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Before fringe groups and weird haters hide behind the label of “science,” they really ought to more aware of what many scientists are actually saying, because they’re far more “woke” than you know. For instance, there is a strong movement within ecology and evolutionary biology to consciously revisit the history and assumptions of the discipline, with the EEB Language Project working to make the terminology more inclusive and recognize the biases in our history. This is a good thing, although some of the more senior members of the field will no doubt squawk about it. Too bad.
The group has just published a paper, “Championing inclusive terminology in ecology and evolution” that I’m filing away to use in the ecological developmental biology course I’ll be teaching in spring of 2024.
In recent years, events such as the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and waves of anti-Black violence have highlighted the need for leaders in EEB to adopt inclusive and equitable practices in research, collaboration, teaching, and mentoring. As we plan for a more inclusive future, we must also grapple with the exclusionary history of EEB. Much of Western science is rooted in colonialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy, and these power structures continue to permeate our scientific culture. Here, we discuss one crucial way to address this history and make EEB more inclusive for marginalized communities: our choice of scientific terminology.
We provide background on how terminology influences inclusion in EEB, describe existing community-based initiatives and our new grassroots effort to champion inclusive language in EEB, and offer guiding questions and considerations for readers committed to using inclusive scientific terminology. This effort is particularly important for redressing the ongoing marginalization of many groups in EEB, including Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or questioning, intersex, and asexual (LGBTQIA+) communities; and disabled communities; among others. This work is motivated by the collective experiences, perspectives, and knowledges of our author group. Mitigating the institutional problems in EEB will take significant effort and resources, and examining the role of language in these problems must go beyond attention to scientific terms. It must also include consideration of how language is used among scientists more broadly, and how English is often treated as the dominant language for scientific work. Nevertheless, we propose that inclusion can be fostered by a collective commitment to be more conscientious and intentional about the scientific terminology we use when teaching, mentoring, collaborating, and conducting research.
This affects me, believe it or not. Just last week I was asked whether the spiders I study are an “invasive species.” I was brought up short — I’ve never thought of them that way, even though they are of Eurasian origin. “Invasive” carries an aggressive, dangerous, bad meaning to it, and on the fly all I could say is that they’re no more invasive than human beings, which is kind of damning if you think about it, and that as a synanthropic species house spiders just follow along and occupy the habitat we provide for them. I had found myself made uncomfortable by the implications of the accepted language we use to describe them! This is something other people have been aware of long before I was.
One way that terminology can negatively impact EEB is by creating environments in which students and researchers experience microaggressions, which are incidents that can adversely affect individuals from marginalized groups by perpetuating stereotypes and discriminatory attitudes. For example, one of our authors trained in the USA recalls ‘how tired I was as an undergrad hearing how invasive species from other countries decimate pristine US ecosystems. It reminds me of when people tell me or other people of color to “go back to where we came from”. Why would I want to be in a field that exoticizes immigrants or reinforces narratives that immigrants are a plague?’ Similarly, herpetologist Dr Earyn McGee describes how removing terminology that references historical racial violence against Black people can help create disciplinary environments that feel less exclusionary.
Now I’m wondering what other terminology I take for granted has disturbing implications. I welcome the opportunity to get educated.
By the way, “synanthropic” is a really good word — it just means that they are undomesticated animals that live together with us humans. People live in the company of a small collection of wild, naturally associated animals, like pigeons and raccoons and mice and innumerable small arthropods that find our homes and barns and garbage dumps totally copacetic. I like the fact that it generally lacks any pejorative sense, and prefer to think of it as a statement that there are animals that really like us and prefer our company.
The Republican legislature in Kentucky assembled a set of those inhumane, ignorant anti-trans laws, and handed it to the Democratic governor…who vetoed it. Good work, Governor Andy Beshear!
Kentucky’s Democratic governor issued an election-year veto Friday of a sweeping Republican bill aimed at regulating the lives of transgender youths that includes banning access to gender-affirming health care and restricting the bathrooms they can use.
The bill also bans discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools and allows teachers to refuse to refer to transgender students by the pronouns they use. It easily passed the GOP-dominated legislature with veto-proof margins, and lawmakers will reconvene next week for the final two days of this year’s session, when they could vote to override the veto.
Gov. Andy Beshear said in a written veto message that the bill allows “too much government interference in personal healthcare issues and rips away the freedom of parents to make medical decisions for their children.”
In his one-page message, he warned that the bill’s repercussions would include an increase in youth suicides. The governor said, “My faith teaches me that all children are children of God and Senate Bill 150 will endanger the children of Kentucky.”
Wait a minute…Kentucky? Who do I know who lives in Kentucky?
Right. You can guess how he responded.
Another politician showing blatant disregard for young people, for science, for parents and for God’s Word by Vetoing legislation he claims would harm children, but the opposite is true.
