Brain Scans and Social Policy

If prediction of anti-social behavior becomes sufficiently accurate, will society adjust by mandating treatment, monitoring, or incarceration BEFORE a crime has been committed? If a person’s behavior is largely a result of an innate, abnormal brain structure, is he morally responsible for his actions. How would our legal and moral systems adapt?

First evidence of brain abnormalities found in pathological liars

MRI brain scan the ultimate lie detector

Perhaps psychopaths could be reliably detected by observing brain function while showing images that normally evoke emotional responses. Perhaps potential child molesters could be identified based on brain responses to images of children. Or potential terrorists.

Vox Clamantis in Deserto

Joanne Jacobs points to a new blogger, Newoldteacher, a graduate student in education. Hers is a voice crying out in the wilderness of education graduate programs:

My professor is a real history professor from the real university I attend. He specializes in modern Islam and European colonialism in the Middle East. He wears bow-ties, tells us we’re wrong, criticizes us when we stay stupid things, and generally emits an air of effortless superiority. It’s absolutely awesome. Finally, someone who values knowledge, who doesn’t believe it’s just a useless jumble of unrelated baubles. He’s brilliant, and it’s obvious that he’s brilliant because he knows so much. It’s not that he’s used “transfer skills” from critical thinking projects he did as a kid. No. He studied for god knows how long in libraries across America, the Middle East, and Europe. He learned other languages and lived in other cultures, and he just knows his shit. Today he gave a narrative of the last few years in American life that was brief but so incisive I felt I would tear up. I hate that my school doesn’t think this type of intellectualism is worth anything. The guy in my class who was so pro-constructivism, he said “our schools produce kids who are good at school.” First off, most of them don’t. Second, what is wrong with that?

Joanne note that Newoldteacher, who hopes to teach social studies, thinks it’s more valuable to know things than to be able to “make a model space station out of plastic pipes and rubber tubing.”

I am a believer

Well…in the post below I alluded to the HIV-does-not-cause-AIDS meme. As always, when we bring this sort of thing up someone points to Duesberg. But I have to say, I’ve never followed those links. I’ve never even been tempted. The reason? I know people who know a fair amount about HIV, and they think it is quackery. I know that the overwhelming majority of medical scientists reject this meme. Ultimately, I am a believer in the system, not any specific hypothesis. As such, my worldview and faith in science would not be shattered if HIV did not cause AIDS, scientific consensus can be wrong, it is usually wrong at some point (or less accurate a mapping of the world out there). But it is up to the system of science to methodically expose its own faulty presuppositions. It isn’t a perfect system, but show me something better. My post below was not a plea for any particular system, but rather for the idea that systems as conceived in the Western intellectual tradition have validity. Scratch a modern and you will find a Sumerian magician. I tremble for my people, for even we are susceptible to the temptations of false idols and foreign gods, it is in our nature. Though the Western intellectual milieu is not a sufficient condition for modernity, I believe it is a necessary condition, it is a light unto the nations. We are a nation of priests who witness to a living tradition. We may not always comprehend the mysteries of our three-faced trinity of rationalism, skepticism and empiricism, but we should do our best to follow our Law. The Post Modernists of the Left and Right are false prophets who I believe are leading the people alway from fidelity to Law, which would be a shame, because our god and our Law have no other worshippers and adherents in anything more than false words. As youth were are often reviled by those who see in our heterodox predilictions something profane and peculiar, even our own families often perceive us to be unnatural and abnormal creatures. The temptations of the pagan magical world around us are manifold, and we take comfort in the social systems that allow us to communicate and have fellowship with others of our nation. But I fear that too many foreign gods are being worshipped in our temples, and there may come a day when we will scatter among the nations and be reabsorbed into the peoples from whom we came. The sun of our tradition will set and the demon haunted world will be unchallenged once more.

Promiscuous meme(plexes)

In last month’s issue of the conservative Catholic journal First Things:

…Collins also endorses the view that evangelicalism is moving beyond the foundationalist theology of the past and into what is commonly described as a postmodernist understanding of truth. He quotes the very prolific and influential British evangelical, Alister McGrath: “The time has come for evangelicalism to purge itself of the remaining foundational influences of the Enlightenment, not simply because the Enlightenment is over, but because of the danger of allowing ideas whose origins and legitimation lie outside the Christian gospel to exercise a decisive influence on that gospel…We have been liberated from the rationalist demand to set out ‘logical’ and ‘rational’ grounds for our beliefs. Belief systems possess their own integrities, which may not be evaluated by others as if there were some privileged position from which all may be judged.”

