level, none of that means “classical objects” made up of zillions of particles don’t exist. Nonexistent things can’t have any behavior; you can’t perform experiments on them. imagesFailure to acknowledge that quantum mechanics governs only the subatomic realm, not that of everyday objects, is the fundamental mistake (or flim-flam) here. (And by the other authors mentioned.)

Our scientific understanding of the physics of reality has penetrated very far toward its core. We are not all the way there yet, and the problem gets ever harder because we are trying to see into ever tinier realms. It concerns the deepest structure of the particles at the heart of existence and of the spacetime in which they do their thing. And, true, the deeper we go, the more it’s as if “there’s no there there.” I’m writing this on a desk, seemingly a hard object. But it’s made up of atoms, which are almost entirely empty space, and what’s not empty space consists of particles which don’t seem to be the kind of solid objects we’re familiar with either. Drilling down, we haven’t gotten to where we can put our fingers onto something hard. Yet the desk is hard. How can that be? Or is it really?

images-5And so we have guys like Hoffman telling us “classical objects” like brains don’t exist. But the fact that we don’t yet understand – deeply, at the subatomic level – how their existence works certainly does not mean they don’t exist at all.

And the fundamental contradiction in Hoffman’s idea is that if reality is only a construct of mental activity, where does that mental activity come from, if not the brain? If brains (“classical objects”) don’t actually exist, how can there be any mental activity, any perceptions? It’s a chicken-and-egg tautology.

This is the problem with all philosophies (like Lanza-Berman’s too) that posit some kind of “mind” that somehow exists apart from the physical neurons in the brain. A “soul.” At the end of the day, our minds, our consciousness, our selves, thoughts, perceptions, feelings, all can only be phenomena rooted in the physical functioning of neurons. We don’t yet fully understand how that works either, but it must. There is no other possibility.

When Lanza and Berman tell us death is an illusion, what they’re really saying is that life is an illusion. Our lives – our consciousness, sense of self – may indeed be a kind of illusion generated by the physical interactions of our neurons. And when they die, the illusion dies.

On to Mars

November 21, 2016

unknownI was 21. And I vividly remember newscaster David Brinkley, with his distinctive twang, calling July 20, 1969 “a date that will be remembered as long as people remember anything.”

We have always been a race of explorers. Hillary said he climbed Everest “because it is there.” We recently saw a NOVA program about how humans spread to every corner of the Earth. How did early peoples conquer the Pacific? We were shown their boat-making and navigational prowess, that got them all the way to remote Hawaii and Easter Island – tiny specks in a vast nothingness. images-1But how did they know those islands were even there? Someone had to set out first, without knowing, to find them. Imagine getting in that boat.

Setting foot on the Moon took it to another level. Brinkley was right, and so was Armstrong: a giant leap, yet only a first step on a new and monumental journey. This was a rite of passage.

Since then, the journey seems stalled, if not exactly abandoned. Half a century ago, it was spearheaded by government, necessarily so in light of the cost. Since then, governments don’t really have time for the vaulting ambition of space travel, having become mired instead in a more mundane concern trying to reconcile somehow the contradictions of welfare state politics.

But of course human beings are not just creatures of politics and government, and the same impetus that propelled ancient Polynesians across the Pacific still pushes us toward more distant destinations.

unknown-1The Economist recently profiled the Mars project of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, a private company. The aim is to make available, in coming decades, $200,000 Mars tickets. This would be cheaper than the Apollo program’s cost to get men to the Moon – 50,000 times cheaper in fact. But SpaceX is developing serious plans for actually accomplishing its goal. They entail a BFR – a technical term, it stands for “Big Fucking Rocket” – dwarfing previous rockets, and reusable besides – to boost on its way a smaller vehicle carrying 100 passengers, which could double as temporary housing once they reach Mars. Necessary supplies and equipment would already have been dropped by previous missions. Thus would begin the human occupation of Mars.

Musk sees this as a much-needed “Plan B” for humankind, lest Earth become uninhabitable for one reason or another – as Cassandras keep warning. But The Economist says it’s hard to imagine circumstances in which making Mars livable isn’t much harder than making Earth livable. (Though that was before Trump’s election.)