Children and young people do not have the maturity to make life altering decisions (that are destructive regardless) advocated by the LGBTQ movement. So sad many will destroy their lives because politicians deny the obvious, there’s only two genders of humans, male and female. Science confirms it as males have a pair of XY chromosomes and females a pair of XX. And of course, God’s word makes it clear:
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).
Does anyone else feel stirrings of rage when a know-nothing, superstitious dogmatist like Ken Ham decides to declare what science has determined, and gets it all wrong, while relying on his authority as a preacher to persuade people to accept his views? No? Just me?
I’m not as irritated when he tries to explain what his version of the Bible says, since I don’t give a good goddamn about the book or his interpretation of it. Although I am confused by his Bible quote.
So God created male and female
in his image…how does that work, exactly? Do both men and women look like god? If we’re going to get all literal on this, as Ham prefers to do, does that imply that god is a bipedal primate with ambiguous genitalia, or is he some kind of shape-shifter? Does his god have XX chromosomes, or XY, or some other combination? I don’t really care what the answer is, since I think it’s all bullshit, but you know, Ham claims that
God’s word makes it clear, and it’s anything but.
Ham goes on to complain about bathrooms, of course.
What a travesty that this Governor would allow males to use women’s restrooms (and vice versa). By allowing young people to use the bathrooms of their choice is certainly a denial of the sin nature of man and what can happen because of that. Governor Beshear refers to his “faith,”—he needs to refer to the clear teaching of the Word of God on gender! The Governor does not own children, they belong to parents and ultimately to God. And they certainly don’t belong to teachers.
It’s been a long time since I read the Bible, but I have to ask: is there a commandment about men’s and women’s restrooms in there? Personally, I think people should be allowed to use the restroom of their choice, because what they’re going to do in there is to privately relieve themselves, and that’s about it. OK, maybe wash their hands, touch up their makeup, that sort of thing. They are not dens of sin.
Also, the idea that parents “own” kids is offensive. Parents have a responsibility for their children, which is not the same as possession, and society can step in when they fail in, or violate those responsibilities.
Actually, contrary to what Gov Beshear claims, what the Kentucky legislature passed have passed are the strongest bills in the nation protecting kids, parents and teachers! Notice how the media always like to portray such legislation as “anti-trans” instead of “pro-children, pro-family, pro-parents” etc. Media like to use words they think will cause people to believe those passing such legislation are full of hate–which is not the truth at all. Yet, I often see hate from people directed at Christians/conservatives because they won’t comply with the LGBT worldview.
Trans kids exist and should have rights. The primary consequence of those bills is to deny trans kids their autonomy (I know, Ham doesn’t believe children should have that) and cause active harm. They also deny parents their right to fulfill their responsibilities and provide appropriate care to their children.
I will concede that the people behind that legislation might not be full of hate. They’re full of stupidity and selfishness, instead.
So much wrong.
Transcript below the fold.
This is a sad, disappointing video for me. Once again, Richard Dawkins screws up in a television interview, this time with Piers Morgan. His first mistake was appearing on a program with that loutish oaf and pandering to a lot of conservative nonsense without reservation. Morgan is a Catholic of the stupid flavor, and argues with him that a failure of evolution is that no human brain can explain what nothing is, and it all goes downhill from there. I could dwell on the idiocy of much of the conversation, in which I’d mainly take Dawkins’ side, but I won’t — I think Dawkins should have just walked out on the persistent fool in the first five minutes. I would have.
Then they started on sex. I’ll focus on one thing.
[clip: As a biologist, there are two sexes, and that’s all there is to it.]
That’s not true. There’s a lot more to it. But I can understand why he said it.
Dawkins’ reputation is as an eloquent science popularizer, but what he has been popularizing is a strongly reductionist view of biology, favoring a gene-centric perspective that was developed by Hamilton, Trivers, Williams, and Maynard Smith. It’s a valid and useful perspective that has been successful in answering questions about evolution. Dawkins gives a great example of this view in the interview when he tries to explain life’s origin.
He’s not wrong. My objection is with that phrase, “that’s all there is to it.” It’s a gross oversimplification of both evolution and sex. He has to know that, and if he were pinned down on that phrase — something Piers Morgan is ill-equipped to do — he’d probably squirm uncomfortably and admit that it is a simplification, but a useful one. I’d add that it may be useful, but it’s also incomplete and lazy.
For example: “there are two sexes, and that’s all there is to it.” I can see where he’s coming from, that’s a common view among many TERFs/Gender Criticals who think it’s a slam dunk argument to say that there are only two kinds of gametes, eggs and sperm, and therefore there can only be two kinds of sexes. My problem with that is that it’s incomplete. We are not sperm and eggs. We are not simply gametes, or even meat robots bumbling about with a small package of sperm or eggs, even if that is a metaphor I’ve heard scientists use.
