an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

what to do with a serious problem like Trump: part one

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When I first encountered Trump, I suppose a couple of decades ago now, I quickly felt an intense, visceral loathing and disgust. He struck me as tasteless, vulgar, ignorant, vain, an exemplar of the absence of all humane values. A boorish, blustering, bigoted, bragging blundering, bullying, bullshitting buffoon, not to put too fine a point on it. And then, when those he demeaned and belittled began acting as if they deserved it, I began to wonder – who is worthy of more contempt, Trump, or those who take him seriously for more than a second? How could anyone with an ounce of sense not see that he was a walking advertisement for abortion?

But then, when you start thinking everyone’s a fuckwit except yourself, you know something’s going wrong. Okay, you do start listening around and find that in many circles Trump’s a laughing-stock. But then he’s somehow super-rich, and people like to hob-nob and ingratiate themselves with the super-rich no matter how obnoxious and boring they are.

So why was Trump super-rich? I have to say that, having lived mostly below the poverty line in one of the world’s richest countries (that’s to say I’ve rarely come close to going hungry), I’ve never really associated with rich people, never mind the super-rich. They’re like alien beings to me. But it stands to reason that there are two types of super-rich people; those who inherited wealth, or those who gained it by their own talents and efforts – legitimate or illegitimate.

So which of these was Trump? He struck me as flamboyantly imbecilic, far removed from the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs types. And I have to say it wasn’t a burning question for me. Naturally I was far too superior to concern myself with such riff-raff, and yet…

Information fell into my lap over the years. He’d inherited oodles of wealth from his father, a ‘business tycoon’. He’d never done a day’s work, in the general sense, in his life. He’d been bankrupted many times. His net worth was anything from negative infinity to positive infinity. His principal business was real estate, which was as hazy to me as scalar field theory. But his principal interest was self-promotion, which I felt a bit more cluey about. It seemed he was little more than a ‘big noise’.

So that was it, until he began to run for President, and shocked almost all pundits, including this pseudo-pundit, by winning quite well on an electoral college basis, though losing the popular vote.

Of course during the run-up to these ludicrously long US presidential elections, especially in the final months of 2016, we were pretty well forced to learn more about Trump than many of us ever wanted to know, and it’s been an ongoing ‘reveal’ throughout the last eighteen months or so. But I return to my initial response to Trump, and my feelings of contempt, and easy superiority.

How did Trump become what he is? How did I become what I am?

How free are we to form ourselves?

I think the answer is clear, though clearer when we look at others than when we look at ourselves. We didn’t get to choose our parents, our genes or our upbringing, we didn’t get to choose or influence our experience in the womb and in our earliest formative years, which the Dunedin study, inter alia, reveals as more character-forming than any other period in our lives.

More questionably I didn’t get to choose a character that loathes someone like Trump, any more than Sean Hannity and many others got to choose a character that finds Trump appealing, refreshing and admirable, assuming that I’m reading more or less accurately Hannity’s mind.

So am I saying we’re all blameless when it comes to our flaws, and unpraiseworthy when it comes to our virtues? Further, am I saying that moral judgment is inappropriate?

I hope not. After all, humans are the most social of all creatures – vertebrate creatures at least. We’re interested in getting along, in minimising harm and maximising advantage, for us all. We shouldn’t turn a blind eye to any person, or policy, or activity, that threatens that well-being. So we should discourage, and sometimes punish behaviour that harms or demeans others, while at the same time recognising that the bully or aggressor is acting under the sway of traits she has less control over than we might think.

So we should judge behaviour as immoral when it damages others or damages the institutions or activities that tend towards the general well-being. And we should check or punish those who commit those faux pas, which we might call crimes, misdemeanours, or bad behaviour, to the extent that they understand that resistance of the general will is futile – that’s to say, that continual commission of those faux pas will be counter-productive to their own well-being.

Let me return then to the case of Trump. In watching and listening to him, I find him, as President, consistent with the person I loathed decades before, though I also realise, as I did then, that there is something unfair and slightly unseemly about my contempt, for reasons described above. Trump is the product of a background and influences which are clearly far removed from mine. I was also, like many, somewhat fascinated by him as a specimen who revealed, more effectively than most, how infinitely variable human experience and character can be.

However, though I recognise that he is what he is and can’t help but be, I’m also alert and alarmed that he is now the President of the USA – a shocking development, considering the man’s character.

For, though nobody should be blamed for his own character, there are some characters that the general society needs to be protected from, because of the damage they are capable of doing, or incapable of not doing, given certain powers and opportunities.

Trump came to his current position with a reputation which, I feel, was deserved, given everything I observed of him, and everything I learned. That reputation was one of dishonesty, self-aggrandisement, wilful ignorance and anti-intellectualism, and indifference to the feeling and suffering of others, with possibly a few exceptions, and leaving aside his children, whom he would see as extensions of himself to a large degree.

There are some characters who are so pathological, so damaging to themselves and/or others that society needs to be protected from them, unless of course their pathology can be identified, treated and cured. In the case of Trump, the terms psychopath, sociopath, malignant narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder have been given an airing. It’s surely not coincidental that these claims about Trump have been much more frequent since he has become President. His power to damage the wider society is at its zenith.

When I first heard the term narcissistic personality disorder directed at Trump, it was in a discussion with a mental health professional, early in the Presidency. That professional was critical, even angry, that the term was used to describe Trump, because, he felt, this term described a real and debilitating pathological condition which was far too serious to be used for political purposes against Trump. His words gave me pause, but now I think it’s time to look at this matter more closely.

First, before actually looking more closely at the ‘mental disability’ terms described above, I should say this. As Stormy Daniels’ impressive attorney Michael Avenatti has said, Trump’s behaviour, especially his constant self-promoting and self-protecting lies, should concern all Americans regardless of their political persuasion. Trump’s behaviour in office is essentially not a political issue, in spite of its massive political consequences. One pundit recently described Trump as a ‘lifelong Democrat’ before switching to the Republican party a few years ago. It’s my contention however that Trump was never a Democrat and has never been a Republican. He has never been interested in politics in the usual sense – that of believing in and promoting policies and practices for the most effective running of a state. He has little interest in or knowledge of political history, political philosophy or international affairs, and no knowledge whatever of science, or history in general. He doesn’t read or have anything like an enquiring mind. He has expressed very little compassion for others, except when it may benefit himself, and his concept of truth is not something that anybody seems to be capable of recognising or describing.

This description of Trump is not a political one. It’s a description which most sensible people would broadly agree with. It’s a description of a person so singularly ill-equipped to be the President of the world’s most powerful military and economy, that the question of how he came to be in that position and how he can be removed from it before further damage can be done, should be paramount.

