Meet the anti-Dr. Oz: Ben Goldacre

Julia Belluz in Vox:

ScreenHunter_935 Jan. 01 11.14If you haven't been reading Dr. Ben Goldacre, you should. He is arguably one of the most interesting and important science writers working today. At a time when health journalism is clogged up with self-serving peddlers of bogus diets and magic miracle cures, Goldacre, a physician and former Guardian columnist, has made it his mission to “skewer the enemies of reason” and bring research and evidence to bear on the big — and small — health questions of our time.

Over the years, Goldacre has taken on everyone from sloppy journalists to pharmaceutical executives, vitamin proprietors, and disingenuous academics. He has illuminated the evidence, and lack thereof, behind detox footbaths, homeopathy, and ear candling. And, with every debunking, he has left behind lessons in the scientific method, epidemiology, and evidence-based medicine. His writing has changed policy and informed the public at a time when few in the media stand up for science in health.

Now, you can catch up on his fun fights with bad science in his new collected works, I think you'll find it's a bit more complicated than that. He calls the tome a “statistics toilet book,” which is basically true. Here, we talked to Goldacre about the changing discourse on science in the public, where the biggest abuses of science are happening today, and what he hopes to see change in the future.

More here. [Thanks to John Ballard.]

The financial consequences of saying ‘Black,’ vs. ‘African American’

Joe Pinsker in The Atlantic:

QuartzOne hundred years ago, “Colored” was the typical way of referring to Americans of African descent. Twenty years later, in the time of W.E.B. Du Bois, it was purposefully dropped to make way for “Negro.” By the late 1960s, that term was overtaken by “Black.” And then, at a press conference in a Hyatt hotel in Chicago in 1988, Jesse Jackson declared that “African American” was the term to embrace; that one was chosen because it echoed the labels of groups, such as “Italian Americans” and “Irish Americans,” that had already been freed of widespread discrimination.

A century’s worth of calculated name changes are a testament to the fact that naming any group is a politically freighted exercise. A 2001 study catalogued all the ways in which the term “Black” carried connotations that were more negative than those of “African American.” This is troubling on the level of an individual’s decision making, and these labels are also institutionalized: Only last month, the US Army finally stopped permitting use of the term “Negro” in its official documents, and the American Psychological Association currently says “African American” and “Black” can be used interchangeably in academic writing.

But if it was known that “Black” people were viewed differently from “African Americans,” researchers, until now, hadn’t identified what that gap in perception was derived from. A study, to be published next month in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, found that “Black” people are viewed more negatively than “African Americans” because of a perceived difference in socioeconomic status. As a result, “Black” people are thought of as less competent and as having colder personalities.
Read the rest here.

Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Renaissance Tapestry

Grafton_1-010815_jpg_600x545_q85Anthony Grafton at the New York Review of Books:

Everyone who was anyone in the sixteenth-century art world liked Pieter Coecke van Aelst. The skilled artisans who wove tapestries and crafted stained-glass windows eagerly used his designs. The greatest patrons paid happily through the nose for the immense tapestries, eight or nine to a series, in which Coecke and those who executed his designs told biblical and classical stories, put the cardinal vices on parade, or celebrated the victories of great men. Monarchs who hated one another—for example, those bitter lifelong enemies King Francis I of France and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V—were as one in their desire to cover their walls with Coecke’s work, even if they had to wait years to see one of his subtle, elegant designs translated into solid, colorful cloth.

Until the Metropolitan Museum put on its current, magnificent exhibition of Coecke’s work, however, his name was not a household word, even in those households that discuss Renaissance art. “Grand Design” is the third in a great series of shows that have restored tapestry to its proper place in our historical panorama of Renaissance and Baroque art. Deeply learned and dazzlingly accessible, these exhibitions—the first two organized by, and the third inspired by the scholarship of, Thomas Campbell, now the museum’s director—have taught or reminded us to see the tapestry as a central form of Renaissance art.

more here.