I have noted before McGrath’s smug exultation at the coming “Post Modern” age, which he concludes will usher in the death of atheism as rationalism retires from the intellectual playing field. McGrath is not alone, as I have noted many a time, the law professor who sparked the rise of the modern Intelligent Design movement, has also spoken highly of Post Modernism:

CJ: Much has been said about the impact of our entering the post-modern era. How do you anticipate post-modernism will impact the debate?

Phil: …I think it’s positive, on the whole, in the sense that it focuses attention on assumptions that people make, and there really isn’t one single kind of rational system that can combine everything in the world. Then, where it becomes excessive is when it verges over into nihilism or indifference ideas…taken in the right doses, it’s a healthy antidote to excessive rationalism; taken in overdose, it poisons the mind. But you find the notion that non-Western ways of thinking must be treated with respect, that even ancient traditions of tribes may have their truth value–these are healthy developments, I think, and they help open up the universities to challenges to the dominant scientific materialism. So yeah, it’s having a big effect and I think, on the whole, a healthy one.

I thought of McGrath and Johnson when I read this from HIV-causes-AIDS denier Christine Maggiore:

…She has stayed healthy, she said, despite a cervical condition three years ago that would qualify her for an AIDS diagnosis. In a 2002 article for Awareness magazine, she facetiously refers to it as “my bout of so-called AIDS,” saying it coincided “perfectly with the orthodox axiom that we get a decade of normal health before our AIDS kicks in.”

Presupposing the “orthodoxy” of HIV-causes-AIDS, it seems that Maggiore’s 3 year old daughter died of the disease. Of course, that hasn’t fazed Maggiore or her allies (yet) in their belief. As McGrath noted, “Belief systems possess their own integrities.”

Critical skeptical scholarship, of which “Post Modernism” is one strand, is a good thing, in some measure. The post-Enlightenment intellectual tradition depends upon skepticism and empiricism to alternatively prune and build the great rational systems which undergird science and traditional scholarship. Nevertheless, just as Neo-Thomism and Objectivism became drunk on “rationality,” while the various Positivist schools tended to be slavish toward a particular conception of “empiricism,” many modern scholars seem to have became fixated on skepticism, primarily I think because it is a magic key which opens the door to an innumerable kaleidoscope of negative paradigms. I have asserted many times that the brews concocted by ivory tower intellectuals eventually become poison in the hands of movements and individuals that said ivory tower intellectuals would consider reactionary. It happened with the anti-porn arguments of Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon, though the ultimate grounds for objection to pornography on the part of grassroots activists seem to be moral and religious, the proximate arguments to a broader (and often elite progressive) audience are couched in terms of female worth and autonomy. The multiculturalist paradigm is now being used, opportunistically, by a subset of Muslims to push to recreate the social strictures of their “homelands” and nullify the basic rights that have become part of the post-Enligthenment consensus.

Perfection is impossible, we shall all miss the mark of an accurate representation of the world around us. But there seems to be a subset of intellectuals, a looming simmering anti-consensus, which rebels against the injunction to strive toward accuracy, systematic coherency and plain transparency. But some may ask if the threat of some babbling quasi-philosophers and critics of the established system of Western intellectual inquiry as it has crystallized by the early 20th century is that great. The bits of evidence above to me are an illustration of a truth that I believe we should all be aware of: the default cognitive state of humanity is far more congenial to loose, imprecise and emotionally satisfying narratives and fabulations than the unnatural models which modern science and scholarship promote. Humans want to believe certain things. Ergo, the timeless appeal of pseudoscience. The relative immunity of mass religion to the universal acid and the lack of awareness, or interest in, systematic theology which presumes to respond to that universal acid (many evangelical apologetics are riddled with question begging arguments and circular reasoning, but their purpose is to buttress faith with the patina of rationality, not win a point by point debate). Rational intellectualization is in some measure a rebellion against our nature. I remember my mild let down reading Carl Sagan as a child when he dismissed crankish science because said crankish science was so entertaining and dazzling, and did not require the same cognitive outlay as the equivalent spectacular vistas of real science. Authors of popularizations of science or scholarship make their books accessible to a broad audience by scaffolding rationality with a superfluous entourage of anecdotes, analogies and biographies, cold reason and dry fact transformed into a vivid living narrative.

