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For Want of a Better Protest

August 31, 2017 Leave a comment

Seven years ago, I wondered here whether America might be in need of a more meaningful, perhaps even physical, flavor of civic engagement. Stretching a bit, perhaps, I wrote:

The peak of this time of civic unrest, the late 1960s, has become an archetypical reference point for much of the subsequent civic and political action. The question now is whether this model has been stretched too thin, overused, and, in a certain way, too peaceful, in the age of the internet. Is web-based “social networking” the sort of engagement and participation that would impress TocquevilleKennedyKingPutnam, or Armstrong? Are 140 characters enough for a meaningful treatise? Can a Facebook.com group change the world? Or should we just grab a groupon and plan our revolutions face-to-face at the newest eatery (that checks out on Yelp, of course)? In short, global electronic connectivity has fostered the rise of a sort of wide-sweeping, possibly disparate civic engagement, but is it of significant consequence? Have we walked too far away from the days of settling our differences and sorting things out on the battlefield?

Since then, the reelection of President Barack Obama and the subsequent election of President Donald Trump have preceded and likely fueled an increased attention to and participation in civic engagement and public discourse, at least of a certain variety. It remains to be seen whether this allegedly newfound brand of political participation is politically effective or merely serves to enhance the (digital and corporeal) egos of the participants.

Yesterday, the New York Times published an interview with Ed Cunningham, a person whose name probably is known to few, but whose voice may be more recognizable, memorializing a sort of retirement signing statement from the now-former ABC and ESPN college football broadcaster who apparently resigned this spring but did not disclose the real reason for his resignation, he says, until now: he believes football is a dangerous sport.

In its current state, there are some real dangers: broken limbs, wear and tear. But the real crux of this is that I just don’t think the game is safe for the brain. To me, it’s unacceptable.

Cunningham feels his job placed him in “alignment with the sport. I can just no longer be in that cheerleader’s spot.”

First, the timing of Cunningham’s explanation is curious not because it is coordinated with the beginning of the current college football season in order, one assumes, to deliver maximum media impact, but because it did not come years ago. The sport’s governing bodies at the scholastic and professional levels may, like tobacco companies before them, continue to distance themselves from reports and research on the relationship between football and brain damage, but whatever popular science concepts informed Cunningham’s decision are not new.

Second, to the extent Cunningham is fashioning his resignation as a protest designed to effect change in the sport, his approach seems shortsighted. In surrendering his national media platform, Cunningham has traded the opportunity to discuss the issues he claims are so important to him with a relevant audience on a regular basis for the chance to fire a single bullet– yesterday’s article– before disappearing from public sight. If his goal was to make football safer, surrendering an important resource does not seem like the best way to accomplish that goal. Even if he was worried that his superiors would not permit him to make the sort of (pedestrian, frankly) comments he provided to the Times during game broadcasts, it would have made for a more broadly significant departure from his position had a network (i.e., a league “broadcast partner”) terminated him for making those or similar statements. As it stands, someone else simply will replace him, and everyone will move on. The article quotes Al Michaels, a much more prominent football broadcaster:

I don’t feel that my being part of covering the National Football League is perpetuating danger. If it’s not me, somebody else is going to do this. There are too many good things about football, too many things I enjoy about it. I can understand maybe somebody feeling that way, but I’d be hard-pressed to find somebody else in my business who would make that decision.

In an effort to be fair to Cunningham, it is not completely clear from his actual statements quoted in the article whether he made his decision for the purpose of making football safer or for the personal purpose merely of extracting himself from an endeavor he now believes is too dangerous for his participants. Knowing the probable effect of telling his story the way he did, the distinction may be of no significance. If he wanted to be a source of meaningful change, though, Cunningham should have made like his contemporary version of Alexander Hamilton and stayed on his microphone as long as possible. Instead, he’s done just enough to satisfy his own guilt through effortless moral posturing. In that, he is not a unique player in today’s civic arena, but worthy causes deserve more.

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Placebo Placebo

March 31, 2014 1 comment

A well-recognized component of therapeutic drug testing is comparing the experiences of people receiving the drug with those of people not receiving the drug. In short, the testers want to know whether the drug actually does anything. In these tests, the control group– the people not taking the drug– often receives an inert substance the group nevertheless believes to be the drug being tested. Sometimes, despite receiving no medication whatsoever, members of the control group experience improvements in their symptoms. Rather than from a targeted, scientific testing process, this effect also can result from a long, steady, general drumbeat about the efficacy of a therapy. The touted ability of vitamin C to prevent the common cold appears to be such an example.

When people discuss the placebo effect, they usually apply a negative connotation. If the appearance of the placebo effect isn’t a disappointment, as in the case of a tested drug that is less effective than hoped, it’s a fraud, a shorthand way of saying Emergen-C doesn’t really work.

That is, unless you believe it does, in which case it might.

Instead of dismissing the placebo effect as shorthand for failed expectations or a dead end, perhaps it is an opening for new exploration. (Perhaps, and likely so, such exploration already has occurred.) If the mind, through delusion (conscious or unconscious), belief (actual or fraudulently induced), or faith (earnest, blind, or false), can achieve physiological results in the body, we may need to consider manifestations of that capability like the placebo effect an entry point rather than a concluding point, something to be harnessed or developed, rather than dismissed.

Categories: Listening, Science

Why Are We Conducting Obviously Flawed Science?

October 16, 2013 6 comments

A study making headlines today purports to conclude that Oreo cookies are “just as addictive as cocaine.” If a scientific study showed that a popular snack food had the addictive properties of a narcotic substance, popular press headlines would be appropriate. The study in question plainly does not support that conclusion, however.