An Intellectual History of the French Revolution

RobespierreHugh Gough at The Dublin Review of Books:

Anyone looking for a neat explanation of the French revolutionary terror faces the problem of choice. Since the collapse of Jacobin rule after Robespierre’s execution in Thermidor Year II, debate has raged over how an event that began with the promise of liberty and fraternity degenerated so rapidly into fifteen months of mass imprisonment and death. During 1793 and 1794 around three hundred thousand people were jailed, many of them dying from disease and neglect, a further seventeen thousand were guillotined or shot and a quarter of a million killed in civil wars, of which the Vendée was by far the most deadly. After Thermidor the revolution’s opponents argued that terror on such a scale was inherent in the entire revolutionary project from the outset, part of a “genetic code” of violence and intolerance deeply embedded in the revolutionary gene. The revolution’s supporters, on the other hand, defended terror as the product of difficult circumstances, a regrettable but necessary expedient to combat the threats posed to the republic by civil war and military invasion.

Each side, in other words, blamed the other back then and have continued to do so ever since, taking up entrenched positions that have dominated historians’ and the public’s attitudes for over two hundred years. Along the way new avenues of interpretation have widened the argument, bringing on board issues such as social conflict and food shortage, the importance of Enlightenment thought, changes in sensibility, the influence of personality and even the serendipity of sheer accident.

more here.

Best books of 2014

Arifa Akbar in The Independent:

BookOne of the biggest and boldest trends to emerge in books this year was fourth – or even fifth? – wave feminism, which arrived in rallying calls from Laura Bates's recording of inequality in 'Everyday Sexism…' (Simon & Schuster, £14.99) to Vagenda and Femen's mission statements, among others. Out of these, Chi Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's 'We Should All Be Feminists' (Fourth Estate, £5), a TEDx-talk-turned-essay, would be the book I'd press into the hands of girls and boys, as an inspiration for a future “world of happier men and happier women who are truer to themselves”.

Curmudgeons hailed the death of the novel (Will Self), or the demise of the long novel (Tim Parks), but the following pages prove them most emphatically wrong. Some of the best reads this year weighed in at more than 500 pages, though 2014 was also the year of the short story, with Margaret Atwood and Hilary Mantel, among other novelists, turning their hand to the short-form. Long-percolating debuts eclipsed fare from some of the most seasoned authors (Ian McEwan's middling 'The Children Act'; Martin Amis's bewildering Holocaust “comedy”, 'The Zone of Interest'). So, Nathan Filer's Costa triumph was followed by Eimear McBride's Bailey's prize success.

More here.

2014 in science

From Nature:

NatureThis year may be best remembered for how quickly scientific triumph morphed into disappointment, and even tragedy: breakthroughs in stem-cell research and cosmology were quickly discredited; commercial spaceflight faced major setbacks. Yet landing a probe on a comet, tracing humanity’s origins and a concerted push to understand the brain provided reasons to celebrate.

Human origins decoded

Considering that they have been dead for around 30,000 years, Neanderthals had a hell of a year. Their DNA survives in non-African human genomes, thanks to ancient interbreeding, and two teams this year catalogued humans’ Neanderthal heritage. Scientists learnt more about the sexual encounters between Homo neanderthalensis and early humans after analysing the two oldest Homo sapiens genomes on record — from men who lived in southwest Siberia 45,000 years ago and in western Russia more than 36,000 years ago, respectively. The DNA revealed hitherto-unknown human groups and more precise dates for when H. sapiens coupled with Neanderthals, which probably occurred in the Middle East between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago. Radiocarbon dating of dozens of archaeological sites in Europe, meanwhile, showed that humans and Neanderthals coexisted there for much longer than was once thought — up to several thousand years in some places. Genomes old and new charted the emergence of agriculture. Contemporary Europeans carry DNA inherited from light-skinned, brown-eyed farmers who migrated from the Middle East beginning 7,000–8,000 years ago, in addition to more-ancient ancestry. The achievements of these early farmers — domestication of crops such as wheat and barley — are also being understood through genome sequencing. In July, a consortium reported a draft copy of the gargantuan wheat genome, which contains 124,000 genes and 17 billion nucleotides. Another group released the genomes of 3,000 rice varieties.

