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'The Hatred of the Gibson': Lessons from Mel Gibson's Rage

Mel Gibson's mugshot from his 28 July 2006 arr...

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Hatred is corrosive, it almost always hurts the hater. While you don’t always see it, sometimes the foundation of someone’s character can get so worn away that the person’s facade cracks and falls: like Mel Gibson. The story of his well-documented flame-out into a hate-filled, abusive former movie-star would benefit from understanding more about how hatred can destroy a hater.

His abusive behavior didn’t start with current money troubles and stresses. Nor is it simply a narcissist running amok. It comes from hate.  Hate that was amply foreshadowed by the virulent anti-Semitism about which we all worked so hard not to know we knew. Four years ago at the time of Gibson’s anti-Semetic rant during a DUI arrest, Christopher Hitchens didn’t work not to know the obvious, he shoved it in our face:

And it has been obvious for some time to the most meager intelligence that he is sick to his empty core with Jew-hatred.

This is not just proved by his twistedly homoerotic spank-movie The Passion of the Christ, even though that ghastly production did focus obsessively on the one passage in the one of the four Gospels that tries to convict the Jewish people en masse of the hysterical charge of Christ-killing or “deicide.” It is validated by his fealty to his earthly father, a crackpot who belongs to a Catholic splinter group of which our Mel is a member. This group more or less lives off the stench of medieval anti-Semitism.

via Is Mel Gibson an anti-Semite? – By Christopher Hitchens – Slate Magazine.

Empty core? That is hopefully just Hitchens’ rhetorical excess; if Gibson’s core was empty we’d have little useful to learn from him. He’s a person not a monster, even though he acts monstrously. Gibson has inside of him the same all-too human unconscious processes through which we all live our lives.

In trying to learn something from Gibson’s behavior I am not some sort of pollyanna closing his eyes or trying to make lemonade from an oil slick. I slow down to rubberneck at car-crashes as much as anyone, and if I see something I end up feeling the same fascinated horror I felt reading about Gibson’s catastrophic crash. And the truth is that there is no bigger celebrity crash out there than Gibson (sorry LeBron and Lindsay, but Mel journeyed alone into the realm of the unredeemable: all you need LeBron is a championship—or two—to be a hero again and Lindsay, well, you’ll be America’s sweetheart as soon as you get sober and make a good movie—or two).

So, what can we learn about ourselves from Gibson’s hatred more interesting than the soporific tautology, “people are people.” Can we learn anything useful?

Ken Eisold, a friend and colleague, has written a terrific new book What You Don’t Know Your Know. He pulls together a story about a “new unconscious” from research done in a variety of different fields. What he says about prejudice is helpful. He writes that “prejudice is a universal process rooted in normal development” that come from “how our brains create categories as part of our adaption to reality.” Furthermore, these prejudices and stereotypes can become malignant when we start to protect our identity by putting all the crap into other groups. They—whoever “they” may be—are the ones who are lazy, cheap, avaricious, or devious; we’re not, we’re fine!

But prejudice gets worse, much worse; ordinary bigotry is still pretty far from Gibson’s behavior. Our unconscious process of creating categories and attaching identity-protective values to those categories can degrade further to the level of rape and abuse, genocide, and ethnic cleansing when we dehumanize other people. That’s how a neighbor becomes vermin to be extinguished, a President becomes an anti-American Muslim/socialist/noncitizen, or a woman gets attacked for being nothing more than a “bitch” or a “cunt” (to use two of the more unsavory terms from Gibson’s latest taped rage).

Unconscious dehumanization drives much that we call evil and understanding how it operates in each of our lives is the lesson from “The Hatred of the Gibson.”

Staring with his hatred of Jews and ending with recordings of verbal abuse and allegations of much worse, we can see that when you nurture processes of dehumanization instead of fighting them you end up dehumanizing yourself. Out of control dehumanization is like a cancer that needs to be caught early and aggressively fought. Luckily, traffic with the new unconscious moves in both directions. So, when what you don’t know you know sends up a flare—be it in a dream, a confusing feeling, an out of character behavior, or a train of thought arriving at a perplexing station—pay attention. You’re trying to tell yourself something important you don’t know you know.

And if you think you’re immune to dehumanization, that it is something you would never ever do, that it is something “they”—the evil others—do but not you, think again. It is something that happens inside our unconscious all the time. We couldn’t get through a day without it, full human awareness would just be too painful. We adaptively dehumanize others when we blind ourselves to the homeless guy sleeping by the train station, to events in Darfur, or even to the suffering of future generations because of our addiction to burning fossil fuels. In fact, we even entertain ourselves with it by putting the LeBrons and Lindsays of the world up on celebrity pedestals.

