In 1972 Thomas Kuhn hurled an ashtray at Errol Morris. Already renowned for The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published a decade earlier, Kuhn was at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Morris was his graduate student in history and philosophy of science. During a meeting in Kuhn’s office, Morris questioned Kuhn’s views on paradigms, the webs of conscious and unconscious assumptions that underpin, say, Aristotle’s, Newton’s or Einstein’s physics. You cannot say one paradigm is truer than another, according to Kuhn, because there is no objective standard by which to judge them. Paradigms are incomparable, or “incommensurable.” If that were true, Morris asked, wouldn’t history of science be impossible? Wouldn’t the past be inaccessible–except, Morris added, for “someone who imagines himself to be God?” Kuhn realized his student had just insulted him. He muttered, “He’s trying to kill me. He’s trying to kill me.” Then he threw the ashtray at Morris and threw him out of the program.
Morris went on to become an acclaimed maker of documentaries. He won an Academy Award for The Fog of War, his portrait of “war criminal”—Morris’s term—Robert McNamara. His documentary The Thin Blue Line helped overturn the conviction of a man on death row for murder. Morris never forgave Kuhn, who was, in Morris’s eyes, a bad person and bad philosopher. In his book The Ashtray (Or the Man Who Denied Reality), Morris attacks the cult—my term, but I suspect Morris would approve, since it describes a group bound by irrational allegiance to a domineering leader–of Kuhn. “Many may see this book as a vendetta,” Morris writes. “Indeed it is.” Morris blames Kuhn for undermining the notion that there is a real world out there, which we can, with some effort, come to know. Morris wants to rebut this skeptical assertion, which he believes has insidious effects. The denial of objective truth enables totalitarianism and genocide and “ultimately, perhaps irrevocably, undermines civilization.”
Lawrence Ferlinghetti celebrates his 100th birthday on March 24 with the publication of “Little Boy,” his life story told in flashes and arias. No one’s biography has more completely or ardently embodied the visions and contradictions, the achievements and calamities, the social mobility and social animosities, of that life span.
Poet, retail entrepreneur, social critic, publisher, combat veteran, pacifist, poor boy, privileged boy, outspoken socialist and successful capitalist, with roots in the East Coast and the West Coast (as well as Paris), Ferlinghetti has not just survived for a century: He epitomizes the American culture of that century.
Specifically, he has been a unique protagonist in a national drama: the American struggle to imagine a democratic culture. How does the ideal of social mobility affect notions of high and low, Europe and the New World, tradition and progress?
Consciousness has many aspects, from experience to wakefulness to self-awareness. One aspect is imagination: our minds can conjure up multiple hypothetical futures to help us decide which choices we should make. Where did that ability come from? Today’s guest, Malcolm MacIver, pinpoints an important transition in the evolution of consciousness to when fish first climbed on to land, and could suddenly see much farther, which in turn made it advantageous to plan further in advance. If this idea is true, it might help us understand some of the abilities and limitations of our cognitive capacities, with potentially important ramifications for our future as a species.
Over the weekend, the Times tried to soften the emotional blow for the millions of Americans trained in these years to place hopes for the overturn of the Trump presidency in Mueller. As with most press coverage, there was little pretense that the Mueller probe was supposed to be a neutral fact-finding mission, as apposed to religious allegory, with Mueller cast as the hero sent to slay the monster.
The Times story today tried to preserve Santa Mueller’s reputation, noting Trump’s Attorney General William Barr’s reaction was an “endorsement” of the fineness of Mueller’s work:
In an apparent endorsement of an investigation that Mr. Trump has relentlessly attacked as a “witch hunt,” Mr. Barr said Justice Department officials never had to intervene to keep Mr. Mueller from taking an inappropriate or unwarranted step.
Mueller, in other words, never stepped out of the bounds of his job description. But could the same be said for the news media?
A wooden box containing one of the most valuable books in the world arrives in Los Angeles on October 14, 1950, with little more fanfare—or security—than a Sears catalog. Code-named “the commode,” it was flown from London via regular parcel post, and while it is being delivered locally by Tice and Lynch, a high-end customs broker and shipping company, its agents have no idea what they are carrying and take no special precautions.
The widow of one of the wealthiest men in America, Estelle Betzold Doheny is among a handful of women who collect rare books, and she has amassed one of the most spectacular libraries in the West. Acquisition of the Gutenberg Bible, universally acknowledged as the most important of all printed books, will push her into the ranks of the greatest book collectors of the era. Its arrival is the culmination of a 40-year hunt, and she treasures the moment as much as the treasure.