Before I go on, I should address those outliers who say that Trump has been a successful and impressive President. They would cite the booming economy and the administration’s tax legislation, the only major piece of legislation enacted thus far. On the tax legislation, I will not consider its fairness or unfairness, or the effect it has had on the US economy. I will simply say that Trump recently claimed more or less sole responsibility for this legislation, a claim that was demonstrably false. Trump did not participate in the writing of this legislation, and he most certainly hasn’t read it. He simply presided over a Republican congressional majority responsible for its production. As to the US economy, that is a massively complex area, full of winners and losers, which, of course, I’m not competent to comment on, any more than Trump would be. Suffice to say that the reasons for an economy’s success are manifold and generally historical.

So there is a problem with Trump as President. In my next post I will go into more detail about what the problem is, and why there is no easy solution.

Written by stewart henderson

May 5, 2018 at 11:33 am

Archimedes, the Mathematikos and the birth of science

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Rise above yourself and grasp the world.

Archimedes (attributed: inscribed on the Fields Medal)

One of Archimedes’ most spectacular inventions, the gravity-defying spiral-in-a-cylinder, or screw – still effective

Canto: So we spent some time at the Waikato museum in Hamilton, braving the school holiday crowd to view an exhibition celebrating the work of Archimedes (c 287-212 BCE) and his fellow mathematikos, and noting how it inspired the likes of Leonardo some 1800 years later. So let’s talk about their breakthroughs and about why there was such a gap between their clever contrivances and the maths on which they were based, and the scientific revolutionaries of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Jacinta: These are intriguing and vital questions. Many modern scientists have been dismissive of the science of the ancient Greeks because they think of Aristotle as representative. I think it was Lawrence Krauss I heard complaining of Aristotle’s belief that women had less teeth than men – apparently he never thought to count them! But the fact is that, though Aristotle is sometimes known as the father of empiricism, he probably doesn’t deserve that title except in respect of ethics, and politics, which he based on what actually works for societies and city-states, which is why he collected and analysed their constitutions. The mathematikos, on the other hand, eschewed ethical issues in favour of mathematics – geometry in particular (think Euclid). And, especially in the work of Archimedes, they enjoyed phenomenal success in many practical areas.

Canto: Especially warfare apparently. It seems Archimedes in particular was called on more than once to defend his city, Syracuse, with war machines. In the blurb to the exhibition, they mention ‘torsion ballistae’. Can you please explain?

Jacinta: Well, I’ll tell you about the torsion siege engine. It replaced the earlier tension siege engine, possibly invented in Syracuse in the time of Dionysius the Elder (c 432-367 BCE) – so the engineering of weapons of war was already a big thing at the time. It was basically a massive catapult. The first torsion device of this kind is generally dated to the time of Philip II of Macedon, Alexander’s dad, circa 340 BCE. The first extant evidence of its use comes from a list of items in the arsenal of the Acropolis in Athens dating to 338-326 BCE. So what is torsion? It’s the energy created by winding something up, like a spring. In earlier times, human hair, horsehair and animal sinews were used for this purpose.

Canto: So plats give you energy?

Jacinta: Torsion basically means twisting. The Greeks apparently used specially cured sinew combined with human or animal hair to create a ‘torsion bundle’ – we don’t know what the exact recipe was – which was fixed to a wooden frame and could be twisted and released regularly via levers without breaking. But the key development was the mathematics of these devices. This military website describes:

The critical dimension was the diameter of the sinew “spring” or torsion bundle. For a bolt shooter, the ideal diameter was one-ninth the length of the bolt. For a rock thrower the ratio was more complex; the diameter (d) of the bundle in dactyls (about 3/4 inch) should equal 1.1 times the cube root of 100 times the mass of the ball (m) in minas (about a pound). Saddled with a numerical notation system even more awkward than Roman numerals, the Greeks developed sophisticated geometric methods to compute cube roots.

Canto: So how were these maths – these geometric methods – derived. Euclid was the great geometer of the time, wasn’t he?

Jacinta: Actually, though the exact time-frame of Euclid’s life isn’t known, his Elements came out after this invention, but before the work of Archimedes. Clearly it must’ve been drawn from earlier mathematikos, such as Eudoxus, who worked out, via an early version of integral calculus, that areas of circles relate to squares of their radii, and volumes of spheres relate to the cubes of their radii, and various other relations between volumes and dimensions of pyramids, cylinders, cones etc, which obviously had practical applications as described above.

Canto: Okay, so tell us about Archimedes’ particular contributions, and about why the great work of the mathematikos was apparently discontinued after Archimedes. Considering that the Roman Empire didn’t become christianised until some 500 years after Archimedes’ death, we can’t really blame the Christians – can we?

Jacinta: Well, I mentioned that early version of integral calculus. It was called the method of exhaustion, a kind of geometric calculus which Archimedes took further than anyone before him, both in theoretical terms and via practical applications. Now I’m far from being a mathematician, but I’ve come to appreciate the essentiality of maths in understanding our universe – so much so that I perhaps regret my lack of mathematical expertise more than I regret anything else in my old life. This is by way of saying that I won’t try to explain Archimedes’ maths – but an understanding of maths is essential to understanding the magnitude of his achievement.

Canto: Okay, so what about his inventions?

Jacinta: Well the key is the application of complex and what might have seemed pointlessly abstract maths about the relations of ‘perfect’ shapes such as spheres, cones and cylinders to real world problems and their solutions. The lever is a good example. Archimedes didn’t invent levers but he was clearly fascinated by them. And it shouldn’t take long to realise that they have immense practical applications. Doors are levers, as are nail clippers, nutcrackers and see-saws. Archimedes wrote what we now call a treatise, On the equilibrium of planes, to explain the maths behind them. But the best illustration of Archimedes’ combination of theory and practice is probably what is known as Archimedes’ principle, which essentially launched the field of fluid dynamics, or fluid mechanics:

the upward buoyant force that is exerted on a body immersed in a fluid, whether fully or partially submerged, is equal to the weight of the fluid that the body displaces and acts in the upward direction at the center of mass of the displaced fluid.

It comes from another treatise of his, On floating bodies. Now let me see if I can explain this. Take an object, any object. The downward force exerted on it is its weight. Immerse it in water. It will float or it will sink, and even if it floats it’ll be partially submersed. The principle doesn’t apply to objects that sink, which will have a density of anything over and above a certain level which permits it to float – I think.

Canto: But that principle, though it comes from a treatise about floating bodies, doesn’t distinguish between floating and sinking. It says ‘fully or partially submerged’…

Jacinta: But an object can be fully submerged and still float. To sink means to continue in a downward direction.

Canto: I’ve found that an object that floats – I’m thinking of water as the fluid, and perhaps I shouldn’t – always seems to have a certain proportion above the water level. Think of icebergs, and human bodies. But I think I get it – the force that keeps you up and floating will be equal to the weight of the water your body displaces… So if I was ten kilos heavier, I would still float but the upward force acting on me would be greater, but not by ten kilos, rather by the larger volume of water my larger body displaces measured in kilos, or by some measure of force…

Jacinta: I don’t think that’s wrong, but I’m not sure if it’s right. The problem for me is that the principle as stated doesn’t specify a floating body, only a body immersed – partially or fully in a fluid. Think of a stone dropped in water. It sinks. To the bottom.

