Wednesday Round Up #43

How Whiteness Works: JAMA and the Refusals of White Supremacy

What makes this story worth telling is not the drama of an editorial shakeup at one of the world’s top medical journals. Rather, it’s the content of the podcast itself. Now, don’t get me wrong. If your goal is to understand what structural racism is and how it harms health, look elsewhere. The podcast’s errors are so naive or absurd—No physician is racist? No Black or Hispanic people experience discrimination because that would be illegal?—that it doesn’t merit a rebuttal. And if you know from experience the toll that racism takes, you may have decided early on not to listen. At best, it is a distraction, a theft of energy and time; at worst, a form of gaslighting.

Yet the podcast does serve a purpose—just not the one JAMA intended: it illustrates rather than illuminates the problem of structural racism in medicine. And not just in medicine: The conversation between Livingston and Katz succinctly presents some of the most common ways well-meaning white people (an oxymoron, if we understand whiteness properly) uphold white supremacy when talking about race. Moreover, because the podcast carried the imprimatur of the American Medical Association, it shows how white supremacy remains embedded in powerful institutions—even ones that profess liberal values of equal opportunity and health for all.

Magic and the Human Sciences: The Myth of Disenchantment
A book review in video format. Quite a book, it seems, and I quite liked the review format as well.

How Knowledge About Different Cultures Is Shaking the Foundations of Psychology

Consider which two of these objects go together: a panda, a monkey and a banana. Respondents from Western countries routinely select the monkey and the panda, because both objects are animals. This is indicative of an analytic thinking style, in which objects are largely perceived independently from their context.

In contrast, participants from Eastern countries will often select the monkey and the banana, because these objects belong in the same environment and share a relationship (monkeys eat bananas). This is a holistic thinking style, in which object and context are perceived to be interrelated…

This difference in self-construal has even been demonstrated at the brain level. In a brain-scanning study (fMRI), Chinese and American participants were shown different adjectives and were asked how well these traits represented themselves. They were also asked to think about how well they represented their mother (the mothers were not in the study), while being scanned.

In American participants, there was a clear difference in brain responses between thinking about the self and the mother in the “medial prefrontal cortex”, which is a region of the brain typically associated with self presentations. However, in Chinese participants there was little or no difference between self and mother, suggesting that the self-presentation shared a large overlap with the presentation of the close relative.

Why exercise won’t help you lose weight and what actually works

Your daily activity level has almost no bearing on the number of calories you burn and burning more energy doesn’t protect against getting fat, Herman Pontzer writes in his new book, “Burn: New Research Blows the Lid Off How We Really Burn Calories, Lose Weight, and Stay Healthy.”

“Your brain is very, very, very good at matching how many calories you eat and how many calories you burn,” Pontzer, an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University, told TODAY.

“The person who has a sedentary lifestyle and the person who has the active lifestyle will burn the same number of calories.”

An Answer to Forgetting

Twenty-five years ago, marine biologist Daniel Pauly coined the term “Shifting Baseline Syndrome” to describe a blind spot, at once subtle and glaring, in the way that he and his colleagues assessed overfishing. He wrote that “each generation of fisheries scientists accepts as a baseline the stock size and species composition that occurred at the beginning of their careers,” thereby inadvertently erasing the loss that came before and setting an invisible backstop against rehabilitation. “We transform the world, but we don’t remember it,” Pauly would say many years later in a TED Talk delivered on the Galapagos Islands—a place still described as “pristine” in brochures, but where native species like giant tortoises and marine iguanas are critically endangered.

Pauly’s idea made instant sense to his peers, but it wasn’t until researcher Loren McClenachan discovered a box of old fishing photos in 2009 that the concept received empirical validation. While poring over a collection of unorganized photos dating back to the 1950s, she came across images of sport fishers in Keywest, Florida, posing with their day’s catch strung up on a board. Comparing the older photos with ones that she took herself at the same pier, McClenachan was able to determine that the mean fish size declined from nearly 20 kg to just over two. Even so, the shrinking fish hadn’t diminished the enthusiasm or the satisfaction of the fishers catching them.

Academics aren’t content creators, and it’s regressive to make them so
It’s framed negatively, but here’s the key idea for me, that we can think about how to use online learning in ways that creates learning, engagement, community, and more. That is part of what “content creation” means.

