The latest (somewhat random) collection of essays and stories from around the web that have caught my eye and are worth plucking out to be re-read.
India’s new citizenship act legalizes a Hindu nation
Anil Varughese, The Conversation, 18 December 2019
India’s recently passed Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 is a frontal assault on the idea of India as a secular, pluralist democracy.
For the first time, legal sanction has been given to the recasting of India as a Hindu majoritarian nation where minorities, especially Muslims, are second-class citizens. Signed into law after rushed debates in the parliament, the act is a stark regression of the trajectory of India as a mature constitutional democracy.
The new law makes religious affiliation one of the grounds for citizenship, violating the basic structure of the Indian constitution. It infringes on Articles 14 and 15, which guarantee equality before the law and non-discrimination on religious grounds.
The act targets and further marginalizes India’s beleaguered Muslim minority by intentionally omitting Muslim migrants who have lived in India for decades and their India-born descendants from its scope. Muslim migrants will now have a harder time acquiring Indian citizenship. By extension, the act makes it easier for the government to terrorize, imprison and deport Muslim migrants.
The new act amends the Citizenship Act of India (1955). The original legislation offers essentially two grounds for citizenship: Indian origin (based on birth and descent) and long and continuous residence in India.
The 1955 law makes no reference to religion or religious affiliation as a basis for citizenship. In fact, neither the word religion nor the names of religious groups are mentioned in the act.
Despite the religiously-charged political context of post-partition years, India’s founding fathers adopted a secular and inclusive constitutional framework. It was a deliberate rejection of the two-nations theory: the idea that the population inhabiting undivided India contained two distinct nations, one Hindu and one Muslim, deserving two separate homelands.
The current act is a sharp departure from that position and validates the two-nations theory. It sets up a hierarchy of rights based on religious affiliation and fundamentally alters the secular basis of India’s citizenship regime.
Read the full article in The Conversation.
At war with the truth
Craig Whitlock, Washington Post, 9 December 2019
A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.
The documents were generated by a federal project examining the root failures of the longest armed conflict in U.S. history. They include more than 2,000 pages of previously unpublished notes of interviews with people who played a direct role in the war, from generals and diplomats to aid workers and Afghan officials.
The U.S. government tried to shield the identities of the vast majority of those interviewed for the project and conceal nearly all of their remarks. The Post won release of the documents under the Freedom of Information Act after a three-year legal battle.
In the interviews, more than 400 insiders offered unrestrained criticism of what went wrong in Afghanistan and how the United States became mired in nearly two decades of warfare. With a bluntness rarely expressed in public, the interviews lay bare pent-up complaints, frustrations and confessions, along with second-guessing and backbiting.
‘We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,’ Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015. He added: ‘What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking’…
Several of those interviewed described explicit and sustained efforts by the U.S. government to deliberately mislead the public. They said it was common at military headquarters in Kabul — and at the White House — to distort statistics to make it appear the United States was winning the war when that was not the case.
‘Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,’ Bob Crowley, an Army colonel who served as a senior counterinsurgency adviser to U.S. military commanders in 2013 and 2014, told government interviewers. ‘Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone.’
Read the full article in the Washington Post.
Why did a rundown mining town
become a safe Tory seat?
James Bloodworth, UnHerd, 20 December 2019
Amazon’s arrival in areas such as Rugeley, Swansea, Doncaster and South Yorkshire — all former coal mining areas — brought the tantalising prospect of restored pride. ‘Online bookseller Amazon has been swamped with jobhunters for its new depot in Staffordshire — leading to delays in the recruiting process,’ announced the local paper, the Express & Star, shortly before the fulfilment centre — which was set to employ over 2,000 people — opened its doors.
It’s a pity no one bothered to ask whether the jobs being created were any good or not. By the time I arrived in Rugeley it was only Romanians and Bulgarians willing to do the gruelling entry-level jobs at the warehouse. This ought to have been a warning sign, yet the reluctance of indigenous workers to do work like this at the rates being offered was put down to the cosseted nature of the British working class.
When a group of Right-wing Tory MPs claimed that British workers were among the ‘worst idlers in the world’, I suspect many liberals quietly nodded along. That was certainly the response I got when I broached the subject with liberal friends and family members.
Amazon is a convenient whipping boy in Rugeley; but there is a broader challenge around the sorts of jobs being created in Britain’s towns, towns that were once thriving centres of industry. A 2015 report by the Centre for Cities described a reality in which jobs in declining industries were being replaced by ‘lower-skilled, more routinised jobs, swapping cotton mills for call centres and dock yards for distribution sheds’.
Moreover, there were a particular set of institutional affiliations that were lost when industry was wound down. When the old jobs went people were thrown out of work, but a culture was destroyed with them, too. Jobs that offered security have been replaced by part-time non-union work. Pubs and social clubs have closed while the pews in local churches continue to empty out. The Labour Party is less and less rooted in towns like Rugeley.
Back in 1997 the late Tony Judt, too nuanced a thinker to hold much sway with the faction that controls the contemporary Labour Party, wrote the following about towns in western Europe:
‘In post-industrial France or Britain and elsewhere, the economy has moved on while the state — so far — has stayed behind to pick up the tab. But the community has collapsed, and with it a century-long political culture that combined pride in work, local social interdependence and inter-generational continuity.’
People in the communities Judt was writing about were ‘looking for someone to blame and someone to follow’, as he phrased it nearly 20 years before the Brexit vote.
Read the full article in UnHerd.
Empathy is tearing us apart
Robert Wright, Wired, 9 November 2019
The study had two parts. In the first part, Americans who scored high on an empathy scale showed higher levels of ‘affective polarization’—defined as the difference between the favorability rating they gave their political party and the rating they gave the opposing party. In the second part, undergraduates were shown a news story about a controversial speaker from the opposing party visiting a college campus. Students who had scored higher on the empathy scale were more likely to applaud efforts to deny the speaker a platform.
It gets worse. These high-empathy students were also more likely to be amused by reports that students protesting the speech had injured a bystander sympathetic to the speaker. That’s right: According to this study, people prone to empathy are prone to schadenfreude.
This study is urgently important—though not because it’s a paradigm shifter, shedding radically new light on our predicament. As the authors note, their findings are in many ways consistent with conclusions reached by other scholars in recent years. But the view of empathy that’s emerging from this growing body of work hasn’t much trickled down to the public. And public understanding of it may be critical to shifting America’s political polarization into reverse somewhere between here and the abyss.
Like many past studies, this one gauges people’s level of ‘empathic concern’ by asking them how strongly they agree or disagree with a series of seven statements such as ‘I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.’ If it seems strange that people who identify with this statement might find amusement in someone’s being injured at a protest, maybe putting the paradox in a more extreme context will help.
Imagine these avowedly empathetic people hearing about the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last month. There’s no denying that on the day of his death, Baghdadi was in some sense ‘less fortunate’ than they—but do you expect them to have ‘tender, concerned feelings’ for him? And would you be surprised if they reported that, actually, they got a bit of a lift from his demise?
What seems obviously true in the Baghdadi case—that people don’t deploy empathy indiscriminately—turns out to be true in less extreme cases, too, ones that don’t involve terrorist masterminds. Various scholars have found, in various contexts, an ‘empathy gap’ between ‘in group’ and ‘out group.’ In one study, soccer fans showed more concern over pain felt by fans of their favorite team than over pain felt by fans of a rival team.
Read the full article in Wired.
Researchers asked 2,500 Jewish and Muslim people what they find offensive – here’s what they said
Julian Hargreaves, The Conversation, 11 December 2019
There was more certainty within the Jewish group about whether the statements were antisemitic or not. For each statement, only 1-3% of Jewish respondents answered ‘don’t know’. The Muslim group were less certain. For each Islamophobic statement shown to the Muslim respondents, between 15% and 22% answered ‘don’t know’.