Canto: And if the fluid is bottomless will it just keep on sinking? It’s as if there’s no upward force acting on it at all, or very little. I’m imagining a bottomless column of still water here, not an ocean with its currents…

Jacinta: Ha, I was thinking of a bathtub, but with a bottomless well, it will depend on the density of the stone. I think at some point it’ll slow down and be suspended. I’m sure water pressure will play a role, and density – of the water. And density is somehow related to pressure, and I’m getting lost…

Canto: We may need to do a Khan academy course. But getting back to Archimedes and the mathematikos, why was so little of their work built upon, until Galileo and others became inspired so many many centuries later?

Jacinta: That’s possibly too long a story to go into here, not that I’m much equipped to tell it. It no doubt relates to the gradual decline of the increasingly dispersed Greek culture of the Hellenistic and post-Hellenistic era. I wouldn’t want to say Christianity was a major cause but it certainly didn’t help. By the time the Roman Empire became Christianised, the culture that created figures like Archimedes had long passed. Roman culture was a lot more militaristic and less speculative. Blue sky research wasn’t in vogue. Of course, why all this happened I wouldn’t venture to say without many years of research into the cultural changes then occurring. But the slowness of the scientific recovery, that I would attribute to Christianity, and later to the conservative turn in Islam that still prevents original science from being practiced in those countries where it holds sway.

Written by stewart henderson

May 2, 2018 at 9:13 pm

Relaxing time: let’s talk about Trump again

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Trump’s mental health usually only gets publicity when it’s questioned by political insiders – medical experts aren’t given enough credence

Jacinta: We like to explore the Trump debacle when we feel too lazy to focus on other subjects, which generally require research and diving into unfamiliar and taxing fields, such as palaeontology, microbiology, geology, astrophysics or remote historical epochs. So now, since we’re on holiday, let’s have fun fun fun.

Canto: So first, some comments on Sam Harris’ interview with Niall Ferguson, conducted some weeks ago. Ferguson is primarily a financial historian, though I know him through his book War of the World, which I found interesting but questionable at times – though of course I can’t remember my objections now. I think I basically disagreed with his thesis that the twentieth century was more hateful and violent than other periods – IMHO, it was just more effective at killing people, and of course there were more people to kill than in previous centuries. Anyway, on listening to Ferguson talk to Harris, I found myself disagreeing on more points than I can go into here, but I’ll restrict myself to his comments on Trump. He seemed overly complacent, to me, about Trump’s destructive capacities, describing him as a populist (a rather watered-down description) who would probably only serve one term, though maybe two. He also felt that, quite possibly, it would’ve been worse for the USA had Clinton won, as the Trump supporters would’ve felt cheated, while all the old elite cronies would’ve returned to office…

Jacinta: We’re not sufficiently au fait with Yank politics to ‘get’ that feeling, to feel it under the skin so to speak, though we understand in an abstract way that many sectors of US society feel left behind, and Ferguson seemed to be claiming, strangely, that it was better for the disadvantaged and under-educated that ‘their’ candidate, who of course hasn’t the slightest interest in the Presidency except to make money and be the centre of attention, won the election and immediately betrayed them, than that Clinton won and protected the Affordable Care Act, promoted education and science, and didn’t introduce massive tax cuts for super-rich corporations, while continuing to hob-nob with their own kind.

Canto: A couple of books we’ve read lately, The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, and Chasing the scream, by Johann Hari, have provided glimpses into the struggles of blacks and immigrants in the US, but so many of we non-Americans smugly look askance at the inequalities and harsh divisions there, the hapless health system and the hideous gun culture. What I don’t get with Ferguson is how he can claim that someone like Trump, who only exacerbates these inequities, was perhaps preferable to Clinton – who, presumably, does have liberal values of the ‘nobody left behind’ type, which she would surely have tried to act on to some degree – simply because his betrayal would’ve shown to his supporters that he had feet of clay. It’s a bizarre and really quite cruel argument.

Jacinta: He also seemed not to give too much credence to the Mueller investigation. We’re both in agreement that Trump will be out of office by the end of the year, a prediction made last December. The Cohen raid and the charges they will inevitably lead to have boosted these chances, but I feel it was slam-dunk, as the Yanks have it, well before that. The only problem I see is getting Trump to accept the verdict.

Canto: There’s also the question of whether team Mueller will play the Trump card before the end of the year. He wants all the President’s men first. Ferguson considers impeachment, but argues there’s only a fifty-fifty chance that the Dems will be in control after the mid-terms, and that even then Trump could survive impeachment, as Clinton did. He didn’t consider the obvious fact that Trump will never have more than fifty percent approval (unlike Clinton), and I think he grossly underestimates the turn against him in the electorate. The way things are going now, the mid-terms will see a massive turn-around. I think the majority now not only want to see a Democratic congress, they want to see Trump impeached.

Jacinta: And yet we don’t want impeachment, right? We want Trump charged, convicted and imprisoned. We don’t want politics to play any role whatsoever.

Canto: Probably a forlorn hope but, yes, we’d like to get the Yanks to accept finally and forever that their head of state isn’t above the law. In this instantiation, he’s a criminal, pure and simple.

Jacinta: So let’s have a nice schadenfreudesque time contemplating how the crim and his henchmen – they’re all men naturally – will get their just desserts.

Canto: So many things. Three guilty pleas – I doubt if Papadopoulos has much to offer, but Flynn and Gates are major figures, co-operating with the enquiry. Campaign manager Manafort facing major charges and guilty as fuck. Cohen certain to be charged with bank fraud, wire fraud and campaign finance violations…

Jacinta: What is wire fraud?

Canto: That’s simple – it’s any kind of fraudulent activity involving, or by use of, telecommunications systems – computers, phones, TV, radio – it’s been on the books in the US since the nineteenth century. The Cohen situation is most obviously dire for Trump, from a public perspective, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the info team Mueller has garnered from Deutschebank is damning as fuck as well. And there are other matter that should be criminal too. There’s this thing in their constitution called the Emoluments Clause, which Trump has basically ripped to shreds and used as toilet paper, but I’m not sure if that’s the criminal act that it should be.

Jacinta: It’s interesting that the high-profile Stormy Daniels lawyer, Michael Avenatti, has recently predicted that Trump won’t finish his first term. Do you think he’s been reading our blog posts?

Canto: C’est evident. However, he’s predicting Trump will resign. We, on the other hand, feel that Trump isn’t the resigning type. Has he ever resigned in his life? He’s never been in a position to do so, never having been an employee.

Jacinta: Haha, when he was campaigning he talked about ‘we workers’. He really is a blow-harding genius. Yes, we’ve already said that Trump would rather lock himself in the White House toilet than go quietly…

Canto: That would certainly get him lots of publicity, and any publicity is better than none for Trump, according to Maggie Haberman, not to mention Oscar Wilde.