Like rubberneckers at the highway crash relieved that what could have happened to them happened to someone else, our fascination with Gibson’s hatred includes some relief that he was the one that crashed, not us. What we don’t know we know is that any of us could have been Mel, it’s all a matter of degree. He’s not “other,” he’s us.

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Read a book, surf the web: You don't have to choose

Cropped screenshot of Jimmy Durante from the t...

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When it comes to asking how the Internet is changing us, Jimmy Durante, the old vaudvillian with the prodigious schnoozola, has it right, “Everybody wants ta get inta da act!”

The latest voice in the growing chorus of Google versus Gutenberg is NY Times columnist David Brooks whose morning column considered questions of whether Internet culture is good for kids and learning. He concludes that “Internet culture may produce better conversationalists … literary culture still produces better students.”

His rationale? Well, he waves in the direction of research. But as is always the case with research about the psycho-social consequences of the Internet, by the time a study is planned, the data collected and analyzed, the report written, submitted to peer review, and then published the technology has moved on; the world is no longer what it was when the study was planned. Brooks version of this inevitable not knowing, what I’ve tongue-in-cheek—but only a little—called the Essig Uncertainty Principle, was to cite a study  showing “broadband access is not necessarily good for kids” that is from “2000 to 2005 before Twitter and Facebook took off.” Does it still apply today? Who knows. All we have is uncertainty.

But I’m not being fair. Brooks is not offering a scientific review article. His is not really a research-grounded point of view. Instead, all he’s really doing is presenting a familiar conservative mind-set in which respect for traditional authority is good, undermining authority bad. Ultimately, his column is not at all about the Internet. It was merely another protest that they way things were, the hierarchies of knowledge and privilege that landed him on his lofty perch, is the way things should be; dammit, the world works better my way!

Lets look closer. Beneath his erudition is a rather simple dichotomy.

the literary world is still better at helping you become cultivated, mastering significant things of lasting import. To learn these sorts of things, you have to defer to greater minds than your own. You have to take the time to immerse yourself in a great writer’s world. You have to respect the authority of the teacher.

via Op-Ed Columnist – The Medium Is the Medium – NYTimes.com.

In contrast,

A citizen of the Internet has a very different experience. The Internet smashes hierarchy and is not marked by deference

[snip]

The dominant activity is free-wheeling, disrespectful, antiauthority disputation.

Smashes hierarchy? I guess when you write on the opinion page of the Times you never have to worry about page view counts, or count the number of FB friends you have, or at how many follow you on Twitter. When you actually spend time using the thing, you realize the Internet does not smash hierarchy nor is it disrespectful or antiauthority. It creates different hierarchies and authorities,”emergent” ones built from the billions of decisions the hive makes each day. Today’s Internet is about opportunity not revenge as Brooks would have it. Brooks and others with button-down white-male privilege—like me—have the same chance but no better than anyone else. The fact is that no one really confuses “icanhazcheezburger” with “Arts & Letters Daily” and it’s somewhat disingenuine to complain that they do.

Going further, his entire either-or premise is wrong:

A person who becomes a citizen of the literary world enters a hierarchical universe. There are classic works of literature at the top and beach reading at the bottom.

A person enters this world as a novice, and slowly studies the works of great writers and scholars. Readers immerse themselves in deep, alternative worlds and hope to gain some lasting wisdom. Respect is paid to the writers who transmit that wisdom.

A citizen of the Internet has a very different experience.

via Op-Ed Columnist – The Medium Is the Medium – NYTimes.com.

In a word, no. I’m sitting here, like I assume you are with dual citizenship. I’m writing this piece referencing lots of windows and both an e-book version of Nicholas Carr’s book, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” and a paper copy (hardback no less!) of Maggie Jackson’s too often ignored and arguably superior “Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age.” The question is not which is better, Internet or book culture. Rather, the question is how to develop a flexibility of mind that will allow one to exploit and enjoy both.

Brooks project of preserving the human core of that which is old and traditional is just not helped by denigrating and misunderstanding that which is new. If our emerging post-human future is going to be more -human than post- we need to do better, whether the domain is attention, concentration, literacy, or, closer to my interests, love and relationships.