Most people who have scientific training can not design a chemical plant. They can not scribble some equations which would accurately predict the results of selective breeding regimes. They can not extract active ingrediants from mixtures given a few beakers, burners and pipets. Scientists are technical specialists, embedded in a social system, and owing fealty to a common understanding of the how the world works, and trusting in the intersection of the world and that social system. Similarly, scholars
in non-scientific fields are also specialists, and their disciplines operate via rules and accepted standards. These individuals are keepers of the flame of modern civilization which all humans today, more or less, benefit from. I believe there is some complacency amongst us moderns that scientific and intellectual modes of thought have diffused widely enough among the general public that the meme would survive any assaults, whether sociological or natural. I do not for a moment believe that Johnson or McGrath, both evangelical Christians, see in Post Modernism as anything more than a tool to deal with the disease of secularism. They surely believe in Eternal Truths. But sometimes the cure is worse than the disease….

Addendum: Though I speak firmly with the voice of an atheist biased toward a positivist methodology and a naturalistic ontology, I explicitly do not reject the common ground I share with many humanists and religionists. Though I reject the arguments promoted by Neo-Thomist philosophers within the Roman Catholic Church, I can understand the basic process of reasoning. In contrast, a Post Modern conception of Christianity evades engagement and discourse. Similarly, though I may find the contentions of some scholars as to the genius of Shakespeare unconvincing or inscrutable, I can conceive of the general outline of their argument. In contrast, the post-Derridaesque style of discourse seems to make a mockery of the communicative facility that god or nature has granted our species. There are certain intellectuals out there who share a common currency, backed by the gold standard set by the Classical and Enlightenment thinkers (flawed and futile in execution, but inspiring in vision), around which a common intelligible discourse can be perpetuated. In contrast there other others who wish to print currencies which are measured only against the fiat of social whim and which stubbornly refuse interconversion.

Note: I bring up Neo-Thomism several times because McGrath’s rejection of “ideas whose origins and legitimation lie outside the Christian gospel” seems reflective of a particular strand of Protestantism which makes an ostentatious attempt to discard Classical philosophical influences on Christianity. This of course is in direct conflict with the main thrust of Roman Catholic intellectuals, who drink deeply at the well of non-Christian Hellenic philosophy, whether it be Neo-Platonism via St. Augustine, or, more contemporaneously, Aristotle via St. Thomas Aquinas. I say ostentatiously because from the inception of the Reformation Protestants have balked at discarding crucial centerpieces of Christian theology which do seem to be ideas that derived from the engagement of gentile converts with the non-Christian milieu, for example, the Trinity. When early Protestant radicals attacked reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin on these particulars they were rejected as heretics, and appeals were made to the Church Fathers to supplement sola scriptura. Some pre-Reformation intellectuals who brought up these issues eventually became Jews (they are recorded because of their trials as apostates).

Addendum II: One thing I want to be clear about, I specifically aimed to be “Broad Church” here, McGrath refers to the “Enlightenment,” which might imply the French Enlightenment. I am not one who thinks that the French Englightenment was an unmitigated disaster, nevertheless, my defense of “rationality” is a bit broader than the school of Voltaire and Diderot, and includes the general Western intellectual tradition that encompasses skepticism and empiricism as essential legs in the tripod completed by rationalism. Not only does this include the Scottish and English Enlightenments, but I do not exclude the Roman Catholic Thomistic philosophical tradition as a player in the market of ideas, because it shares the same cognitive currency. To various extents many streams of Western and non-Western intellectual thought express each of the elements noted above, but I think that one strand in particular which one can push back as far as the pre-Socratics, has resulted in the critically rational intellectual outlook of modernity. The “threat” that relativists, Post Modernists and primitivists on the cultural Right and the Left is not that they will undermine the intellectual outlook of the broad masses, the common folk have only a perfunctory attachment to any sort of intellectualization in any case, rather, I worry about the negative effect excessive skepticism might have on the cohesion of the social system which furthers science and scholarship in the West, and this instability might undermine the tacit deference that the public concedes to scholars due to their erudition and analysis of positive truths.

Temporary impairment

It’s easy to find articles on the long term impairment to IQ due to fetal alcohol syndrome and other causes, yet terribly difficult to find anything on the much more common-place phenomenon of temporary impairment. I think that it would be very useful to know the number of standard deviations by which a given level blood alcohol, sleep deprivation, or other impairment alters IQ, reaction time, etc. Does anyone here have any idea where this sort of research is published, or if it isn’t published, why it isn’t? Government resistance to research facilitating the direct comparison of the hazards of different drugs is an obvious reason, but doesn’t seem sufficient.

For that matter, any thoughts on why the magnitude of the cognitive benefits of aderall, ritalin, modafinal, caffeine, and the like are so rarely quantified?

No Uterus Required

The birth of Emylea Tharby in London, Ontario last April may one day be looked on as a watershed moment in the abortion debates. Little Emylea’s birth was a unique event, not just for her parents, but for the medical profession as well:

On April 30, Ms. Tharby gave birth to her daughter, Emylea, at 33 weeks. It was only during the vertical caesarean section that doctors discovered the umbilical cord was attached to the outside of the uterus. Emylea had grown in her mother’s abdominal cavity, her skull flattened slightly from butting Ms. Tharby’s liver.