Jewish respondents and Muslim respondents who knew how to ‘diagnose’ the statements differed in their sensitivity towards them. The most offensive anti-Jewish statement was the statement about the Holocaust: 96% of Jews considered it antisemitic. Other statements were perceived as antisemitic by between 82% and 94% of Jews – large absolute majorities. Description of Israelis as being Nazi-like towards the Palestinians was seen as antisemitic by the smallest absolute majority of Jews, 73%. In stark contrast, none of the statements about attitudes towards Muslims were seen as Islamophobic by a majority of Muslim respondents.
The study also found differences within each group. Jewish respondents aged over 40 were between 80% and 90% more likely to be sensitive than those aged between 18 and 39. Age was not a factor for Muslim respondents.
Education played an important role for both groups, but seemed to push sensitivity in opposite directions. Muslim respondents with degrees were 63% more likely to find all statements offensive. They were 70% more likely to be sensitive about Muslims not sharing western values. By contrast, Jewish respondents with degrees were 35% less likely than those without to be sensitive towards the linking of Israelis and Nazis. Jewish respondents in education were 66% less likely than those in employment to be sensitive to all the statements. They were 56% less likely to be sensitive to the linking of Israelis and Nazis.
Being born in the UK made a difference for both Jewish and Muslim groups. Jewish respondents born in the UK were 40% less likely to be sensitive towards the linking of Israelis and Nazis than those born in the rest of Europe. By contrast, UK-born Muslim respondents were around twice as likely as those born in Asia to be sensitive to all the statements
Read the full article in The Conversation.
One nation, tracked
Stuart A. Thompson & Charlie Warzel,
New York Times, 19 December 2019
Every minute of every day, everywhere on the planet, dozens of companies — largely unregulated, little scrutinized — are logging the movements of tens of millions of people with mobile phones and storing the information in gigantic data files. The Times Privacy Project obtained one such file, by far the largest and most sensitive ever to be reviewed by journalists. It holds more than 50 billion location pings from the phones of more than 12 million Americans as they moved through several major cities, including Washington, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Each piece of information in this file represents the precise location of a single smartphone over a period of several months in 2016 and 2017. The data was provided to Times Opinion by sources who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to share it and could face severe penalties for doing so. The sources of the information said they had grown alarmed about how it might be abused and urgently wanted to inform the public and lawmakers.
After spending months sifting through the data, tracking the movements of people across the country and speaking with dozens of data companies, technologists, lawyers and academics who study this field, we feel the same sense of alarm. In the cities that the data file covers, it tracks people from nearly every neighborhood and block, whether they live in mobile homes in Alexandria, Va., or luxury towers in Manhattan.
One search turned up more than a dozen people visiting the Playboy Mansion, some overnight. Without much effort we spotted visitors to the estates of Johnny Depp, Tiger Woods and Arnold Schwarzenegger, connecting the devices’ owners to the residences indefinitely.
If you lived in one of the cities the dataset covers and use apps that share your location — anything from weather apps to local news apps to coupon savers — you could be in there, too.
If you could see the full trove, you might never use your phone the same way again.
The data reviewed by Times Opinion didn’t come from a telecom or giant tech company, nor did it come from a governmental surveillance operation. It originated from a location data company, one of dozens quietly collecting precise movements using software slipped onto mobile phone apps. You’ve probably never heard of most of the companies — and yet to anyone who has access to this data, your life is an open book. They can see the places you go every moment of the day, whom you meet with or spend the night with, where you pray, whether you visit a methadone clinic, a psychiatrist’s office or a massage parlor.
The Times and other news organizations have reported on smartphone tracking in the past. But never with a data set so large. Even still, this file represents just a small slice of what’s collected and sold every day by the location tracking industry — surveillance so omnipresent in our digital lives that it now seems impossible for anyone to avoid.
Read the full article in the New York Times.
Adolph Reed on movements and monuments
Adolph Reed Jr & Natahn J Robinson,
Current Affairs, 2 December 2019
NJR: I want to dive a little more clearly into what you mean by ‘a class politics.’ One of the things that also recurs is your objection to ‘identity politics’ or ‘race reductionism.’ You say it obscures really, really important divides within black politics, and that those divides are essential to understanding black politics, and it sort of treats black political actors, and black people themselves, as a hive-mind monolith, and it’s racist in its way, and when you break it down, the class divides in black politics are extremely important to understanding what is going on.
AR: Yeah, absolutely, you could be my press agent, basically.
NJR: I mean, I’ve just been reading your books [laughs].
AR: Yeah, and among the ways that the class divides are consequential are, for instance, the current obsession with the New Deal as ‘racist,’ and with the idea that universal programs are fundamentally racist because they don’t target black people in particular, and black people don’t get anything out of it. But the fact of the matter is, black people got a lot out of the G.I. Bill, black people got a lot out of the WPA (Works Progress Administration), black people got a lot out of the Civilian Conservation Corps, and that racial disparity isn’t in the distribution of benefits, and good things and bad things, isn’t necessarily, like, the end of the story. This notion that Medicare For All, a single-payer health system, wouldn’t do anything at all for black people, because it’s not race-targeted, the idea that free public college wouldn’t do anything for black people because it’s not race-targeted, are clearly class-based programs.
NJR: I think the justification for universal programs like Medicare For All and Universal College is sound, completely. But I would then ask you whether you think there are any programs that need to be race-targeted. So, let’s bring up reparations, which a number of people on the left have been saying should be a part of a left agenda, because it specifically addresses a giant racial injustice that has never been corrected. Last week I was talking to Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, who was telling me, well, you can’t fix the racial wealth gap, unless you have some kind of program that targets a deprivation that was racial. Is there a way to close the racial wealth gap through things that are just universal?
AR: Well, it’s interesting, because I was just on an NPR show with Keeanga a few weeks ago. They called it a debate, I call it a discussion, but on the reparations issue my first question has always been the same, and I’ve never gotten what I thought was a satisfactory attempt to answer. Which is how can you imagine, in a majoritarian democracy, putting together a political alliance that’s capable of prevailing on an issue like this, that no one gets anything out of, except black people. And that’s even before any of the other questions, like, ‘what counts as reparations? Who gets what? Should the ADOS (the American Descendants Of Slaves) line be followed? What about all of the other harms?’ So there’s all that. I do think that, just from a pragmatic political point of view, the pragmatic political question trumps it. And I know the response has always been, ‘well, don’t you think black people deserve something?’ And I say, well, yeah, of course, but that’s not the issue. The issue is what is possible to win, and how you can win it.
Read the full article in Current Affairs.
What are borders for?
Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, New Yorker, 27 November 2019
Such are the tortured roots of our current international system. The United Nations’ expectation that each of its member states respect the territorial sovereignty of its neighbors has formed, since 1948, the core of its efforts to maintain world peace. That most of the U.N.’s members have bought into this notion is why, in the late twentieth century, many of the world’s borders came to resemble the United States and Canada’s. In the nineties, there was a brief turn from this project, as celebrants of globalization hailed a borderless world augured by, for example, the European Union’s opening of internal frontiers. Now that vision has collapsed, eroded by mass migration and anxiety. For scholars like Longo, we have entered an era of ‘bordering’ without precedent.
What changed? For Longo, the answer, in large part, is 9/11. Since the attacks in New York, he argues, there has been a profound shift in how borders are conceived, installed, and sustained. The most obvious change has been a physical escalation. Over the past eighteen years, for example, the U.S Border Patrol grew to employ twenty thousand agents, becoming the nation’s largest enforcement agency. Throughout the world, anxiety about terrorism has helped drive a trend toward states erecting boundaries to deny entry to potential bad actors. It has seen one prominent U.N. member state, Israel, build some four hundred and seventy miles of barriers, through the territory of its Palestinian neighbors, whose purpose is ‘security’ but which in effect seizes land not regarded by the U.N. as its own. These developments have occurred at a time when the number of people worldwide who’ve been displaced by violence is at an all-time high—some seventy million, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Many of those refugees hail from a region destabilized by the United States’ invasion of Iraq, in 2003, and its War on Terror. In the early two-thousands, Mumbai, Madrid, Bali, and London experienced their own terrorist attacks, and, as Longo details in his book—which is distinguished by his efforts to actually speak with the officials responsible for executing the ideas that he’s interested in—those countries gladly followed the United States’s lead. Dozens if not hundreds of states around the world turned questions of customs and immigration enforcement, once left to anonymous bureaucrats, into pressing matters of national defense.