And finally, to show that the pre-Internet golden age that is the object of Brooks’s nostalgic lust was just as irreverent as any college humor web-site, I turn again to the Schnozzola, Mr. Inka Dinka Doo himself with his 1947 classic commentary on the literary world:

[youtubevid id=”wlsQIEIEeKA”]

Posted in Education, Media, Technology | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Jeopardy! gets a computer champion: Does it put our humanity in the form of a question?

A really interesting techno-cultural milestone is about to be passed; an IBM supercomputer named Watson will soon be crowned champion of our favorite TV trivia game where your response has to be in the form of a question. That’s right, a cleverly programmed and very powerful machine is on the cusp of becoming Jeopardy! champion.

What makes this worth the hype in the following videos, hype also found in today’s NY Times Magazine article by Clive Thompson “Smarter Than You Think: What Is I.B.M.’s Watson?” and on the Singularity Hub, is the truly deep psychological challenge presented by the often clever, even pun-y, clues Alex Trebek reads to contestants.

[youtubevid id=”3e22ufcqfTs”]

Understanding “natural language” is no small thing. IBM is well within its rights to crow about the achievement.

[youtubevid id=”FC3IryWr4c8″]

One step in determining a correct response is they very “computer-y” process of accessing and searching a huge database of cultural knowledge. And we all have experiences with, even take for granted, this step in a machine answering a trivia question—you have used that google thing haven’t you? But our experience with computers trying to simulate an actual conversation—what the IBM spokesperson calls a “a question-answering system”—is very different. In fact we’ve all had experience with what terrible conversationalists computers are. Consider what frequently happens when you call an insurance company or utility and get one of those infernal voice-only telephone response systems; they are terrible. That is what makes IBM’s achievement so amazing. It really is a triumph.

But, as one of the researchers said in the second video, is it really fair to say it is “capable of understanding your question”? Isn’t it better to use the more accurate description and say the computer successfully simulated understanding your question? This is not just a semantic trick nor an exercise in academic wordiness. It changes the meaning of Watson’s championship from being one more piece of lost human uniqueness into a celebration of a fascinating human-made technology that just might be able to be used for human purposes. In other words, feeling the awe this technology deserves is possible only if we ignore it’s capacity for simulation entrapment, i.e., getting so caught-up in the technologically-mediated simulation that you forget you’re interacting with a machine. The best way to enjoy Watson’s win is to be both in it and out of it at the same time.

Part of the problem is that our psychology leads us to see human qualities whenever possible; we’re tuned to experience empathy. Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel were mid-century psychologists who asked subjects to watch the following film:

[youtubevid id=”76p64j3H1Ng”]

Like I’m pretty sure you just did, their subjects saw a story, complete with intentions, attraction, and maybe even feelings of love present.  We saw that little triangle have feelings for the little circle even though we know it is impossible; it’s just a geometric shape that was made to move in a particular pattern by the film-maker. But we see humanity nonetheless. Same thing with Watson. Just like the Heider-Simmel triangles Watson looks like it’s “understanding”—even “playing”— even when all it is doing is quickly (really really quickly) obeying a set of mathematical instructions put there by a team of really smart people.

When we watch Watson respond correctly in the form of a question we attribute human qualities not because the machine actually is human-like but because we are.

Let me tell a quick story illustrating how not everything that looks like understanding is understanding. 25 years ago I worked on an inpatient unit with college-age schizophrenics. I was giving a series of psychological tests to a young man tragically going through his first psychotic break with reality. He was chaotic and confused. During a test of intellectual capacities I asked him a question he should have failed because he had gotten the previous, and easier items, wrong: “A man drives 275 miles in 5 hours, how fast was he going in miles per hour?” But he quickly and correctly replied “55.” I was kind of shocked. He should not have ben able to understand this question nor the division involved. So, I asked him how he figured out the answer and he got angry. He said “my father, my father, my father is a good man, a good man, he always drives the speed limit.”

Can we say he understood the problem and the arithmetic required for it’s solution? I don’t think so. The process is just too different. And the same goes with Watson responding to a Jeopardy! clue. It works by statistically associating the co-0ccurance of terms across a vast database. It’s a really, really clever way to simulate natural language understanding. Bravo to the programmers! But Watson does not “understand” the clues anymore than that suffering young man understood the arithmetic problem with which he was presented.

We can become entrapped by the simulation and ignore what we know about the processess involved in something like Watson winning at Jeopardy!.  But that diminishes our humanity by incorrectly attributing to a machine a rich inner life like ours complete with longing and understanding. The other possibility is to embrace the differences thereby letting the human acheivement that is technology like Watson enhance our humanity.

