27 August 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.08.26

Thursday: the rise of blatant anti-Semitism in Hungary; a disturbing resurgence of pseudo-scientific racial ideology in Germany; a study of e-journal use by UK academics (yawn); Sympoze (YAWN); 10 reading revolutions before the e-book; Burne reviews Kirsch, The Emperor's New Drugs; a profile of Ellen Langer; the evolution of color terms (continued); loneliness, and the imputation of human qualities to the non-human (or the non-existent); a review of Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender; blogging the 11th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition; "Enlightenment" at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Schiele's "Portrait of Wally" returns to the Leopold Museum.


Karl Pfeifer at Dschungel (Jungle World) interviews Jewish-Hungarian philosopher Ágnes Heller (auf Deutsch) on the disturbing rise of blatant public anti-Semitism in Hungary since "die Wende" (the collapse of Communism).

Christian Geyer at FAZ.NET reviews (auf Deutsch) Deutschland schafft sich ab: Wie wir unser Land aufs Spiel setzen, by Thilo Sarrazin, head of the German Bundesbank, and (bizarrely) a Social Democrat.  The title can loosely translated as "Germany deconstructs itself: How we are gambling with our country." ("Abschaffen" means "to abolish" or "to liquidate.")

Sarrazin's argument, which he supports with "scientific evidence" (apparently a distorted mishmash of genetics and sociobiology) is that the Muslim influx into Germany should be stopped, because Muslims are genetically less intelligent than "Germans," largely due to inbreeding. (One assumes here that he is referring to first-cousin marriage, which is much more common in many Muslim countries than it is in the West).

The entire book sounds utterly repellent and deeply disturbing, but perhaps most disturbing is Sarrazin's argument that the Muslim population in Germany must "sich auswachsen" (disappear over time)—with the clear implication that it must "die out."

Geyer's review is highly critical but does not make the obvious point (perhaps libel laws are such in Germany that one hesitates there to say the obvious), but I will:

A German, arguing for the preservation of the purity of German "culture," is using pseudoscience to depict as inherently "inferior" a class of people defined by their religion, while casting the argument in genetic terms (even though he is referring to a highly diverse group including Turks, Arabs, and Africans), and suggesting that the true German population must be cleansed of these people.

That is the racial ideology of Nazism.

Access & Research

Kent Anderson at The Scholarly Kitchen reports on a new study by The Research Information Network that investigates the use of e-journals by researchers in the UK. Anderson finds the results rather underwhelming:
I also got the feeling while reading this study that I was back in 1998, but reading a rehash of the story we were telling then. Maybe it’s just a matter of seeing some notions and predictions and trends come true, a kind of intellectual anticlimax, but the overall effect was a sort of deja vu.

The world has moved on for researchers in the UK. They have great access to academic materials, they use online resources heavily, they rarely derive value from print, and they prefer comprehensive aggregations to even big publisher silos.

Really, is anybody surprised by this?
Anderson fails to point out the irony that the study itself (David Nicholas, et al., "Researchers' e-journal use and information seeking behaviour," Journal of Information Science) is behind a paywall at Sage Journals, and costs $25.00.

So much for access.

A link in a post by Daniel Lende at Neuroanthropology led me to Sympoze, which has the tagline "social bookmarking for academics." It seems predominantly geared to the humanities, although it also has pages for "Natural and Social Sciences," "The Arts," "Education," and "Business and Professional."

From the "About" page:
Sympoze is a fast and easy way for academics to collectively share, promote, and find high quality online content.

How It Works

The process starts when an academic finds something online that they like (e.g, a blog post or a paper) and submits it to Sympoze.

Once a user submits a link, the rest of the Sympoze community (also academics) can promote the content by voting it up if it's in their discipline. Popular submissions will automatically be promoted to the front page so everyone (including non-users) can see what's popular in various academic fields.

Since voting accounts are limited to academics who have (or are currently pursuing) graduate degrees in the various academic disciplines, the popular stories reflect the opinions of actual academics. However, everyone will be able to view the content that academics vote up and down.
The site is still explicitly in beta testing, but to be honest, there isn't much happening there: the most recent post, as of Friday morning, was 6 days and 18 hours ago.

One supposes that the off-putting limitation to "actual academics" is not going to bode well.

And it's not really clear that the world needs another "voting" bookmark site anyway.  I gave up Digg a long time ago, and haven't felt at all inclined to investigate any similar sites (I know some swear by Delicious, but it doesn't do much for me).

The many blogs and other sites that I follow are doing an excellent job of "filtering."