Jacinta: So assuming team Mueller has an embarrassment of riches to choose from – the DNC hack, the lies about meetings with Russians, financial crimes, conspiracy, obstruction of justice multipled by x – and that their findings, or some of their preliminary findings, are out by year’s end, and are comprehensively damning, how will Trump be ousted? Assuming that he says they’re all fake charges and refuses to resign?

Canto: I wish I could answer that. I do think, though, that both the Senate and the House will ‘flip’ as they love to say there, and the animus against Trump will harden. He’ll be impeached and it will be a popular move, but considering that may not happen until after the mid-terms, it leaves little time for our prediction to succeed.

Jacinta: Stop press – Trump has just gone on a massive rant at Fox News, in which he has incriminated himself more than once and proved how obsessed he is with his own petty affairs and how utterly indifferent he is to running the country. It was darkly hilarious, with the Fox anchors trying to shut him up and finally coming up with the ultimate bullshit line, ‘I know you must have a million things to do, Mr Prez’….

Canto: Yes he clearly does fuck all, not that anyone in their right mind would want him to do anything Presidential, much better if he devotes the rest of his life to golf.

Jacinta: The sport of bores, as James Watson would have it. So who is to blame for this monumental disaster? Where do we begin?

Canto: We begin with a lack of vetting for candidates to putatively the most powerful job on the planet. You can’t just let anyone become your President. You certainly can’t take breast-beating pride in a democracy that let’s any moronic thug have power over you. And that can be fixed. They have to change their laws, of necessity. And if this can’t be done without altering/amending the constitution, then do so, of necessity. Sure, okay the American Constitution was the greatest document ever written by any humans on the face of the earth for the past ten thousand years…

Jacinta: Get your facts straight and don’t be sacrilegious, it was written by angels not humans.

Canto: But if it was able to bring about this fiasco, it still has a few problems. Anyway, I think I’ve gone through most of the problems and their solutions before. Far stricter laws on making money from the office, scrapping pardon powers and veto powers, more straightforward and streamlined rules of succession, and of course making it clear that a president is as liable to prosecution while in office as any other law-breaker. And considering the power he wields in office there should be no statute of limitations for the prosecution of presidents. He should be held to a higher standard, not a lower one as is clearly the case now.

Jacinta: As for removing him, I think the best way is on medical grounds. He’s a sociopath, of the malignantly narcissistic kind. This is argued forcibly in an essay by Mitchell Anderson:

Sociopaths are neither crazy nor necessarily violent, as so often misrepresented by Hollywood scriptwriters. Likewise, they typically possess normal intelligence. The one superpower sociopaths do possess is an emotional deafness that allows them to act with a shark-like self-interest beyond the moral bounds of even the most hardened normal humans. People with this frightening condition can act without conscience, effortlessly lying to manipulate those around them.

Anderson refers to the book The dangerous case of Donald Trump, released last year, in which some two dozen medicos deliver their views on Trump’s sociopathic condition. For example, a long-standing professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School says this:

Donald Trump’s speech and behaviour show that he has severe sociopathic traits. The significance of this cannot be overstated. While there have surely been American presidents who could be said to be narcissistic, none have shown sociopathic qualities to the degree seen in Mr. Trump. Correspondingly, none have been so definitively and so obviously dangerous.

And there are other quotable quotes. So in this case there is a mechanism for removal – the 25th amendment to the constitution. Unfortunately, severe psychiatric conditions which yet allow people to function okay physically, are still not taken seriously enough by the general public to be called out. Mental health experts need to be listened to more on this one. Otherwise the USA’s current political nightmare will go on and on.

Written by stewart henderson

April 28, 2018 at 8:15 am

On Maoris, heavy culture and political correctness

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a Maori meeting-gate, entrance to a Pa (fortified village). the figure on the left is female, with chin tattoo

Canto: So we spent time at the Ibis Hotel, Hamilton, NZ, which is owned and run by a Maori organisation. Many but not all the staff were Maoris – of course I can’t always tell who is Maori and who isn’t, and I’m ignorant of what precisely constitutes being a Maori (or an Australian Aborigine, or a native American, or a Jew, or an Arab, or a Kurd, or a Romany etc etc etc) – and they were unfailingly friendly and helpful. Many of the guests, too, or at least people milling around at the reception and bar/dining area, appeared to be Maori, including the occasional bloke with facial tattoos associated with Maori culture.

Jacinta: Presumably you didn’t have any doubt that they were Maoris. So I know you’re not a big fan of the tattoo fashion that’s everywhere these days.

Canto: No, this has been a trend for way over twenty years now and I thought it would pass but it seems to have intensified. But as with all things designed or pictorial, there’s the crass and the clever, the subtle and the silly, the banal and the truly tragic…

Jacinta: Okay, but the Maori tattoos that we’ve seen here, in the Ibis and elsewhere, these apparently deeply culturally significant tattoos of Maori identification, what do you think of them? Do you dare to voice an opinion?

Canto: Well I’ll give voice to an observation. I’ve never seen a woman with those kinds of tattoos.

Jacinta: Would you be happier if you saw women with them?

Canto: Not happier. As you’ve said, I’ve never been and never will be a big fan of tattoos – a fact of no major significance of course. Nobody needs to pay the slightest attention to me on these matters. But I like the raw, unadorned human body, the product of many hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. It would be sacrilege to tattoo a leopard, or a lion, or an antelope – their bodies are magnificent evolutionary products…

Jacinta: But you miss the point. Those animals don’t tattoo themselves. We tattoo ourselves. Because we can. That’s our magnificent evolutionary product, a brain that can transform our bodies, not to mention our planet.

Canto: Okay, I grant that, but I still object to tattoos on aesthetic grounds. I just think they’re mostly fugly. And as you know I hate trendiness and groupthink.

Jacinta: Okay, let’s get back to Maori tattoos and women. As you know, women in general are getting tattoos at a greater rate than men, and, yes, Maori women are getting tattoos in increasing numbers. Sacred chin tattoos – so, different from the blokes.

Canto: Hmmm, well as you know, I’ve always been more comfortable with the profane than the sacred…

Jacinta: Well, ‘sacred’ sounds a bit heavy; they seem to be ‘belongingness’ tattoos, but that sounds a bit wishy-washy. In any case there’s a whole history behind Maori ‘skin art’ or Kiri Tuhi…

Canto: Which sounds to be strictly regulated on gender lines – those aggressive ‘warrior’ facial tats for men and the more restrained ones for subordinate women.

Jacinta: Maybe. You’re worried about ‘heavy culture’ aren’t you?

Canto: Heavy and patriarchal culture, which I’ve always been pretty down on. I prefer nature over culture, to be simplistic about it. Or rather, I prefer a culture which questions itself, so deeply as to undermine itself, usually through understanding the nature of culture. It’s binding and blinding nature.