The baby’s survival, while being described as miraculous, also lends credibility to a theory almost universally relegated to the realm of science fiction: that any human, woman or man, can give birth.

Most commentary is focusing on the novel prospects of men carrying babies to term, which doesn’t surprise me considering the amount of continued interest we see in my post on Male Lactation. However, I think that more a more likely outcome will be an outsourcing of fetal gestation, especially as research in artifical uteri continues to progress, and the cost-effectiveness of egg-banking brings that practice within range of many more young woman, thus enabling them to combine eggs harvested during prime years with child rearing at a more mature age, where the mother is better equipped in terms of personal capital.

However, the pro-life forces will surely have recogized that little Emylea viably developed outside of the womb. A way to short circuit the abortion debate might be to offer fetal extraction procedures instead of fetal extinction procedures. The extracted fetus is then gestated within the womb of another or within an artificial uterus. Fetal extraction procedures would certainly make it more difficult for the pro-choice movement to argue for the right to fetal extinction. Such a leap in technology would also undercut a woman’s legal claim to the privacy and primacy of her right to control her reproduction and that by extracting the fetus and transplanting it, she hasn’t provided consent to having her child be born. Such an argument would be weakened for her rights to assent to the birth would now be on equal footing with men who don’t have the right to veto a woman’s pregnancy on the grounds of not consenting to having a child. Men’s rights currently take a secondary role to those of women because the health burden of pregnancy or abortion falls solely on the woman. Of course, the issue of state intervention and the financial responsibility for unwanted fetuses would still be in the air. Would pro-life forces be willing to provide either natural or artificial gestatation and adopt all of the extracted fetusus or will they seek to push that responsbility onto their fellow citizens?

Now let’s avoid the standard pro-choice/pro-life talking points in comments, which means the ethical and religious aspects of the debate. Advocates of each side won’t make any inroads with their opponents and we won’t really advance the debate by progressing down that road. Instead, let’s focus on the legal, scientific and sociological implications associated with advancing reproductive technology.

Genghis Khan and his hordes of Mycobacterium tuberculosis

Apparently Genghis, et. al., had a few stowaways:

A report in the October issue of Genome Research suggests that Genghis Khan’s invasions spanning the continent of Asia during the 13th century may have been a primary vehicle for the dissemination of one of the world’s most deadly diseases: tuberculosis….

Mokrousov’s team hypothesized that, given the strong gender bias of TB infectivity and the likely family-based mode of TB transmission during pre-industrialized times, M. tuberculosis dissemination has reflected the unidirectional inheritance of the paternally transmitted human Y chromosome. To test this hypothesis, the authors compared the genetic profiles of a common form of M. tuberculosis, called the Beijing genotype, with known patterns of prehistoric and recent human migrations, as well as with global patterns of Y-chromosome variation.

Strikingly, they observed that over the past 60,000-100,000 years, the dispersal and evolution of M. tuberculosis appears to have precisely ebbed and flowed according to human migration patterns.


The authors describe how the Beijing genotype of M. tuberculosis originated in a specific human population called the K-M9 in central Asia approximately 30,000-40,000 years ago following a second “out of Africa” migration event. The bacteria and its human host then disseminated northeast into Siberia between 20,000-30,000 years ago and throughout eastern Asia between 4,000-10,000 years ago. More recently, the Beijing genotype of M. tuberculosis was introduced into northern Eurasia, perhaps by Genghis Khan himself during the 1200’s, and into South Africa, possibly through sea trade contacts with Indonesia or China during the last 300 years.

Tuberculosis and migration patterns

Origin and primary dispersal of the Mycobacterium tuberculosis Beijing genotype: Clues from human phylogeography

The vigorous man of Asia

Sometimes illustration is as important as argumentation. The East in the West by Chris Caldwell is just that, illustrating the rough textures of the “Turkish question.” There is very little data in Caldwell’s piece that can be quantitized. Caldwell suggests that the religiosity of Turkish petite bourgeoise is akin to ardor of the American middle class rather than the staid post-Christianity of Europe…but he doesn’t offer survey data which points to the reality that 71% of Turks affirm “strong religiosity,” as opposed to 65% of Americans, and 57% of Italians, 38% of British, 34% of French and 26% of Swedes. The piece alludes to the reality that liberalization of culture is not a necessary implication of democratization, but it never states it in a succinct and point by point fashion. Worth a read, for a reminder rather than any new insights.

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