“Suddenly academics became video editors – mostly bad ones – and our students turned to YouTube, because on YouTube you can get a better explanation of the same thing (for free I might add). Universities turned from communities of learning and collaboration into B-grade content providers. This is the death march of higher education. Universities are not content providers. Somewhere along this unplanned journey we lost our way…

“We, as teachers in modern university settings, can think of ourselves as community figureheads and team leaders. The students are part of our community, our team, and we are there to manage them, coach them, guide them, to be mentors, to help teach them over a longer journey, and to corral them through this common goal of thought, understanding and mastery.”

Comcast Releases 2020 Network Performance Data, Highlighting COVID-19 Impact

The real point of this piece is the graph showing just how much video dominates. And even in the midst of covid, with remote work and learning, video conferencing didn’t make much of a dent in the dominant pattern.
“Surprisingly, despite increases in videoconferencing activity, entertainment activities continued to dominate network traffic, with video streaming accounting for 71 percent of all downstream traffic, and growing by 70 percent over 2019 levels.

Other key drivers of downstream traffic in 2020 were online gaming and the accompanying software downloads (10 percent), and web browsing (8 percent).

Despite growth in videoconferencing traffic, it still only accounted for less than 5 percent of overall network usage (included in the other category).”

‘Anumeric’ People: What Happens When a Language Has No Words for Numbers?

Without numbers, healthy human adults struggle to precisely differentiate and recall quantities as low as four. In an experiment, a researcher will place nuts into a can one at a time, then remove them one by one. The person watching is asked to signal when all the nuts have been removed. Responses suggest that anumeric people have some trouble keeping track of how many nuts remain in the can, even if there are only four or five in total.

This and many other experiments have converged upon a simple conclusion: When people do not have number words, they struggle to make quantitative distinctions that probably seem natural to someone like you or me. While only a small portion of the world’s languages are anumeric or nearly anumeric, they demonstrate that number words are not a human universal.

How to Debunk Misinformation about COVID, Vaccines and Masks

When misinformation circumvents blocking, fact-checking and response by online interlocutors—as it too often does—the last line of defense is real-world relationships: family, friends and office buddies. Enlisting in a science defense system requires a commitment to make health-promoting practices the norm in one’s community, a willingness to bookmark and turn to public health and fact-checking sites for knowledge about COVID and vaccination, a few premises about the nature and limits of scientific claims, a set of realistic goals, and a strategy for depoliticizing the science if the situation requires it.

Every layer in the model—blocking on platforms, fact-checking, online engagement and creation of a science-friendly community—has limitations. Each additional layer of defense, however, slows the advance of deceptions that, to appropriate a truism, will otherwise get halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on. And in the case of COVID-19, there are at least two areas where the benefits are so great that they are worthy of concentrated attention: masking and vaccination.

All Your Memories Are Stored by One Weird, Ancient Molecule

In a 2018 study published in the journal Cell, a team of researchers at the University of Utah, the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, and MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK, argue that Arc took its place in the brain as a result of a random chance encounter millions of years ago. Similar to how scientists say the mitochondria in our cells originated as bacteria that our ancient ancestors’ cells absorbed, the Arc protein seems to have started as a virus.

The researchers knew they were onto something when they captured an image of Arc that looked an awful lot like a viral capsid, the isohedral protein coat that encapsulates a virus’s genetic material for delivery to host cells during infection…

t turns out the Arc capsid encapsulated its own RNA. When they put the Arc capsids into a mouse brain cell culture, the capsids transferred their RNA to the mouse brain cells — just like viral infection does.

“We went into this line of research knowing that Arc was special in many ways, but when we discovered that Arc was able to mediate cell-to-cell transport of RNA, we were floored,” says the study’s lead author, postdoctoral fellow Elissa Pastuzyn, Ph.D., in a statement. “No other non-viral protein that we know of acts in this way.”

Foucault, Strauss and the Noble Lie of Modernity

Jean-Paul Sartre similarly saw Foucault as a conservative thinker, dubbing him the “last barricade of the bourgeoisie,” because he revealed Marxist pretensions to have objective knowledge of social contradictions and of a coming revolution against capitalism as merely a curious nineteenth-century variant of the Enlightenment’s misguided humanistic faith in ‘progress’. Foucault’s infamous critiques of ‘science’ (really, what he called the ‘sciences of man’, such as psychology) were only one expression of a larger critique of Marxism, liberalism, and other forms of post-Enlightenment politics.