Reading & Writing

Tim Carmody has a thought-provoking, if perhaps not deeply researched article at The Atlantic, "10 Reading Revolutions Before E-Books."  His "revolutions" are:
(1) The shift from "intensive" to "extensive" reading (a notion derived from German historian Rolf Engelsing).
(2) The Print Revolution
(3) The invention of the alphabet (which Carmody states categorically was "only invented once," which is a considerable over-simplification)
(4) The transition from the scroll to the codex (the "book" as we now know it)
(5) The shift from papyrus to parchment to paper (and beyond)
(6) The industrial revolution (in the form of printing presses powered by steam and then electricity, and machine-made paper from wood pulp)
(7) & (8) The developments of the electronic age and computing (but why is this point illustrated with a photo from the 1960s of a woman using a microfilm reader?)
(9) A rather fuzzily defined transition from media that persist in time to media that have portability in space
(10) The rather whimsical "transition," suggested by Walter Benjamin, from "vertical" to "horizontal" writing, and back to "vertical" again (where we should think of as "vertical," for example, scrolling down an indefinitely long page on a computer screen).

An example of "vertical" reading (using specially designed glasses).


Jerome Burne at The Times Literary Supplement reviews Irving Kirsch, The Emperor's New Drugs: Exploding the Antidepressant Myth, a book that came out in January in the U.S., but that I have not yet read.  According to Burne, Kirsch presents a devastating critique of antidepressant medications, which he maintains do not do what they are purported to do.  Some quotes from the review:
Not only are SSRIs no better than placebos, but the widely promoted theory about how they work – by correcting a chemical imbalance in the supply of serotonin in the brain – turns out to be wrong. Having reviewed the evidence, Kirsch concludes that it is "about as close as a theory gets in science to being disproved."


In theory, subjects taking part in a controlled trial of a new antidepressant don’t know if they are getting the drug or the placebo. However, around 70 per cent of subjects do manage to identify if they are on the drug because of such well-known side effects as a dry mouth, nausea, dizziness, or loss of libido. As a result, the placebo effect kicks in, boosting the effect of the drug and making it appear more effective than it really is. The few trials which used a placebo that mimicked common SSRI side effects found no difference between the two groups. One implication of this is that drugs with more side effects will show up as more effective.
Even more damning is the fact that pharmaceutical companies routinely do not publish the results of unsuccessful trials.
When Kirsch used the Freedom of Information Act in the United States to get access to all the data on SSRIs the companies had submitted, he found that 40 per cent of the trials had never been subsequently published, nearly all of them negative. Positive trials, however, had been published several times to enhance the appearance of effectiveness – practices he describes as "voodoo science". Even worse, as Kirsch shows, both the drug companies and the regulators know this, but have chosen to keep it from doctors and their patients. He quotes an internal FDA memo saying that it was "of no practical value to patient or physician" to reveal that SSRIs are no better than placebos. This is clearly not "evidence-based medicine", and raises the question of how many other drugs have been marketed with equally shaky foundations.
(Of course, many of these problems could be avoided simply by requiring that any testing submitted to the FDA for the drug approval process must be done by independent researchers who are not directly funded by the pharmaceutical industry.)

I've now read the article I mentioned yesterday by Cara Feinberg in Harvard Magazine about psychologist Ellen Langer, and it's highly recommended

Sean Roberts continues with part 10 of his series on the evolution of color terms (based, it seems, on his 2009 MSc thesis at Edinburgh, which he has also made available as a pdf):  "Universal Patterns are not Evidence for Innate Constraints."  I really am looking forward to reading this series (or at least dipping into it).  But then, I'm also looking forward to our expansion to 36-hour days.  Or perhaps I could clone myself (I realize some may find this a frightening thought).

Vaughan Bell at Mind Hacks reports on what sounds like a fascinating study led by Nicholas Epley on "how loneliness, or even a brief reminder of it, leads us to see human-like qualities in objects around us, believe more strongly in the reality of God and supernatural beings, and even perceive pets to be more human-like."

Vaughan points out that the study is beautifully written (which is very seldom the case in research literature of this sort).

The study is:
N. Epley, et al. (2010), "Creating social connection through inferential reproduction: loneliness and perceived agency in gadgets, gods, and greyhounds," Psychological Science.
Apparently neither the authors nor the journal want the article to be widely known or read, because one cannot, so far as I can see, access even the table of contents for the journal or the abstract through the journal's site, unless one is a member of the Association for Psychological Science or a "registered member of the media."