Estelle’s pursuit of a Gutenberg began in 1911, when she was a wasp-waisted, dark-haired beauty, half of a firebrand couple reshaping the American West with a fortune built from oil.
One of the most alarming—though also eerily beautiful—aspects of Brown’s book is her description of the way radioactive material moves through organisms, ecosystems, and human society. Of the infamous May Day parade held in Kiev just after the explosion, Brown writes:
The newsreels of the May holiday did not record the actions of two and a half million lungs, inhaling and exhaling, working like a giant organic filter. Half of the radioactive substances Kyivans inhaled their bodies retained. Plants and trees in the lovely, tree-lined city scrubbed the air of ionizing radiation. When the leaves fell later that autumn, they needed to be treated as radioactive waste.
Radioactive fallout was distributed far beyond the Exclusion Zone, which was, after all, just a circle on a map. Clouds absorbed radiation and then moved with the wind. Red Army pilots were dispatched to seed clouds with silver iodide so that radioactive rain would fall over provincial Belarus rather than urban Russia. Belarusian villagers fell ill, as did the pilots.
There are a handful of niche artists whom I love to play for friends who have never heard them before. Music critics are infamous for these sorts of overbearing displays—smugly dropping a needle to a record and then staring, expectantly. It’s awful! Yet the first time that a person hears the singer Scott Walker—who died on Friday, in London, at the age of seventy-six—a palpable transformation occurs, and it’s extraordinary to witness. At first, Walker’s music seems recognizable enough: a man singing, expertly and beautifully, over sumptuous orchestration. Maybe you notice something about his breath, or the delicacy and precision of his phrasing. Perhaps you declare it “artful” or “luxurious.” Then, the mood grows subtly stranger until whatever room you’re sitting in begins to go blurry and soft, and it’s suddenly impossible to tell which end is up, or whether you’re dying or maybe being reborn. That was Walker’s particular genius—he made music feel new and destabilizing, no matter how cynical or jaded the listener.
As a child growing up in the Netherlands, Hanna ten Brink spent many days lingering by a pond in her family’s garden, fascinated by metamorphosis. Tadpoles hatched from eggs in the pond and swam about, sucking tiny particles of food into their mouths. After a few weeks, the tadpoles lost their tails, sprouted legs and hopped onto land, where they could catch insects with their new tongues. Eventually Dr. ten Brink became an evolutionary biologist. Now science has brought her back to that childhood fascination. Eighty percent of all animal species experience metamorphosis — from frogs to flatfish to butterflies to jellyfish. Scientists are deeply puzzled as to how it became so common.
What evolutionary path could lead to a caterpillar — an admirably adapted leaf-eating machine — to tear down its body and rebuild it as a butterfly? In the May issue of American Naturalist, Dr. ten Brink, now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Zurich, and her colleagues lay out a road map for the evolution of metamorphosis. It has appeared, they argue, as a way for a species to eat more food. The path to that feast is hard to travel, and metamorphosis has only arisen a few times in history. But once it does, the scientists also find, it rarely disappears.
One of the thorniest debates in neuroscience is whether people can make new neurons after their brains stop developing in adolescence—a process known as neurogenesis. Now, a new study finds that even people long past middle age can make fresh brain cells, and that past studies that failed to spot these newcomers may have used flawed methods. The work “provides clear, definitive evidence that neurogenesis persists throughout life,” says Paul Frankland, a neuroscientist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada. “For me, this puts the issue to bed.” Researchers have long hoped that neurogenesis could help treat brain disorders like depression and Alzheimer’s disease. But last year, a study in Nature reported that the process peters out by adolescence, contradicting previous work that had found newborn neurons in older people using a variety of methods. The finding was deflating for neuroscientists like Frankland, who studies adult neurogenesis in the rodent hippocampus, a brain region involved in learning and memory. It “raised questions about the relevance of our work,” he says.