As a developmental biologist, the idea that there are only two sexes because there are only two kinds of gametes is nonsense. It’s true that there are only two kinds of functional gametes in humans, but we are not our gametes. We are complex multicellular organisms. The moment of fusion of sperm and egg might be adequate for an extreme reductionist, but it neglects so many aspects of subsequent biological change and variation. Sperm meets egg…but we’re not even close to being done. Months of differentiation follow, and even at birth the process is not complete. Hormone levels, secondary sexual characteristics, maturation of internal organs, the brain…all are going to take years to develop. You might think you can peek in the baby’s diapers and predict with absolute certainty their future role as biological organisms in human society, but you’d be wrong. Genitals aren’t destiny. There are layers and layers of biological change that are going to occur, and all of them exhibit variation, sometimes in contradiction to previous layers of change. There is nothing counter to biology for someone to develop a female brain in a male body, or vice versa, or to have a non-gendered mind.
Dawkins is wrong. There’s a heck of a lot more to it, and it’s a disservice to developmental biology to claim otherwise.
As an evolutionary biologist, I have to point out that while the properties of individual cells are part of the story, it’s not the whole of it: evolution occurs at the level of populations. The success of the human species isn’t a matter of individuals producing gametes, but is all about groups of people with diverse abilities and specializations. It’s not just about half the population picking up a spear and the other half tending the hearth — and, by the way, neither of those occupations require the use of the genitals. It’s also all about
The ones who dance
the ones who teach
the ones who play with nephews and nieces
the ones who make tools
the ones who weave baskets
the ones who remember
the ones who fish
the ones who provide mutual aid
the ones who compose poems
the ones who garden
and yes, the ones who hunt and the ones who keep the home.
The human experience is all about diversity. The kind of reductionism Dawkins is promoting does us no favors, and would only apply if we were asocial single-celled breeders. Which is valid for most of the life on earth, but most of which, curiously, don’t bother with the whole business of differently differentiated sexes anyway.
I’ve been seeing a lot of this particular kind of argument from the anti-trans folk lately, that there is sperm and there is egg, and therefore sex is binary and there should be only man and woman. It’s wrong and it’s irrelevant. People are not perambulating spermatozoa and ova, and you have to discard an awful lot of complexity and developmental history to pretend they are. We are all the products of elaborate epigenetic interactions that produce the variety of different human beings we see all around us, and you can’t ignore the signicance of that, or the fact that it obviously creates people who do not uniformly fit into two stereotypical boxes.
As a gotcha against trans men and trans women to deny their identity, it also fails as irrelevant. Trans men are not pretending that they have testes, and trans women are under no illusion that they have acquired ovaries — they don’t even consider either of those organs to be essential to their sexual identity. They are usually more aware of the biology of sex than are conservative pundits, and for that matter, some world-famous biologists. Do these antis think that telling a trans person that they were formed by the fusion of a sperm and an egg would be a huge surprise that would shatter their worldview? Do they believe that reciting a trivial, basic biology fact would completely undermine the more sophisticated, thoroughly understood facts that go well beyond their grade school oversimplifications?
As a former ally of Richard Dawkins — I would not go so far as to say we were close enough to be friends — I want to say one more thing. Richard, you are not going to restore your respectability by embracing thuggish know-nothings like Piers Morgan. That these are the only people you can find who will publicly agree with your unenlightened views on sex and gender does not make them your friends. They’re just going to drag you down deeper into the cesspool of bizarre radical conservative views, out of the light of reason and truth that you’ve always said you valued, into a conspiracy of hate that is all about authoritarianism and doing harm to your fellow human beings. Stop now before your world becomes even darker.
Part of the money-making strategy at Answers in Genesis is to constantly promote how popular they are in a never ending cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy. One of the recent lies has been that they bring in so many tourists that hotel chains are building new places near the Ark Park to meet the booming demand.
It is true that the country contains many yokels who like to vacation in a boring wooden box that reassures them that their interpretation of the Bible is true, but it’s not exactly a growth industry. They’ve had to constantly misrepresent their popularity to get support from state and local government, and wouldn’t you know it, hotels aren’t springing up all around the place. Ken Ham has been bragging about one new hotel in the neighborhood, but surprise surprise, it isn’t in response to demand — AiG is spending its own money to have it built. Gotta spend money to make money, you know. If that involves building a whole Potemkin village to make themselves look popular, that’s what they’ll do.
Ken Ham is being quiet that Answers in Genesis (AIG) owns part, or perhaps all, of the new Hampton Inn that just opened adjacent to the Ark Encounter in Williamstown, Kentucky. Moreover, he is trying to make it look as if the supposed “success” of the Ark Park has brought the new hotel to the region. Information below shows that AIG shares a high-level employee with the new hotel, and the LLC that owns the hotel shares a Post Office box with AIG.
AiG is perfectly within its rights to use its own money to build a hotel to serve its little “attraction,” but it does bring into question the purpose of all those tax subsidies it has received, and I also wonder why they are so desperate to hide their role.
I repeat, anyone who cites “woke” as the boogeyman causing any problem is an idiot.
It’s an incredibly reliable flag for conservative stupidity.