The PubMed record provides the abstract:
People are motivated to maintain social connection with others, and those who lack social connection with other humans may try to compensate by creating a sense of human connection with nonhuman agents. This may occur in at least two ways—by anthropomorphizing nonhuman agents such as nonhuman animals and gadgets to make them appear more humanlike and by increasing belief in commonly anthropomorphized religious agents (such as God). Three studies support these hypotheses both among individuals who are chronically lonely (Study 1) and among those who are induced to feel lonely (Studies 2 and 3). Additional findings suggest that such results are not simply produced by any negative affective state (Study 3). These results have important implications not only for understanding when people are likely to treat nonhuman agents as humanlike (anthropomorphism), but also for understanding when people treat human agents as nonhuman (dehumanization).
Obviously a must-read for anyone interested (as I am) in the psychology and evolution of religion. Pity I can't get at it.

I've seen several references this week to Cordelia Fine's new book, Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference.  Katherine Bouton reviews the book at The New York Times.

I was at first a bit put off by the book's title, thinking that this might be just another popular screed based on slanted, partial, or faulty understanding of the science. However, Fine has a Ph.D. in psychology from University College London (on top of degrees from Oxford and Cambridge) and is currently affiliated with Macquarie University and the University of Melbourne, so it seems likely that she has a good handle on the science.

Bouton's review makes clear that Fine's book calls into question the widely accepted current wisdom (based on the work of the late Norman Geschwind) that a testosterone "spurt" in the eighth week of fetal development causes a difference in the relative size of the brain hemispheres in men and women. But, Bouton writes:
There are two problems here, Dr. Fine says. First is that several studies have found no difference in hemispheric size in neonates. The supposedly larger female corpus callosum is also in dispute. But even if size difference does exist (as it does in rats), she says, “getting from brain to behavior has proved a challenge.” Given that there may be sex differences in the brain, “what do they actually mean for differences in the mind?”
Fine goes on, according to Bouton, to critique studies coming out of the lab of renowned autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen that is based on Geschwind's work.

Bouton quotes Fine as summarizing thus: “Nonexistent sex differences in language lateralization, mediated by nonexistent sex differences in corpus callosum structure, are widely believed to explain nonexistent sex differences in language skills.”

Mark Liberman at Language Log links to several reviews, including Bouton's, and goes on to make an interesting connection between Fine's criticism (as described by Bouton) of the "infant gaze"-based research in Baron-Cohen's lab, and the now notorious case of apparent research misconduct in studies with similar protocols using cotton-topped tamarins in Marc Hauser's lab.

Music Cognition and Perception

The 11th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition (ICMPC) has been taking place this week in Seattle (23–27 August).

Music psychologist Victoria Williamson is blogging the conference (the index to her conference post is here), and her lively and detailed reports are must reading for anyone interested in the state of the art in these fields.

Her posts for Day One of the conference include:
—A detailed description of the keynote address by Gottfried Schlaug, Director of the Music and Neuroimaging Laboratory of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School.
—A report on the symposium on the effects of musical experience on musical development during infancy
—A report on the session on emotion in music
—A report on the session of music and cognitive skills

The Human

As I've mentioned before on this blog, the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is one of the outstanding academic resources on the Web.  It is, quite possibly, one of the few such resources that one might call the best in its class, not merely the best on the Web. 

I just finally had the good sense to subscribe to SEP's feed for new (and revised) articles, and in the first batch I ran across William Bristow's article "Enlightenment," posted on 20 August.

I am just halfway through reading this article, but so far I find it outstanding:  thorough, maintaining a perfectly-judged level of generality, and extremely clear.  If I were in a classroom (why am I not in a classroom?), I would assign this as a key introductory reading on the topic.

It's really an absurd waste that I'm not in a classroom.


On Monday, Egon Schiele's "Portrait of Wally" was unveiled at the Leopold Museum in Vienna, marking the close of one of the most prominent "restitution" cases of the past fifteen years (for the background, see my Digest on 22 July). Paul Jandl was at the unveiling, and reports (auf Deutsch) at WELT ONLINE.

Jandl writes that everyone involved in the case seems to "win" here, at least financially: for in spite of the €14.8 million settlement paid by the museum, the publicity surrounding the case has surely driven the value of the painting beyond the amount of the settlement.  Part of the settlement is an agreement on an "official" story about the history of the painting that will be displayed along with it in the museum:  The portrait was stolen in the late 1930s from dealer Leo Bondi Jaray by Nazi collaborator and "gallerist" Friedrich Welz.  American forces in occupied Austria confiscated the painting in 1947, but it was later returned to the "false" owners by the Austrian Bundesdenkmalamt. In 1950 it was sold to the Österreichische Galerie in the Belvedere in Vienna, which in turn sold it to collector Rudolf Leopold in 1954.  (Leopold died just two months ago, and did not live to experience the return of "Wally.")
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