Some on the contemporary left still understand Foucault as an enemy, recognizing him as of the principal exponents of ‘neoliberalism’. They note his importance to the transition of the French left away from Marxism and towards a vaguer, post-revolutionary political horizon less confident in the ability of authoritarian structures like disciplined socialist parties, unions, and the state to deliver emancipation, and less sure about the universal validity of human rights. Conservatives, however, in both France and the United States, have tended to see Foucault not as a grave-digger of the Marxist left and thus a potential ally for a renewal of a right no longer having to define itself in terms of anti-communism — but rather as a dangerous, reckless nihilist responsible for the rise of identity politics.

Why Did Memetics Fail? Comparative Case Study

Although the theory of memetics appeared highly promising at the beginning, it is no longer considered a scientific theory among contemporary evolutionary scholars. This study aims to compare the genealogy of memetics with the historically more successful gene-culture coevolution theory. This comparison is made in order to determine the constraints that emerged during the internal development of the memetics theory that could bias memeticists to work on the ontology of meme units as opposed to hypotheses testing, which was adopted by the gene-culture scholars. I trace this problem back to the diachronic development of memetics to its origin in the gene-centered anti-group-selectionist argument of George C. Williams and Richard Dawkins. The strict adoption of this argument predisposed memeticists with the a priori idea that there is no evolution without discrete units of selection, which in turn, made them dependent on the principal separation of biological and memetic fitness. This separation thus prevented memeticists from accepting an adaptationist view of culture which, on the contrary, allowed gene-culture theorists to attract more scientists to test the hypotheses, creating the historical success of the gene-culture coevolution theory.

Your Brain Chooses What to Let You See

Scientists have long known that our sensory processing must automatically screen out extraneous inputs — otherwise, we couldn’t experience the world as we do. When we look at our surroundings, for instance, our perceived field of view holds steady or moves smoothly with our gaze. But the eye is also constantly making small movements, or saccades; our visual system has to subtract that background jitter from what we see.

“Automatic suppressive types of mechanisms take place … through large swaths of the brain,” said Richard Krauzlis, a neuroscientist at the National Eye Institute at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland. “Basically all over the place.”

And automatic background subtraction, it turns out, can also manifest in intriguing, unexpected ways. Take a counterintuitive finding that Tadin and his colleagues made in 2003: We’re good at perceiving the movements of small objects, but if those objects are simply made bigger, we find it much more difficult to detect their motion.

Recently in Nature Communications, Tadin’s team offered a tantalizing explanation for why this happens: The brain prioritizes the detection of objects that are more important for us to see, and those tend to be smaller. To a hawk hunting for its next meal, a mouse suddenly darting through a field matters more than the swaying motion of the grass and trees around it. As a result, Tadin and his team discovered, the brain suppresses information about the movement of the background — and as a side effect, it has more difficulty perceiving the movements of larger objects, because it treats them as a kind of background, too.

In a nation founded on whiteness, how to really discuss it?

“The more we associate people storming the Capitol and waving Confederate flags with white identity and white supremacy, with a capital W and a capital S, the more we’ll find that many white Americans are going to back away from this,” she says.

That avoidance is precisely the problem, says the Rev. Susan Chorley, a Boston-area pastor.

“This mess has been from the founding of this country. This mess has been in our soil. It’s in our soul,” Chorley says. “It’s everywhere, and we’ve never really completely decided that we will look at it.”

If white people want the future to be different, she says, they have to be willing to look at the past and the present — and talk about it as if the nation depended upon it. Which, many say, it does.

“I think it’s on us,” Chorley says. “We as white people need to be gathering up our white people.”

But getting white Americans to genuinely wrestle with these issues, Jardina says, will be a struggle.

“Are white people willing to confront and have a conversation about the extent to which white racial prejudice and white racism, and the desire to maintain white power in the United States, is part of our political process?” she asks. “I’d say that for the majority of white people, the answer is no, they’re not ready to have that conversation.”

Does sex education before college protect students from sexual assault in college?

In bivariate analyses, multiple historical factors were significantly associated with PSA in college including adverse childhood experiences and having experienced unwanted sexual contact before college (for women) and initiation of alcohol, marijuana, and sexual behaviors before age 18. Significant independent risk factors for college PSA included female gender, experiencing unwanted sexual contact before college, first oral sex before age 18, and “hooking up” (e.g., causual sex or sex outside a committed partnership) in high school.

Receipt of school-based sex education promoting refusal skills before age 18 was an independent protective factor; abstinence-only instruction was not. In the ethnographic interviews, students reported variable experiences with sex education before college; many reported it was awkward and poorly delivered.