Jacinta: Very good. So maybe we should look at Maori culture in particular, and the way it binds and blinds.

Canto: So what about chin tattoos? Are they for women only?

Jacinta: Well the traditional Maori tattoos are called Ta Moko, and they’re carved into the skin with chisels rather than drawn with skin-puncturing needles. Every tattoo is individualised, and they represent family and tribal history, status and the like.

Canto: You can’t get more heavily cultural than that, to have your cultural pedigree, such as it is, inscribed on your face. I myself haven’t the slightest awareness of my cultural pedigree and I want to keep it that way. Does that make me a pariah?

Jacinta: It makes you just another feature of life’s rich tapestry. Women were traditionally tattooed only on the chin, around the mouth and sometimes the nostrils. All this tattooing faded for a while in the nineteenth century, with increasing assimilation pressures, many of them internalised, but it’s come back with a vengeance with renewed emphasis on native pride and such.

Canto: Hmmmm. I presume Maori culture was very patriarchal? Once were warriors and all that?

Jacinta: Yes, a warrior culture but strongly influenced and supported by women, in maintaining the stories of an oral culture, and in the upbringing of children. The Maori argue that, at the time of the ‘white invasion’, Maori women generally had more status in their society than white women had in theirs. They retained their own names after marriage, they dressed similarly to men, and their children didn’t consider their maternal kinship group as less important than the paternal. I presume the chiefs were male, but overall, Maori culture was no more patriarchal, historically, than our own.

Canto: Yes, I have to say they all look pretty scarily macho, male and female, but they turn out to be so nice and friendly.

Jacinta: It’s good for business. Yes I haven’t seen too many gracile Maoris, they all seem to belong to the robusta domain. Maybe it’s the diet.

Canto: The genes, more likely. Influenced by diet. Kumera’s a pretty robust vegetable.

Jacinta: You are what you eat? But to get back to culture and its binding and blinding, it’s perhaps a good thing that a culture can bind people in a shared history and a collective memory, even if memory often plays false, but one of the problems is that it blinkers them to other connections, other perspectives on the world…

Canto: And it’s often backward-facing…

Jacinta: And it has a reifying effect, making these connections to a shared history – which is often mythical – more real than real, so that a ‘Maori perspective’ becomes entrenched and valorised above a collective, largely progressive, open-ended, human perspective.

Canto: The problem of identity politics. It’s actually a difficult one for those cultures that feel themselves under the gun – oppressed, minority… I’ve said that I don’t really care about my Scottish-Australian cultural pedigree – or is it mongrel-ness – but I suppose it’s because I belong to the dominant culture; white, anglo-saxon and increasingly atheist. That culture is so broad and deep that, although you can easily lose your way in it, you’re rarely ever challenged for being a part of it.

Jacinta: And as part of this dominant culture we get to look at these minority cultures – which of course add to that all-embracing diversity we’re so proud of – with fascination, with condescension, with alarm, with disgust, with starry eyes, with guilt, with humour, with exasperation, with a mixture of some or all of these feelings or impulses, without being called out for it in any serious way.

Canto: But aren’t we being called out for having the wrong attitudes? Isn’t that what political correctness is all about?

Jacinta: Well, political correctness is a fascinating thing, and not such a bad thing. It’s a kind of unspoken, largely unconscious vigilante force to avoid hurt – to old people, fat people, gay people, disabled people, people who look, dress or act differently (in a more or less harmless way) from the norm. So we internalise our criticisms and anxieties, we restrict them to our internal monologues, or to conversations with like-minded others, and we never quite know whether this is civilised or cowardly behaviour.

Canto: It certainly helps us to get along.

Jacinta: Well, more than that, I mean it doesn’t just help us to avoid unnecessary battles, it helps us to reflect on first impressions, to question them, to challenge them, to deepen them. There’s more to political correctness than meets the eye.

Canto: You mean we shouldn’t judge political correctness by first impressions…

Jacinta: Which takes us back to Maori culture. We’ve not just seen the Maoris running our hotel in a professional and friendly way, we’ve been to a traditional Maori ceremony, somewhat ‘westernised’ for us tourists, and we’ve watched their men and women perform for us, in mock-warrior and lyrical mode, with dignity humour and a lot of tolerance for the goggle-eyed, muttering global trade of people shuffling through and holding up their mobile phones and clicking distractingly, while obscuring the view of we polite, politically correct watchers, pathetically torn between appreciating the Maori scenes on the stage, and being irritated at those around us who weren’t being as politically correct as ourselves…

Jacinta: That’s modern life, in the ‘first world’….

Written by stewart henderson

April 23, 2018 at 5:24 pm

How bad is the American political system? Outsider talk

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fantasies notwithstanding…

Jacinta: As we await hopefully the downfall of Trump, we keep experiencing shocks as we listen to all the commentary and events…

Canto: I wouldn’t call it shocks, because I for one have followed US politics, albeit vaguely, for decades, but as some of the implications of their system have been brought into clearer focus, and their complacent and often jingoistic attitude to it, yes, it tends to make the jaw drop a little.

Jacinta: Presidential pardons and vetoes, actually serious discussions as to whether or not their head of state is above the law or indictable, and then much rabbiting on about how they’re the greatest democracy on earth, and how they have checks and balances like nowhere else, which is such arrant bullshit….

Canto: Well I agree that if your head of state is granted the right to pardon criminals, that’s a large stride towards dictatorship right there. And here’s an example of complacency: one commentator talked proudly of his country’s political system being largely a response to tyranny. He was explicitly referring to the monarchy of George III. Yet the power of Presidential pardon is taken directly from the British monarchy! And of course British monarchs virtually never use it – there would be a massive uproar if they did in that very politically literate nation.

Jacinta: Alan Turing was the last person to receive a royal pardon, in 2013, some fifty years after the poor bloke committed suicide. That would’ve been a very popular decision, and the Queen would surely not have been the one to make it, she just signed off on it. I’m sure it’s been a long long time since any British monarch made a personal decision to pardon a convicted individual.

Canto: So compare the latest US Presidential pardon, only days ago. Scooter Libby (such an American name) was convicted of lying to the FBI during the Bush administration, and I don’t know the details of all that, but no matter, more than one US pundit has argued, credibly enough, that for Trump, Scooter Libby is no more than a silly name. Now here’s what Wikipedia has to say about US Presidential pardons:

Almost all federal pardon petitions are addressed to the President, who grants or denies the request. In rare cases, the President will, of his own accord, issue a Pardon. Typically, applications for pardons are referred for review and non-binding recommendation by the Office of the Pardon Attorney, an official of the United States Department of Justice.[27] The percentage of pardons and reprieves granted varies from administration to administration; however, fewer pardons have been granted since World War II.

The pardon power has been controversial from the enactment of the United States Constitution.