Anyhow, “Plan B” isn’t the real reason to go to Mars. It is, after all, there. What more reason do we need? We will go there just as the Polynesians went to Easter Island.

images-2The Economist also says that while some adventurous souls undoubtedly would undertake the huge sacrifice such colonization would entail, to become truly self-sustaining Mars would need a population of around a million, and that would be a heavier lift. And, for all Musk’s hubris, the challenge of getting even one person to Mars does remain enormous.

unknown-2But again I quote our species motto: the difficult we do at once; the impossible takes a little longer. And I remember that some individuals who once deemed powered flight impossible lived to see men fly to the Moon.


Does science prove rich people are jerks?

October 13, 2016

Left wingers obsess over inequality partly because they hate that others are rich and they’re not. It’s more than just envy, but a sense of injustice: they feel morally superior, yet it’s the rotten rich who are rewarded.

unknownSocial science is rife with evidence showing that the rich and powerful are nasty. Is it that being nasty helps one get wealth and power – or that wealth and power corrupt one’s character?

Pertinent here was Philip Zimbardo’s famous Stanford prison experiment. Student volunteers were assigned to role-play as prisoners or guards. The latter soon became so brutal toward the former that the experiment was stopped. Taken as evidence that power corrupts.

unknown-1A recent article by Matthew Sweet in The Economist’s “1843” magazine starts with a study analyzing behavior at traffic intersections. People in fancier cars behaved worse. And Sweet cites a different Berkeley study summed up as “science proves rich people are jerks.”

But – he says – not so fast.

A 2010 analysis by three European academics, using much larger data sets, found opposite results: privileged individuals were more generous and charitable, more likely to volunteer, more apt to help a struggling traveler, or look after a neighbor’s cat.

But here’s where the story gets interesting. They submitted their paper to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which had published the Berkeley work. “We thought,” said one of them, Boris Egloff, “naïve as we were, that this might be interesting for the scientific community.” The paper was rejected.

 images-1The researchers thereupon extended their analysis to data from America and other countries, becoming more confident they were on to something important. Rejected again. Eventually it was published in an online journal. But meantime Egloff was seared by the experience. “Personally I would have loved the results of the Berkeley group to be true,” he said; that “would provide a better fit to my personal and political beliefs and my worldview. However, as a scientist . . . .” He vowed never to touch this subject again.

But why do studies disagree so diametrically? Sweet suggests this sort of research may be inherently problematical. In 2015 the journal Science reported on a group of 270 academics attempting to replicate 100 psychological studies, succeeding in only 36 cases. unknown-2And this work too has been faulted by yet another group of academics led by Harvard’s Daniel Gilbert (whose book Stumbling on Happiness influenced me greatly). Sweet says Gilbert has a vendetta against replicators, and when questioned on this by a journalist, he hung up.

Comes now Jonathan Haidt (another writer who influenced me greatly with The Righteous Mind), co-authoring a 2015 paper saying that over-representation of left-wing opinion in psychology faculties distorts the research results they report. This helps explain the Egloff paper’s rejection. As I’ve written, academia is becoming a fortress of enforced opinion defensively hostile toward non-conforming ideas.

“Might a shared moral-historical narrative in a politically homogeneous field undermine the self-correction processes on which good science depends?” the Haidt paper said. “We think so.”

images-2In plain words, researchers often find the results they want. During my days as a PSC judge, I recall one hired-gun economist whose analysis attempted to show that something that had quite obviously occurred had not, statistically speaking, happened at all. It prompted me to quote, in my decision, Mark Twain on the three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

Meantime, the reliableness of scientific results more generally is becoming a widespread concern. Much gets published, it seems, that doesn’t hold up. A lot of biases, not just political, operate. For example, researchers like to publish positive results – We found it! : -) – but not negatives ones — We didn’t find it : -(

However, the lesson is not that all science is suspect. New insights or data are not going to overturn something like Darwinian evolution. Instead, it’s that scientists are human, and must not let beliefs compromise objectivity. Take care against telling yourself (and your political bedmates) what you want to hear.

images-3So – are rich people nicer or nastier? I think it’s hard to say – and to generalize. I’m comparatively rich. And very nice.

Donald Ainslie Henderson: hero

September 13, 2016

One who saves another’s life is reckoned a hero. Donald Ainslie Henderson is a hero you never heard of, but he saved around 100 million (so far, and counting). He died August 19.