If we’re going to live in a world in which we’re forced to talk with cost-saving customer service computers instead of other people, they should at least work as well as Watson. But we shouldn’t let ourselves become so enthralled by the experience that we lose sight of where machines stop and people begin.

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Psychology and torture: A formal complaint filed against James Mitchell

Torture after 9/11 is a dark stain on the profession of psychology. On June 16, 2010 Dr. Jim L. H. Cox, a psychologist in Texas, filed a cleansing formal ethics complaint against James Elmer Mitchell.

While the story of Mitchell has previously been well told in Vanity Fair, Salon, and Democracy Now (among others) yesterday’s complaint still makes for a chilling read:

Formal Complaint Filed with the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists against Dr. James Mitchell

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A future of renewable energy? I'm not so sure

A future built on renewable energy sources is the only technological future that makes any sense at all. Forget Apple vs. Android, forget the “Singularity;” if we are to have any digital future at all the electrons animating our screens can no longer come from dead and rotting dinosaurs.

The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now.  Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash America’s innovation and seize control of our own destiny.

[snip]

But the one approach I will not accept is inaction. The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is somehow too big and too difficult to meet. You know, the same thing was said about our ability to produce enough planes and tanks in World War II. The same thing was said about our ability to harness the science and technology to land a man safely on the surface of the moon. And yet, time and again, we have refused to settle for the paltry limits of conventional wisdom. Instead, what has defined us as a nation since our founding is the capacity to shape our destiny -– our determination to fight for the America we want for our children. Even if we’re unsure exactly what that looks like. Even if we don’t yet know precisely how we’re going to get there. We know we’ll get there.

via Remarks by the President to the Nation on the BP Oil Spill | The White House.

I’m not so sure.

First, “clean” is not the same as renewable. “Clean” energy in our President’s vision licenses all the disasters that await technologically-enhanced coal and nuclear. His vision needs to be warmed by the sun and cleaned by the wind.

Second, while this really is as dire as WWII and as inspiring as a man on the moon, inaction is the strategy of the opposition.

The sad reality is that the future will be a harsh judge of both cloudy vision and partisan politics.

Posted in Politics, Technology | Tagged , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Here's how to wash Gulf oil off your hands

potencial of renewables

Image via Wikipedia

In an article bemoaning the consistently shallow media coverage of the deep problems revealed by the crisis in the Gulf, Bill McKibben wrote,

The questions that the Gulf spill raises, in other words, go well beyond: How big an idiot is Tony Hayward? What will happen to the tourist economy of the Gulf? How cool is James Cameron’s minisub? The questions are more like: How out of balance with the natural world are we? And what would it require to get back in balance?

You’d need to interview not just oil execs and colorful shrimpers, but nature writers, solar pioneers and psychologists.

via Bill McKibben: Missing the Real Drama of the Deepwater Horizon Blowout.

Well, I’m a psychologist and since I’m here on T/S as a “recovering source” no interview is necessary. I can tell you directly what I think.

Simply put, I’ve got Gulf oil on my hands and so do you. It drips from our fingers while we peck at our keyboards, drive our cars, or cool ourselves with frigid A/C air. Like a murder victim’s blood, it leaves a guilty trail on everything we touch.

Also, our hands were oil-soaked well before the Gulf’s environmental, economic, and social disaster became impossible to ignore:

As Bill McKibben wrote in a recent article, “Dirty as the water is off the Mississippi Delta, that’s barely the tip of the damage from fossil fuel. If that oil had traveled down a pipeline to a refinery and then into the fuel tank of a car, it would have wrecked the planet just as powerfully.”

via U.S. crude awakening sets the stage for international climate deal | TckTckTck.

You don’t have to agree that the damage would have been equal to know that there would have been some significant damage “(i)f that oil had traveled down a pipeline to a refinery and then into the fuel tank of a car.”  All you have to do is take climate science more seriously than politics. The fact is that everything from our food to our information to how we get where we’re going floats on a poisonous ocean of oil and gas.

The only question is how do we wash it off. And the answer is that the only way to wash the oil from our hands is with as rapid as is possible a transition to a way of life built from renewable energy. This point was reinforced when I contacted Kelly Rigg, Executive Director of the Global Campaign for Climate Action, during the Bonn Climate Treaty talks. She said:

“The only sustainable solution to prevent more oil-spills is to get a good climate treaty and speed up the transition to renewables.”