More here.

Wednesday Poem

Brand New Ancients
Speaker 4

See – all that we have here is all that we’ve always had.

We have jealousy
and tenderness and curses and gifts.
But the plight of a people who have forgotten their myths
and imagine that somehow now is all that there is
is a sorry plight,
all isolation and worry –
but the life in your veins
it is godly, heroic.
You were born for greatness;
believe it. Know it.
Take it from the tears of the poets.

There’s always been heroes
and there’s always been villains
and the stakes may have changed
but really there’s no difference.
There’s always been greed and heartbreak and ambition
and bravery and love and trespass and contrition –
we’re the same beings that began, still living
in all of our fury and foulness and friction,
everyday odysseys, dreams and decisions . . .
The stories are there if you listen.

The stories are here,
the stories are you,
and your fear
and your hope
is as old
as the language of smoke,
the language of blood,
the language of
languishing love.

The Gods are all here.
Because the gods are in us.

The gods are in the betting shops
the gods are in the caff
the gods are smoking fags out the back
the gods are in the office blocks
the gods are at their desks
the gods are sick of always giving more and getting less
the gods are at the rave –
two pills deep into dancing –
the gods are in the alleyway laughing…

by Kate Tempest
from Brand New Ancients
publisher: Picador, London, 2013

In transition to independent living, the ‘dignity of risk’ for the mentally ill

Stephanie McCrummen in the Washington Post:

RiskOn his 26th morning of independence, Kelvin Cook made a huge pot of coffee and ate oatmeal off a plate. His Social Security check had not arrived and he was down to $5. He had a cellphone plugged into a wall, but it was out of minutes. Rent was overdue. He was out of his five prescriptions, including the anti-psychotic that had suppressed the symptoms of his schizophrenia for the past year, and now he felt sluggish.

He rolled his wheelchair into the kitchen and poured himself another coffee. Day by day, he was trying to let go of all that had come before now — years of psychiatric hospitalizations, sleeping on streets, hearing voices, seeing “ghosts,” shelters, a suicide attempt and, most recently, an adult home where, for the first time, he thought he might have found stability.

Thirty-three years old, he was now trying the next step, to live on his own.
He looked around his new two-bedroom apartment in suburban Charlotte, all blank white walls and empty except for a blue couch, a bed, two side tables and a TV with no cable. He poured another cup of coffee.

“Oh, man,” he sighed.

What he had learned in his first 25 days: He didn’t know if this was going to work out.

But what he also knew: Here was his chance. This bare-bones place, the result of decades of lawsuits, legislation and a 1999 Supreme Court ruling, known as the Olmstead decision, that found it discriminatory for states to segregate people with serious mental illnesses in psychiatric institutions if they were willing and able to live more independently in the community.

Read the full article here.

The Genius and Faith of Faraday and Maxwell

20141007_TNA41HutchinsonhomepageIan H. Hutchinson at The New Atlantis:

The religious commitments of the great scientists of history are today often dismissed as mere idiosyncrasies. Their beliefs are considered regrettable if understandable blemishes, the incidental flaws of great minds who helped advance civilization out of primitivism yet could not fully escape it. After all, is not science supposed to aspire to an understanding of the universe that is independent of the beliefs and opinions of scientists, whether religious, political, social, or aesthetic?

Yet, science does not exist in a vacuum, and studies in the sociology, history, and philosophy of science often emphasize how scientists’ broader beliefs and practices influence their work, and thus the way that science develops. Some scholars even argue (if not entirely convincingly) that scientists’ beliefs influence science’s settled content.