Controversial indeed. And I’m willing to bet that this recent pardon was one of those ‘rare cases’, no doubt suggested to Trump by one of his Mar-a-lago mates. Under Trump, such pardon cases will become a lot less rare, if he can get away with it. It seems reasonably clear, as many pundits avow, that Trump is signalling to such mates as Flynn and Cohen that he can and will pardon them when the time comes.

Jacinta: And this is surely corruption writ large. But what astonishes me is the Americans never seem to be capable of considering changes to their beloved but obviously flawed constitution. Their second amendment pertaining to bearing arms is a piece of shite of course, and I’m not sure about their fifth, which seems to obstruct justice in a lot of cases, and this pardon power is expressed in the body of their constitution, in Article 2. To me it’s screamingly obvious that this pardon power should be thrown out. When will they ever effing learn?

we shall see

Canto: It seems they need outsiders to point out to them the massive flaws in their system. It’s way too ‘presidential’. You could also possibly argue that it’s too democratic. The fact is, although all westerners tend to extol democracy, there’s no purely democratic system, and that’s a good thing. If our understanding of the world, the universe – our science in other words – was decided by democracy, we’d still believe the earth was flat and we would never have invented a single tool.

Jacinta: Yes, and imagine if our judges and our laws were voted on by pure democracy – given current and past levels of education. It hardly bears thinking about.

Canto: And in the USA the President is directly voted on by the people in a two-horse race, unlike in the Westminster system where we vote on parties, or on local reps, and the winning party chooses its captain based on her proven abilities, be they populist or strategic or otherwise, and that party gets to dump its leader if she proves ineffective.

Jacinta: So such a system never places anyone above the law, and where there are pardon powers, they’re hedged about very heavily, though certainly the leader does have powers above others in choosing her cabinet and such.

Canto: A cabinet of members previously elected by constituents, not plucked possibly from obscurity by the whim of the Prez. But can you think of any advantages of this Presidential system over the Westminster system?

Jacinta: Well the Presidential system might be more streamlined, which can be positive or negative depending on the competence of the leader. Quick decision-making can be life-saving or totally disastrous. Personally, I wouldn’t take the risk. But certainly a system can have too many checks and balances.

Canto: But as you’ve said, the Americans seem incapable of considering reforms to their system, even in the light of the Trump disaster. And there are barriers to effecting constitutional change.

Jacinta: You need a two-third majority in both houses of congress to propose a constitutional amendment, and that might be possible after November, but unlikely. And it seems, from the current case involving Michael Cohen and his ties to Trump, that the laws regulating the President’s powers in all sorts of areas are a bit thin.

Canto: I suppose that would be Trump’s greatest legacy, exposing the dangers of an insufficiently regulated head of state.

Jacinta: Yeah but they’re unlikely to face up to those dangers, I suspect they’ll have to be hit on the head by more than one Trump-like figure before they do anything about it.

Canto: They’re very good at feverishly talking about all their woes…

Jacinta: We’re all good at that. But you’ll notice that they often mention a ‘constitutional crisis’. That’s a situation arising where’s little clear guidance from their constitution as to resolution. For example, the indictment of a sitting President. As you know, I’m not keen on the impeachment process, which doesn’t exist in Australia or within the Westminster system. I would want Trump to be dealt with by the law, for which he has such contempt. That would be poetic of course, but it would also be the right course, IMHO.

Canto: But there’s a problem with indictment of a sitting President. Of course in Australia we rarely use the term ‘indict’, we just use the term ‘charge’, as verb and noun. The problem with charging the Prez is that he will then have to go through a court process, which will significantly  affect his ability to discharge the duties of office. Of course, this isn’t such a problem under Westminster, the PM will simply step down, either permanently or temporarily until the case is completed. Under Westminster, change of leadership isn’t such a big deal, and it often happens within electoral cycles. Under the Presidential system, it may happen that a Prez is indicted but hearings are delayed until he leaves office…

Jacinta: But if the charges relate to his becoming President, or to his current handling of the role – e.g. collusion with a foreign power, or obstruction of justice, what then?

Canto: From what I’ve read, you can indict a sitting President, and publish the charges. If the charges relate to the President’s fitness for office – but who decides this? – then action should be taken to remove him – but what action? Other than impeachment, it’s not clear.

Jacinta: And impeachment isn’t in itself removal from office. And Trump won’t go quietly. It’s all a bit fuzzy. And as we get closer to the pointy end, it gets fuzzier, paradoxically speaking….

Canto: How to sack a President, that is the question. It appears he’s virtually unsackable, and that’s an offence.

Written by stewart henderson

April 18, 2018 at 7:34 am

a deeper dive into the shallow waters of Emu Bay

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Jacinta: So Emu Bay, shale, Cambrian, trilobites, early complex life, Kangaroo Island, why Kangaroo Island, where do we begin?

Canto: Well, let’s just begin. Apparently the first fossil finds, the first signs that there was something significant, date from the fifties, but it wasn’t until the seventies that real excitement grew.

Jacinta: And these finds were from the Cambrian. Can you give us some background on the so-called Cambrian explosion, and the geological epochs as they pertain to life forms?

Canto: The Cambrian explosion dates to around 530 million years ago. The most celebrated evidence of this comes from the Burgess shale in British Columbia, Canada, though the finds there date to about 510 million years ago – the middle Cambrian. Emu Bay’s fossils have been dated further back in time, though as always there’s some uncertainty as to precise dating. Another famous deposit, the oldest, is in southern China, the Chengjiang fauna.

Now, briefly, the planet’s life-span has been divided into six eons, which you can take as seriously as you like: first, the Hadean, from Earth’s formation 4.6 billion years ago to the end of the late heavy bombardment around 4 billion years ago; second, the Archaean, when life began and then photosynthesis evolved; third, the Proterozoic, from 2.5 billion years ago to 540 million years ago; fourth, the Paleozoic, to 250 million years ago, then the Mesozoic, to 65 million years ago, and finally the sixth, Cenozoic eon, up to the present day. Though the last three are sometimes called ‘eras’ under the title of the Phanerozoic eon.

Jacinta: So how does the Cambrian and other epochs or whatever, map onto this – the Cretaceous, the Jurassic and so forth?

Canto: Well, these are called periods, but let’s not get too caught up in all that, and let’s start with the Cambrian period, as we’re concerned with more or less recognisably modern complex life. It’s generally agreed to date from 540 million years ago, following on from the Ediacaran period, and has been divided into Early, Middle and Late, at least by some, and was followed by the Ordovician some 485 million years ago…

Jacinta: Okay, enough, let’s get back to Emu Bay and the Cambrian explosion.

Canto: Just look online and you’ll find a ton of info on this and the other Cambrian deposits, so I’ll provide links to those sites that have helped me.

Jacinta: And a glossary, maybe.

Canto: Arthropods – from which modern spiders, insects and crabs evolved – and molluscs came into being in the Cambrian, and they’re well represented in the Emu Bay shale, dating from around 520 million years ago. Trilobites (three-lobed critters), a type of arthropod, are particularly well represented. They’re the earliest known creatures to have developed ‘full’ eyesight, I think, which would make them pretty devastating predators at the time.