Read the full article in the New Yorker.
Democracy is a horizon
we must always struggle towards
Astra Taylor, New Statesman, 27 November 2019
I have long argued that democracy has never truly existed. Instead of being something we once had and only recently lost, I see democracy as a horizon people must continually struggle towards. It is an ideal that must be deepened and expanded. The people massing in public squares and on subway platforms in Santiago, Baghdad, Hong Kong and, on a smaller scale, in New York City, where protests against police violence broke out in early November, are attempting to do just that.
What makes democracy so elusive is its inherently contradictory nature. Working towards a more democratic society will involve balancing a range of opposing values: freedom and equality, conflict and consensus, the local and the global, the present and the future. Democracy also requires weighing spontaneity and structure. Open revolt and rule-making, insurrection and statecraft – both sides are necessary in order for progress to be achieved.
Democracy is messy. Time and again, rebellions, wildcat strikes, debtors’ revolts and urban uprisings have bent the will of recalcitrant authorities. But history also shows that there are no shortcuts: sudden outpourings of discontent have to be expanded, managed and advanced by the hard, slow work of organising for change. We should celebrate the contagious energy of mass demonstrations and street confrontations, while also channelling their fervour into focused, strategic efforts that have a chance of being longer-lived.
This is the lesson I learned in 2011 while involved in Occupy Wall Street, a viral and leaderless protest not dissimilar to the global justice movement (indeed, many veterans of the Seattle protests could be found in New York City’s Zuccotti Park). Long before the police had cleared the last encampment, it was apparent that a movement that refused to make demands of public officials or entertain the prospect of trying to take power would never achieve its aims.
And yet, even if Occupy was destined to fizzle out, it served a crucial purpose. It forced a conversation about capitalism and class in America and set the stage for a left-wing insurgency around Bernie Sanders that has shaken the Democratic Party.
Read the full article in the New Statesman.
The money farmers: How oligarchs and populists
milk the EU for millions
Selam Gebrekidan, Matt Apuzzo & Benjamin Novak, New York Times, 3 November 2019
Under Communism, farmers labored in the fields that stretch for miles around this town west of Budapest, reaping wheat and corn for a government that had stolen their land.
Today, their children toil for new overlords, a group of oligarchs and political patrons who have annexed the land through opaque deals with the Hungarian government. They have created a modern twist on a feudal system, giving jobs and aid to the compliant, and punishing the mutinous.
These land barons, as it turns out, are financed and emboldened by the European Union.
Every year, the 28-country bloc pays out $65 billion in farm subsidies intended to support farmers around the Continent and keep rural communities alive. But across Hungary and much of Central and Eastern Europe, the bulk goes to a connected and powerful few. The prime minister of the Czech Republic collected tens of millions of dollars in subsidies just last year. Subsidies have underwritten Mafia-style land grabs in Slovakia and Bulgaria.
Europe’s farm program, a system that was instrumental in forming the European Union, is now being exploited by the same antidemocratic forces that threaten the bloc from within. This is because governments in Central and Eastern Europe, several led by populists, have wide latitude in how the subsidies, funded by taxpayers across Europe, are distributed — even as the entire system is shrouded in secrecy.
A New York Times investigation, conducted in nine countries for much of 2019, uncovered a subsidy system that is deliberately opaque, grossly undermines the European Union’s environmental goals and is warped by corruption and self-dealing.
Europe’s machinery in Brussels enables this rough-hewed corruption because confronting it would mean changing a program that helps hold a precarious union together. European leaders disagree about many things, but they all count on generous subsidies and wide discretion in spending them. Bucking that system to rein in abuses in newer member states would disrupt political and economic fortunes across the Continent.
This is why, with the farm bill up for renewal this year, the focus in Brussels isn’t on rooting out corruption or tightening controls. Instead, lawmakers are moving to give national leaders more authority on how they spend money — over the objections of internal auditors.
Read the full article in the New York Times.
Is this cave painting humanity’s oldest story?
Ewen Calloway, Nature, 11 December 2019
A cave-wall depiction of a pig and buffalo hunt is the world’s oldest recorded story, claim archaeologists who discovered the work on the Indonesian island Sulawesi. The scientists say the scene is more than 44,000 years old.
The 4.5-metre-long panel features reddish-brown forms that seem to depict human-like figures hunting local animal species. Previously, rock art found in European sites dated to around 14,000 to 21,000 years old were considered to be the world’s oldest clearly narrative artworks. The scientists working on the latest find say that the Indonesian art pre-dates these.
‘I’ve never seen anything like this before. I mean, we’ve seen hundreds of rock art sites in this region, but we’ve never seen anything like a hunting scene,’ says Adam Brumm, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, whose team describes the finding in Nature on 11 December.
Other researchers say the discovery is important because the animal paintings are also the oldest figurative artworks — those that clearly depict objects or figures in the natural world — on record. But some aren’t yet convinced by the claim the panel represents a single ‘scene’, or story. They suggest it might be a series of images painted over the course of perhaps thousands of years. ‘Whether it’s a scene is questionable,’ says Paul Pettitt, an archaeologist and rock-art specialist at Durham University, UK.
‘They’ve invented everything,’ Pablo Picasso is reported to have said after visiting the famed Lascaux Cave, in France’s Dordogne Valley. The site, discovered in 1940, includes hundreds of animal figures painted around 17,000 years ago. An image from the cave, and others from the same period, are widely considered to be the earliest known narrative artworks. In the decades since, archaeologists have discovered even older rock art, dating to around 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, including depictions of animals and stylized symbols, in European caves such as Chauvet in France and El Castillo in Spain.
Many researchers assumed that rock art found later in Africa, Australia and Asia was younger than these European works; such artworks are notoriously difficult to date because they can be made with raw materials, such as charcoal, that can be much older than the paintings themselves. But scientists including Brumm jolted the archaeological world when they reported, in 2014 and 2018, that caves in Sulawesi2 and Borneo3 held artworks, including animal paintings, that were older than 40,000 years — of similar age to and perhaps older than those created during the European Ice Age.
Read the full article in Nature.
China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt
are world’s worst jailers of journalists
Elana Beiser, CPJ, 11 December 2019
The number of journalists imprisoned globally for their work in 2019 remained near record highs, as China tightened its iron grip on the press and Turkey, having stamped out virtually all independent reporting, released journalists awaiting trial or appeal. Authoritarianism, instability, and protests in the Middle East led to a rise in the number of journalists locked up in the region — particularly in Saudi Arabia, which is now on par with Egypt as the third worst jailer worldwide.
In its annual global survey, the Committee to Protect Journalists found at least 250 journalists in jail in relation to their work, compared with an adjusted 255 a year earlier. The highest number of journalists imprisoned in any year since CPJ began keeping track is 273 in 2016. After China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, the worst jailers are Eritrea, Vietnam, and Iran.
While the majority of journalists imprisoned worldwide face anti-state charges, in line with recent years, the number charged with ‘false news’ rose to 30 compared with 28 last year. Use of the charge, which the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi applies most prolifically, has climbed steeply since 2012, when CPJ found only one journalist worldwide facing the allegation. In the past year, repressive countries including Russia and Singapore have enacted laws criminalizing the publication of ‘fake news.’
This year’s census marks the first time in four years that Turkey has not been the world’s worst jailer, but the reduced number of prisoners does not signal an improved situation for the Turkish media. Rather, the fall to 47 journalists in jail from 68 last year reflects the successful efforts by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to stamp out independent reporting and criticism by closing down more than 100 news outlets and lodging terror-related charges against many of their staff. With the industry gutted by government shutdowns and takeovers, and scores of journalists in exile, jobless, or cowed into self-censorship, authorities on October 24 enacted a legislative package that granted new appeals on convictions for certain offenses — including ‘propaganda for a terrorist organization,’ a favorite charge of prosecutors — and shortened some pretrial detention periods.
Dozens of journalists not currently jailed in Turkey are still facing trial or appeal and could yet be sentenced to prison, while others have been sentenced in absentia and face arrest if they return to the country. So many people in Turkey — tens of thousands of military personnel, police, legislators, judges, and prosecutors as well as journalists, according to news reports – have been charged with crimes since a failed coup attempt in 2016 that what is left of law enforcement and the judiciary seem barely able to keep up. One journalist, Semiha Şahin, described to CPJ how she was released to house arrest pending trial but, because she was never fitted with an electronic monitoring device, she is effectively free but lives in fear of being caught and returned immediately to prison.
Read the full report from the CPJ.
The trolls have infested academic peer review
Ryan Bullock, UA, 21 August 2019
I started writing and publishing scholarly articles in the early 2000s, shortly after fully embracing the digital era. Somewhat of a laggard on both fronts – completing postsecondary education and technological adoption – I found that my introduction to academic peer review and internet culture happened simultaneously.
My very first research article, which I delivered in person to the managing editor in hard-copy form, meandered through a then paper-based review process. It was returned by regular mail with a rejection notice based on ‘Reviewer B’s’ scant comments, which included incomplete sentences full of spelling mistakes and harsh language. Inexperienced at the time, I imagined that the comments were written by a far busier senior colleague who knew something I did not and had very little time to fully justify their observations and decision.
Fifteen years and several published articles later, my ongoing participation in academic peer review has paralleled the proliferation of cyberbullying and troll culture that remains a serious problem in other parts of the internet. Recently, a colleague approached me with concerns about reviews they received on their first attempt at a journal article. This time, Reviewer B went so far as to make assumptions about the authors’ ethnicity and made derogatory comments about the relationship between junior and senior authors. Rather than engage with the content of the paper and critique the analysis, they offered opinions based on their own agenda.
These ‘reviews,’ although 15 years apart, shared common traits: an overall negative tone; snide, off-point comments based on erroneous assumptions and personal bias; and vague criticisms that lacked connections with those offered by other reviewers or editors. Finally, the reviews were hypocritical. That is, they could be criticized for the same issues they were condemning: unsupported claims, sloppiness and brevity. They provided nothing constructive to work on, indicating that the troll reviewer didn’t care about their role, the journal that provided them the service opportunity, nor their supposed colleagues – their counterparts in the review process.
The experience leaves me asking: what is the value of academic peer review in the social sciences? The process is intended to subject research to objective or at least arm’s-length inspection by other specialists. It is supposed to encourage work that meets high standards and thus provide assurances to readers and knowledge users that gratuitous claims and unacceptable analyses are not published without close review by qualified people. Review processes follow established protocols to guide criticism of content but also to structure the conduct of academic exchange.
Has science journalism helped unmask
a ‘replication crisis’ in biomedicine?
Philip Kitcher, LA Review of Books, 28 November 2019
During the past eight years, many astute people, inside and outside the scientific community, have worried about the quality of scientific research. They warn of a ‘replication crisis.’ In biomedicine and psychology in particular, it seems that a high proportion of published results cannot be reproduced. The absolute number of retractions for articles in these fields are rising. Whether or not it is right to talk of crisis, it is certainly reasonable to be concerned. What is going on?
Explanations typically fall into three categories. One possibility is that contemporary science, at least in some domains, is full of corrupt and dishonest people who routinely commit fraud, making up data for experiments that were never performed, or misreporting the results they have actually found, or tweaking their graphs and prettifying their images, and so on. In short, these fraudsters intentionally attempt to deceive their colleagues and, ultimately, members of the broader public. A second possibility is that incompetence or sloppiness is at play. As in Nick Carraway’s verdict on Tom and Daisy Buchanan, biomedical and psychological researchers are quite simply careless people who make a mess for others to clear up as best they can. And the third possibility: Neither fraud nor lack of rigor is responsible for the problem. Investigating some kinds of scientific questions may simply be devilishly difficult, sensitive to myriad factors that are hard for scientists to survey and control. In this case, the difficulties of replication represent the growing pains of an area of research as it struggles to achieve stable and reliable findings.
What exactly is known on the subject? In the past century, several famous cases of scientific fraud have been meticulously exposed. Similarly, there are established instances of investigators failing to conduct experiments according to the standards of their fields or of using the wrong statistical tools to analyze their findings. But it is far from obvious that fraud or sloppiness lies behind most cases in which results prove difficult to reproduce. In fact, most scientists can report how, despite admirably conscientious procedures, they themselves have sometimes been unable to replicate experimental results they had obtained in one place or at one time. Relatedly, the tacit or unconscious knowledge of the laboratory investigator can have an impossible-to-discern impact on results. Recognizing the role of this tacit knowledge is one of the great achievements of recent sociological studies of science. However carefully a given researcher tries to describe how she had performed an experiment, the ‘methods’ section of the published article will inevitably omit certain details. Indeed, she may be quite unaware of the tiny, but consequential, features of her laboratory practice that are crucial to the — repeatable — result she has found.
Read the full article in the LA Review of Books.
The term ‘privilege’ has been weaponized.
It’s time to retire it
Robert Boyers, Guardian, 8 November 2019
The first faculty member to raise a hand after the lecture asked Lawrence whether he was aware of the privilege he had exercised in addressing us. She spoke with conviction, and suggested that Lawrence had taken advantage of his august position by daring to offer his advice. Lawrence replied with courtesy, conceding that, like everyone else assembled, he was of course the beneficiary of several kinds of ‘privilege’, and would try to be alert to them.
Though nothing further came of this exchange, it seemed clear that ‘privilege’ had been invoked as a noise word to distract from the substance of Lawrence’s remarks and from his suggestion that some of us had failed to make the elementary distinction he had called to our attention. More, the ‘privilege’ charge had been leveled with the expectation that he was guilty – not because of anything particular he had said, but because he was a white male.
It was hard not to think that my young colleague was in fact suffering from what Nietzsche and others called ressentiment – a feeling of inferiority redirected on to an external agent felt somehow to be the source or cause of that painful feeling. Rightly or wrongly, she regarded him as the embodiment of a power, or authority, that is nowadays conventionally associated with ‘privilege’; that is, with some endowment or attribute – wealth, position, conviction, erudition, benevolence – enjoyed by some people but not others.
Of course there really is such a thing as ‘privilege’, and of course it is distributed unequally in any society. You’d have to be a fool to deny that whiteness has long been an advantage, however little some white people believe that their own whiteness has given them what others lack. Can anyone doubt that privilege is a real and legitimate issue when certain groups in a society enjoy ready access to good healthcare and schooling when others do not? There was a time, not so long ago, when to speak of privilege was to identify forms of injustice that decent people wished to do something about.
But you’d also have to be a fool to deny that the idea of privilege has been weaponized in contemporary discourse, often by people attempting to seize rhetorical advantage. The privilege call-outs increasingly common in the culture entail a readiness to rebuke people simply because their gender, ethnicity or rank makes them an apt target for shaming and condemnation. The charge of ‘privilege’ is usually directed at its targets not with the prospect of enlisting them in some plausible action to combat injustice but instead to signal the accuser’s membership in the party of the virtuous. Accusations of ‘privilege’ have become a form of oneupsmanship, and a charge against which there is no real defense.
Read the full article in the Guardian.
Gene therapy is facing its biggest challenge yet
Heidi Ledford, Nature, 4 December 2019
Grajevis Bakatunkanda’s mother knew the signs: when her son lost interest in dinner, that meant the pain was on its way. It would strike, like clockwork, nearly every week. Soon the shy, skinny boy would be at the hospital near their home in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where doctors would provide morphine for the pain and invariably diagnose him with malaria.
It turns out the doctors were wrong. The culprits were not parasites, but Bakatunkanda’s own red blood cells. Normally soft and springy, some of the boy’s cells were becoming deformed and stiff, like splinters of wood. They would lodge in his capillaries, choking the blood flow to vital organs and sending waves of crushing pain into his back and chest.
It wasn’t until the family immigrated to Cape Town, South Africa, in 2003, that they learned Bakatunkanda had sickle-cell anaemia, one of the world’s most prevalent genetic disorders, and one that has been studied for more than a century. But the diagnosis did little to ease the boy’s pain: the cocktail of drugs that he was prescribed — each of them in use for more than half a century and none developed specifically for sickle-cell disease — failed to break the cycle.
Now, Bakatunkanda is 22, and modern solutions are on the horizon in the form of gene therapies. After decades of work and some painful setbacks, techniques that involve altering a person’s genome have begun to win approval for a handful of rare disorders. Scientists are now working to extend the latest advances — including some that use newer gene-editing technologies — to sickle-cell disease, a condition that affects some 20 million people worldwide (see ‘How to stop sickling’). There are more than half a dozen active clinical trials, and more are planned. ‘The studies are just literally coming back to back now,’ says Lakshmanan Krishnamurti, a paediatric haematologist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. ‘It’s a very exciting time.’
But sickle-cell disease could challenge the gene-therapy field both ethically and technologically. Gene therapies that have been approved for other conditions have come with price tags in excess of US$1 million. But sickle-cell disease is concentrated in regions of the world such as sub-Saharan Africa, India and the Caribbean, where few have the resources to foot such a hefty bill. The experimental treatments for sickle cell are also complex, requiring long hospital stays and the expertise of large academic medical centres. Even for people who can access such resources, the risks might not always be worth it.
Read the full article in Nature.
Expensive treatments for genetic disorders
are arriving. But who should foot the bill?
Editorial, Nature, 4 December 2019
Now the landscape is changing. As we describe in a News Feature this week, sickle-cell disease is finally catching the attention of funders, governments and pharmaceutical companies. But as they work on innovative ways to tackle the disease, one challenge stands out: how to get treatments to those in need.
Most patients come from communities that have long faced discrimination and economic hardship. They can be stigmatized, and discussions about the condition tend to be rare. That’s partly why, although scientists have known the disease’s root molecular cause for 70 years, research has produced few new treatments.
But in the past decade, more support groups have started to spring up in Nigeria. Internationally, organizations ranging from the WHO to the American Society of Hematology have made treatments for sickle-cell disease a priority. Newborn-screening programmes have been expanding, and efforts are being made to deploy an old chemotherapy drug called hydroxyurea in Africa to help ease symptoms.
Last week, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first drug, voxelotor, to target the cause of the disease. Made by Global Blood Therapeutics in South San Francisco, California, it reduces the interactions between mutated haemoglobin proteins that lead to the sickled blood cells characteristic of the condition. That came hot on the heels of the FDA approving a drug called crizanlizumab, made by Novartis in Basel, Switzerland, which helps to stop the sickled cells from sticking together.
In October, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington, announced a landmark programme to develop gene-based technologies to treat sickle-cell disease and HIV in Africa. Both will contribute US$100 million over the next 4 years, and the ambition is to fund treatments into clinical trials within 10 years.
These developments are promising, but they don’t address one stark reality. Most people with the disease struggle to access even basic health care, and the new treatments have a hefty price tag.
In 2017, the FDA approved a treatment called Endari, made by Emmaus Medical in Torrance, California. Endari is a formulation of the amino acid glutamine, and costs $13,000 a year. Unsurprisingly, US physicians are struggling to get insurance companies to foot the bill — meaning that many people are unable to access the treatment.
Read the full article in Nature.
Walter Benn Michaels: What’s his deal?
Benjamin Winterhalter, JSTOR Daily, 16 November 2019
To oversimplify things a bit, the literary critic Walter Benn Michaels’ intellectual project consists in uniting a number of seemingly unrelated observations into one big thought. Michaels saw three things happening, all around the same time (1967 to the present). One, a postmodernist current in literary theory, which, following the French theorist Roland Barthes, asserted ‘the death of the author’ (and, in turn, of intended meaning), became fashionable in the academy. Two, a new form of liberal ideology, perhaps best described in the political economist Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992), proclaimed the forever triumph of neoliberal capitalism. And three, social conditions in neoliberal capitalist economies increasingly came to be conditions of staggering inequality, with almost all gains being captured by an elite minority, while the middle and working classes saw their real wages decline.
Michaels’ central insight, devastating in its simplicity, was first recorded in his 2004 book The Shape of the Signifier, an article version of which was published in the journal Critical Inquiry in 2001. In it, Michaels claimed that the death of intentional meaning, facilitated by the postmodern turn in literary theory, had the effect of depoliticizing the economic deprivations that characterize our era.
According to Michaels, this is how social problems, like poverty and unemployment, become just another possible aesthetic—the trappings of a working class existence come to be understood as reflections of a bohemian lifestyle, rather than as the results of economic necessity. And it’s how we lose the sense of art as potentially transformative: without intention, he argues, there can be no communication. These themes were further developed in Michaels’ later book, The Beauty of a Social Problem (2015), which analyzes photography by Walker Evans and Viktoria Binschtok, among others. (There’s an earlier article version of it, in Twentieth Century Literature, too.) In short, popular struggles for equality or for civil rights are given political expression as campaigns to adjust the various policy knobs of the (historically inevitable) neoliberal capitalist machine.
Read the full article in JSTOR Daily.
When a DNA test says you’re a younger man,
who lives 5,000 miles away
Heather Murphy, New York Times, 7 December 2019
Three months after his bone marrow transplant, Chris Long of Reno, Nev., learned that the DNA in his blood had changed. It had all been replaced by the DNA of his donor, a German man he had exchanged just a handful of messages with.
He’d been encouraged to test his blood by a colleague at the Sheriff’s Office, where he worked. She had an inkling this might happen. It’s the goal of the procedure, after all: Weak blood is replaced by healthy blood, and with it, the DNA it contains.
But four years after his lifesaving procedure, it was not only Mr. Long’s blood that was affected. Swabs of his lips and cheeks contained his DNA — but also that of his donor. Even more surprising to Mr. Long and other colleagues at the crime lab, all of the DNA in his semen belonged to his donor. ‘I thought that it was pretty incredible that I can disappear and someone else can appear,’ he said.
Mr. Long had become a chimera, the technical term for the rare person with two sets of DNA. The word takes its name from a fire-breathing creature in Greek mythology composed of lion, goat and serpent parts. Doctors and forensic scientists have long known that certain medical procedures turn people into chimeras, but where exactly a donor’s DNA shows up — beyond blood — has rarely been studied with criminal applications in mind.
Tens of thousands of people get bone marrow transplants every year, for blood cancers and other blood diseases including leukemia, lymphoma and sickle cell anemia. Though it’s unlikely that any of them would end up as the perpetrator or victim of a crime, the idea that they could intrigued Mr. Long’s colleagues at the Washoe County Sheriff’s Department, who have been using their (totally innocent) colleague in IT as a bit of a human guinea pig.
The implications of Mr. Long’s case, which was presented at an international forensic science conference in September, have now captured the interest of DNA analysts far beyond Nevada.
The average doctor does not need to know where a donor’s DNA will present itself within a patient. That’s because this type of chimerism is not likely to be harmful. Nor should it change a person. ‘Their brain and their personality should remain the same,’ said Andrew Rezvani, the medical director of the inpatient Blood & Marrow Transplant Unit at Stanford University Medical Center.
He added that patients also sometimes ask him what it means for a man to have a woman’s chromosomes in their bloodstream or vice versa. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ he said.
But for a forensic scientist, it’s a different story. The assumption among criminal investigators as they gather DNA evidence from a crime scene is that each victim and each perpetrator leaves behind a single identifying code — not two, including that of a fellow who is 10 years younger and lives thousands of miles away.
Read the full article in the New York Times.
Women have always had abortions
Lauren MacIvor Thompson, New York Times, 13 December 2019
Over the course of American history, women of all classes, races, ages and statuses have ended their pregnancies, both before there were any laws about abortion and after a raft of 19th-century laws restricted it. Our ignorance of this history, however, equips those in the anti-abortion movement with the power to create dangerous narratives. They peddle myths about the past where wayward women sought abortions out of desperation, pathetic victims of predatory abortionists. They wrongly argue that we have long thought about fetuses as people with rights. And they improperly frame Roe v. Wade as an anomaly, saying it liberalized a practice that Americans had always opposed.
But the historical record shows a far different set of conclusions.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, abortion was legal under common law before ‘quickening,’ or when the pregnant woman could feel the fetus move, beginning around 16 weeks. The birth rate steadily dropped in the decades after the American Revolution, as couples sought to control the size of their families for a variety of reasons.
Abortion in the early stages of a pregnancy was common and generally not considered immoral or murderous. Along with breastfeeding, abstinence, the use of the rhythm method, vaginal douching and the use of herbs like pennyroyal or savin, which were believed to stimulate menstruation, abortion was considered part of the universe of what we now call ‘birth control.’ By the 1820s, abortion services and contraceptive devices were advertised in newspapers with coded language.
Although 19th-century contraceptive and abortion practices were largely unregulated and often dangerous, the ubiquity of the advertisements indicates just how necessary women found them. They also talked about family planning in private diaries and letters, as well as in public lectures and tracts, using different words, of course. But the conversations were omnipresent.
Most women’s rights activists in the 1800s did not openly embrace contraceptives or abortion as part of their national platform. They knew that doing so would have increased men’s sexual access to women, while allowing them to escape responsibility for any consequences. Instead, reformers promoted ‘voluntary motherhood,’ the right of women to refuse their husbands’ sexual demands and the right to bear children only when they felt ready. Reformers knew that women’s right to bodily integrity, above even the right to vote, was the key to truly becoming full citizens.
Read the full article in the New York Times.
Why the paper on the CRISPR babies
stayed secret for so long
Antonio Regalado, MIT Technology Review, 3 December 2019
More than a year after the birth in China of twin girls known as Lulu and Nana, the world’s first gene-edited babies, the affair is still shrouded in secrecy. US researchers and universities have given incomplete or equivocal accounts of their involvement with He Jiankui, the Chinese biophysicist who used CRISPR to make changes to the girls’ DNA while they were still embryos. In China, if you distribute a news story to WeChat asking what happened to the twins, state censors will issue a takedown notice.
No reason is given. No appeal is possible.
The silence hasn’t served only to conceal what really happened to the girls. It is hiding the scientific facts themselves. Starting late last year, manuscripts written by He describing the creation of the twins were considered for publication by at least two supremely influential journals: Nature and JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association. Neither has published his work.
The reason isn’t only that He’s project trampled ethics rules. Another major obstacle to a full account is that He has not been seen or heard from for months. He didn’t make it to his home village for Chinese New Year in February, his father told us. His lab and data, according to one insider, were seized by Chinese authorities last December, and his original team of 10 has scattered to the four winds. An American collaborator, Michael Deem of Rice University, is the subject of an investigation by that institution; it has come to no public conclusion or disclosed any findings. So there may be nobody who can answer questions, expand upon the data, or carry out follow-up experiments, as scientific review by a journal often demands.
Although the reaction to the CRISPR babies was overwhelmingly negative, the future that the unpublished manuscripts unveil—a future of genetically engineered humans—is coming faster than many people realize. Genome-writing techniques are improving at a blazing pace. Select researchers remain keen to employ them in human embryos, tempted by the chance to prevent disease or improve heredity. The fear is they will do it again in secrecy, in some other country with lax oversight, and repeat He’s mistakes.
Today, MIT Technology Review is reporting excerpts from He’s unpublished manuscript about the creation of the twins for the first time.
Read the full article in the MIT Technology Review.
The imperial legacy in scholarship
Bruno Charbonneau, Africa Is A Country, 22 October 2019
On March 22, 2019, I learned that the director and three other members of the scientific board of the journal Afrique contemporaine had resigned. The director, Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, protested political interference in the publication of a special issue on Mali that I was editing and that was set for publication in early 2019. All of the articles had been through a thorough peer-review process, which had all authors revising their texts and two articles being rejected. Yet, after the scientific team’s decision to publish, I continued receiving awkward demands to revise my own texts (I wrote the issue’s introduction and one article). Coupled with unusual delays, I began to suspect political obstacles—suspicions confirmed by the director’s resignation.
Contrary to some comments I received later, we were not naïve when we submitted our issue to this French journal. I have been working on French security and military policy in Africa since 2002 and was fully aware of how difficult it can be to talk critically about the French state in Africa, especially when the critiques are written in French by non-nationals. A long list of anecdotal experiences comes to mind. I also knew about the basic history of the journal, understood its affiliation with the Agence française de développement (AFD; the French development agency), and recognized how French military engagement in Mali had almost become taboo, too delicate politically to allow for contradictory or opposing views.
The interference into the publication process backfired. The scientific director’s resignation allowed me to protest and share the news. The floodgates were opened and gave the issue, our work and our research profiles much publicity. Scholars protested and demanded in our names the protection of academic freedom. The journal lost its credibility as an academic space and several forthcoming contributions, even though it is trying to come back after revising its policies and editorial board (see its recent communiqué).
I lived the whole thing as a very personal experience: initial (paranoid) fear of being the victim of state censorship, pressure and stress to respond to multiple demands, responsibility and guilt towards my colleagues and Malian friends, and so on, including having to find another venue (it will appear in the Canadian Journal of African Studies, December 2019 issue ). In the eyes of many, it gave our work credibility. Vocal supporters, however, emphasized the issue of academic freedom to the detriment of discussing the situation in or our work on Mali. For others, we were simply naïve or irrational. A few months later, a former Malian prime minister told me about his discussion with a high-ranking French official who called us ‘hysterical extremists.’ I doubt that the key issue is academic freedom, but our little censorship story tells us much about the state of France-Africa relations, imperial legacies and the impact these have on the production of knowledge about Francophone Africa.
I learned later that three issues bothered the journal’s political overseers. One was my article, which criticized the French-led counterterrorist approach to Mali and the Sahel, exposing its limits and effects on conflict resolution. The article is the least critical piece that I have written on the matter, but it was still too much. I knew full well that questioning the French strategy in Mali was taboo or sensitive in certain circles, so I avoided using ‘radical’ terms and emphasized a general ‘counterterrorist approach’ wording instead of a specific ‘French policy’ one.
Read the full article inAfrica Is A Country.
The rise and fall of local newspapers
Matthew Engel, New Statesman,11 December 2019
Originally, provincial newspapers were hyper-partisan rags (like the Pioneer in Middlemarch) competing with each other, and often owned by a local grandee. As the 20th century took shape, the weakest closed and the survivors acquired monopolies, whereupon they scrapped the partisanship and began to look like the old Daily Telegraph with the opinion taken out: turgidly designed, often turgidly written, run by skinflints. But indispensable, full of news, and profitable.
Note that last word. In 1978, provincial journalists went on a national strike to protest about their feeble wages: the pay that once seemed munificent to me was dire for young marrieds, and would get worse. Because the strike had perverse consequences. The papers still appeared, brought out by executives and scabs. And their circulation did not fall. They had to be printed earlier, without much news, but that allowed more selling time. The conclusion drawn by most managements: journalism? Overrated!
By then the owners were starting to strike gold with their monopoly of classified advertising and its holy trinity of cars, jobs and homes. This was not part of the old model, which depended on saturation sales. Remember: few people had cars until the 1960s; they changed jobs infrequently until the 1970s; and a home was primarily a home, not a store of wealth, until the 1980s.
There followed what the press specialist Douglas McCabe of Enders Analysis calls ‘the 20-year heyday’, 1985 to 2004. These were good years for national papers too, thanks to the Murdoch-led crushing of the print unions (which had pushed their luck way, way too far). But they did have competitors.
For the locals, it was easy-peasy. Start-up freesheets began to nibble at the monopolies, but the big groups could buy them out or squash them by starting their own. And new aggressive players came to dominate the market. The archetype was Johnston Press, whose rise and fall may be taught in business schools as a cautionary tale. For nearly 150 years, it contented itself with owning the Falkirk Herald. But it inched out of its stronghold in the 1970s and then stormed south, like Bonnie Prince Charlie marching on London. It went on a debt-fuelled spending spree, buying newspapers wherever it could.
Read the full article in the New Statesman.
What’s next for psychology’s
embattled field of social priming
Tom Chivers, Nature, 11 December 2019
The roots of the priming phenomenon go back to the 1970s, when psychologists showed that people get faster at recognizing and processing words if they are primed by related ones. For instance, after seeing the word ‘doctor’, they recognized ‘nurse’ faster than they did unrelated words. This ‘semantic’ priming is now well established.
But in the 1980s and 1990s, researchers argued that priming could affect attitudes and behaviours. Priming individuals with words related to ‘hostility’ made them more likely to judge the actions of a character in a story as hostile, a 1979 study found. And in 1996, John Bargh, a psychologist at New York University in New York City found that people primed with words conventionally related to age in the United States — ‘bingo’, ‘wrinkle’, ‘Florida’ — walked more slowly than the control group as they left the lab, as if they were older.
Dozens more studies followed, finding that priming could affect how people performed at general-knowledge quizzes, how generous they were or how hard they worked at tasks. These behavioural examples became known as social priming, although the term is disputed because there is nothing obviously social about many of them. Others prefer ‘behavioural priming’ or ‘automatic behaviour priming’.
In his 2011 best-seller Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel-prizewinning psychologist Daniel Kahneman mentioned several of the best-known priming studies. ‘Disbelief is not an option,’ he wrote of them. ‘The results are not made up, nor are they statistical flukes. You have no choice but to accept that the major conclusions of these studies are true.’
But concerns were starting to surface. That same year, Daryl Bem, a social psychologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, published a study suggesting that students could predict the future6. Bem’s analysis relied on statistical techniques that psychologists regularly used. ‘I remember reading it and thinking ‘Fuck. If we can do this, we have a problem,’’ says Hans IJzerman, a social psychologist at the University of Grenoble Alps in Grenoble, France.
Also that year, three other researchers published a deliberately absurd finding: that those who listened to the Beatles song ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ literally became younger than a control group that listened to a different song. They achieved this result by analysing their data in many different ways, getting a statistically significant result in one of them by simple fluke, and then not reporting the other attempts7. Such practices, they said, were common in psychology and allowed researchers to find whatever they wanted, given some noisy data and small sample sizes.
Read the full article in Nature.
Trigger warnings don’t help people
cope with distressing material
Christian Jarrett, Aeon. 22 November 2019
Whereas the ideological arguments for and against trigger warnings are difficult to settle, the specific psychological claims can be tested against the evidence. On the first claim, that trigger warnings enable survivors of trauma to avoid re-experiencing the negative associated emotions, critics argue that the avoidance of potentially upsetting material is actually a counterproductive approach because it offers no chance to learn to manage one’s emotional reactions. As a result, fears deepen and catastrophic thoughts go unchallenged.
Consider a meta-analysis of 39 studies in 2007 by Sam Houston State University in Texas that found a ‘clear, consistent association’ between using avoidance-based coping strategies (that is, staying away from upsetting stressors or avoiding thinking about them) and increased psychological distress. For a more concrete example, look at the findings from a study, published in 2011, of women who witnessed the Virginia Tech shooting of 2007 – those who tried to avoid thinking about what happened tended to experience more symptoms of depression and anxiety in the months that followed.
On the question of whether trigger warnings give people the chance to brace themselves emotionally, a spate of recent studies suggest that this simply isn’t how the mind works. In 2018, an investigation by Harvard University asked hundreds of volunteers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk survey website to read graphic literary passages – such as the murder scene in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) – that either were or weren’t preceded by a trigger warning of distressing content ahead, and then rate their feelings. The warnings had little beneficial effect on the volunteers’ emotional reactions.
In the spring of 2019, a paper by the University of Waikato in New Zealand had nearly 1,400 participants across six studies watch graphic video footage, either preceded or not with warnings. This time, the warnings reduced the upsetting impact of the videos, but the size of this effect was ‘so small as to lack practical significance’ – and this was true regardless of whether the participants had a history of trauma or not.
Around the same time, a group at Flinders University in Australia looked at the effect of trigger warnings on people’s experience of ambiguous photos accompanied by different headlines – such as a picture of passengers boarding a plane either with an upsetting crash-related headline or an innocuous business-related headline. Trigger warnings increased participants’ negative feelings prior to the photo presentation, presumably as they anticipated what was to come. But, once again, the warnings didn’t make much difference to how volunteers responded emotionally to the photos.
Read the full article in Aeon.
Napoleon Chagnon is dead
Alice Dreger, Chronicle Review, 23 October 2019
Challenged on his statistical claims about the relatively high reproductive success of men who have killed others, for example, Chagnon re-analyzed his data, correcting some problems with his original claims. He also gave others his data to check and to publish with re-analyses using better statistical methods. He certainly wasn’t a perfect scholar — Chagnon would sometimes overstate claims, as Hames observed in our conversations — but he did take seriously many challenges to his work and looked to data to try to get ‘to the closest approximation of the truth.’
My own experience working with Chagnon on his history confirmed this. He sometimes recalled details incorrectly — for example, he might reverse the order of two events, or attribute a remark to the wrong person. Whenever I presented him the documentary evidence of his apparent error, he fully engaged.
The peer-reviewed article I ultimately published in Human Nature about the AAA task force is the angriest academic piece I have ever written. I know why: I had come to realize that, if there had ever been a legitimate factual basis for an investigation by the AAA of major ethical crimes, Chagnon himself would have acknowledged that.
The reason he was willing to work with me for over a year was not because he had a big ego — which he did. It was because he knew the ‘closest approximation to the truth’ would exonerate him. He knew that Tierney had misrepresented so much.
The chair of the AAA task force knew it too. That was Jane Hill, former president of the AAA. During my research, Sarah Hrdy shared with me a previously confidential message, dated April 15, 2002, in which Hill responded to Hrdy’s concerns about the task force’s work.
‘Burn this message,’ Hill told Hrdy. ‘The book [by Tierney] is just a piece of sleaze, that’s all there is to it (some cosmetic language will be used in the report, but we all agree on that). But I think the AAA had to do something because I really think that the future of work by anthropologists with indigenous peoples in Latin America — with a high potential to do good — was put seriously at risk by its accusations, and silence on the part of the AAA would have been interpreted as either assent or cowardice. Whether we’re doing the right thing will have to be judged by posterity.’
Read the full article in the Chronicle Review.
How do machines think?
Philip Ball, New Statesman, 11 December 2019
In short, we humans need to get to know our machines – and perhaps we need to design them in a way that allows us to understand them. ‘People are going to have to change the way they work to incorporate AI,’ says Cox. ‘For that to happen, the technology has to meet them halfway – they have to be able to understand why the system is telling them to do things.’ Doctors, for example, should demand from an AI diagnosis not just a recommendation for intervention but a justification based on cause-and-effect reasoning. ‘It’s absolutely imperative that we have that explainability,’ says Cox.
Without such transparent logic, he says, the real danger of AI is not that it will develop megalomaniac tendencies like Skynet in the Terminator films, but that it will be used in inappropriate ways that ignore its limitations. ‘We’re going to see lots of Wild West applications,’ he says, pointing to a court in Florida that used AI to make decisions about parole. For all the talk of objectivity, the system was just learning from the past data, with all its inherent biases. In 2016, Microsoft’s Twitter chatbot Tay began emulating racist and sexist trolls within hours of its release and had to be shut down. Today’s deep-learning AI ‘is guaranteed to take the past and give it back to you’, says Cox.
How machines behave might influence how we do, too. Rahwan and his colleagues recently looked at how cooperation can develop between humans and machines, using an algorithm that could signal its intentions and goals by using threats or offers. It was able to achieve cooperation on a par with what humans alone attain – but only by using more threatening strategies.
‘If machines are more vindictive, I may have to develop new norms to cope,’ says Rahwan. ‘Will this then impact the way I interact with other humans? Is there some kind of behavioural contagion? We have no clue.’ But there are already some indications, he adds, that ‘children who interact with chatbots such as Alexa start using more imperative language with other children – ordering them rather than asking them politely’.
Read the full article in the New Statesman.
Is virtue signalling a perversion of morality?
Neil Levy, Aeon, 29 November 2019
In the only full treatment of the topic in the academic literature (that I know of), the philosophers Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke accuse the ‘moral grandstander’ (their term for the virtue signaller) of perverting the function of public moral discourse. According to them, ‘the core, primary function that justifies the practice’ of such public moral discourse is ‘to improve people’s moral beliefs, or to spur moral improvement in the world’. Public moral talk aims to get others to see a moral problem they hadn’t noticed before, and/or to do something about it. But, instead, virtue signallers display themselves, taking the focus away from the moral problem. Since we often spot virtue signalling for what it is, the effect is to cause cynicism in the audience, rather than to induce them to think the signaller is so great. As a result, virtue signalling ‘cheapens’ moral discourse.
But Tosi and Warmke offer no evidence for their claim that the primary, or the justifying, function of moral discourse is improvement in other people’s beliefs or in the world. That’s certainly a function of moral discourse, but it’s not the only one (as they recognise).
Perhaps, in fact, virtue signalling, or something like it, is a core function of moral discourse.
Signalling is very common in nature. The peacock’s tail, for instance, is a signal of evolutionary fitness. It’s what biologists call an honest signal, because it’s hard to fake. It takes a lot of resources to build a tail like that, and the better the signal – the bigger and brighter the tail – the more resources must have been devoted to it. Stotting – a behaviour seen in some animals, involving leaping straight up in the air, with all legs held stiffly – is probably also an honest signal of fitness. The gazelle who stotts vigorously demonstrates to potential predators that it’s going to be hard work to run it down, which might lead the predators to look for easier prey. Humans also engage in signalling: wearing an expensive suit and a Rolex watch is a hard-to-fake signal of wealth and might help to communicate that you’re a suitable trading partner or a desirable mate.
In the cognitive science of religion, it is common to identify two kinds of signals. There are costly signals and credibility-enhancing displays. The peacock’s tail is a costly signal: it takes a lot of energy to build it and drag it around, and it gets in the way when fleeing predators. Credibility-enhancing displays are behaviours that would be costly if they weren’t honest: for example, the animal who ignores a nearby intruder not only communicates to group members its belief that the intruder isn’t dangerous, but does so in a way that certifies the sincerity of the communication because, if the intruder was dangerous, the signalling animal itself would be at risk.
Read the full article in Aeon.
Is it ethical to grow a brain in a petri dish?
Sophie Fessl, JSTOR Daily, 11 December 2019
This brings up ethical questions: the small blobs of brain tissue aren’t fully fledged brains, sitting in vats thinking about the meaning of life. The brain waves observed in some mature organoids alone are unlikely to be enough to produce complex brain functions. And, isolated from sensory input, it is unclear whether the organoids could even ‘learn’ cognitive processes.
But implanting brain organoids into the brain of an actual living mouse could link the blob with the animal’s senses and motor system. These experiments hark to a related debate raging in science, about the creation and use of chimeras (animals into which human cells have been implanted). While in the U.S., the National Institutes of Health put in place a moratorium on funding research that investigates animal embryos containing human cells in 2015, in March, 2019, Japan announced a reversal of its ban, allowing scientists to grow human cells in animal embryos that are carried to term.
A recent perspective published in Cell posited that, at the moment, the question isn’t whether we humanize an animal into which a human brain organoid is implanted. Instead, it is important to ask whether the organoid enhances specific brain functions in the chimera, and at what point this enhancement crosses the line, becoming harmful and unethical. The authors argue that current studies are more likely to worsen brain function than to improve it.
At the moment, researchers need to make a surgical cavity to accommodate the organoid, which likely harms brain function. Once organoids can make up this deficit, which would be a notable achievement from a clinical perspective, and brain functions are enhanced above a critical threshold, perhaps the chimera should be given a higher moral status. This could go as far as giving the chimera the right of self-determination, the authors argue. Where this critical threshold lies is left open for debate, but the mirror test could be used to test for self-awareness in animals after organoid transplantation.
With brain organoids, the scientific community could be in danger of crossing yet another ethical line, some researchers warn. At this year’s meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, the largest annual meeting of neuroscientists, a group of scientists sounded the warning bell that research is coming close to creating sentient brain blobs in the lab, while some may have done so already.
The question here is at what point organoids, all on their own, develop consciousness or experience sentiments like pain. In 2018, a group of scientists, lawyers, ethicists, and philosophers, writing in Nature, advocated for an ethical debate on brain organoids. With their initiative, they wanted to get ahead of the science, establishing guidelines before brain organoid research could raise immediate concerns.
Read the full article in JSTOR Daily.
Music is the weapon
Atiyyah Khan, Africa Is A Country, 29 November 2019
For an artist as prolific and famous as Hugh Masekela, it is remarkable that the music and story of Live in Lesotho has remained buried for so long. On 28th December 1980, Masekela together with Miriam Makeba staged an unprecedented stadium-filled concert in Lesotho, an event that deeply challenged and disturbed apartheid South Africa’s oppressive fabric. It also uplifted a crowd of more than 75,000 South Africans and their fellow Southern African revelers.
This recording evidences an extraordinary confluence of experiences linking music, defiance, exile, and reconnection. At the time South Africa’s front line neighbors Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana, and Mozambique gave safe haven to South African volunteers going into exile to join organizations of the liberation movement. A growing flood of young South African men and women were secretly crossing the borders to join up. The apartheid regime began to push back hard, first with raids, assassinations, and then bombings. So, what might they do when two globally prominent South African musical ambassadors for freedom propose touring Southern Africa?
Wealthy Zulu businessman, hustler and jazz super fan Victor ‘Blowie’ Moloi dreamt of bringing Masekela to Southern Africa for a series of performances. Masekela had never returned to the region since he left twenty years earlier. His international activism led to him being banned from returning to his home country. During the late 1970s Moloi was in regular contact with David Marks of 3rd Ear Music, looking for a way to make this dream come true. Marks had been corresponding directly with Masekela. ‘We both knew the problems. It wasn’t going to happen.’ says Marks.
In his biography Still Grazing, Masekela describes receiving a call from Moloi who said:
Hugh, you and Miriam have now been gone from home for over twenty years, and even though most people have been buying your records, they would love to see you perform in person. I know you cannot come to South Africa, but we could organise three stadium concerts in Swaziland, Botswana and Lesotho. Why don’t you come down and do it for the home folks?
Masekela pitched the idea to Miriam Makeba, and she was enthusiastic. She would bring her band from Conakry in Guinea and Masekela would bring his from New York. They would hold big stadium concerts, in Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland. Moloi guaranteed all payments. The concerts would be billed as ‘Welcome Home’ for the exiled Masekela and Makeba.
Upon arrival in Lesotho, the musicians were met with bad news. Moloi informed them that the governments in Swaziland and Botswana had forced cancellations as a result of pressure from the regime. There was also some disinformation about cholera outbreaks. Only Lesotho, a small landlocked country entirely surrounded by South Africa, stood firm, the show would go on. People who had planned to go to the other concerts went to Lesotho instead.
Read the full article in Africa Is A Country,