The strict separation we commonly observe between a researcher’s scientific ideas and his or her “personal beliefs” is a modern, and even recent, norm. From antiquity through the Scientific Revolution, science was viewed as a form of philosophy, and many of the thinkers we have retroactively dubbed “scientists” freely intermingled their speculation about the natural world with theological, philosophical, and mathematical writings, often expending a great deal of their scholarly time and energy on religious study. Kepler’s seventeenth-century laws of planetary motion, for example, seem to his modern readers like needles of scientific inspiration buried in a haystack of theological speculation. Newton and Boyle likewise intermingled physics and philosophical theology without apparent hesitation.

more here.

Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw

MI0000965439Wendy Lesser at Threepenny Review:

So many things must be done right for an opera to turn out well that it’s amazing any of them succeed at all. The composer has to be a good musician, of course, but he must also be in sympathy with the librettist and, if there is a separate source author, with that writer as well. Once their initial job is done, the creation then gets handed over to a whole other set of people who can mess it up: the director, the set, costume, and lighting designers, the conductor, the orchestra members, and of course the singers. In most operas, these onstage performers need to be able to act as well as sing; it also helps if they look right for their parts. The list of potential pitfalls goes on and on—the acoustics of the hall, the size and nature of the audience, the comfort or discomfort of the seats. It’s endless, and daunting.

Before last summer, I had never even heard of Opera Holland Park, so I was admittedly taking a risk in attending their production of The Turn of the Screw during my short London stay. But I was curious to see this Britten opera, which had thus far evaded me—plus word-of-mouth on the production was good, and ticket prices were reasonable, especially compared to Covent Garden or Glyndebourne.

more here.

Joseph O’Neill and the New Cosmopolitan Novel

Cover00David Marcus at Bookforum:

During the late 1990s, we saw the rise of a new literary subject: the postcolonial immigrant. In the metro-poles of the North Atlantic—in London and New York, Paris and Toronto—the protagonist emerged: a parvenu, an outsider with a sturdy work ethic, a grocer or taxi driver seeking to make it in his or her new home. There were geographical variations—the Dominicans of Junot Díaz’s Drown, the East Indians of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, the Soviet Jews of Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, and the African refugees of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah—but central to these narratives was the direction of movement. The postcolonial subject moved from the outside in, from the former colony to the metropole, from beyond to the imperial center. Gatsby-like, he or she often tested the outer limits of the American dream—that still-regnant myth about capitalist self-making. The narrative arc was that of the arriviste: a story not only of assimilation and the arduous passage toward citizenship but also of accumulation and the trials of “making it.”

Today, however, we have something of a body double floating around, a doppelgänger novel. While the parvenu novel was a study of citizenship, of the ways in which former colonial subjects found success in the imperial capital, we now see a new kind of migration: that of the cosmopolitan, the emigrant, the exile pushed out into the world, spreading away from the imperial center, roots from a tree.

more here.

Have Human Rights Treaties Failed?

Posner, Eric Ken_Roth5_web_0

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, and Eric Posner, author of “The Twilight of Human Rights Law”, debate the issue in the NYT. Posner:

Age-old blights like child labor, the subjugation of women, religious persecution and even slavery are amazingly common. Even in the United States, torture has been used against suspected terrorists, police brutality flourishes and convicted criminals often receive extraordinarily harsh punishments.

Many people argue that the solution to these problems is to strengthen human rights law. They argue that we need more treaties, with stricter obligations and better-funded, more powerful international institutions. But my view is the opposite. Human rights law is too ambitious — even utopian — and too ambiguous: it overwhelms states with obligations they can’t possibly keep and provides no method for evaluating whether governments act reasonably or not. The law doesn’t do much; we should face that fact and move on. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care when governments abuse their citizens. But more focused and pragmatic interventions, including relying heavily on foreign aid for economic development, rather than coercion or shaming, is the better way to go.


Human rights treaties help to explain why these abuses are wrong. They may not always provide definitive answers — any text requires interpretation — but they codify a widely endorsed set of principles from which the conversation can begin.

Would we really be better off, as Eric implies, if each discussion of governmental behavior started from scratch — if, rather than debating what constituted a violation of, say, the right to a fair trial, we had to begin by discussing whether people should be given fair trials?

More here.

