For a greater understanding of the encultured brain and body…

Today in the NY Times: Interactions or Causes?

Posted by dlende on August 12, 2008

One can take the New York Times today to illustrate a basic dichotomy we frequently discuss on this site. To understand ourselves and the world, is it better to examine complex interactions and the mixing of human action and natural cause, or to draw on simpler explanations and the old cause-effect scientific model?

Given that this site is neuro-anthropology (which the Times has nicely illustrated), we obviously favor interdisciplinary over one-field approaches. Given today’s world, that matters.

Handle with Care by Cordelia Dean takes on technology, science and ethics. She specifically examines planet-level environmental engineering or “geoengineering”, but also mentions robotics and nanotechnology. We could add gene therapy and increasingly sophisticated pharmaceuticals to that list. Her basic point?

This technology might be useful, even life-saving. But it would inevitably produce environmental effects impossible to predict and impossible to undo. So a growing number of experts say it is time for broad discussion of how and by whom it should be used, or if it should be tried at all.

As Dean notes, it is an extremely difficult proposal, contravening the way many scientists approach their work, highlighting necessity of global systems to manage our increasing technical power, and raising the specter of “knowledge-enabled mass destruction.”

Just one example of this appears in today’s Times with Surpassing Nature, Scientists Bend Light Backwards which points both to the potential impact on microscopes and on invisibility cloaks.

In Handle with Care, Dean highlights that science for science’s sake is not the answer. Rather, Prof. Sheila Jasanoff argues that the “first step was for scientists and engineers to realize that in complex issues, ‘uncertainty, ignorance and indeterminacy are always present.’ In what she described as ‘a call for humility’ [in her Nature essay], she urged researchers to cultivate and teach ‘modes of knowing that are often pushed aside in expanding scientific understanding and technological capacity’ including history, moral philosophy, political theory and social studies of science — what people value and why they value it.”

David Brooks in Harmony and the Dream brings us directly into that debate of what people value. He argues that “The world can be divided in many ways — rich and poor, democratic and authoritarian — but one of the most striking is the divide between the societies with an individualist mentality and the ones with a collectivist mentality.”

Brooks wants to divide us about as Chinese vs. Americans, collectivists vs. individualists. Brooks captures the gist of research on cognitive processing differences in research done by Richard Nisbett and others—Americans will tend to focus on individual objects in scenes, Chinese on the overall context (I covered some relevant research in Puzzles and Cultural Differences). But he reduces it all to a “mentality”, for example, “individualistic countries tend to put rights and privacy first,” so no history and context here. As a good American, Brooks goes back to the individual cause!

Oh, he mentions some research on the human brain as permeable and relationships as the key to happiness, but he didn’t really take to heart the argument that he laid out in Neural Buddhists. Here he’s still stuck in his more conservative mentality—individual choice and free choice lead to good, so those are the “values” that matter.

Brooks contrasts these with a new collectivist model, “We’ve seen displays of mass conformity before, but this [Opening Ceremony] was collectivism of the present — a high-tech vision of the harmonious society performed in the context of China’s miraculous growth… The rise of China isn’t only an economic event. It’s a cultural one. The ideal of a harmonious collective may turn out to be as attractive as the ideal of the American Dream.”

But Brooks would have done well to read other parts of the Times today. Rather than an individual vs. collective dichotomy, we see interactions. The rise of the Chinese sports machine is not because of a collectivist mentality, but athletic effort tied to “China’s massive population, booming economy and surging athletic ambitions.” In New York City, an environmental health clinic tends to individual patients with collectivist concerns, people who want to know what they can do about environmental health problems themselves. Diana Beresford-Kroeger is a scientist yet “she tries to bring together aboriginal healing, Western medicine and botany to advocate an unusual role for trees,” promoting their “ecofunctions” and seeing trees as a natural and better way to deal with environmental and health problems through their “synergistic” chemical effects.

These sorts of dynamics undercut the argument made by John Tierney in Let the Games Be Doped. He asks, and seems to support the affirmative answer, to this provocative question: “What if we let athletes do whatever they wanted to excel?”

He bases this on the idea that drug technology, and the benefits of cheating, will always outstrip our efforts to regulate sport. Technology and individualism win; if we just let athletes do what they want, it might produce a more “level playing field.” But that assumes that state-level (collective? not quite) manipulations of doping would not affect the playing field, and does not address the enormous technical advances made in detecting doping. It also highlights competition at any cost as the dominant value, rather than addressing contextual ways we might help promote a level-playing field even if some individuals might try to cheat.

A better piece is Tara Parker-Pope’s point that an “Early Test for Cancer Isn’t Always Best Course.” (For those of you thinking I am picking on Tierney over Parker-Pope, Tierney on comfort food was much better, while Parker-Pope on motherhood and neuroimaging was just bad.)

Rather than the simplistic declaration that early detection saves lives, research shows that early testing can have complex and ambiguous effects. For example, US medical experts just recommended that men over 75 no longer screen for prostate cancer: “Their advice offered a look at the potential downside of cancer screening and our seemingly endless quest to detect cancer early in otherwise healthy people. In this case, for men 75 and older, the United States Preventive Services Task Force concluded that screening for prostate cancer does more harm than good… 75 is the age at which the risks clearly begin to outweigh the benefits, and the disease, if detected, would most likely not have a meaningful effect on life expectancy.”

The complexities of detection and scientific data, the costs and harm done by treatment, the medicalization of life—all these are part and parcel of the technology itself. The simple mantra is easy to remember and can help elicit helpful change, at least in the past. But today we know better.

“We’ve done a great job in public health convincing people that cancer screening tests work,” said Peter B. Bach, a pulmonologist and epidemiologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. “We’re uncomfortable with the notion that some screening tests work and others don’t. That seems mystifying to people.”

How to make that less mystifying and more explainable, how to take advantage of the complexities—those are the challenges of this sort of work. But those are the challenges of the world we live in today.

One Response to “Today in the NY Times: Interactions or Causes?”

  1. gregdowney said

    Thanks for this, Daniel –
    I was struck, like you, by a couple of these odd stories. The Tierney piece sort of disturbed me on a few levels; the cancer, suicide and violence rates in the former Eastern Bloc athletes who used steroids enthusiastically suggests that fears about their effects are far from anecdotal. Likewise, I just couldn’t wrap my head around a passage near the end:

    ‘If elite adult athletes were allowed to push the limits of human performance in return for glory, they might point the way for lesser mortals to coax more out of their bodies. If a 50-year-old sprinter could figure out how to run as fast as her 25-year-old self, that could be useful to aging weekend warriors — or any aging couch potato.’

    What?! I don’t think I understand what the hell Tierney is even getting at with this one. Is he really saying that some 50-year-old sprinter jacked up on steroids running as fast as a 25-year-old might inspire an ‘aging couch potato’? Inspire them to do what? Find a doctor willing to prescribe steroids? I can’t even figure out what Tierney is trying to say, let alone whether or not I agree.

    Sometimes I really admire his stuff, but of late, he seems more interested in ‘being provocative’ (which I think is inherently a virtue to journalists and writers in some disreputable humanities departments) than in getting his arguments square with the evidence.

    And I appreciate the discussion of complexity. We just went over this in a tutorial for my human evolution class, as I didn’t realize how unclear the concept was to my students. I think that they had the impression that saying something was ‘complex’ was equivalent to saying a) ‘I’m not going to try to explain it,’ and b) ‘it’s not possible to investigate it.’ It’s almost as if, for some, the word ‘hopelessly’ was always there, silent, before the word, ‘complex.’

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