Wednesday Round Up #21

How the Awful Stuff Won

The distinction between the religious fanatics and the click-chasers collapses still further as Phelps-Roper explains that, because Westboro’s fanatical conception of predestination held that God alone had the power to grant someone faith, the church refused to preach in a way that might persuade anyone to join it. “In light of this,” she writes, “our goal was not to convert, but rather to preach to as many people as possible, using all the means that God had put at our disposal.” Effectively, this is the same message that Marantz got from Emerson Spartz, the twenty-seven-year-old publisher of shareable and disposable mini-content across dozens of sites with names like Memestache and OMGFacts: “The ultimate barometer of quality is: if it gets shared, it’s quality.”

Race Conscious Medicine: A Reality Check – From race-based to race-conscious medicine: how anti-racist uprisings call us to act. A Perspective in The Lancet, from Jessica P Cerdeña, Marie V Plaisime, and Jennifer Tsai.

The primacy of behavioral research for understanding the brain

Understanding the brain requires us to answer both what the brain does, and how it does it. Using
a series of examples, I make the case that behavior is often more useful than neuroscientific measurements for answering the first question. Moreover, I show that even for “how” questions that pertain to neural mechanism, a well-crafted behavioral paradigm can offer deeper insight and stronger constraints on computational and mechanistic models than do many highly challenging (and very expensive) neural studies. I conclude that behavioral, rather than neuroscientific research, is essential for understanding the brain, contrary to the opinion of prominent funding bodies and scientific journals, who erroneously place neural data on a pedestal and consider behavior to be subsidiary.

A richer view of aura

Auras are widely viewed as a hallmark of migraine, but they remain an enigmatic phenomenon. Research has focused on suppressing the debilitating pain of migraine headaches. How the short-term neurological features of auras relate to headaches and other aspects of migraine remains uncertain. Some researchers think that auras cause headaches; others posit that they are just another aspect of a multifaceted syndrome.

A major challenge of pinning down auras is their inconsistency. They regularly affect only around 20–40% of people with migraine, and for many of them, not every headache has an accompanying aura. Also, many people experience auras without getting headaches. This pattern, in addition to the fact that auras are subjective experiences that occur sporadically and unpredictably, have made them frustratingly difficult to study — investigating auras often requires invention.

Charles saw in P.V.’s record-keeping an opportunity to delve into the precise nature of one person’s experience, and to gain clues to the wider nature of auras. Charles and his colleagues systematically analysed P.V.’s illustrations1 and learnt, among other things, how his auras varied from episode to episode; how intervals of normal vision could occur in the middle of an aura; and how auras sometimes began, only to quickly abort. All of this now needs to be fitted into a theory of what exactly happens in the brain during an aura.

Why we need to get better at critiquing psychiatric diagnosis

“Psychiatric diagnoses are not reliable”

The graph below shows the inter-rater reliability results from the DSM-5 field trial study. They use a statistical test called Cohen’s Kappa to test how well two independent psychiatrists, assessing the same individual through an open interview, agree on a particular diagnosis. A score above 0.8 is usually considered gold standard, they rate anything above 0.6 in the acceptable range.

The results are atrocious. This graph is often touted as evidence that psychiatric diagnoses can’t be made reliably.

However, here are the results from a study that tested diagnostic agreement on a range of DSM-5 diagnoses when psychiatrists used a structured interview assessment. Look down the ‘κ’ column for the reliability results. Suddenly they are much better and are all within the acceptable to excellent range.

This is well-known in mental health and medicine as a whole. If you want consistency, you have to use a structured assessment method.

‘Black Lives Matter’ Without Black People?

In our midsize department, which has no permanent Black faculty members or Ph.D. students, administrators made attempts to collectively engage our broad community of faculty, students and staff in composing a statement of solidarity. They expressed rage and sorrow at the death of George Floyd, denounced hatred and racism, tried to acknowledge the colonial roots of the discipline, and ended with ambiguous requests for community members to participate in building an antiracist institution. Written for a majority-white audience, this statement and subsequent conversations quickly became an exercise in collective navel-gazing.

Perhaps worst of all, it did not center on Black lives. There was little acknowledgment of the racism and discrimination occurring within the unit — perpetuated by leadership, faculty, staff and students — and its impact on Black people. There was no admission of individual or structural complicity in actively causing harm to Black, Indigenous and people of color within our own communities; no statements about upholding and benefiting from systems of inequality; no proclamations about taking an ethical stance or conclusive action when acts of racism occur.

