Homeopathy is fake medicine, but the industry that promotes it, and the federal agency that is supposed to regulate it, behave as though it’s real. Homeopathy has been allowed to carve out its own special niche in the laws governing the sale and availability of drugs in the United States. In fact, the homeopathy industry …
The Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science (TIES) is a program of the Richard Dawkins Foundation that gives teachers the tools they need to effectively teach evolution and answer its critics. As the pandemic has upended the educational landscape, TIES has been there to help teachers adapt and thrive in a challenging and ever-changing environment. As …
Atheists and humanists have long had to contend with being associated with a kind of fatalism or despair, stereotyped as “lost souls” by those religious believers who oppose a secular, rationalist worldview. Humanists have usually countered this caricature with a message of optimism, asserting that by embracing reason, naturalism, and critical thinking, humankind can truly …

However, my soup recipe is worth far more than my non-existent soul, so this might be a worse deal than having the typo corrected.

Chris Cuomo has been suspended from his job at CNN as his efforts to support his brother, Andrew, with the influence of his media position, have been gradually exposed. Wait a minute, CNN didn’t think his bias was obvious from day one? And what’s with this “suspension” rather than just simply firing him?

CNN has suspended Chris Cuomo, one of its biggest stars, a day after the release of documents that detailed his efforts to help his brother, then-New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, fend off allegations of sexual misconduct.

Transcripts from the New York Attorney General’s office on Monday showed that the cable host was far more involved in the governor’s crisis-management efforts than the younger Cuomo had previously acknowledged.

The network and its president, Jeff Zucker, had previously backed Cuomo for months, even as details accumulated about his role advising his brother, who eventually resigned in the wake of the sexual harassment allegations.

What I’ve found more interesting than Cuomo family corruption, though, is all the people sympathizing with Chris Cuomo and saying they’d have done the same thing. It’s rather revealing.

https://twitter.com/mattyglesias/status/1465844125752864770

(This tweet has since been deleted by Yglesias — I guess he noticed how bad it looked.)

Huh. I wouldn’t. Sorry, Jim and Mike, I love you like, ummm, brothers, but if you do something criminal or unethical — if you start sexually harassing young women, or robbing banks, or avoiding taxes, or telling people they should take Ivermectin for that case of COVID, or you start leaving thumbs-up on Joe Rogan videos — I’m not ever doing anything unethical to protect you. If you need money to hire a good lawyer, I’ll do what I can. I’m willing to be a character witness during the sentencing hearing. I’ll send you boxes of cookies in prison. I’ll be there for you when you get out, and help you get back on your feet and live an ethical life.

Mainly, though, I’m pretty sure you’re good people who wouldn’t do anything like that, and definitely wouldn’t expect me to do “unethical shit” to help you out. Likewise, I don’t expect you to lie about me if I were to explode in rage and punch a Republican in the nose. It’s OK, you can say I was wrong to do that.

True confession: my family has been there. We had a sweet little sister, cute as a button, a real charmer, who fell into a bad crowd, was addicted to drugs, and that addiction led to unforgivable behavior, like stealing from my parents. She spent time in jail, she ended up living on the street, and getting hooked on — yikes — evangelical Christianity (which didn’t help her at all). She eventually died of an untreated systemic infection, and we wept for her. We all loved our sister and wanted to help her, but we did not excuse her or worse, assist her in the reprehensible behavior the addiction drove her to.

That’s a difference that stays with me, that while their hearts were breaking my parents would not stoop to “unethical shit” themselves. I’m not going to, either. What’s wrong with these people who say they would?

By the way, I was shaped by growing up in a family with little interest in religion, and I think I grew a moral compass by following the examples my parents set. I sometimes wonder if my baby sister might have been saved, though, if she’d been brought up in a more rigidly authoritarian house — what was good for me might not have been good for her. Or maybe it was that her oldest brother abandoned her when he was 18 and she was 7 to flit off to college. What-might-have-been is a terrible game to play.

This thread has been created for discussion on themes relevant to Reason and Science for which there are not currently any dedicated threads. Please note that our Comment Policy applies as usual. There is a link to this at the foot of the page. If you would like to refer back to previous open discussion …

In my mailbox today, I found a copy of the University of Oregon Biology Newsletter — I’m sure the publications department at my alma mater will be pleased to know that at least one of their alumni actually read it, even if, admittedly, I just give it a quick skim before filing it away in the recycling bin. This time, though, I was surprised to find an article titled “On Being a New Postdoc in the Bill Cresko Lab”. The title wasn’t surprising, since that’s the kind of thing you expect to find in a newsletter, but the author was kind of unexpected. It’s by my grad school mentor, Chuck Kimmel!

Although I still want to keep a toe in the Institute of Neuroscience (ION), I’m delighted to announce that Biology Professor Bill Cresko in the Institute of Ecology and Evolution (IEE) here at UO has graciously accepted greenhorn (Bill’s term) me to join his lab as a postdoctoral fellow. Postdocs are typically young scientists just out of graduate school. However, I am an 81-year-old Emeritus Professor, working in the Department of Biology for over 50 years. Most of that time I’ve been a member of the ION, studying neurodevelopment in zebrafish, a species that my ION colleagues and I have promoted as a model organism for biomedical research, and that is now used in hundreds of science labs. Bill is a mere baby in comparison: He’s been in the Department of Biology for less than half the time I have. Still, he enjoys worldwide recognition for his work on evolutionary genomics and evolution of development. Now that I’m in Bill’s lab, the fish species of the moment is not the zebrafish, but the threespine stickleback, with which Bill has worked since his days as a graduate student.

Wait wait wait…you can do that? Anyone want to take on a 65 year old grad student? I wouldn’t mind rewinding the tape for a bit.

This is typical Chuck, though. When I was in his lab, I remember he’d occasionally flit off to some other lab for a while and then he’d come back with new questions and new techniques and all the grad students and post-docs would groan because now we’d have to learn new stuff and we were still trying to figure out the old stuff and we just wanted to graduate. I guess that’s how old professors stay young, though. Gotta keep on the move, gotta get exposed to fresh ideas all the time.

I notice he’s still working on fish, though. Maybe when he turns 90 he’ll be ready to take a look at spiders.