Jacinta: Eyesight’s an interesting one, and it seems complex sight requires brains as well as good lenses….

Canto: Yes it is complex, and sight is obviously going to be one development among many in the fight for advantage, and developed and used differently in different environments. Anyway, one of the most interesting and important things about Emu Bay is the preservation of soft tissue – crab muscle, trilobite antennae for example. The types of antennae are very revealing apparently. And they’ve even found the turds of these creatures…

Jacinta: So how is it possible for muscle tissue etc to be preserved for over half a billion years?

Canto: That’s a very good question. It’s obviously a rarity – unless there’s an explosion of such finds in the future. A Catalyst program on Emu Bay from 10 years ago puts it this way:

Why this rare occurrence happens is not entirely clear. But it appears that, 520 million years ago, the bottom layer of the sea was depleted of oxygen; no scavengers could disturb the dead and no bacteria could survive to decay the soft tissue.

Jacinta: But one of the big differences between this site and the Burgess shale is that these were shallow water creatures, and the Burgess shale preserved deep water creatures, is that right? So these might have been more exposed to air?

Canto: Well the issue we’re looking at here comes under the heading of ‘taphonomy’ – the branch of palaeontology that deals with the processes of fossilisation. And taphonomy seems very much a work in progress – progressed further by analysis of this site. But it does get very technical. Let me give you an example, from a paper published in the Journal of the Geological Society in 2016:

The EBS [Emu Bay Shale] seems to have been rapidly deposited in a relatively nearshore setting adjacent to an active tectonic margin that generated continual syndepositional faulting and slumping. The Konservat-Lagerstätte interval appears to form part of a localized, deeper-water micro-basin succession on the inner shelf that was subject to fluctuating oxygen levels, at least in the bottom waters (Gehling et al. 2011). This depositional setting is in stark contrast to the majority of other Cambrian Konservat-Lagerstätten, specifically Burgess Shale-type deposits that formed in outer shelf environments, either near or immediately adjacent to the seaward margins of expansive carbonate platforms (e.g. Burgess Shale), or offshore of broad clastic shelves (e.g. Chengjiang) (Gaines 2014).

Jacinta: Hmmm, I think I get the continental drift.

Canto: As to the oxygen question, that’s still being worked on. And as to the deposit being ‘adjacent to an active tectonic margin’, I don’t get that. The whole of Australia sits on a large tectonic plate, the Australian plate, which stretches way south of Kangaroo Island. Perhaps plates can be sub-divided into micro-plates, I don’t know.

Jacinta: Perhaps an active tectonic margin just means a fault-line. But enough of the geology, tell us about the creatures themselves – some of the first predators – and their well-developed eyes.

Canto: More than 50 separate species have been found there, though in terms of specimens, the trilobite Estaingia bilobata dominates. Trilobites are incredibly common in the fossil record, with some 17,000 species known. The earliest ones found seem already highly diversified but their origin in the pre-Cambrian is very much a mystery.

a heap of Estraingia bilobata trilobites found at Emu Bay. I’m guessing from the rule on the right that each one is 2-3 cms long

Jacinta: And do these trilobites have amazing eyes?

Canto: They’re among the first animals we know of to have complex eyes and their lenses were made of calcite, which fossilises well. It’s also hypothesised that the early success of trilobites with their weaponised, prey-catching eyes helped to trigger or speed up the Cambrian explosion of diversity. But the big story about eyes fossilised at Emu Bay isn’t trilobite eyes. An abstract from Nature describes a creature with eyes more complex, and better preserved than any others for the following 85 million years:

The arrangement and size of the lenses indicate that these eyes belonged to an active predator that was capable of seeing in low light. The eyes are more complex than those known from contemporaneous trilobites and are as advanced as those of many living forms. They provide further evidence that the Cambrian explosion involved rapid innovation in fine-scale anatomy as well as gross morphology, and are consistent with the concept that the development of advanced vision helped to drive this great evolutionary event.

Jacinta: I seem to remember reading about this a few years back.

Canto: Yes, Ed Yong of not exactly rocket science did a great post about it. The animal is called Anomalocaris, meaning strange shrimp, and it has been discovered, or uncovered, bit by bit over more than a century, in the Burgess shale and elsewhere. Its 3cm-wide eyes, stuck out on stalks, were about 30 times more powerful than those of trilobites, with at least 17,000 lenses in each eye – all of which was discovered from a single specimen at Emu Bay, the only place where soft tissue was preserved, though specimens of Anomalocaris have been discovered around the world. Including many specimens found at Emu Bay itself.

Jacinta: So, this discovery, of the eyes, really put Emu Bay and Kangaroo Island on the map for a time.

Canto: Well, sort of, among the cognoscenti. But yes, it was exciting to think of such a marvellous find so nearby. And there may well be a lot more to discover.

fossilised eyes of Anomalocaris

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emu_Bay_Shale

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anomalocaris

https://www.nature.com/articles/nature10689

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2011/12/07/anomalocaris-sharp-eyes-predator/#.WtMuHS_L0go

http://jgs.lyellcollection.org/content/173/1/1

Written by stewart henderson

April 15, 2018 at 9:42 pm

is this the best use of journalism?: attn Katie McBride and Outline magazine

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Rat Park, in colour

Jacinta: Now we’re going to do something slightly unpleasant but wholly necessary: take someone to task, as teachers must occasionally do.

Canto: Yes, it relates to a previous post, a recent one, about Rat Farm and the war on drugs.

Jacinta: In writing that post we happened upon an article entitled  ‘This 38-year-old study is still spreading bad ideas about addiction” – which kind of shocked me with its provocative title. It was written by Katie MacBride and published by Outline, an online magazine. I only skimmed the article at the time, bemused to find the Rat Park experiment still creating such negative vibes after all these years, but some obvious problems in the article stood out, even on the most cursory reading, so I’ve decided to revisit it with a more careful analysis, with Canto’s help.

Canto: Well the first red flag with the article comes with the first words, before even the title. Pop science. In other words, this article, or rather its subject, should be filed in the category of ‘pop science’, as opposed to real science. This is designed to instil prejudice in the reader from the outset, and is clearly a cheap trick.

Jacinta: Yes, and for an immediate antidote to this kind of cheapsterism, I’d advise anyone to read the Wikipedia article on the rat park experiment, which is calmly and reasonably presented, as is usual. And let me here heap praise on Wikipedia for its general reliability, its objectivity and its pro-science approach. It’s one of the greatest gifts the internet has provided to our world, IMHO.

Canto: The next red flag comes with the title – ’38 years old and still spreading bad ideas’…. As if the date of the study is relevant. There are a number of landmark psychology studies even older than Bruce Alexander’s Rat Park, and also ‘flawed’ – of which more later, – which continue to resonate today for obvious reasons…

Jacinta: Yes, for example Stanley Milgram’s electric shock experiments, over fifty years ago now, and the Stanford Prison experiment of 1971. These, and Alexander’s Rat Park experiment, deserve to be regarded as landmark pieces of work because they make you think. And they often overturn previous thinking. They shake our complacency.