Unknown-1Henderson was responsible for eradicating smallpox, an extremely nasty disease. (If you believe in God, ask him some time why creation included such features.) When Henderson got this assignment from the World Health Organization in 1966, smallpox was still killing two million annually, and no one thought it could actually be eliminated. Except Henderson.

In fact, the WHO put an American in charge so the U.S. would be blamed for failure. They forgot our motto: “The difficult we do at once, the impossible takes a little longer.” In this case it took till 1977. That year the world’s last smallpox case was registered.

Henderson succeeded by doing what humans do: indefatigable hard work, research, figuring out the best methods, and a lot of cooperation. Hundreds of thousands of people ultimately pitched in to this massive effort.

Those who romanticize the natural world should remember that things like smallpox are part of it. Nature is not our friend. Our entire history is our battle against it. Our victories should be celebrated. This was a great one.

I am so proud to be a member of the human race.

Mind and – or versus – brain – and “neuropsychoanalysis”

August 18, 2016

imagesThis book was a gift from my wife: In the Mind Fields by Casey Schwartz. I’ve written before how the concept of the self bugs me. I keep pondering: what, really, is this feeling that I’m me? David Hume identified why this is so hard – it’s using the self to look for itself.

The book is subtitled Exploring the New Science of Neuropsychoanalysis. But it wasn’t persuasive that there even is such a thing.

It’s a tale of two disciplines. Psychoanalysis, the whole Freudian thing, tries to demystify the workings of the mind. Neuroscience tries to understand the workings of the brain. It’s interested in figuring out how the brain creates the mind. But, once you have one, the thoughts it produces are no concern of neuroscience. That’s psychology, the province of psychoanalysis. And, in turn, psychoanalysis isn’t much interested in the nuts and bolts of brain function that neuroscience explores.

imagesIndeed, as the book says, psychoanalysts are so fixated on the mind that they tend to forget it’s produced by the brain. They’re often actually somewhat hostile to neuroscience, seeing it as aridly divorced from the reality of human experience, as lived through the psychology they are concerned with. While neuroscientists tend to look down on psychoanalysis as unscientific, non-rigorous, subjective psychobabble.

Neuropsychoanalysis (as the name implies) seeks to bridge this chasm, by bringing the findings of neuroscience into the practice of psychoanalysis. However, while its leading prophet, Mark Solms, does use the word, the book left me unclear how, if at all, this marriage actually works in practice.

UnknownEventually, the author comes around to focusing intensively on one case: Harry, and his psychoanalyst, David Silvers. A normal, athletic man, Harry had a stroke in his thirties that partly crippled him and left him aphasic – i.e., largely speechless. (He fully understood language, but couldn’t put thoughts into words.) Unable to continue his tutoring business, Harry’s life became a cycle of medical appointments.

Now, this was quintessentially a neuroscience case. Harry’s problem was not psychological; his brain was physically damaged. Of course, he did have some psychological difficulty adjusting to his loss and new circumstances but that was certainly not mental illness. At one point, though, Silvers labels him “depressed.” That diagnosis seemed superciliously offhand. Depression is a particular pathology, apparently caused by brain chemistry effects. Harry was not “depressed,” he was responding to a rotten break, as any normal person would. If anything, he seemed pretty cheerful under the circumstances.

So what was Harry doing in psychoanalysis altogether? It works by talking through issues with the analyst. But the supreme irony here is that Harry’s problem was his inability to talk! He did manage to communicate, somewhat, sort of. But Silvers acknowledged that his sessions with Harry did not resemble his usual interactions with patients.

The book flap states that Harry “nevertheless benefits from Silvers’s analytic technique.” This assertion is key to the whole book. Yet I could not see how Harry benefited, therapeutically. He and Silvers did establish a human bond, which Harry seemed to value. But Silvers’s psychoanalysis did nothing to improve his situation. In fact, Harry was actually in worse shape at the end.

images-2Nor could I see how Silvers’s efforts could be labeled “neuropsychoanalysis.” He had no neuroscience training, and nowhere did he appear to be using neuroscientific insights to help Harry. This evokes the old saw, “if your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” Silvers’s psychoanalytic toolkit was simply mismatched to Harry’s case.

Freud, who figures prominently throughout this book, had a lot to say about the self and its behavior – some of it wrong, though he himself would have acknowledged the tentativeness of his theories – but he had no clue what makes a self. Someday neuroscience may crack this very hard problem. images-1Then maybe I can finally know who and what I am.