I’ve never paid much attention to McWhorter, and only gave him a bit of side-eye when I noticed that he’s one of the people who signed on to that University of Austin nonsense. But he’s a black professor at Columbia University! No way he could fall for that right-wing BS, right?

Wrong. He’s got a book out, titled Woke Racism, and it’s apparently as bad as it sounds. He’s a card-carrying member of the anti-woke brigade, and he’s written a whole book about his resentment that some people are actually conscious of the systemic racism in our country. Elie Mystal reviews it.

McWhorter’s central thesis is that being woke — by which he seems to mean acknowledging the ongoing fact of bigotry, systemic racism and the resulting forms of oppression — is a religion. Not “like” a religion — McWhorter refuses to hedge this contention with simile. No, McWhorter argues that people who advocate for anti-racism policies, racial sensitivity training and (of course) “critical race theory” are all part of a religious movement with its own clergy. (Ibram X. Kendi, Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates have all been ordained, apparently.) He argues that this religion’s “Elect” has taken over the country and “rule[s] by inflicting terror” on those who dare to speak against it. Along the way, he warns that it is “coming after your kids” with a breathlessness that makes him sound less like a thoughtful academic and more like a conspiracy theorist looking for hidden critical race messages in the menus at Chuck E. Cheese.

McWhorter never engages with any of the actual cultish movements that are threatening American democracy. He likewise never engages with actual religions, the ones who get tax breaks and Supreme Court justices, who hold the power to take away human rights from pregnant people and civil rights from the LGBTQ community. McWhorter managed in the course of about 200 pages to claim that the woke are perpetrating a “reign of terror” — a phrase he uses twice — but devoted only three paragraphs (I counted) to the actual insurrectionists who attacked the Capitol and tried to overthrow the government.

When he finally gets to those attacks, McWhorter brushes them away, writing, “As scary as those protesters were, which institutions are they taking over with their views?” He quickly answers his own question with “none.” It’s easy to respond with a list of institutions that have either been fully taken over by anti-Democratic Trumpist ideology, from local school boards to the electoral machinery of Wisconsin to the Republican Party itself, or institutions that are so riddled with white supremacists that they can no longer be trusted (like various local police departments). But note the word choice from the linguistics professor. The people who attacked the Capitol were “protesters” with “views.”

McWhorter downplays White domestic terror threats in favor of regular criticism of Coates (the imagined Salieri to his Mozart, it sometimes seems) and other anti-racist thinkers, but he believes that speaking against this so-called clergy will earn people like him the ad hominem label of “race traitor” by critics. He warns readers that some will say he’s “not black enough” to write his book.

It is peculiar that someone would be concerned about radicals taking over institutions to start a reign of terror, but neglects an actual recent instance of just that happening…except to make excuses for them.

I don’t think he’s a race traitor, and would never use that term. I just think he’s a dumbass.

not sentiment shared by the Declaration of Women’s Sex Based Rights

Apparently, it’s not trans women, and trans men don’t even exist. This Declaration of Women’s Sex Based Rights is making the rounds — Richard Dawkins proudly signed it, doesn’t that make you want to put your name on it? I like the idea of supporting equal rights for all men and women, and it’s true that women need special legal protection as the targets of current and historical discrimination, but this document seems to be mainly focused on legitimizing discrimination against trans women. It practically seethes with resentment against trans women, and singles them out as the big problem that must be eradicated from society. Cast them out! They don’t deserve to have any of the rights which they want to reserve for true human females, a category that they don’t even bother to define (probably because if they tried, they’d get hung up on the boundary conditions). So women are simply specified by vague “physical and biological characteristics”, which are completely different from “gender identity”, which means their manifesto is primarily a long whine about how the existence of trans women taints the concept of lesbianism.

However, the concept of ‘gender identity’ has enabled men who claim a female ‘gender identity’ to assert, in law, policies, and practice, that they are members of the category of women, which is a category based upon sex.

The CEDAW General Recommendation No. 35 notes that, “General recommendation No. 28 on the core obligations of States parties under article 2 of the Convention as well as general recommendation No. 33 on women’s access to justice confirms that discrimination against women is inextricably linked to other factors that affect their lives. The Committee’s jurisprudence highlights that these may include…being lesbian.” (II, 12).

The concept of ‘gender identity’ is used to challenge individuals’ rights to define their sexual orientation on the basis of sex rather than ‘gender identity’, enabling men who claim a female ‘gender identity’ to seek to be included in the category of lesbian, which is a category based upon sex. This undermines the sex-based rights of lesbians, and is a form of discrimination against women.

Some men who claim a female ‘gender identity’ seek to be included in the legal category of mother. The CEDAW emphasises maternal rights and the “social significance of maternity’’. Maternal rights and services are based on women’s unique capacity to gestate and give birth to children. The inclusion of men who claim a female ‘gender identity’ within the legal category of mother erodes the social significance of maternity, and undermines the maternal rights for which the CEDAW provides.

OK, so how does the existence of trans women compromise the identities of lesbians and mothers? If a person who identifies as a woman is a primary caregiver to a child, what else do you call her but “a mother”? If she happens to be trans, how does that harm a person who identifies as a cis woman and is the primary caregiver to a child, who should also be called “a mother”? If they’re doing everything that a mother does, and if they suffer the same social disempowerment, what is the problem here, and what do you propose that people and the law should call them? I know, they may not have a uterus, and they may not have actually carried an embryo/fetus for 9 months, but are we prepared to deny the “M” word to adoptive mothers, then?

The whole thing is one special effort to carve out an exclusion and to deny one group of people the rights that they ought to share with everyone else. That’s not a good reason to sign this thing. An equal rights declaration ought not to be focused on saying “except these people, we don’t like them and we want to make sure they don’t get these same rights.” Especially when that subgroup has been specifically targeted for hatred and discrimination.

I’m also really curious to know why trans men are not mentioned, and how they handle that concept. Are trans men really women in their minds? How do they cope with their weird sexual essentialism if they accept trans men?

Oh well, one useful feature of their web page is that they list 393 organizations that really hate trans people, which is a useful reference if you want to know who you should never support (although many seem to be just disgruntled people with a website that you’ll never hear of again).