But unless people feel directly responsible for something it is very hard to make changes and, making it worse, it is even more difficult to feel responsible for consequences that are far away—see, psychology does have a place here. Casual-tokers getting high at a weekend BBQ don’t feel responsible for drug gang shootings in northern Mexico. Nor do lap-dance aficionados shoulder the blame when some pimp beats-up an under-age prostitute. Nor are we able to feel responsible for our energy future, should it result either in catastrophic climate change or a sustainable reliance on renewables. Our minds are just not built that way. The further away a consequence is in space or time, the easier it is to disclaim responsibility.

And when events like the Gulf shove feelings of responsibility into awareness we have lots of ways to get rid of the feelings. We can become outraged and angry: lets find some ass to kick! Or maybe just criticize a President for not being angry enough. Or we can boycott or protest or volunteer in the hope that if we do something—anything—we’ll feel better. Who cares if it moves us closer to a renewable energy future, lets find a villain and get really, really angry or, maybe, wash a few pelicans and switch from bottled to tap water.

This path of immediate emotional discharge that helps avoid uncomfortable personal responsibility can take some funny turns. Consider the following, a move that reminds me of the right-wing trying to rebrand french fries as “Freedom Fries” in response to France’s criticism of the Iraq invasion:

In a protest over the Gulf oil spill, a minor league baseball team is changing the name of batting practice so the players will no longer have to utter the letters “BP.”

The Brevard County Manatees of the Florida State League say they will now take “hitting rehearsal.”

via The Associated Press: Baseball team renames ‘BP’ to protest oil spill.

And then

The River City Rascals (independent; Frontier League) are also changing the name of batting practice to hitting practice.

via Hitting Rehearsal – Vic Christopher – ValleyCats – timesunion.com – Albany NY.

Also discharging rage directed at BP is a protest movement with a rallying cry of seizing BP’s assets:

From coast to coast, people are stepping up to the plate and organizing demonstrations for the Seize BP Week of Action in their cities and towns. We will take to the streets from Thursday, June 3 to Thursday, June 10 in cities across the country to demand: Seize BP

via SeizeBP.org.

In outlining a smart strategy for a boycott my True/Slant colleague Jeff McMahon pointed out the problem is not just with BP:

… is it better if they drive further to fill up at Exxon, which survived the last major oil boycott in the early 1990s to set new profit records in the 21st Century? The effort to boycott BP, growing for a few weeks now, is undermined by the lack of a clean competitor and by the extent to which petroleum is woven into our lives.

via Five ways to boycott BP without helping Exxon – Jeff McMahon – Scorched Earth – True/Slant.

Another True/Slant colleage, Michele Catalano, points to some dangerous unintended consequences of boycotting BP that include hurting small business people who just happen to sell BP rather than some other kind of gas:

Ok then. Who’s going to pay for the cleanup now? Who is going to pay out money to all the people who lost homes, jobs and businesses? Who is going to be held financially responsible for all of this is if there is no BP? I don’t think a few bake sales is going to take care of all that.

Be careful what you death-wish for. And think your protests through.  A boycott may be a symbolic act meant to represent your anger, but the wrong people are going to feel the brunt force of it.

via Who will BP protests hurt the most? – Michele Catalano – Sound System – True/Slant.

If you boycott this oil company that one will still feed our petro-hunger. It really is just a roll of the dice choosing which company will bear the burden of the unintended spills and disasters inevitable with the complex technologies that run petro-world. Oil companies are like hard drives in that there are only two kinds: those that have failed and those that will fail.

Even reducing consumption as much as possible, the ultimate boycott taken to its ultimate extreme, will only slow not stop the rush to “spill, baby, spill.” The only answer is renewables: slow to implement, infrastructure and life changing renewable energy sources.

But we won’t be able to wash the oil from our hands with renewable energy unless we all shoulder our responsibility for what is taking place. We don’t need an angry President who kicks ass, that just makes us feel better momentarily because we don’t then have to feel responsible. But we are. It’s just that it is psychologically quite difficult to hold on to the idea that we are all personally responsible for everything we see down in the Gulf. We’re responsible for the spill even if we are not psychologically built to assume that responsibility. But if you look, you’ll see both the oil dripping from your hands and the reality that renewable energy is the only way to get them clean again.

Posted in Environment, Media, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Pseudo-science makes sloppy journalism

RossDouthat

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Ross Douthat should be ashamed of himself.