For centuries, electricity and magnetism had everyone baffled. In the 19th century, Michael Faraday not only discovered new phenomena but summarised all that was already known in his three-volume Experimental Researches in Electricity. It enabled the great physicist James Clerk Maxwell to distill everything down to 20 equations in 1861-1862. A couple of decades later, this was reduced to four by the physicist and mathematician Oliver Heaviside.
Maxwell’s equations are considered to be the high-point of 19th-century physics. They contain the seeds of the revolutions that took place in the 20th century in the fields of both relativity and quantum theory. However, what Maxwell did not realise was that the bewildering array of electrical and magnetic phenomena he had summarised was no more than a consequence of one remarkably simple principle: “local gauge invariance”.
Picture a billiard table and a billiard ball travelling across it in a straight line. Now imagine that the table is raised by a metre, or two metres, or by any height whatsoever. The ball will continue to follow the same trajectory. In physics, the height of the billiard table is an example of a “gauge” and the fact that it can be changed without altering the physics is a “gauge symmetry”.
In 1918, the German mathematician Emmy Noether discovered that an unavoidable consequence of every such “global” symmetry is a “conservation law”. So, for instance, the fact that the outcome of an experiment will be the same if it is carried out today or tomorrow – that is, that it obeys “time translational symmetry” – leads to the “conservation of energy”, one of the cornerstones of physics, which dictates that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, merely transformed from one type to another.
But it turns out that in a Universe in which the cosmic speed limit – set by Einstein – is the speed of light, it is impossible to lift all parts of a billiard table simultaneously. Imagine, for instance, the billiard table is ten light years across. The best that can be done is to raise one end and watch a hummock propagate across the table at the speed of light, reaching the far end ten years later. It would be reasonable to expect the laws of motion to remain the same everywhere in the billiard-table Universe and for the ball to continue following a straight-line path. However, this would be possible only if a force were introduced at every location to compensate for the undulation. This is the key thing: maintaining local gauge symmetry requires the existence of a force.
In the 20th century, physicists discovered that a particle like an electron is described by a “wave function”, which propagates according to the Schrödinger equation. The probability of finding the particle at any location is given by the square of the “amplitude” of the wave at that location. But, crucially, the probability does not depend on where the wave happens to be in its undulating pattern. This “phase” is the gauge, and changing it everywhere by the same amount merely moves the peaks and troughs of the wave along, but does not change anything observable.
So what happens if we insist that not only global but local gauge symmetry is maintained – that is, that the probability is not changed by altering the phase of the electron wave function by a different amount at each location in space and time? Remember, from the billiard table example, that this requires the existence of a force. So, what is the force that is needed? Remarkably, it is precisely the electromagnetic force described by Maxwell.
There are four fundamental forces that glue together the particles of matter and make the Universe possible. And, amazingly, three of those have been shown to exist only to maintain local gauge symmetry. In fact, 2023 marks 40 years since this was proved for nature’s “weak” force, which is responsible for radioactivity. The proof was the discovery in 1983 of the particles that “carry” the weak force – the W and Z bosons – for which Carlo Rubbia and Simon van der Meer won the Nobel Prize.
In all the chaos of the world, it is easy to lose sight of how amazingly far we humans have come. We are a species of puny apes that arose on an African plain a mere blink of an eye ago in geological time. Yet we have discovered the genetic secret of life, made footprints in the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility and discovered the principle that makes everything – the stars and galaxies and us – possible. Of course, we are left with the mystery of why nature is so obsessed by enforcing local gauge symmetry. What is the significance of the “one rule that binds them all”?
This piece is from the New Humanist spring 2023 edition. Subscribe here.
I’ve been spending these dark winter nights immersing myself in so-called “witch lit” – reading four of the many new books about witches published in the last year or so. My generation of 20-somethings enjoyed our fair share of feminist necromancy, with the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer and hit films like The Craft coming out in the mid-90s. I wanted to know what the current trend for witchy novels and non-fiction revealed about the tastes and dreams of today’s young women. How far are these books mere fantasies – wrapped up in social media-fuelled new age mumbo jumbo about tarot readings and manifestations – and how far are they grounded in genuine engagement with historical misogyny and patriarchal superstition?
In a change from traditional Gothic imagery, I noticed that some of these books are packaged in bright candy-coloured covers; acid pink in the case of Weyward, Emilia Hart’s much-heralded debut novel. Following three generations of English women in one family – in a 17th-century witch trial, the 1940s and the modern day – it does a good job of grappling with the idea that patriarchy and misogyny endure, even if they change their masks. But although I liked the idea of women having an animal affinity with the natural world of insects and reptiles, the novel has the fundamental problem of imagining witchcraft at some level, however benign, to be real.
Kirsty Logan’s Now She is Witch takes a more metaphysical approach, with echoes of the fantasy world of Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings, yet it is more satisfyingly realistic. Set in an impressionistic and non-specific Nordic mediaeval Europe, the heroine Lux navigates a theocratic Christian land of witch-burnings, exorcisms, controlling priests and superstitious warrior kings, where the only certainty is that women will be blamed for all wrongs.