A history of true civilisation is not one of monuments

Mutual aid, social cooperation, civic activism, hospitality or simply caring for others: these are the kind of things that actually go to make civilisations. In which case, the true history of civilisation is only just starting to be written. It might begin with what archaeologists call ‘culture areas’ or ‘interaction spheres’, vast zones of cultural exchange and innovation that deserve a more prominent place in our account of civilisation. In the Middle East, they have deep roots that become visible towards the end of the last Ice Age, around 10,000 BCE. Thousands of years before the rise of cities (around 4000 BCE), village communities already shared basic notions of social order across the region known as the ‘fertile crescent’. Physical evidence left behind by common forms of domestic life, ritual and hospitality shows us this deep history of civilisation. It’s in some ways much more inspiring than monuments. The most important findings of modern archaeology might in fact be these vibrant and far-flung networks, where others expected to find only backward and isolated ‘tribes’.

Anthropomorphomania and the Rise of the Animal Mind: A Conversation

Povinelli and his coresearchers argue that only humans reason via higher-order, theory-like relational abstractions such as space, time, intentions, ghosts, god, and weight. The latter abstraction, weight (as it exists as a part of human psychology), can be easily brought to mind. Our higher-order theories of weight affect our behavior. For example, we understand that the felt perception of a heavy object (compared to the felt perception of a lighter object) is deeply connected to the heavier object’s relative usefulness for holding down a stack of papers, for throwing through an abandoned window, for hurling at an unwanted intruder, or for smashing open a thick wal-nut shell. Humans instinctually abstract from these disparate perceptual scenarios a theory of how weight functions in the world. While chimps and some other nonhuman animals can and do behave in goal-directed ways that afford them “success” in some of these sce-narios (e.g., successfully lifting heavy objects or successfully cracking nuts), animals are not successful in these tasks because they wield a higher-order concept of weight. Instead, the animal’s achieve their goals via mental processes operating at the level of first-order, percep-tual variables, without the necessity for, or dependency upon, higher- order theories. Animals—even impressively intelligent animals like chimpanzees, elephants, dogs, and crows—do not, necessarily, act the way they act and do the things they do for the same reasons as humans. Thus, crows can fly, but they will never build skyscrapers. Yes, they excel at vocally mimicking sounds from their environment (including human words), but they do not carry on conversations. They can be trained to drop stones into a beaker of water in order to retrieve a food reward, but they will never create and share fables.

How Childhood Trauma Leads to Addiction – Gabor Maté
An accurate portrayal of Maté’s views, with engaging illustrations

Culture: The Driving Force of Human Cognition

It is often, though sometimes only implicitly, assumed that biological/genetic evolution sets neural substrates, that neural substrates fix cognitive abilities, and that cognitive abilities determine the spectrum of cultural practices exhibited by a biological species. We label this view as the “bottom‐up‐only” view. In this paper we will show that such a “chain of dependence” is much looser than usually assumed, especially as far as recent periods (the last 800,000 years vs. the last 7 million years or more) are considered. We will provide evidence and arguments supporting the idea that cultural innovation may have direct and ascertainable effects both on the cognitive capabilities of populations of hominins (via what we call “cultural exaptation”) and on the neural substrates of the individuals in those populations (via what we call “cultural neural reuse”). Together, cultural exaptation and cultural neural reuse may give raise to a plausible general mechanism for cognitive evolution in which culture is the driving force, thus offering a “top‐down‐also” view of human evolution.

Cultural Exaptation and Cultural Neural Reuse: A Mechanism for the Emergence of Modern Culture and Behavior

On the basis of recent advancements in both neuroscience and archaeology, we propose a plausible biocultural mechanism at the basis of cultural evolution. The proposed mechanism, which relies on the notions of cultural exaptation and cultural neural reuse, may account for the asynchronous, discontinuous, and patchy emergence of innovations around the globe. Cultural exaptation refers to the reuse of previously devised cultural features for new purposes. Cultural neural reuse refers to cases in which exposure to cultural practices induces the formation, activation, and stabilization of new functional and/or structural brain networks during the individual lifespan. The invention of writing is interpreted as a case of cultural exaptation of previous devices to record information, in use since at least the Early Later Stone Age and the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic (44,000 years before present). The measurable changes in brain structure and functioning caused by learning to read are proposed as an exemplar case of cultural neural reuse. It is argued that repeated cycles of cultural exaptation, development of appropriate strategies of cultural transmission, and ensuing cultural neural reuse represent the fundamental mechanism that has regulated the cultural evolution of our lineage. A general predictive model of when and under which circumstances the proposed mechanism should be expected to occur is proposed, and the relationship of our mechanism with gene-culture coevolutionary models is discussed.

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