His May 30 editorial titled “The Birds and the Bees (via the Fertility Clinic)” violated the trust readers should be able to have in an Op-Ed writer.

He started OK: reproductive technologies are indeed creating families and new kinds of families.  It is also true that there is a

freewheeling fertility marketplace whose impact on American life keeps increasing

via Op-Ed Columnist – The Birds and the Bees (via the Fertility Clinic) – NYTimes.com.

Gamete donation (sperm and egg) results in lots of wanted children who otherwise would not have been born. The resulting “marketplace” in donor sperm and donor egg does challenge many basic beliefs about individual freedom, collective responsibility, and the meaning of being human.

And it is especially true, as Douthat also writes, that we need to understand the “inner lives” of children born from using these technologies.

But such understanding can not result from applying the “lessons” of pseudo-science to these complex questions, and that is precisely what Douthat did. One should expect a certain amount of scientific literacy even on an editorial page. Relying on advocacy group pseudo-science is beneath what should be minimally expected from someone in Douthat’s position.

As my colleague and friend Jack Drescher wrote in a letter published in today’s NY Times,

Ross Douthat cites the Institute for American Values’ recently released “study” of children conceived by reproductive technology. But advocacy-group reports like this one are rarely subject to blind peer review, a minimum requirement for scientific objectivity.

Without critical feedback from scientific peers, such reports usually support the pre-existing prejudices and assumptions of the authors or the organization financing the work. These “studies” offer little scientific understanding of the complex issues involved.

Jack Drescher
New York, May 31, 2010
The writer, a psychiatrist, is a past president of the New York County district branch of the American Psychiatric Association.

via Letters – A Family, No Matter How It’s Created – NYTimes.com.

I don’t want to get too “wonky” here so bear with me. When you look at the actual methods and the numbers in this so-called “study” they do not license the claims made in the report, claims Douthat treats as settled scientific fact. In fact when you look closely the report he relied on would not get through an introductory methods class let alone actual scientific peer review.

Let’s just look at one data point used to support the first of the 15 “Major Findings” they make in the “Executive Summary” section of their report. They claim they have found that

Young adults conceived through sperm donation (or “donor offspring”) experience profound struggles with their origins and identities.

If true, that would be important. Such a real finding would influence educational, counseling, and therapeutic interventions. But it is not real, it is conservative advocacy, not research. After they make their pronouncement, the report offers some results from the Internet survey they conducted. This is supposed to provide empirical support. It does not. For example (and this is just one of many data points ill-equipped to support the claims they make), the second sentance in support of this “Major Finding” states,

Forty-five percent agree, “The circumstances of my conception bother me.”

But does this support their conclusion. No. First problem is they don’t report numbers for children born from traditional methods of conception; I’m pretty sure that children conceived while their parents listened to Meatloaf’s Bat out of Hell would probably also be significantly bothered.

But it gets worse the deeper you look, and more and more pseudo-.  In this survery item people are being asked to choose whether they “Strongly agree,” “Somewhat agree,” “Strongly disagree,” “Somewhat disagree,” or “Don’t know”  with the statement “The circumstances of my conception bother me.” When you look at the numbers, guess what; 50% disagree and 30% disagree strongly (the most frequent response). Hardly supporting the supposed finding that “Young adults conceived through sperm donation (or “donor offspring”) experience profound struggles with their origins and identities.” In fact, the numbers seem to suggest that more kids than not are not bothered by the circumstances of their conception.

And it gets “worser” (and, I guess, I get wonkier). When children born to lesbian mothers are considered the number drops from 45% to 33%. Why is this significant? Well, it suggests in part that at least 12% of those who are bothered by the facts of their conception may simply be expressing empathy for the struggles their parents had to endure to have them. Or that lesbians make better Moms. Or that two Moms are better than one. But no alternate hypotheses are considered anywhere in this report, just a bunch of  claims that have no empirical support but can be dressed up to look science-y.

I know science has its problems. Peer review is not perfect, far from it. But scientific procedures make it much harder just to make things up like this report did. The inner lives of children born via reproductive technologies is far too important a topic to leave to the pseudo-science of advocacy groups, and to the journalists like Douthat who should know better than rely on pseudo-knoweldge.

Of course, Douthat gets to have his opinions, in fact his opinions are why he’s writing. But he doesn’t have the right to abuse his platform by presenting agenda-driven advocacy as though it was objective science.