Logan’s evocation of woman-hating perhaps draws on a growing popular knowledge of Scotland’s disturbing record of witch-hunting in the 16th and 17th centuries, powered by King James I’s (James VI of Scotland) obsession with them and his book Daemonologie. Scotland executed at least 2,500 people – overwhelmingly women – for alleged witchcraft. This was proportionally more than anywhere else in Europe and America. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon made a formal apology for the murders in March last year.
The King of Denmark and Norway even imported Scottish witchfinders – a fact I learned reading Anya Bergman’s impressive historically researched novel The Witches of Vardo, about the torture and murder of women there in the 1662-3 witch trials. The book evokes the superstitious madness of that era, with peasant women from fishing villages on the wild coast blamed for conjuring up storms that downed ships with valuable cargoes. Bergman emphasises the persecution of the Sami native people of the region, incorporating their own legends and ideas of healing into a story that inspired me to find out more about the real events. And, controversially, she imagines a sympathetic interpretation of the role of a real female figure, Anna Rhodius, demonised in historical accounts for her part in the convictions.
Against all this fiction, I also read a factual account of witch hunts that reads with the fluency of a novel. With all this interest in witch-lit, perhaps it’s no coincidence that The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World, published in 2021, came back onto the UK bestseller charts in January. Historian Malcolm Gaskill tells the full story of a 1651 witch hunt in Springfield, Connecticut – from first accusation to trial and verdict. This was 40 years before the Salem trials.
Crucially, Gaskill writes to make us see the world as those early Puritans saw it; how their own psychological fears, of financial ruin, of neighbours, of Native Americans and the hostile elements, could seed the first accusations of witchcraft through how they interpreted their dreams: “The minds of sleeping colonists were transported to a place where the wilderness met the invisible realm and received supernatural revelations encoded as symbols of civility and savagery: angels and serpents. Here the devil turned fantasy into fact and made witches of the weak.”
Gaskill’s book cover is even in the same acid pink as Hart’s Weyward. The latter, like the other novels I’ve discussed, is fantasy. But, to their credit, all are rooted in this generation’s advanced awareness of real-life patriarchy, and the desire of these young women to connect to the historical misogyny endured by their ancestors.
This piece is from the New Humanist spring 2023 edition. Subscribe here.
Survival of the Richest: Escape fantasies of the tech billionaires (Scribe) by Douglas Rushkoff
It’s difficult for a book to live up to the racy subtitle “Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires”. This is the problem with which professor of media theory and digital economics Douglas Rushkoff saddles himself. His book, entertaining and necessary though it is, never quite lives up to its marketing. The subject is tech billionaires and “The Mindset” with which they tackle the problems of the world. In the author’s eyes, The Mindset is the belief that with enough money, the elite can leave behind the messy debris of real life and start afresh, either in the real world or in some kind of virtual reality. He phrases it elsewhere as “the Insulation Equation”: can the tech titans “earn enough money to insulate themselves from the reality they were creating by earning money in this way?” Hence Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse and the attempts made by both Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos to blast themselves into space.
Rushkoff is onto something here, and he has great fun skewering the pomposity of these men. “It’s as if they want to build a car that goes fast enough to escape from its own exhaust,” he writes. He quotes psychedelics professor Timothy Leary who observed, back in 1990, that the architects of our digital future were male nerds attempting to create something like their idea of a perfect woman: “a predictive algorithm could anticipate their every need in advance and deliver it directly, removing every trace of friction and longing”. At no point in the book are you in any doubt as to where Rushkoff stands. His villains are so cartoonish that we remain on his side, but there is sometimes a little too much scorn and not enough substance.
Survival of the Richest includes pertinent paragraphs about Covid-19, underlining both the extent to which the super-rich could simply exist happily in their own bubbles and the fact that the conditions of the pandemic not only made billionaires richer but also produced brand-new billionaires. The unprecedented disruption was proof that if the richest people in the world didn’t want to interact with the poorest, they simply didn’t have to.
Rushkoff is right not to trust the heads of the “technopoly”, who conquer, colonise and dominate. Theirs is a brutal quest for progress, valuing technology over people. “The experience of wealth and power is akin to removing the part of the brain ‘critical to empathy and socially appropriate behaviour’,” the author writes.
This is all well and good – or all well and terrible, rather – but, given that Rushkoff’s book begins with an enticing story in which he speaks at a “super-deluxe resort” to five ultra-wealthy tech bros who talk to him surprisingly candidly about their underground bunkers, it’s a little pale by comparison. This opening hints at the insight and detail about the “escape fantasies” that we hope the book will provide. But as it proceeds, we get a passionate screed against Silicon Valley rather than an exclusive look at the ways tech billionaires are trying to dodge death.
We’ve got ourselves into a huge amount of trouble, Rushkoff thinks, and the people really running things want us never to get off the treadmill, generating more content, earning more money. Their goal is the “relentless pursuit of growth” – growth never questioned by the population at large. As speed becomes more important than anything else, AIs now increasingly carry out work that humans could or should – and the tech giants have become terrified of the potentially superior intelligence they have helped to create. Rushkoff’s take on the whole affair is a weary and comic one, but there is also real sadness. The world, he thinks, could have been so much better than this.