But there may have been problems with some of this earlier research. Last year’s Nature study, for example, looked for new neurons in 59 samples of human brain tissue, some of which came from brain banks where samples are often immersed in the fixative paraformaldehyde for months or even years. Over time, paraformaldehyde forms bonds between the components that make up neurons, turning the cells into a gel, says neuroscientist María Llorens-Martín of the Severo Ochoa Molecular Biology Center in Madrid. This makes it difficult for fluorescent antibodies to bind to the doublecortin (DCX) protein, which many scientists consider the “gold standard” marker of immature neurons, she says. The number of cells that test positive for DCX in brain tissue declines sharply after just 48 hours in a paraformaldehyde bath, Llorens-Martín and her colleagues report today in Nature Medicine. After 6 months, detecting new neurons “is almost impossible,” she says. When the researchers used a shorter fixation time—24 hours—to preserve donated brain tissue from 13 deceased adults, ranging in age from 43 to 87, they found tens of thousands of DCX-positive cells in the dentate gyrus, a curled sliver of tissue within the hippocampus that encodes memories of events. Under a microscope, the neurons had hallmarks of youth, Llorens-Martín says: smooth and plump, with simple, undeveloped branches.
One commits the straw man fallacy when one distorts an interlocutor’s argument or claim in a way that makes it more easily criticized. In effect, one replaces an actual opponent with one made of straw – a new figure that is easily knocked over and who cannot fight back. For example, consider:
Students request that there be a bar on the college campus for informal gatherings and receptions. The administration opposes the bar because they “refuse to subsidize student bacchanalia.”
The problem here is that the request for a bar, even from college students, is not identical to a call for wild, destructive drinking binges. The administration has constructed a straw man of the students’ request.
The straw man fallacy comes in a variety of forms. These range from the standard version captured in the case above, to the selectionalweak man, the hollow man, and the iron man. However, a unique kind of straw man is perpetrated when one creates a pastiche of distortions of one’s dialectical opponent – it is not composed simply of a single distortion, but rather a slew of mischaracterizations bent on representing one’s opponents in the worst light. We call this the burning man. In deploying the burning man fallacy, one not only stuffs an opposing figure with straw, but then proceeds to surround it with more tinder and additional flammable material, with the intention of committing the view at issue to the flames, along with whole traditions, movements, and ways of thinking. Read more »
Henry Morris, founding father of modern Young Earth creationism, wrote in 1977 that the Hamitic races (including red, yellow, and black) were destined by their nature to be servants to the descendants of Shem and Japheth. Noah was inspired when he prophesied this (Genesis 9:25-27) . The descendants of Shem are characterised by an inherited religious zeal, those of Japheth by mental acumen, while those of Ham are limited by the “peculiarly concrete and materialistic thought-structure inherent in Hamitic peoples,” which even affects their language structures. These innate differences explain the success of the European and Middle Eastern empires, as well as African servitude.
All this is spelt out in Morris’s 1977 book, The Beginning of the World, most recently reprinted in 2005 (in Morris’s lifetime, and presumably with his approval), and available from Amazon as a paperback or on Kindle.
Morris is no fringe figure. On the contrary, he, more than any other individual, was responsible for the 20th-century invention of Young Earth “creation science”. He was co-author of The Genesis Flood, which regards Noah’s flood as responsible for sediments worldwide, and founded the Institute of Creation Research (of which Answers in Genesis is a later offshoot) in 1972, serving as its President, and then President Emeritus, until his death in 2006.
Nor was this a personal aberration. As we shall see, he was heir to a strong tradition of creationist racism, of which he never managed to rid himself.
Strong accusations require strong evidence. I have therefore included as an Appendix some relevant passages from The Beginning of the World, quoting at length to avoid any risk of misrepresentation. Read more »
Sometime in the near future I hope you will find yourself in New York or London, Pittsburgh or Sydney, Detroit or Portland in a music venue, a theater space, or a bookstore attending a “storyslam”. They happen in at least 25 cities in at least 4 countries and attendance varies from under a hundred people to several hundred people. Many, probably the bulk, are associated with The Moth organization – which sponsors many other events including an NPR Radio Hour featuring stories (often from slams). First-Person Arts in Philadelphia has its own large and lively scene – and there are many smaller organizations and slams elsewhere, including, for example, Chicago’s Story Club. And there are many more out there in bars and pubs and bookstores. In the era of New Media, storytelling – maybe, the oldest media of all – is making a comeback.
Most storyslams follow some version of the Moth’s basic template. A theme is announced and advertised well ahead of time. Themes I have heard include Walls, Envy, Love Hurts, Detour, Heat, Magic, and Public Transportation. The night of the slam wanna-be storytellers put their names in a bag or a box or a hat. There’s a host (usually a stand-up comedian or a storyteller), often a musical guest, and the host pulls names out of the hat over the course of the night and these random strangers make their way through the darkened space to a bright stage with a mic and they tell you a story for around five minutes.