The Most Futuristic Predictions That Came True In 2014

George Dvorsky in io9:

Technologically-assisted telepathy was successfully demonstrated in humans

For the first time ever, two humans exchanged thoughts via mind-to-mind communication.

The Most Futuristic Predictions That Came True In 2014

Remarkably, the system is completely non-invasive. By using internet-linked electroencephalogram (EEG) and robot-assisted image-guided transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) technologies, an international team of researchers were able to get two subjects — one in India and one in France — to mentally transmit the words “hola” and “ciao.” It's an important proof of concept for furthering the development of tech-enabled telepathy.Image: Carles Grau et al/Plos.

And in a similar breakthrough, a different team developed a system that allowed a human subject to control the movements of another person. The University of Washington researchers showcased the technology by having participants collaborate on a computer game where a “sender” sent mental instructions to a “receiver” to control their hand movements.

More here.

On “The New Republic”


David A. Bell in the LA Review of Books:

The old TNR did not end with a financial whimper, but a massive and unnecessary bang, courtesy of the new owner (and reported on in copious detail by former staffer Ryan Lizza, now working for The New Yorker). But even if a quiet slide into bankruptcy had precipitated TNR’s fall, the event would have posed the same questions: What did it really represent in American life? What future, if any, remains for institutions like it? To what extent can individual publications retain even their identity, to say nothing of their influence, in an age of social media?

To start answering these questions, a little history is in order.

Magazines like TNR are, fundamentally, creations of the 18th century. It was then that the basic format appeared: weekly or monthly periodicals that published various mixtures of news reports and analysis, opinion columns, book reviews, and the occasional poetry or fiction (not to mention, in a pre-phonograph age, sheet music). The Tatler and The Spectator, founded in Britain early in the century, quickly found imitators across the continent and then in the Americas. The point was to instruct and persuade, but to do so in an engaging, indeed entertaining manner: the essays were short enough to read in a single sitting, and full of witty anecdotes. Not coincidentally, it was in one of these magazines, the Berlinische Monatsschrift (Berlin Monthly) that the philosopher Immanuel Kant published his great 1784 essay “What Is Enlightenment,” in which he associated human progress with the ability of the public to make free use of its reason — i.e., for its members to argue rationally with each other. (The same issue included, among other things, articles on Jewish education, on a machine that supposedly spoke and played chess, and on a Berlin astrologer.) Kant understood that in a society where few people had the learning and leisure to engage in advanced philosophical discussions, printed periodicals were the level at which the public use of reason would mostly take place.

In TNR’s first issue, published in the fall of 1914, the magazine embraced this tradition, pledging itself to a version of Kant’s ideal.

More here.

Cleanse your body with the alkaline diet

Victoria Lambert in The Telegraph:

Natasha-Corrett_3148735bFive years ago, Natasha Corrett was overtired, overworked and unhappy with her weight. And when her back seized up in a stress-related spasm the day before her 26th birthday, she sought acupuncture treatment in a desperate effort to ‘‘un-knot’’ her in time for her party. What the gourmet cook didn’t expect was advice on food which would revolutionise her diet, lose two and a half stone “without noticing” – and find relief from the symptoms of polycystic ovary syndrome that had dogged her for years. It was while she was having the needles inserted that the therapist told her about the benefits of an alkaline diet: one which avoids “acid forming foods” such as dairy, meat, sugar and coffee and replaces them with plant foods and wholegrains.

Now 31, Natasha is in radiant health and her series of best selling Honestly Healthy cook books, based on the principles of alkaline eating, have a big celebrity following – one fan is Victoria Beckham. The latest book, Honestly Healthy Cleanse, is launched this week and contains 100 meticulously tested new recipes that combine her alkaline diet principles with four “cleansing plans” to kick start a new eating regime. Each detox is tailored to individual needs: the six-day slimdown cleanse, for example, suggests a menu of raw salads with soups and smoothies, to inspire those New Year weight loss plans; while for those in search of something more ambitious, the 30-day lifechanging cleanse is, she promises, a stepping stone to a new, healthier life. ‘’Once you’ve achieved the first 30 days, there will be no turning back,’’ shepromises, ‘’you will make definite lifestyle changes for the better as you’ll feel so energised and full of life.’’

More here.

A One-Way Trip to Mars? Many Would Sign Up

Natalie Angier in The New York Times:

Curiosity-rover-28-months-on-mars-1418070845861-master495When Seth Shostak, an astronomer who scans the cosmos for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, asks middle school students how many of them want to go to Mars, all hands shoot up. When he asks how many would rather design robots that go to Mars, most hands drop back to their desks. And when he asks general audiences how many would go to Mars even if it meant dying a few weeks after arriving, he invariably finds volunteers in the crowd. “I kid you not,” said Dr. Shostak, the director of the Center for SETI Research. “People are willing to risk everything just to see Mars, to walk on the surface of our little ruddy buddy.” His experience accords with what many say is a distinct surge in public enthusiasm for space travel generally, and a manned mission to Mars in particular. Or make that a human mission: Women, too, are wholly on board. “I would totally love to go to Mars,” said Pamela A. Melroy, a former NASA astronaut who piloted two space shuttle missions and commanded a third.

More here. (Note: Do look at the amazing pictures in the accompanying interactive feature)

Teju Cole in Conversation with Aleksandar Hemon


Over at Bomb magazine (photo by Teju Cole):

Aleksandr Hemon I’ve always found the insistent distinction between fiction and nonfiction in Anglo-American writing very annoying, indeed troubling. For one thing, it implies that nonfiction is all the stuff outside of fiction, or the other way around, the yin and yang of writing. Another problem: it marks a text in terms of its relation to “truth,” a category that is presumably self-evident and therefore stable. But narration cannot contain stable truth, because it unfolds, and it does so before the narrator in one way, and before the listener/reader in another way. Narration is creation of truth, which is to say that truth does not precede it.

In Bosnian, there are no words that are equivalent to “fiction” and “nonfiction,” or that convey the distinction between them. This is not to say that there is no truth or falsehood. Rather, the stress is on storytelling. The closest translation of nonfiction would really be “true stories.”

You declare Every Day Is for the Thief a work of fiction. Why?

Teju Cole I made a sideways move from art history into writing, and I think this, in part, is why I also find the stern distinction between fiction and nonfiction odd. It’s not at all a natural way of splitting up narrated experience, just as we don’t go around the museum looking for fictional or nonfictional paintings. Painters know that everything is a combination of what’s observed, what’s imagined, what’s overheard, and what’s been done before. Is Monet a nonfiction painter and Ingres a fiction painter? It’s the least illuminating thing we could ask about their works. Some lean more heavily on what’s seen, some more on what’s imagined, but all draw on various sources.

Writers know this too, but I think they knew it a lot better before the market took such a hold. Would Miguel de Cervantes have considered himself a writer of fiction? Would François Rabelais? Would Robert Burton consider his activity (let’s telescope the eras here) essentially dissimilar to Rabelais’s? They all pretty much understood themselves to be spinning narratives out of whatever was at hand. And let’s not even get into Daniel Defoe, who played devious games with the emerging genres.

More here.

Monday Poem

Winter Solstice With J. Kepler
we're deeply in—

in as deeply as we get
before we spin again
round an ellipse's rim
to a more congenial spot
for blood and breath

what the astronomical
survival odds (our
outer limits) are
who knows?

for time is short
by last report

listening now to ersatz jazz
I change Pandora's voice,
I move on, linking
new music to my thinking
by simply clicking
(because of what our
technos know

which is obviously permanent
and, like serious snow,
is sticking)

in this marvelous,
magnetic, angular hour
when sun and earth
seek a new relation,
and we anticipate
the max benefits
that will be here
in half a year

(as they will not be
for globe-mates in the
southern hemisphere)

I think there will be foxglove
and hydrangea when
Kepler''s laws begin to whirl us
back again

by Jim Culleny