TheLostDaughter_81478910_Instreams_168_R

Elena Ferrante’s The Neapolitan Quartet – an epic tale of female friendship and rivalry told over six decades – is easily her most famous work. By the time the final volume had been published in English in 2015, the quartet had become an international bestseller, sparking what we now know as “Ferrante Fever”. However, it was her first three novels, Ferrante has suggested, that allowed her the “creative space” to write the quartet. She sees them as “part of a chain” that deal with similar themes and concerns.

This should give Ferrante fans, as well as those discovering her work, more reason to watch The Lost Daughter, a film version of the last of those formative three novels, due for release in January. Adapted and directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal, the film features a star-studded female cast, including Jessie Buckley, Olivia Colman and Dakota Johnson. Ferrante has taken a hands-off approach to the adaptation, in keeping with the fact that she has famously kept her true identity hidden. In a letter to her publisher in 2016, affirming this stance, she wrote: “I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t.”

However, she did make one crucial intervention. When Gyllenhaal, a seasoned actor, wrote to Ferrante asking for permission to adapt The Lost Daughter, the author agreed, but on one intriguing condition: Gyllenhaal had to direct it herself or the contract was “null and void”.

Mothers, daughters and dolls

Mothers and daughters are a recurrent theme in Ferrante’s work and none more so than The Lost Daughter (originally published in 2006 as La figlia oscura), a book about a woman who abandons her children. In Gyllenhaal’s compelling adaptation, the protagonist, Leda Caruso (Colman), a professor of literature and a specialist in Italian translation, is on holiday alone on a Greek island. Leda is divorced; her grown-up daughters live with their father. On the beach she encounters a large, loud and uncouth American family. Leda becomes fascinated with one family member, Nina (Johnson), a beautiful young woman, and her daughter Elena (Athena Martin).

The book and film follow similar trajectories. Leda envies Nina’s close relationship with her daughter and her apparent maternal serenity. The child reflects her mother’s love in her attachment to her doll, named Nani, “from whom the child was never parted and to whom Nina paid attention as if she were alive, a second daughter”. But then Elena goes missing on the beach and there is uproar. Leda recalls her own panic when one of her own daughters was lost, but reassures Nina, “She’s wearing your hat… She’ll be found, we’ll see her easily.” Leda is applauded when she finds the girl. However, as we soon discover, she has stolen Elena’s abandoned doll: a senseless, some would say cruel, act that even Leda doesn’t truly comprehend. As she comments at the beginning of the novel: “The hardest things to talk about are the ones we ourselves can’t understand.”

Of the book, Gyllenhaal commented at the New Yorker Festival in 2018: “I have never heard these things articulated before. There was one point where I was like, this woman is so fucked up, and then I was like, I totally relate to her.” In an interview with the New York Times in 2014, Ferrante refers to it as “the most daring, the most risk-taking” of all her early novels, with themes that troubled her the most, claiming: “If I hadn’t gone through that, with great anxiety, I wouldn’t have written My Brilliant Friend [the first volume of her Neapolitan quartet].” A year later, she told the Flemish paper De Standaard: “It cost me a lot to write… [and] left me feeling the way you do when you swim until you’re exhausted and then you realise you’ve gone too far from the shore.”

It’s easy to see Ferrante’s first two novels as part of a chain leading to the third. In her debut, L’amore molesto (1992), translated into English as Troubling Love in 2006, Delia is obsessed with her mother Amalia’s beauty. After learning that she has drowned, Delia travels home to Naples for the funeral and attempts to piece together the details surrounding her mysterious death. In doing so she is forced to confront her own troubling childhood memories. In I giorni dell’abbandono (2002), translated as Days of Abandonment in 2005 and made into a film the same year by Roberto Faenza, Olga has a breakdown after her husband leaves her for a younger woman. She neglects her children, but her young daughter’s presence helps bring her back from the brink.

The Lost Daughter also points to the quartet to come. For Leda, it is a lost doll that precipitates her emotional crisis. A similar motif occurs in My Brilliant Friend – at the start of the novel, childhood friends Lila and Lenù throw each other’s dolls into the cellar of an apartment owned by Don Achille Carracci, “the ogre of fairy tales”. Ferrante went on to write a children’s novel, La spiaggia di notte (The Beach at Night), narrated by the doll from The Lost Daughter.

Ferrante's 'fragmenting' characters

Much of the drama in the book and film comes from the question of whether Leda will keep the doll or give it back. The child, Elena, is distraught by the loss, but instead of returning the doll, Leda buys it new clothes from the local toy shop. Her transgression provokes recollections of her own childhood doll, Mina, that she had given to her eldest daughter. This leads to a deluge of memories where we learn Leda abandoned her children so she could pursue academic success and a passionate love affair with the charismatic Professor Hardy (Peter Sarsgaard). In the novel, Leda recalls all her bad mothering moments – when she had shouted at her children, slammed a door shut on one of them, or thrown the doll out of the window. Gyllenhaal is kinder and shows young Leda (Buckley) in a series of flashbacks as a loving mother, genuinely torn between her work and her children.

In a 2007 interview with the Italian press, Ferrante claims that Leda “sought an emancipation and confrontation on equal terms with the male world”. She had wanted both children and a career. Gyllenhaal’s adaptation explores this decision with understanding and grace. Ferrante’s novel is darker – accenting a mean, selfish streak in Leda followed by a crushing guilt that haunts her. One can convey a character’s emotional scars, their hidden thoughts, what Ferrante has called their “fragmentation”, more easily in a novel than a film. Perhaps inevitably, then, both Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter and Faenza’s Days of Abandonment soften the darkness at the heart of the novels, along with the obsessive nature and intensity of the female protagonists, making the characters more sympathetic for a film audience.

The apparent ease with which Gyllenhaal has adapted the novel for a mainstream audience is an indication of the authenticity of Ferrante’s text – something she always strives for. One of the reasons her fiction translates so well onto screen is because she shows, rather than tells, difficult emotions. Part of the pleasure of The Lost Daughter, in both forms, is the honesty with which the female protagonist is drawn and, in the film, the beauty with which Colman conveys it: a nuanced portrait of a middle-aged woman – flawed, prickly, sympathetic. As Ferrante observed in a Vanity Fair interview in 2015: “Honest writing forces itself to find words for those parts of our experience that are hidden and silent.” It is this ability to express the complexity of women’s feelings – as children, mothers and friends – how they function in a patriarchal society and cope with obstacles including isolation and abandonment, that gives Ferrante’s work its enduring appeal. Gyllenhaal’s film is a bold, textured exploration of motherhood with a refreshing lack of sentimentality that will undoubtedly win Ferrante new fans.

This piece is a preview from the Witness section of New Humanist winter 2021. Subscribe today.

Cell-Cancer-Cell-Division-Human-Meiosis-Mitosis-3876669

Population screening programmes are a key part of our public health arsenal, saving an estimated 10,000 lives in England each year. But it is an unusual form of healthcare in that otherwise healthy individuals are contacted before symptoms arise. Additionally, despite their potential to prevent disease, such programmes, if not properly designed, can harm as well as help the population.

One of the key challenges with developing new programmes is around test specificity: how likely it is that a person will be told they have a disease if they don’t actually have it (a “false positive”). High rates of false positives can lead to costly, invasive follow-ups, and significant anxiety for individuals.

These will be key considerations for UK regulators in their upcoming evaluation of the Galleri Test, a potentially revolutionary new blood test for the early identification of cancer. Preliminary studies suggest it is able to detect more than 50 different types of cancer before symptoms appear, and locate with 90 per cent accuracy the tissue in which the tumour originated. Crucially, the test is quick, easy and non-invasive, and the false positive rate appears to be comparatively low.

The test works by looking for tiny bits of DNA that have broken off tumour cells and float around in the bloodstream (“cell-free DNA”). It is currently available in the US for those at high risk. However, its power as a screening tool – identifying early cancer in symptomless individuals not at high risk, who therefore have the best chance of successful treatment – has not yet been assessed. Since September, Galleri has been rolled out in a large NHS clinical trial involving 140,000 healthy volunteers. The trial is the biggest of its kind, with results expected in 2023. If successful, it has the potential to expand to a million more volunteers from 2024.

Some have questioned whether the test will deliver on the hype when used in a real-world setting, with scientists all too aware of past disappointments. Hope that it is the holy grail of cancer screening should be tempered; its success remains to be seen.

This piece is a preview from the Witness section of New Humanist winter 2021. Subscribe today.

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Of the many offensive “-isms” we see and hear about every day, “accentism” rarely gets a mention. After all, for many of us, different accents are part and parcel of daily interaction. Yet research has shown that unconscious bias is prompted by accents in much the same way that it is by sex or skin colour. People who sound different are assigned certain cultural traits or grouped into particular social classes, which together provide fuel for prejudices. When it comes to our perceptions of the speaker, this impacts on our most fickle of human feelings: trust and confidence.

But what might happen if technology was developed that enabled people in all corners of the globe to sound more or less similar? Sanas, a Silicon Valley-based start-up that bills itself as “the world’s first solution for real-time accent matching”, has taken steps towards this. With its technology, a person in the Philippines speaking over the phone to someone in the US will sound American; or to someone in Spain, Spanish – whatever accent it is that the company’s AI-powered programme “hears” at the other end of the line.

Started by people of Russian, Chinese and Spanish-speaking backgrounds, Sanas explains on its website that the concept came about via the difficulties its founders experienced in understanding one another. It is now being tested in call centres, and perhaps for good reason: a frustrated caller seeking expert help with a faulty product is likely to be frustrated even further if they can’t understand the instructions being given over the phone. Sanas wants to help everyone to “understand and be understood”.

But while the technology will no doubt make communication between a call centre worker and an angry customer less fraught, does it risk fuelling a homogenisation of accents, if not worse – the feeding of a sense that “western” accents are to be trusted more? A number of the largest UK and US companies have outsourced their call centres to India, the Philippines and other countries where labour is abundant and cheap. Those call centres are serving millions of customers in Europe and North America for whom ease and convenience, rather than cultural exchange and learning, are the highest priorities. But the distinctiveness of the accents of staff – the intonations and the musicality; the histories that lie behind their dialects – will be gone if such technology is widely adopted.

Cross-cultural communication brings many benefits. But it would be no bad thing to remember that in the process of making communication between different peoples of the world easier, much can be lost.

This piece is a preview from the Witness section of New Humanist winter 2021. Subscribe today.

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The winter 2021 issue of New Humanist is on sale now! Subscribe here for as little as £10 a year.

Humans: a special species?

Of beasts and men

Animal sentience is likely to be legally recognised in the UK. But, asks Julian Baggini, does that mean we should now stop killing other creatures?

Our human difference gives us reasons not to kill each other that go beyond simplistic injunctions to never kill or never shorten life at all. Unlike other animals, we do not live just in the present. Our memories, plans and projects matter to us in ways that are inconceivable for any other creature.

The curious mind of a dog

We “talk” with our pets all the time. But as Cal Flyn discovers, techniques are being developed that allow dogs to seemingly understand vocabulary and grammar.

We may never know if the dogs are using and comprehending human language to mean exactly the same as we do. But if nothing else, it gives us a great deal of insight into our relationship with them as a species, their concerns and their personalities.

How to build an animal

DNA provides the blueprint for our bodies, but something else determines how we are actually constructed. Peter Forbes on the molecules that make us who we are.

Given that we always start from a single living cell, let’s pose what seems a manageable question: how do animals acquire four limbs and their attached appendages?

Q&A

JP O'Malley speaks with Eimear McBride, author of A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, The Lesser Bohemians and more.

Men’s bodies [in our culture] are not seen as meat, but flesh, almost divine, separate and set apart. But women’s bodies go through many more changes throughout their lives. This has then been used as a way to condemn women to the place of the animal.

The winter 2021 issue of New Humanist is on sale now! Subscribe here for as little as £10 a year.

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Also in this issue:

  • Raymond Tallis on endemic lying within the UK government
  • Modi is using the media to silence India's minorities, Salim Yusufji writes
  • Peter Salmon on Wittgenstein's landmark Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
  • Miranda Forsyth on efforts to stem the violence resulting from witchcraft allegations
  • Samira Ahmed examines Mary Whitehouse's anti-humanist campaign
  • Peter Forbes on the molecules that give animals their key features
  • Podcasts are being adapted for television. Do they work, asks Caroline Crampton?
  • Ansgar Allen on the novelist Thomas Bernhard's life-long disdain for intellectualism
  • Does a film treatment of Elena Ferrante's third novel do it justice, asks Lucy Popescu?
  • Anmol Irfan on the Pakistani artists challenging taboos around the human body
  • PLUS: Columns from Michael Rosen, Laurie Taylor and Marcus Chown, book reviews, the latest developments in biology, chemistry and physics; cryptic crossword and Chris Maslanka's quiz

New Humanist is published four times a year by the Rationalist Association, a charity founded in 1885. Our journalism is fiercely independent and supported entirely by our readers. To make a deeper commitment, why not donate to the Rationalist Association?

This post contains a video, which you can also view here. To support more videos like this, head to patreon.com/rebecca! Recently I happened to check out the latest comments on my videos, because honestly life has just been too great for me and I deserve to be taken down a peg. And I noticed that …
This post contains a video, which you can also view here. To support more videos like this, head to patreon.com/rebecca! When I first got involved in the skeptic community I was under the impression that my main job was to help individuals learn to use the tools in their “bullshit detector.” I was mostly interested …
This post contains a video, which you can also view here. To support more videos like this, head to patreon.com/rebecca! Transcript: In high school, my history teacher Mr. Pitt had a large quotation written on his wall: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” attributed to the philosopher George Santayana. I …

sbackground-beverage-bubble-caffeine-copy

Carbon dioxide is a major environmental problem, and it can be damaging to human health. But it can also be extremely useful. We use it to package salad leaves, fizz our soft drinks, render animals unconscious before they are slaughtered, and more.

Yet much of Europe has lately been suffering from a CO₂ shortage – ironic, given that it’s in the air. An obvious question has therefore arisen: why don’t we pull it directly out of the air? The answer is that CO₂ only makes up 0.04 per cent of our air, and is therefore difficult to extract directly. The research into carbon (dioxide) capture as a means of countering CO₂ emissions has not yet produced a technique that'll extract the quantities needed to support the gas industry. Instead, the main source of CO₂ for industry is a by-product of nitrogen-based fertiliser production. This industry is also heavily reliant on natural gas, so when the gas prices climbed this autumn, fertiliser plants shut down to save on costs. The knock-on
effect was a shortage in CO₂.

Nitrogen plays a critical role in the biochemistry of every living thing. It is also the most common gas in our atmosphere. But it is largely inert, which means plants and animals can’t extract it from the air. Consequently, a major limiting factor in agriculture has always been bio-available nitrogen.

Most nitrogen fertilisers are produced via the Haber-Bosch process. This combines nitrogen from the air with hydrogen gas to create ammonia. Hydrogen gas is less easy to source than nitrogen. There’s plenty of hydrogen about, most obviously as the H in H₂O and CH₄ (methane), but breaking the bonds between the hydrogen and oxygen in water, or carbon in methane, requires a huge amount of energy. Hydrogen gas is therefore mainly produced by methane steam reforming, where natural gas and water is heated to about 1,000. The end products are hydrogen gas and CO₂. These can then be separated for their respective uses: the hydrogen into fertiliser, and the carbon dioxide into your salad bags.

So, until carbon capture technology matures, the cost of the fizz in your cola will likely remain tied to the price of natural gas and fertilisers.

This piece is a preview from the Witness section of New Humanist winter 2021. Subscribe today.

From the Richard Dawkins Foundation Newsletter. Subscribe here. Hello! Richard Dawkins is quite possibly the world’s most famous atheist, so it follows that the Foundation that bears his name would be assumed to be an “atheist organization.” And truly, the Richard Dawkins Foundation (with its umbrella organization the Center for Inquiry) passionately champions the rights of …
This post contains a video, which you can also view here. To support more videos like this, head to patreon.com/rebecca! Depressing topic today: the Travis Scott/Astroworld mass casualty event. If you’ve been asleep for the past week, let me tell you what happened: on Friday, November 5, eight people were killed and hundreds more were …
This post contains a video, which you can also view here. To support more videos like this, head to patreon.com/rebecca! Well here we are in November already, and you know what that means: an entire month of fan fiction writers telling you about their novels, my legs getting even hairier than usual, and Redditors pretending …

IMG_1433I have been interested in magic since I was 8 years old.  Early on, I became fascinated with the history of this strange performing art, and when I was 13 years old I wrote a school project entitled ‘The Art And History Of Conjuring’.

One section of this 34-page extravaganza was devoted to contemporary magicians and included the cover of a magic magazine featuring the legendary David Copperfield.

A few years ago, I was in Las Vegas with my friend and fellow magician, Massimo Polidoro. We went to see David Copperfield’s amazing show and he kindly invited us to his secret museum of magic. This stunning collection is housed is a large building on the outskirts of Vegas and contains a jaw dropping collection of apparatus, posters and books. It is the Smithsonian of magic and explores how magic shapes society, inspires technology, and creates a sense of wonder.

IMG_1435Due to the nature of the exhibits, David is only able to show a few people around the museum at any one time. Afterwards, David and I spoke about producing a book that provides readers with a personal tour of this magical space. Excited by the idea, we enlisted the help of brilliant magician David Britland and amazing photographer (and co-director of David Copperfield’s shows) Homer Liwag. Together, we put together a pitch document and were delighted when Simon and Schuster agreed to publish the book. Not only that, but the wonderful Priscilla Painton agreed to act as our editor.

IMG_1409Three years on and our vision has become a reality. This 270-page glossy book is our love letter to magic. Filled with Homer’s stunning photographs, it celebrates a group of outsiders who bring a much-needed sense of magic into the world, including the man who fooled Houdini, the woman who caught bullets in her bare hands, and the illusionist who made himself vanish. Along the way we encounter a sixteenth-century manual on sleight of hand, stunning French automata, and even some coins that are said to have magically passed through the hands of Abraham Lincoln.

Over forty years ago, 13 year-old Wiseman write a school project on magic and referenced David Copperfield. Today, I am honoured to have worked with this legendary performer and co-authored a beautiful book on the topic. To me, that feels like real magic.

For information on how to purchase in the USA, click here and for the UK, click here.

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I am delighted to announce that Issue 4 of our magic comic, Hocus Pocus, is out now. This one is all about whether it’s possible to predict the future. As ever, it contains 28 full colour pages about magic, mystery and the mind. This issue also has lots of interactive demonstrations and illusions. Mother Shipton predicts your future , Nostradamus uncovers the secret of publishing profitable predictions and Paul The Psychic Octopus reveals all.Amazing work by Jordan Collver, Rik Worth and Owen Watts. Enjoy! Available now from Prop Dog

papers2I have just co-authored a new research paper suggesting that learning to perform magic tricks makes children more creative.

During the experiment, a group 10 to 11-year-old children completed a creativity test that involved coming up with multiple uses for an everyday object. They were then taught how to perform a simple trick in which they showed someone a cube with different coloured sides, asked the person to secretly choose a colour, and then magically revealed their person’s choice. Finally, they all completed the creativity test a second time. Compared to another group of children who took part in an art lesson, learning the trick significantly boosted the children’s creativity scores.

Magic tricks often involve lateral thinking and we suspect that learning to perform the illusions encouraged children to think outside of the box.  There is a  need to enhance creative thinking from a young age. Learning magic tricks would be a cost effective, practical, and fun way of teachers and parents boosting children’s creativity. Maybe in the future, magic will become part of the school curriculum!

The peer-reviewed work was carried out in collaboration with  Amy Wiles and Professor Caroline Watt (Edinburgh University), and published in the academic journal PeerJ.

You can read the paper for free here, and a general review on magic and education here.

cover2I am delighted to announce that I have co-authored a new book – David Copperfield’s History of Magic.

It’s written by David Copperfield, David Britland and myself, with photographs by Homer Liwag.

The book presents a personal tour of David’s amazing secret museum of magic in Las Vegas. Containing over 100 full colour photographs, the book takes you on a journey into a clandestine world of psychology, history and magic.  The book is released on October 26th and is now available for pre-order.
USA: Click here
UK: Amazon UK

Last year I collaborated with The Good Thinking Society to set up the Good Magic Awards.

Our first award focused on performers who use magic tricks to improve the lives of others, including work with disadvantaged groups, hospital patients, and schools. The judges selected two great winners: Megan Swann (who presents a magic show that promotes environmental issues) and Breathe Magic (who support children with hemiplegia by helping them to learn tricks that improve physical and psychological wellbeing).

This year, the award will provide £2,000 to support a new and innovative project that promotes the art of magic. This might, for example, include developing a live or virtual performance, writing a magic-related book or essay, creating a podcast, devising a new form of illusion or presentation, or undertaking research into the history of magic.

Applicants need to be over 18 years old and currently residing in the UK, and nominations will close at 5pm (GMT) on 20th February 2021.

To enter, please head over to The Good Thinking Society now!

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve recently gone back to school for an M.Ed in Higher Education. Regular readers may know that I already have a humanities PhD, which raises a pretty obvious question: “What the hell Dan? Aren’t you done with school? Why collect yet another degree? Seriously what is wrong with you?”

There are a few reasons I decided to go back to school. but most of them ultimately boil down to one thing: the academic job market. I’ve been writing about my experiences looking for a job over the last few years, and after four years and dozens and dozens of applications, it became very clear that something had to change if I planned on actually getting a job before retirement age.

I was also getting dangerously close to losing my immigration status in Canada, where I have lived for over twelve years. My three-year postgraduate work visa was set to expire this past summer, and with no employment on the horizon that would satisfy CIC requirements for renewal, going back to school was essentially the only way for me to stay in the country short of marriage (which an immigration lawyer actually suggested).

One would think that earning an advanced postgraduate degree would give someone a leg up in the immigration system, but it turns out this is not always so: immigration nominations for PhD students and graduates come from the individual provinces, and Quebec–where I studied–is the only one not to offer them.* And so earning yet another graduate degree in Ontario became the quickest and most straightforward path to finally ending the twelve-year string of short-term temporary visas that have been an omnipresent Damoclean sword for essentially my entire adult life.

But why Higher Ed?

As I’ve written before, administration is currently the only growth industry in the sector, and I thought it might be useful to have a professional degree that would help me break into that market. I also do honestly believe that schools would benefit from having more administrators who have first-hand experience with teaching and research, and with actual lived experience as graduate students and academic contract workers. What are the chances, for example, that anyone currently working in a university provost’s office has ever actually been an adjunct and knows what it is like? Or has even been a graduate student any time after the 1980s?

Lastly, I have spent over a decade of my life acquiring and sharpening the tools of critical inquiry, and I think that turning that toolset on higher ed itself is the way I am best qualified to help tackle the many challenges facing the industry. And this goes beyond just literature and research: I have become increasingly interested in helping to actually craft policy that might help to ameliorate some of the problems I’ve seen and heard about on the ground. This degree is a first step in that direction.

*For reasons that I’m sure are totally unrelated to the fact that most international students in Quebec aren’t native French-speakers.

 

Hello everyone! Many apologies for my long absence, but things got a little busy for me when I went back to school (yes, again) to actually officially study Higher Education!

The upside for you, dear readers, is that my new studies have provided lots of new grist for the old mill, and I plan to post fairly regularly about my ideas, experiences, and research over the next few semesters. This will include everything from day-to-day experiences in the programme itself to discussions of the existing literature on higher ed to summaries of my own research in the field (and possibly links to full papers for the true masochists among you).

Here’s a list of the topics I plan to address in the next few weeks, most of which derive from seminar papers I will be writing:

 

Is the Human Capital Model a Myth? Signalling, Credentialism, and Rent-Seeking in Higher Ed

The Idea of a Stoic University (Or: How to Un-coddle the American Mind)

Transnational Mobility in the Academic Labour Market for the Humanities

Graduate School as the Structural Model for the Theory of Emerging Adulthood

 

I’m looking forward to bringing you all along with me on this new journey!

[Update to the update: SIU has posted a statement on the programme here. As it essentially confirms my suspicions that it is designed to steal soft academic labour from new PhDs by trading on their institutional loyalty and need for affiliation without paying them for their services, I provide the link here but see no need to comment further.]

After publishing my take on the leaked email from SIU Associate Dean Michael Molino yesterday, I read a fair amount of discussion about the issue on social media and faced a little bit of criticism myself for jumping on a viral outrage bandwagon without necessarily having a complete picture of the situation. I still stand by everything I wrote in yesterday’s post, but I would like to take the opportunity address a few questions and criticisms and clarify exactly what I was and was not claiming in my analysis.

Is this email even real? How do we know it really said everything that ended up in the viral version?

Okay, fair enough. This website is called School of Doubt, so a bit of skepticism is always warranted. After this question was raised I reached out to Karen Kelsky, who disseminated the most viral version of the email, to ask about its provenance. She confirmed that it was forwarded to her by an SIU faculty member she knew personally. Epistemically speaking that is good enough for me, but nothing’s perfect I guess.

Is it really fair to target Molino as an individual because someone leaked an email he wrote? Isn’t this just doxxing that invites harassment?

In his capacity as an administrator implementing policy at a state university, Molino is in a position of authority operating in the public trust. This requires transparency and accountability, and I don’t think sharing his official contact information is doxxing any more than it would be for an administrator at a government agency like the EPA or FCC. Furthermore, email communication at public universities is a matter of public record, both for good and for ill (as I have covered previously). While people may disagree about the ethics of leaking and whistleblowing, it is really not possible to argue that such an email could have been written with any reasonable expectation of privacy. But yes, he’s probably going to have a bad time and that sucks.

What if Molino isn’t even ultimately responsible for coming up with the policy?

Well, bluntly, who cares? He is clearly working to implement it. Not to get all Godwinny, but we’ve heard that one before. You can write to the Provost instead if you want. I won’t provide his email but I bet you can find it.

Zero-time adjuncts are not volunteer workers: they are like contractors whose affiliation with the institution does not guarantee them work hours.

First off there is a terminology problem here. Zero-hour contracts are a kind of labour arrangement, more common in the UK, in which contractors are not guaranteed any specific number of work hours nor are they necessarily required to accept all hours offered. Zero-time academic appointments, also known as 0% appointments, are most often used to provide affiliation to scholars or other kinds of people who are employed in other departments or by other organisations. For example, an economist might be tenured faculty at a business school but also have a zero-time appointment in the economics department of the arts faculty of the same school. This person might advise students or otherwise participate in research and service in both departments, but it is understood that the work in their 0% appointment is covered by the pay from their full-time appointment. Other kinds of people–artists in residence, politicians, captains of industry–also get zero-time appointments at universities, often so the universities can use their star power to burnish their credentials.

Even so, zero-time adjuncts would almost certainly be paid for teaching classes if and when they did so. Not to do so would probably be illegal, right?

Okay, here is the crux of the issue. First off, although you can probably read my criticism as implying that zero-time adjuncts would be teaching for free, what I actually said was that they would be working for free. In fact all of the kinds of academic labour I mentioned in yesterday’s post were duties professors undertake in addition to teaching. Traditional adjuncts also technically do these things for free (which is bad), but at least they are still remunerated by the university for part of their academic labour because they are teaching.

So what does it mean when they also don’t get teaching?

Does anyone seriously believe that they will be compensated at a specific and fair hourly rate for time they spend at departmental meetings, on thesis committees, advising and communicating with students, collaborating on research projects, or having other “intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units”? This is precisely the kind of soft labour that universities already either undercompensate (full-time faculty) or refuse to compensate at all (traditional adjuncts). Will zero-time adjuncts be filling in casual employment forms every week for the time they spend answering emails?

Like it or not, “professor” is still a word with a meaning. Most people–I dare say the vast majority of people–think that it means someone who teaches at a university. Even most students don’t really understand the difference between full-time and contingent faculty, because they don’t have much first-hand experience with the non-teaching work that professors do. Or when they do (e.g. academic advising, mentorship, etc.), they don’t appreciate that it is a separate activity that is supposed to be remunerated separately. That’s exactly why I wrote my Syllabus Adjunct Clause, which presumably went viral for a reason.

This lack of awareness is why it is so dangerous to allow this precedent. Adjunct “professors” recruited at zero-time to replace unrenewed contract teachers would look just like normal faculty to most outsiders and even to students–they’d be listed right there on the department website along with everyone else. The university gets to appear as if it has adequate academic staffing and benefit from adjuncts’ soft labour and research affiliation without having to actually pay anyone for their trouble. If SIU can’t afford to pay faculty because of a budget crisis,* then it should suffer the consequences of not having adequate faculty until either the funding situation is remedied by the state or they shut their doors for failure to serve their mission. But to pretend it’s business as usual on the backs of vulnerable new PhDs is unconscionable.

*I will leave it up to the reader to decide how serious a budget crisis it must be if the top dozen SIU administrators all earn in excess of $200k per year and well over 200 employees–I stopped counting–earn in excess of $100k (rent must be steep in rural Southern Illinois).

Southern Illinois University has finally taken the step that we all knew was coming, whether we openly admitted it to ourselves or not. The progression was too obvious, the market forces in question too powerful, for this result to have been anything but inevitable. The question was never if, but when, and it turns out that when is today.

Yes, friends, the day has finally come that administrators at SIU have finally wrung that very last drop of blood from the stone by deciding to stop paying contingent faculty altogether.

Courtesy of The Professor Is In on Facebook (emphasis mine):

Dear Chairs,

I know you are swamped right now with various requests and annual duties. I apologize for adding to that, but I am here to advocate for something that merits your attention. The Alumni Association has initiated a pilot program involving the College of Science, College of Liberal Arts, and the College of Applied Sciences and Arts, seeking qualified alumni to join the SIU Graduate Faculty in a zero-time (adjunct) status.

Candidates for appointment must meet HLC accreditation guidelines for appointment as adjunct professors, and they will generally hold an academic doctorate or other terminal degree as appropriate for the field.

These blanket zero-time adjunct graduate faculty appointments are for 3-year periods, and can be renewed. While specific duties of alumni adjuncts will likely vary across academic units, examples include service on graduate student thesis committees, teaching specific graduate or undergraduate lectures in one’s area of expertise, service on departmental or university committees, and collaborations on grant proposals and research projects. Moreover, participating alumni can benefit from intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units, as well as through collegial networking opportunities with other alumni adjuncts who will come together regularly (either in-person or via the web) to discuss best practices across campus.

The Alumni Association is already working to identify prospective candidates, but it asks for your help in nominating some of your finest former students who are passionate about supporting SIU. Please reach out to your faculty to see if they might nominate a former student who would meet HLC accreditation guidelines for adjunct faculty appointment, which is someone holding a Ph.D., MFA, or other terminal degree. One of the short-comings with our current approach to the doctoral alumni is that the database only includes those with a Ph.D. earned at SIU, but often doesn’t capture SIU graduates with earned doctorates from other institutions. Here are the recommended steps to follow:

· Chairs in collaboration with faculty should consider specific needs/desires of their particular department, and ask how they could best utilize adjunct faculty. For example, many departments are always looking for additional highly qualified members to serve on thesis committees, and to provide individual lectures, seminars, and mentorship activities for both graduate and undergraduate students.

· Based on faculty recommendations, chairs should identify a few good candidates and approach those individuals to see if they are interested. The interested candidate should provide his/her CV (along with a brief letter of interest outlining areas in which they are willing to participate) to the department chair, who can then approach the Graduate Dean for final vetting and approval.

The University hasn’t yet attempted its first alumni adjunct appointment, but this is the general mechanism already in place. Meera would like CoLA to establish a critical mass of nominees before the end of the summer. A goal of at least one (1) nominee per department would get us going.

Thanks,

Michael


MICHAEL R. MOLINO
Associate Dean for Budget, Personnel, and Research

COLLEGE OF LIBERAL ARTS
MAIL CODE 4522
SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY
1000 FANER DRIVE
CARBONDALE, ILLINOIS 62901

mmolino@siu.edu
P: 618/453-2466
F: 618/453-3253

In case you don’t speak adminstratese, “zero-time” means “unpaid.” Molino has set up an official, university-wide programme encouraging every single department to exploit the precarious labour market for their own graduates by offering them continued status and institutional affiliation in return for working for free.

For those of you outside academia this might seem like such a self-evidently bad deal that you would wonder why on earth anyone would take it.

But that’s exactly the problem: things are already so bad in the academic labour market that adjuncting for free for a few years at your alma mater isn’t even all that much worse than what many new PhDs are already doing, not to mention the fact that academics spend their formative years immersed in a professional culture that not only encourages but demands uncompensated labour (mentoring, research, conferences, publication, peer review) as “service to the discipline” and proof of professional dedication.

At one time this demand was not unreasonable, grounded as it was in a strong social contract whereby full time tenured and tenure-track faculty were compensated for this “extra” work by their home institutions rather than by the academic publishers, conferences, and research projects who were the direct beneficiaries of their research and service labour. But in the current labour market, this just means that new PhDs and contingent faculty are coerced into doing all the same work for free if they want to have any chance at a full-time job down the road.

Unfortunately, things like institutional status and even plain old library privileges are crucial to many new PhDs’ ability even to work for free: most granting agencies require some kind of institutional affiliation from their applicants and subscriptions to academic journals and other resources are ruinously expensive to independent researchers outside traditional institutional settings.

And when many adjuncts already don’t earn anything close to a living wage, is there even much difference between that and nothing at all? In the end, it’s just a few more deliveries for Uber Eats.

[Ed. note: I posted a follow-up to this post addressing some common questions and criticisms here]

Dear [STUDENT],

Thank you for writing me with your question about [COURSE]. I am currently out of the office because I am contingent faculty and do not have an office.

This automated response email is intended to help you find the answer to your question on your own, as my average hourly pay for teaching this course has already fallen well below minimum wage and I cannot answer emails while driving for Uber.

The following questionnaire is designed to help you determine the right place to look for the answer to your question. Please go through it in order until you find the answer to your query. IF and ONLY IF you go through the entire list without finding the answer to your question, please follow the instructions at the end as to where to send your question in order to receive an answer directly.

Let’s begin, shall we?

1. Am I your professor, and are you currently enrolled in my class?

If the answer is NO, please consult your course schedule online to determine which professor you are supposed to be bothering with your inane question.

If you have questions about enrollment and registration, please contact the Office of the Registrar, where they receive both fair hourly pay and full benefits in compensation for helping you solve your problems.

2. Is the answer to your question on the course syllabus, which we went over in detail on the first day of class and which is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?

Questions answered on the syllabus include but are not limited to:

When and where does our class meet?

What assignments do we have and when are they due?

When are exams and what will be on them?

How many points are deducted from our final grade when we email you questions that are clearly answered on the syllabus?

3. If your question is about a specific assignment, is it answered on the assignment sheet, which we went over in detail in class and which is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?

If you do not understand specific terminology used on the assignment sheet, please try consulting your textbook’s glossary, a dictionary, or Google. You may also want to try coming to class, where I teach you what these words mean.

4. Is your question answered on our course FAQ page, which currently lists 127 commonly asked questions and is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?

You may find it easier to use Ctrl+F and search for specific keywords to navigate this very long document.

5. Is your question unrelated to our class, inappropriate, or just plain unanswerable?

Such questions might include but are not limited to:

How much wood a woodchuck can chuck

The sound of one hand clapping, trees falling in the woods, or other Zen koans (try this book instead)

Whether or not Bernie would have won

6. If you have reached the end of this questionnaire without finding the answer you need, you probably have a valid question. Congratulations!

Please contact your TA for assistance.

Sorry not to be in regular blogging mode at the moment. Here’s a video of our evidence session to parliament, where they are running an inquiry into research integrity. I think clinical trials are the best possible way to approach this issue. Lots of things in “research integrity” are hard to capture in hard logical […]
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@davorg / Wednesday 01 December 2021 15:35 UTC