The researchers conducted the study as follows:

On one side of a maze, they would give hungry rats Oreos and on the other, they would give them a control – in this case, rice cakes. . . . Then, they would give the rats the option of spending time on either side of the maze and measure how long they would spend on the side where they were typically fed Oreos.
. . .

They compared the results of the Oreo and rice cake test with results from rats that were given an injection of cocaine or morphine, known addictive substances, on one side of the maze and a shot of saline on the other. Professor Schroeder is licensed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to purchase and use controlled substances for research.

The research showed the rats conditioned with Oreos spent as much time on the “drug” side of the maze as the rats conditioned with cocaine or morphine.

From these two independent tests, it only seems possible to draw two independent conclusions: 1) rats like Oreos more than rice cakes, and 2) rats like cocaine or morphine more than saline. Plainly, because the testing did not directly compare Oreos and cocaine, it would be inappropriate to draw a conclusion that directly compares Oreos and cocaine.

From these two, independent tests, we do not know whether rats prefer Oreos in equal measure, for example, to cocaine. One seemingly easy way to find out would have been to ask them directly to choose between Oreos and cocaine, and it is strange that the researchers did not conduct such a test.

The testing conducted also appears to conflate preferentiality with addictiveness. Establishing that “hungry rats” consistently prefer one type of food over another does not necessarily mean that they are addicted to the preferred food option. The addictive force in a person would seem to be stronger than and fundamentally different from a mere preferential force; indeed, the power of addiction is that it can compel a being to act against its preferences in order to serve the addiction.

All we know from this research is that hungry rats would rather eat Oreos than rice cakes, not that the Oreos were “addicting” in a non-colloquial sense. A behavioral test for Oreos’ addictive properties might be whether rats choose Oreos over other, equally or more desirable food, or whether they eat Oreos even when they are not hungry, or otherwise consume Oreos to their detriment.

Addiction surely has a neurological component as well, but again, the difference between preference (or pleasure) and addiction (or need) would seem to be important. In follow-up research, one of the student-researchers conducted some neurological testing:

They used immunohistochemistry to measure the expression of a protein called c-Fos, a marker of neuronal activation, in the nucleus accumbens, or the brain’s “pleasure center.”

“It basically tells us how many cells were turned on in a specific region of the brain in response to the drugs or Oreos,” said Schroeder.

They found that the Oreos activated significantly more neurons than cocaine or morphine.

“This correlated well with our behavioral results and lends support to the hypothesis that high-fat/ high-sugar foods are addictive,” said Schroeder.

That we derive more pleasure from consuming Oreos than from consuming cocaine or morphine is interesting, but it does not necessarily mean that consuming Oreos creates the pervasive neurological shift that constitutes addiction. (This is probably why the researchers only describe a “correlat[ion]” on this point.)

As someone without formal neuroscience training, my assessment of this study and the conclusions drawn from it certainly may be incorrect, but my criticism seems obvious, appropriate, and easily addressed (and remedied, if necessary). I do not mean to suggest that this Connecticut College group is the only scientific research team susceptible to this critique, as the popular science news contains plenty of examples. Maybe something that seems obvious– Why not compare Oreos and cocaine directly?– to a lay reader like me would never occur to the trained researchers because it is not a scientifically relevant inquiry. If the scientific community wants to present its work to a popular audience, however, it should shed the thin veneer of social justice concerns, which the Connecticut College group attempted to apply, and focus on addressing that audience’s natural curiosities, which are particularly likely to arise in response to sensational headlines like “Oreos as ‘addictive as cocaine.’

The Limits of Science: A Story

April 2, 2013 1 comment

Space– what the late Carl Sagan often referred to as “the cosmos”– probably is one of my longest-held interests. Whether due to my age or another reason, I did not watch Sagan and his “Nova” program going up, although as I came to learn about him, I wish I had.

It was with some excitement, then, that I discovered Neil DeGrassse Tyson, the apparent heir to Sagan’s throne as an astrophysicist with a desire to share his passion for cosmology with the general public. Tyson has appeared on programs like The Daily Show, is active on twitter, and generally has made himself a presence in popular culture.

Whether it reflects Tyson’s own personality or is illustrative of the tone of our general, popular conversation, Tyson’s message began to take on a more aggressive stance in defense and furtherance of “science.” I imagine he, like many, believes that “science” is “under attack” from people such as climate change skeptics and those who want Intelligent Design integrated into school curricula. While there is nothing wrong with this general effort, and the following is not a defense of climate change skepticism or the corporate contrivance that is Intelligent Design, Tyson’s approach sometimes leads him to make neat statements that play well in popular media (and not inconceivably are designed for that purpose), but that merit further examination.

Perhaps the most popular example:

By engaging in a modern political debate, Tyson has misstated the fundamental nature of science. In short, “science” is only “true” to the extent it accurately describes the observed world.

Science is not a collection of unassailable “true facts,” but a set of methods for the processing and categorizing of observations. Science is something that is done, not something that is true. At its base, science is an overtly and expressly technical and communal way of telling a story. Mythology is engaged in the same storytelling endeavor. It simply uses different methods.

There is commonality in the limits of science and mythology as well, and, returning to Tyson’s remark, pictured above, what science tells us about unobserved events in the past is no more “true” than mythology addressing the same topic. Both are telling stories, even if, for many, the story science tells may be more convincing for a number of reasons. Persuasiveness and truth are not the same thing, however.

Categories: Discourse, Science