If you are the storyteller, you are supposed to tell a story that is true, about you, and relatively short. No one facts check, of course. Usually, you are judged, however. But not, you know, in a very judgey way. Unlike comedy open mic nights which tend to be brutal, storyslam crowds are warm and supportive – in an NPRish kind of way. And there’s no prize. Art, Nietzsche would tell you, just needs to be judged. Plus, many of the slams have grandslams at the end of the year featuring all of the winning storytellers from earlier slams telling stories on a new theme. Read more »
Less than a month ago, the Indian Air Force conducted airstrikes inside Pakistan. The last attack of this kind took place in 1971, before I was born, and though tensions between the two countries have never ceased, even the family’s fragmented recollections of blackouts, travel restrictions and patriotic songs on the radio had become a distant memory for me until the moment I found myself stranded in Karachi due to airspace closure and witnessed not just military crossfire but that of the media of the two countries. The outbursts on news channels, as well as social media were interspersed with slogans and songs. One Indian patriotic song in particular, a ghazal by Allama Iqbal who is known as Pakistan’s national poet, sung not only in the voices of India’s celebrity singers and sweet-faced schoolchildren, but also adapted to their military march tune, caught my attention.
As in other places and other times of conflict, it was clear that words may serve not only as symbols of sovereignty and to cement the bond of nationhood, but can become veritable weapons aimed at the enemy. The media’s language of posturing and propaganda, all too familiar in both countries, saw a marked shift in Pakistan due to the tone set by Prime Minister Khan. In his critically-timed address to the nation, he was neither glib nor incendiary; his sentiments about the loss of life in the Pulwama bombing (claimed by a terrorist group in Pakistan) were heartfelt and expressed at length, his words were measured, dignified, and backed by a genuine spirit of peace. In contrast, the election-fevered Indian premier Modi’s yelling matches continued, as did his media’s angry sloganeering. Read more »
“The last time there was a protest in this country, they didn’t just arrest everyone – they killed the protestors and carried on killing for weeks after. Ever since then, people here have been very afraid.” “When was this?” I asked. “Nineteen seventy-seven,” he said, “and they killed thousands.” – Lara Pawson, The 27 May in Angola: a view from below
It’s simultaneously sotto voce and hyper-visible. – Marissa Moorman, The battle over the 27th of May in Angola
“Sita Maria Dias Valles …remains, for all intents and purposes, missing. Her body was never returned to her family. She was about to turn 26 when she was executed.” – Leonor Figueiredo, Sita Valles: A Revolutionary Until Death
If stories have shapes, this one lies over the sphere of the Earth like a triangle. The three vertices or points of this triangle lie on three different continents: one in India, one in Angola and one in Portugal. But the lines that join these points, that form these vertices, traverse not just space but time.
In the 16th century, Afonso de Albquerque attacks Goa and captures it from the Muslim king who ruled it. Goa becomes the capital of the Portuguese maritime operations in Asia. Through this tiny land, the riches and rarities of South East Asia traveled to Europe. It remained like this for four and a half centuries.
In 1947, the country of India gained its independence and threw off the grasping hands of the British Empire but the Portuguese held on to Goa with a deathly grip. The Salazar regime did not hesitate to shoot and kill Goans who agitated for independence.
In 1961, the Indian army marched into Goa and claimed the land. (In the process, they destroyed a Portuguese frigate named after Afonso de Albquerque. That is the nature of history.) The US and the UK would try to condemn the invasion in the United Nations but the then USSR would veto it. Read more »
In a Palazzo in Palermo, a video installation of a moving digital map of the sea traces the disappearance of a migrant ship. With this installation, the project Forensic Oceanography makes visible what is – even from this Palazzo, facing the Mediterranean Sea – usually removed from sight.
The figure of the migrant is, according to Thomas Nail, the political figure of our time, and this century will be the century of the migrant. In his book Nail traces the long history of migration, to question the notion of the nation state – in fact historically a fairly recent idea. Understood as a stable and organic, self-reproducing and self-sustaining whole, this notion tends to cast migrants as abnormalities and exceptions. Instead, the figure of the migrant, the stateless, and the refugee should be seen as the defining figures for our time, as writers from Hannah Arendt to Thomas Nail have suggested. With much more climate change migration to be expected, this figure can only become more crucial. While appearing quite prominently in political discourse as a problem, the migrant has remained in many other ways still unseen. It is this peculiar status of the figure of the migrant that “Forensic Oceanography” highlights in Palermo, as both excluded and included in European politics and discourse. Read more »