Drescher told me this morning “that this kind of ‘study’ is typically intended to confuse a larger public that does not understand the difference between a scientific study and a politically-motivated one.” I agree. Clearing that confusion is a journalist’s responsibility and perpetuating that confusion is the shame I think Douthat should feel with which I started this piece.

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4 reasons for good-bye: Keep 'social networking' from becoming 'social notworking'

On the corner of 12th Street, before the closing

With Memorial Day behind, June ahead, and another academic year wrapping up it’s time for good-byes.

Good-bye is a June ritual on 12th Street where I have my office; psychiatric residents are finishing their training and moving on. They say good-bye to patients, colleagues, and teachers—including me—and go forward to jobs, fellowships, practice.

But this year everything is different.

All the usual good-bye rituals have been blown to bits by the fact that our hospital, St. Vincent’s, has died. After 160 years of service and months of rumors and hope the plug was pulled on April 30th. No more departmental Grand Rounds giving graduates a reason for a visit; no more patients transferred to new residents taught by the same teachers; no more classmates anointed with a faculty appointment. This year it is going to be a naked good-bye, unadorned by the traditional rituals of ending that always have helped buffer the experience.

I was then really intrigued when a graduating psychiatry resident I’ve taught for several years told me there has been more “see you on Facebook!” and “I’ll follow you on Twitter” among her colleagues than she would have expected.

The fact that social networks are transforming the often messy difficult process of good-bye is no surprise. But I’m not so sure this is such a good thing. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s not: not because there’s anything wrong with staying in touch with old friends and former colleagues online—actually, that can be pretty great—but because processes of saying good-bye can be so psychologically rich and valuable it would be a real shame to lose the experience just because we now have a technologically-mediated easy way out.

I know, I know; no one likes to say good-bye: there are too many feelings and no convenient place to put them all. Who wants to participate in something that makes everyone uncomfortable? It is so easy to fall out of synch with those around you and end up feeling alone (and maybe kind of stupid). After all, when saying good-bye nostalgic feelings of loss often mingle with relief that this or that damned thing is finally over and who wants the vulnerability of feeling loss when the other may be feeling relief? That sounds especially unpleasant.

It’s much easier to cut-and-run and avoid the whole thing, or maybe pretend the relationship was never that important, or that it really isn’t ending. Such avoidance and denial are psychologically traditional methods we all learn for how not to say good-bye. And now social networks also make it very easy not to say good-bye. They can help you feel there is no real need to do so because you are still going to be “friends” who can stay in constant online contact.

But neither avoidance nor denial will improve your life and the emotional alchemy of social networks really can’t turn a fondly remembered old friend into the companion or co-worker they once were. Our need for the presence of each other—to see and be seen—is just too strong. In fact, such mutual recognition is part of what makes us human.

Saying good-bye to each other at transitions, and receiving the good-bye of others, can actually help us get the most out of where we’ve been and get ready for where we’re going. But when social networking is used to avoid the human process of saying good-bye it becomes “social notworking,” i.e. asking a social network to fulfill a social need that can only be fulfilled through traditional, fleshy, and mutual interactions.

What I want to try and do is make it a little harder to take the easy way out of “social notworking” by highlighting the value of good-bye. So, here are 4 reasons why saying good-bye, as difficult as it may feel in the moment, is in the best interest of building a good life:

1. Saying good-bye is part of the relationship
A really good way to think about relationships is to see them like stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end—not terribly original, I know, but very useful. Good-bye is just part of the relationship. Not only that, not only is saying good-bye part of the relationship, the process can often be the best part. The end is when you find out what happened and who would want to miss out on that. For example, if you spent 6 years watching Lost would you even consider missing the last episode and decide instead just to read about the conclusion online? Of course not. Same thing with classmates, teachers, administrators, co-workers, etc. The only way to experience the end of the stories you’ve been living is to experience them, to engage fully the process of saying good-bye.

2. Saying good-bye is a process not a moment
Have you ever felt that “I should say something but I don’t know what to say” moment of anxiety when saying good-bye? Or any other uncomfortable moment? I’m sure the answer is yes.  In fact, uncomfortable moments are intrinsic to the process. But, and this is the important part, they are not the entire process. Saying good-bye takes place over lots of moments, not just the uncomfortable anxious ones. Keeping in mind that you are engaged in a meaningful process—with lots of potential gratification—can help when things feel uncomfortable; try to remember that sometimes the good stuff doesn’t come until much later. While the uncomfortable moments are in the present tense, the gratifications of the process are written in both the present and the future and sometimes you just have to wait for the good things to come around.