In fact, there was no reflection at all about why we were a department without Black people.

N. K. Jemisin Speaks at WIRED25

Get an hour of Jemisin! She speaks about world building and more

The 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time

An impressive and historically oriented list of great fantasy books put together by a great group of authors including N.K. Jemisin, Neil Gaiman, Sabaa Tahir, Tomi Adeyemi, Diana Gabaldon, George R.R. Martin, Cassandra Clare and Marlon James. Some real gems here, as well as a good selection of recent fantasy. Some of those books probably won’t still be on such a list 10 years from now, but they do showcase the new and exciting directions fantasy literature is taking.

Louise Glück: where to start with an extraordinary Nobel winner

What unites all this work is a quality of lucid, calm attention. You read a passage by Glück and think, Ah yes, of course, this is how it is. She has the extraordinary writer’s gift of making clear what is, outside the world of her poem, complex.

Conceptualisations of landscape differ across European languages

Policies aimed at sustainable landscape management recognise the importance of multiple cultural viewpoints, but the notion of landscape itself is implicitly assumed to be homogeneous across speech communities. We tested this assumption by collecting data about the concept of “landscape” from speakers of seven languages of European origin. Speakers were asked to freely list exemplars to “landscape” (a concrete concept for which the underlying conceptual structure is unclear), “animals” (a concrete and discrete concept) and “body parts” (a concrete concept characterised by segmentation).

We found, across languages, participants considered listing landscape terms the hardest task, listed fewest exemplars, had the least number of shared exemplars, and had fewer common co-occurrence pairs (i.e., pairs of exemplars listed adjacently). We also found important differences between languages in the types of exemplars that were cognitively salient and, most importantly, in how the exemplars are connected to each other in semantic networks. Overall, this shows that “landscape” is more weakly structured than other domains, with high variability both within and between languages. This diversity suggests that for sustainable landscape policies to be effective, they need to be better tailored to local conceptualisations.

Why Red Means Red in Almost Every Language

Many experts expect that science will eventually reconcile the relativist and universalist philosophies. “As is probably the case with all nature-nurture debates, it ends up being a bit of both,” Franklin says. In a 2008 study, she and her colleagues found that infants were quicker to recognize a color from a new category if it appeared in their left visual field, which sends inputs to the right hemisphere of the brain. Adults, on the other hand, were quicker to recognize a new color category if it appeared in their right visual field, which corresponds to the left hemisphere, where the language centers reside.11 The results hint at a tantalizing possibility: “As you learn the words for color, as your categories become more linguistic, they become more left-hemisphere dominant,” Franklin says. Sometime between infancy and adulthood, for mysterious reasons, color categories may pack up and move hemispheres.

The ‘Hood Biologist’ Is Deconstructing How Racism Perpetuates Health Disparities In Black Communities. Here’s How.

“If we ban biology and genetics from the study of race and racism, we will not be able to understand the role that race and racism have in producing racist health inequities,” McLean says. “If we want to understand how and why people racialized as Black and Indigenous lead morbidity and mortality rates across the United States, we need to understand what is happening to Black and Indigenous peoples. How are they being treated? Where do they live? What kind of resources do they have access to?”

The researcher, who has both a bachelors and masters degrees in biology and anthropology, explains his field of study as deconstructing the current understanding of biology and medicine through a eurocentric, racialized lens.

In practice, this looks like advocating for vulnerable groups and reminding his followers that the health disparities facing Black and Indigenous communities are symptomatic of a centuries old illness: colonization. His website, Decolonize All Things, contains reflections and essays on the intersections of biology and race. With his social media “Hood Biologist” moniker, McLean continues to bridge the gap between science and the communities it’s been weaponized against.

Designed to Deceive: How Gambling Distorts Reality and Hooks Your Brain

Repeated exposure to gambling and uncertainty can even change how you respond to losing. Counterintuitively, in individuals with a gambling problem, losing money comes to trigger the rewarding release of dopamine almost to the same degree that winning does. As a result, in problem gamblers, losing sets off the urge to keep playing, rather than the disappointment that might prompt you to walk away, a phenomenon known as chasing losses.

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