The book’s proposed solutions have been criticised for not being sufficiently radical. But Rushkoff wouldn’t argue that they were radical. What’s necessary, he writes, is a return to a pre-Mindset metabolism; de-prioritisation of growth; slowing down. Reject growth for growth’s sake, embrace community action, and stop making the ultra-rich even richer. “There is no escape, and there is no later,” he ends the book by saying. “If we’re not doing it at the moment, we’re not doing it at all.”
This piece is from the New Humanist spring 2023 edition. Subscribe here.
The UK has never had a drug consumption room. At least not officially. From August 2020, an unofficial one was run in Glasgow for around ten months by Peter Krykant. He invited people into the back of his makeshift ambulance, converted from a second-hand minibus, and gave them a safe space to inject cocaine and heroin. It is the closest the UK has come, despite having the highest rates of drug-related death in Europe.
Injecting drugs is a risky activity – even when it is done in the carefully controlled environment of a hospital, with high-quality pharmaceuticals, experienced healthcare professionals and single-use sterile equipment. Injecting heroin in a filthy public toilet, by yourself, with someone else’s needle, is often desperate. There is the risk of damage from the needle, infection from the re-used needle and syringe, and the fact that if it all goes wrong and you overdose, there is no one to help you. You’ll die, despite the fact there is an easily administered and highly effective antidote.
Drug-related death rates in England have been rising for a decade and now outstrip comparable tolls in Europe. The highest rates are across the north-east, while Blackpool in the north-west is a pocket of pain. Scotland, meanwhile, stands in a grim league of its own – the sick man of Europe, with 1,330 deaths related to drug misuse in 2021. Comparisons are complicated, but Scotland has about four times more deaths than the worst countries in Europe and, by some calculations, more than 20 times as many deaths as the EU average. It’s carnage.
Most of the risks are due to the illicit nature of drugs. There is no way of knowing the dose, no way of even knowing for sure if that brown substance is actually heroin, and you’ll only find out how potent it is when it is coursing through your veins. Heroin, in the form sold on the street, needs to be dissolved in water, usually with the help of a little acid. If you are living on the streets, or in a squat, water isn’t always easy to get and people use water from puddles, from toilet bowls, even their own saliva.
Botulism, tetanus and necrotising fasciitis are regularly seen in people injecting drugs in the UK. Any re-use of needles is hazardous. Needles blunt quickly with use – ask any hapless soul who has been repeatedly stabbed by a junior doctor as they try to get blood. Blunt needles cause even more damage, tearing fragile veins and leaving them liable to clotting. And used needles can harbour hepatitis B, hepatitis C or HIV. Often all three.
Krykant saw the urgent need to tackle the problem in Glasgow. He is an activist; not medically qualified but motivated by the insight from his own past experience of heroin addiction. Although his ambulance project was short-lived, it was effective. In less than a year, he supervised nearly 900 injections by 835 people and nine overdoses were tackled. No one died and lives were saved. On one occasion, he was arrested and charged under the Misuse of Drugs Act, but Scotland’s public prosecutor dropped the case.
His audacious, law-defying actions have galvanised activists. The push for drug consumption rooms is now at the leading edge of the drive for evidence-based harm-reduction interventions.
Any human activity which could harm us, and that we are unlikely to stop despite those harms, can usually be squinted at through a harm-reduction lens. As it relates to drug use or laws, this means any policy or programme that reduces the negative effects. The approach is grounded in evidence, and aims to improve conditions both for the individuals concerned and for society. So who could possibly object?
The chief opponents are those who believe that complete abstention and prohibition should be mandated. Arguably, peak abstention was reached in the 80s and 90s with the “Just Say No” advertising campaign championed in the United States by then-First Lady Nancy Reagan. But the prohibitionist “War on Drugs” continues to this day. And while there are those who don’t believe any drug use is acceptable, others have variable thresholds and levels of tolerance.
Drug consumption rooms are a case in point. The first was opened in Berne, Switzerland in 1986. They now exist in 16 countries around the world, with Greece, Iceland and Mexico recently joining well-established services in Germany, the Netherlands, Australia and Canada – and, of course, Switzerland. The UK is lagging behind the rest of the world. Yet the picture is complex, as Britain has embraced other harm-reduction strategies – such as needle exchanges and methadone programmes.
The UK has a proud history of harm-reduction activism, which can be traced back to the response in the 1980s to the emerging threat of HIV. There were several projects across the country, but two cities featured notably: Edinburgh and Liverpool. In Edinburgh, Roy Robertson, a GP and now Professor of Addiction Medicine, was involved in research that tested for HIV in the stored blood samples of 164 people who were known to be injecting drugs. The results were published in 1986 in the British Medical Journal. Just over half were found to be HIV positive. An obvious relationship had been found between sharing injecting equipment and the spread of HIV.
This important research came at a time when community pharmacies were scaling back the provision of injecting equipment, apparently at the request of police who were also confiscating it. As a result, a tight-knit group of people were sharing syringes and needles – and, of course, the HIV virus. HIV was spiralling out of control and an urgent response was needed.
Around this time, the public health team in Liverpool had become convinced of the need to establish needle exchange schemes to tackle the problem. Liverpool was one of the first British cities to establish such a scheme. The police also stopped arresting people for carrying the paraphernalia needed to inject drugs.
This was a significant shift in approach: the need to stop the transmission of HIV had superseded the need to get people to stop using drugs. Methadone programmes were rolled out across the UK. In December 1986, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Services, Norman Fowler, announced money to bring people into addiction treatment and a nationwide pilot scheme of needle exchange. Harm reduction had come of age.
The harm-reduction approach can lead to a virtuous cycle. The establishment of needle and syringe exchanges around the world has led to further opportunities to reduce damage, for example by supplying materials to help with safe injecting. Those injecing heroin usually need to get their hands on some form of acid. Addicts will use any available acid, including household vinegar, to help it dissolve, resulting in highly acidic solutions that are agonising to inject and can cause devastating damage to veins. Citric acid and vitamin C (ascorbic acid), in the right quantity, are now supplied in needle and syringe exchanges.
Many exchanges will also supply disposable crack pipes. Cracked lips can bleed, and sharing crack pipes can lead to the transmission of hepatitis C, which is much more infectious than HIV. (In many parts of the UK, roughly half of people injecting drugs have been infected by the virus.)
Harm reduction has been embraced in many parts of the world – which is unsurprising, given its alignment with human rights and the strong evidence base. But many countries still have limited access to these strategies. HIV remains a major problem. Fewer than one per cent of people who inject drugs are living in countries that meet the UN’s recommendations on coverage for clean needles and access to opioid substitution therapy. In Eastern and Southern Africa, nearly 22 per cent of people who inject drugs are living with HIV. Compare that with England, Wales and Northern Ireland, where about one per cent of people who inject drugs are living with the condition, even though they often have long histories of injecting.
But access isn’t the only barrier. Attitudes to harm reduction vary around the world, in different countries and cultural contexts, and have waxed and waned over time. Some countries are very relaxed about giving out clean needles and syringes but don’t think we should provide crack pipes. Others may be happy to give out crack pipes but will balk at opening drug consumption rooms.
We can see what happens when a country takes a generally hostile approach to harm reduction. Russia not only remains resolutely opposed to offering opiate substitution in their own country, they have also used their position at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs to block harm-reduction policy approaches at the international level. After the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014-15 and its occupation of parts of the Donbas, all harm-reduction services were closed in those areas and opiate substitution therapy was stopped. Obviously, all medical services in Ukraine have been severely impacted by the Russian invasion in February 2022. While some HIV and harm-reduction services have reportedly been re-established in Lviv, the overall effect will be devastating.
Methadone has an evidence base that can scarcely be matched by any other medication. It’s a long-acting opioid, designed to level out the boom-bust of short-acting heroin. It stops people oscillating wildly between withdrawal and intoxication, bringing stability and the opportunity to break the addiction cycle.
However, it straddles – uncomfortably for some – a nebulous zone between harm reduction and abstinence. Some people who take it will swiftly stop taking all illicit opiates. For others, it simply reduces the amount of “gear” they need. Even in those latter cases, though, methadone still reduces the risk of death, of infection and of crime associated with drug use. It has appeared on the World Health Organisation’s list of essential medicines since 2005. Yet it may still be one of the most stigmatised medications on the planet. In 2022, there were just 87 countries in the world with at least one programme offering opiate substitution therapy.
Here in the UK, we have a comprehensive methadone programme. Other substitution therapies are also available, including buprenorphine in various forms. But the vast majority of services now sit outside of the NHS and are provided by third sector organisations in a competitive commissioning model. And while we follow the science on some harm-reduction approaches, we reject others. There is no widespread availability of heroin-assisted treatment, despite the excellent evidence base for this approach. In fact, it was once the basis of the “British System”, in which heroin was prescribed by doctors up until the 1960s.
In some cases, we simply take our time to follow the science. One of the great harm-reduction stories in recent years has been the incredible progress in making naloxone, the “Lazarus drug”, available to all. Naloxone has been around since the 1960s, but it was only at the turn of the century that pilot schemes in the UK showed its real promise. Given as an injection or a nasal spray it can reverse an opioid overdose, bringing blue breathless bodies back to gasping life. It is given out to people who use drugs to use on each other and to families to save loved ones. In some parts of the UK, the police are now carrying it as well.