3. Saying good-bye is full of unexpected feelings
You never know what you are going to feel when you say good-bye. This is a good thing; it keeps life interesting.  When you leave, or are left, the experience touches all the other times you went through a good-bye: from the most routine to the most traumatic, from all those mornings on the way to school when you said good-bye to Mom or Dad to your broken hearts and mournful deaths. Saying good-bye is a chance to re-connect with the person you were and the feelings you had all across your life. It’s life giving you a chance to feel it all over again. Good-bye let’s you reconnect with all the “selves” you have been. In other words, saying good-bye is another way to say hello to your own personal history.

4. Saying good-bye is what starts the next new thing
Life and memory are not linear.  They overlap. Imagine a library where the start of every book was the ending of some other book. If you don’t write the ending of an experience you are also degrading the start of the new experience. Saying good-bye includes both who you were when the relationship that is ending started and who you are becoming in the next thing you are doing. One can think of good-bye, when the process is fully engaged, as a bridge anchored in the next new thing with all those inevitable uncomfortable moments the toll you have to pay. In other words (again), saying good-bye is just another way to say hello to your own personal future.

And, just to make things explicit, this post is also a moment in my process of saying good-bye to St. Vincents’s. I’ve met some truly amazing people (patients, students, teachers, and colleagues) who have helped make me who I am. The experiences—good and bad— leave me with a sweetwater reservoir of feelings and experiences I will drink from for a long, long time.

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New privacy controls: Facebook fixes the tools but problem remains

Screen shot of new privacy controls

Pleasant surprise this morning. Cup of coffee, email, the “paper,” and then over to Facebook to find an announcement of new Privacy Controls blazoned across at the top of the screen.

Well, took a look and glad to say the new controls are a significant improvement. Controlling who sees what information is simple and direct. You can easily control how applications and websites access personal information. You can easily turn-off “instant depersonalization” so that partner sites, like Yelp and Pandora, don’t access and display FB info. And they promise that nothing will change going forward.

All in all they’ve heard the complaints and did a pretty good job responding.

But there’s still a problem; they also make suggestions and give advice. Please don’t listen to them. You really need to ignore their recommendations. And even worse than specific recommendations is the note they keep sounding that the way to have a more social experience is to have less privacy.

Pitting private experience against social experience is psychologically misguided and potentially dangerous.

Misguided because the social experience of sharing requires that there be private information and experience to share. Privacy is actually a pre-condition for social experience. Merging is not intimacy; the borg are not more social. In fact, the more privacy you give away the less social you can be.

Dangerous because Facebook has become routine. It’s something everyone uses. Even someone like me who spends (perhaps too much) keyboard time complaining about the service uses it routinely. Some, like Danah Boyd, have raised questions about regulating it like a public utility. All this routine use will inevitably have massive, albeit subtle, effects on how we feel about and relate to each other.

Consider, for example, a just announced research study

presented in Boston at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science, [that] analyzes data on empathy among almost 14,000 college students over the last 30 years.

“We found the biggest drop in empathy after the year 2000,” said Sara Konrath, a researcher at the U-M Institute for Social Research. “College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait.”

via Empathy: College students don’t have as much as they used to.

What Konrath did along with co-investigators U-M graduate student Edward O’Brien and undergraduate student Courtney Hsing was combine “the results of 72 different studies of American college students conducted between 1979 and 2009.” What the drop in empathy they found means is that,

Compared to college students of the late 1970s, the study found, college students today are less likely to agree with statements such as “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective” and “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.”

via Empathy: College students don’t have as much as they used to.

When the investigators were asked to explain why there was this drop in empathy they appealed for more research and cited social media as part of a potential explanation for why empathy is declining.

The recent rise of social media may also play a role in the drop in empathy, suggests O’Brien.

“The ease of having ‘friends’ online might make people more likely to just tune out when they don’t feel like responding to other’s problems, a behavior that could carry over offline,” he said.

Add in the hypercompetitive atmosphere and inflated expectations of success, borne of celebrity “reality shows,” and you have a social environment that works against slowing down and listening to someone who needs a bit of sympathy, he says.

via Empathy: College students don’t have as much as they used to.

So, the bottom line is that Facebook fixed some glaringly insulting assaults on private information—good for them—but they are still perpetuating the misguided and dangerous notion that social experience is bought at the expense of privacy.

Posted in Media, Social Networking, Technology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments