Archive for the ‘psychology’ category

One From the Road: Why Can’t David Brooks Behave When I’m On Vacation edition

August 20, 2008

So, I’m blissfully bagging (photographically) three of the Big Five up in KwaZulu Natal, and then equally blissfully chilling in perhaps the best location in the surreal beauty of Camps Bay, almost entirely free of the Intertubes, when I finally make landfall (runway fall has the wrong sound to it) in Johannesburg. There, I innocently sign on to my sister-in-law’s wireless, (just checking my email. Honest. And the Red Sox scores. And every single poll I’d missed, and….) and got smacked by this by-now-old-news story of David Brooks trying wax deep on his newish theme of the neuroscience of politics and culture . (Thanks, sort of, to James Fallows for leading me into this swamp).

The dog-bites-man headline, of course, is that Brooks essentially made up the critical facts of the research he cited. In a column trying to draw cognitive distinctions between the thought and perception of presumed collectivist Chinese and those stalwart individualist Americans, he got just about everything salient wrong. The study he cited did not claim to attempt a random sample, interviewing instead a captive audience of college students; the test image was not of an aquarium, but an underwater scene, the distinctions in results between the two populations were not as claimed – and none of these material errors was the big enchilada:

In a column purporting to probe crucial distinctions between Chinese and American psyches, Brooks cited a study whose Asian population was…wait for it…

…Japanese.

Now, if you want the full, devastating take down on Brooks and a very smart and just about as devastating critique on the body of research Brooks was alleging he had probed deeply enough to opine about, read this, by Penn’s and the Language Log’s Mark Liberman. I got nothing to add about the substance of Brook’s substancelessness beyond Liberman’s take down.

But what I do want to raise is the question of consequences. Brooks really screwed up here by the standards of his profession. He got several specific facts wrong, and those errors undermine the entire article. What is the appropriate response of his readers and, more important, his employers, those who provide him with one of the most significant bully pulpits in contemporary journalism.

First, please note that the observation that Brooks is an opinion-writer, not a news reporter does not buy him much mitigation. The old cliche – everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts – applies here. His interpretation of the science he cited is his own; that I think it is wrongheaded, stupid, shallow, and betrays a lack of understanding of exactly the kinds of difficulties in the research that Liberman documents is of no consequence. People are allowed to be dumb, and other people can decide whether it’s Brooks or his critics who should don the dunce cap.

But the actual specific details of what he suggests is a growing scientific consensus are a different story. Those are actual events and results in the world. Mischaracterizing them to make a half baked (or even, in different and more careful hands, a fully baked) generalization is, in journalism, a kind of fraud, a pernicious betrayal (and disdain for) the trust of your readers.

That’s why in journalism in general and in the science journalism that I and my colleagues try to teach to our grad students, it gets repeated again and again that the first job is to get the facts right.

In science journalism, at least as I learned it and try, never quite perfectly, to practice and teach it, you need to take the next step. Just transcribing accurately what someone has told you or what you have read in a book, a paper or a press release ain’t enough. Actual understanding, and informed judgment matter too. If you are going to apply your own, non-expert interpretation to a result, you need to earn it – and you do so by mastering the background to that research first.

As I said above, others have done a much better job than I could demonstrating that Brooks failed this standard on every level.

So back to the question of what should happen to someone who so baldly screws up. A junior reporter, someone not so branded and “to bit too fail” as David Brooks would, if they demonstrated as much a disregard for facts as Brooks does here would be in serious trouble; if this were a third or fourth instance (and I invite folks to go back through blog reactions, including my own, to earlier Brooks fiascos) they would stand a good chance of being fired.

Now that’s not going to happen. If it mattered that much to the Times, then William Kristol, he of four published corrections since he started at the Grey Lady– would be out of a job. Dut the fact that Brooks made stuff up, in essence, to tell the story he already knew he was going to write (OK – so I’m inferring here, but this is a blog, and I get to) should matter to someone who might still cling to the idea that they worked for the “newspaper of record.”

Here’s what I would do. I wouldn’t fire Brook. That would just create another faux martyr for the bad guys. I would suspend him – say through November 8. I’d even suspend him with pay – and here I’m assuming that under his contract with the Times he’s constrained in what else he can do. And then I’d substitute for him on the next-to-last page of the dead tree edition with an intellectually honest, determined conservative. Get someone in their who can actually fight that corner. See what that feels like.

Just thinkin’ on the road, you know. Now its off to hear Pops Muhammad – much more fun than wallowing in the follies of the Lords of Journalism.

Burrowing into tragedy: a story behind the story of the Iraq War Suicides.

June 5, 2008

Cross Posted at Cosmic Variance (thanks Sean).

My thanks to all here who gave me such a warm welcome on Monday (and, again, to Sean for asking me here in the first place).

This post emerges out of this sad story of a week or so ago.

Over Memorial Day weekend this year there was a flurry of media coverage about the devastating psychological toll of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The single most awful paragraph in the round-up:

“According to the Army, more than 2,000 active-duty soldiers attempted suicide or suffered serious self-inflicted injuries in 2007, compared to fewer than 500 such cases in 2002, the year before the United States invaded Iraq. A recent study by the nonprofit Rand Corp. found that 300,000 of the nearly 1.7 million soldiers who’ve served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from PTSD or a major mental illness, conditions that are worsened by lengthy deployments and, if left untreated, can lead to suicide.”

(For details and a link to a PDF of the Army report – go here.)

This report, obviously, is the simply the quantitative background to a surfeit of individual tragedy – but my point here is not that war produces terrible consequences.

Rather, the accounts of the Iraq War suicides — 115 current or former servicemen and women in 2007 – struck me for what was implied, but as far as I could find, not discussed in the mass media: the subtle and almost surreptitious way in which the brain-mind dichotomy is breaking down, both as science and as popular culture.

How so? It is, thankfully, becoming much more broadly understood within the military and beyond that “shell shock” is not malingering, or evidence of an essential weakness of moral fiber. PTSD is now understood as a disease, and as one that involves physical changes in the brain.

The cause and effect chain between the sight of horror and feelings of despair cannot, given this knowledge, omit the crucial link of the material substrate in which the altered and destructive emotions can emerge. PTSD becomes thus a medical, and not a spiritual pathology.

(This idea still faces some resistance, certainly. I launched my blog with a discussion of the attempt to court martial a soldier for the circumstances surrounding her suicide attempt. But even so, the Army is vastly further along in this area that it was in the Vietnam era and before.)

Similarly, depression is clearly understood as a disease with a physical pathology that underlies the malign sadness of the condition. (H/t the biologist Louis Wolpert for the term and his somewhat oddly detached but fascinating memoir of depression.)

This notion of the material basis of things we experience as our mental selves is not just confined to pathology. So-called smart drugs let us know how chemically malleable our selves can be.

More broadly, the study of neuroplasticity provides a physiological basis for the common sense notion that experience changes who we perceive ourselves to be.

All this seems to me to be a good thing, in the sense that (a) the study of the brain is yielding significant results that now or will soon greatly advance human well being; and (b) that the public seems to be taking on board some of the essential messages. The abuses (overmedication, anyone?) are certainly there. But to me, it is an unalloyed good thing that we have left the age of shell shock mostly behind us.

At the same time, I’m a bit surprised that the implications of this increasingly public expression of an essentially materialist view of mind haven’t flared up as a major battle in the science culture wars.

Just to rehearse the obvious: the problem with cosmology for the other side in the culture war is that it conflicts with the idea of the omnipresent omnipotence of God. The embarrassment of evolutionary biology is that it denies humankind a special place in that God’s creation, destroying the unique status of the human species as distinct from all the rest of the living world.

Now along comes neuroscience to make the powerful case that our most intimate sense of participating in the numinous is an illusion.

Instead, the trend of current neuroscience seems to argue that the enormously powerful sense each of us has of a self as distinct from the matter of which we are made is false. Our minds, our selves may be real—but they are the outcome of a purely material process taking place in the liter or so of grey stuff between our ears.

(There are dissenters to be sure, those that argue against the imperial materialism they see in contemporary neuroscience. See this essay for a forceful expression of that view.)

I do know that this line of thought leads down a very convoluted rabbit hole, and that’s not where I am trying to go just now.

Instead, the reports of the Iraq suicides demonstrated for me that the way the news of the materiality of mind is is slipping into our public culture without actually daring (or needing) to speaking its name.

That the problem of consciousness is still truly unsolved matters less in this arena than the fact of fMRI experiments that demonstrate the alterations in brain structure and metabolism associated with the stresses of war or the easing of the blank, black hole of depression. The very piecemeal state of the field helps mask its potentially inflammatory cultural implications.

To me this suggests two possibilities. One is that it is conceivable that when the penny finally drops, we might see backlash against technological interventions into the self like that which has impeded stem cell research in the U.S.

On the other hand, I don’t think that the public can be motivated or even bamboozled into blocking the basic science in this field. Too much rests on the work; any family that has experienced Alzheimers knows just how urgent the field may be — not to mention anyone with a loved one in harms way.

This actually gives me hope for a shift in the culture war. For all the time and energy wasted over the last several years defending the idea of science against attacks on evolution, with the cosmologists taking their lumps too – the science of mind could force a shift in the terms of engagement decisively in the right direction.

Or I could be guilty of another bout of wishful thinking. Thoughts?

Image: Brain in a Vat, article illustration. Offered in homage to my friend and source of wisdom, Hilary Putnam, who introduced the brain-in-a-vat thought experiment in this book. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Death of the American Republic

December 20, 2007

Read it and weep.

An Icelandic tourist gets thrown into the black hole of “we don’t need no stinking habeas corpus.”  If her story does not make you mad, you’re not breathing.

(h/t Andrew Sullivan).

The only science that seems relevant here is this famous experiment.

I want my country back.