Canto: And what about the latter part of the title, that Alexander’s work is still spreading bad ideas?

Jacinta: It’s interesting that she claims this, considering that the main reason Alexander embarked on this study was to combat bad ideas – particularly the war on drugs itself, and the prevailing view, promoted by the likes of Harry Anslinger and his zero tolerance approach to drugs such as cannabis and cocaine, that use of these drugs led inevitably to a kind of madness that was extremely harmful to self and others. Remember the rat adverts of the time, which showed rats dropping dead after regularly imbibing morphene-laced water, with the message ‘this could happen to you’.

Canto: Yes, and the rats may well have been choosing the drug over plain water because, like many lab rats of the time – hopefully things have changed – the conditions they were kept in made their life something of a living hell. What Alexander’s experiment showed was that, given a far more enriched environment, rats made far less simplistic and self-destroying choices. That’s all. So how could this be a ‘bad idea?’

Jacinta: MacBride doesn’t say. But to be fair, Alexander’s thesis may have been that opiates aren’t addictive at all, which is not what his results showed – they showed that environment matters hugely in respect to the willingness to get hooked on drugs. And that’s a really really important finding, not a ‘bad idea’.

Canto: And we’re still on the title of MacBride’s essay, which is followed by a tiny summary remark, ‘The Rat Park study was flawed and its findings have been oversimplified, but it keeps getting cited.’ Any comments?

Jacinta: Yes – as a regular listener to the podcasts of the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe (SGU) over the years, as well as a reader of Ben Goldacre and other science-based critics of medical/psychological studies and experiments, I can safely say that every piece of research or experimentation, since the dawn of time, is flawed. Or imperfect. Or limited. Some more than others. of course. So to say the study is flawed is to say nothing at all. Every episode of SGU, and I’ve listened to hundreds, features one piece of published research or other, which Steve Novella picks to pieces to determine whether it’s very or mildly interesting, or a piece of rubbish, but even with the best study, the mantra is generally ‘needs more research’. So a critic needs to show how an experiment is flawed, and how those flaws affect the results. And MacBride’s effort to do this is pretty abysmal.

Canto: Okay, before we examine that effort, I’d like to quote something from early on in MacBride’s article:

The Rat Park study undermined one popular misconception about addiction, that chemistry of drugs is the single most important factor in addiction. But instead of pushing the popular understanding forward, it merely replaced that misconception with a new one: that environment is the most important factor.

What do you make of that? Do you think it a fair description of the study?

Jacinta: It’s an odd description, or mis-description, of the study. The first sentence you quoted isn’t problematic. The study did undermine the idea that it was all about chemistry. Or rather it would have, had anyone paid attention to it. It should have, as MacBride implies, but instead of then regretting that the study didn’t have any impact, she presents it as deserving of oblivion. It doesn’t make much sense.

Canto: The quote claims that it’s a misconception that environment is the most important factor in drug addiction. Do you agree?

Jacinta: I don’t know if it’s the most important factor, but it’s obviously an important factor, and the Rat Park experiment provided strong evidence for this. It seems MacBride is confusing Alexander’s possible claims or commentary on the study with the study itself. The study doesn’t prove that environment is the most important factor, but it certainly makes you think about addiction in a very different way from the horrific but dumb rat ads  that prompted it. It makes you think, as all good studies do, and that’s something MacBride seems extremely reluctant to admit. And I wonder why.

Canto: But MacBride does provide cogent criticisms of the study, doesn’t she?

Jacinta: Well, she quotes one particular critique of the study, by a Dr Sam Snodgrass, who found that the Rat Park environment, in which rats were no longer isolated and therefore mated, as rats are wont to do, would have rendered the findings questionable. According to Snodgrass, “You can’t have one group of subjects mating and with pups and compare it to a group that doesn’t engage in these behaviors and say that the difference between the two groups is caused by environmental differences.” But I beg to differ. An environment in which you’re isolated and unable to have sex is obviously very different from an environment in which you breed as normal – especially for rats. As to the rat pups ruining the experiment, I think if you looked closely at any rat study in which rats get to live together and breed, the actual experiment would be more messy than the published results indicate, but I doubt the problems would be so great as to invalidate those results.

Canto: And what about attempts to replicate the experiment?

Jacinta: Well there seem not to have been enough of them, and that’s not Alexander’s fault. Above all, similar experiments should have been conducted with different drugs and different concentrations etc. And of course rats aren’t humans, and it’s hard to bridge that gap, especially these days, as lab testing of other non-human animals (and rats too) is increasingly frowned upon, for good reason. I note that MacBride briefly mentions that others did replicate Alexander’s results, but she chooses to focus almost wholly on those who found differences. She’s also quite brief in describing the obvious parallel, presented in much greater detail in Johann Hari’s Chasing the scream, of American soldiers taking heavily to heroin in the alienating environment of Vietnam and giving them up on their return to what was for them an obviously more enriched environment. The facts were startling – 20 time the heroin addiction in Vietnam, as MacBride admits – but not much is made of them, as she is more concerned to pour cold water on Rat Park, so to speak.

Canto: Yes it’s strange – MacBride admits that the war on drugs has been an abject failure, but her obsession with criticising Rat Park prevents her from carrying through on that with, for example, the alternatives to this American approach in Europe. She mentions the again startling fact, reported by the Brookings Institute, that the combined hardcore user rate for hard drugs was approximately 4 times higher in the US than in Europe, after decades of the US war on drugs, but fails to note that the Rat Park experiment was one of the main inspirations in implementing more humane and vastly more successful policies, not only in Europe but, more recently, in some US states.

Jacinta: Yes MacBride is clearly concerned to get everyone’s facts straight on the opioid epidemic that’s currently gripping the US, and about which I honestly know little, but I think she has gone overboard in seeking to vilify the Rat Park study, which surely has little to do with that epidemic. The Rat Park experiment hardly promotes drug-taking; what it does strongly suggest, as does Johann Hari’s book, is that environment is one of the most important factors in determining a person’s willingness to escape into drugs. My own personal experience tallies with that, having been brought up in a depressed and disadvantaged region, hard-hit in the seventies by economic recession, and watching the illicit drug trade take off around me, as houses and gardens became more and more derelict.

Canto: Yes, it’s hard to understand why she’s focusing so negatively on Rat Park, when the problem is really one of interpretation, insofar as there is a problem. And I don’t know how it relates negatively to the opioid crisis. Maybe we should find out more about this crisis, and do a follow-up?

Jacinta: Maybe, but it’s so hard trying to fix the world’s problems… but of course that’s what we’re here for…

 

Written by stewart henderson

April 13, 2018 at 11:53 am