The harm-reduction philosophy can also be applied to party drugs. Education campaigns on how to safely take drugs like ecstasy or ketamine all fall under the umbrella. A crucial problem with all forms of illicit drug is the lack of standardisation. Dodgy pill factories churning out tablets in makeshift facilities don’t have stringent quality control. Charities such as The Loop attend festivals and other events where they check drugs. Festival-goers voluntarily provide samples of the products, such as ecstasy, that they have bought. The Loop then does a chemical analysis of the drug. Warnings can then be issued for dodgy or particularly high-strength batches. In a recent case, chloroquine (best known as an antimalarial drug, very toxic in overdose) was being sold as ketamine.
Harm reduction also has a role in legal drugs: “no-lo” alcohol drinks that reduce overall alcohol intakes fall into harm-reduction policies, as do e-cigarettes. There is still much to learn about vaping from a health perspective, but the current evidence suggests it is less harmful than smoking tobacco by an order of magnitude. The use of condoms is the prime example of where a harm-reduction intervention trumps an irrational and unrealistic insistence on abstinence.
Arguably, the biggest harm-reduction intervention would be to decriminalise or to legalise drugs. In a stroke, this would sweep away many of the associated harms. This is, perhaps, the reason why many are opposed to harm reduction, seeing it as decriminalisation by the backdoor. Yet, while many activists advocating for harm-reduction measures may well support decriminalisation policies, the quotidian work of reducing harm is well established, as this piece has described.
In some ways, the UK is a success story when it comes to harm reduction. We should recognise and celebrate that we have one of the lowest burdens in the world of HIV infection amongst people who inject drugs. But progress has stalled, even as the death toll from drug use continues to rise.
Lessons can be learned from the 1980s, when harm-reduction values were embedded in our current system. That period is an example of what philosopher William MacAskill calls a “malleable” moment from the past, where a certain plasticity in people’s thinking and a willingness to consider a different approach yielded significant results. Activists, healthcare and public health professionals came together with a government that didn’t get bogged down in ideological or intellectual cul-de-sacs. It was harm reduction writ large. Since then, some of our thinking has ossified again, but we know that breakthroughs are possible.
The UK needs a breakthrough when it comes to drug consumption rooms. The evidence is compelling, the moral imperative in the face of so many deaths irresistible. That’s surely why Krykant acted – his was a practical and compassionate response. Providing a safe place, with access to clean needles and drugs, is an act of simple humanity, offering one of the most stigmatised groups in society some dignity. Professionals and peers can help anyone who “goes over” and overdoses. They can help reduce drug deaths and the transmission of disease. There is also evidence that drug consumption rooms benefit the wider community, reducing ambulance call-outs and drug litter on the streets. The UK was once a leader in harm reduction. Today, we need to re-model our approach once again, to better our society and reflect the needs of people whose lives depend upon it.
This piece is from the New Humanist spring 2023 edition. Subscribe here.
Cocoon (World Editions) by Zhang Yueran, translated by Jeremy Tiang
Zhang Yueran is one of China’s “post-80s” writers, also known as the Y generation. Born in 1982 in Jinan, Shandong, in the wake of the Cultural Revolution and the one-child policy, she grew up in the Reform era. This epic novel (which took Zhang seven years to complete) is a stunning evocation of China’s recent past and a poignant examination of how events reverberate through the decades.
Former friends Li Jiaqi and Cheng Gong meet in their childhood home on the campus of Jinan’s medical university. Jiaqi’s grandfather, “the most famous heart surgeon in China”, is dying of lung cancer and she has returned to care for him in his final days. Zhang uses startling imagery in her opening pages to illustrate her protagonist’s alienation: “I stood by his bed, feeling death hover like a flock of bats.”
The pair have not met for 18 years and attempt to lay to rest the ghosts that still haunt them. In the course of their conversation, they revisit the family secrets that helped destroy their own hopes and dreams. Their narratives are given equal weight in separate chapters, although Jiaqi’s is the more memorable. As they drink through the night and share their stories, old wounds are reopened and emotional scars retraced.
Zhang is interested in the psychological fallout of China’s Cultural Revolution on her generation. Both her characters are neglected by their fathers, who, Zhang suggests, are victims of the harsh times in which they grew up. Their parents’ disillusionment initially unites the friends but, later, it rips them apart. Zhang writes perceptively about Jiaqi’s relationship with her father: her desire to be loved by him; his coldness towards her; her subsequent inability to form lasting attachments. The passages describing his indifference towards his young daughter are heartbreaking.
Jiaqi and Gong are surrounded by the vestiges of state oppression, vividly conveyed by their childhood playground – Dead Man’s Tower. Originally constructed as a water tower when the Germans inhabited Jinan, it became the gruesome home for the cadavers and spare organs used in the university’s dissection classes and experiments. It’s a sinister wasteland, the soil permeated with formaldehyde. Jiaqi swiftly recognises its importance: that “anyone who came here would be afraid to commit any crimes, especially capital ones... it wasn’t easy to squander your life and not leave behind anything of value—they could always come and gouge it out of your remains.”
The central act of violence that drives the narrative takes place in 1967. As hospital manager, Gong’s grandfather is denounced by rebels in a “struggle session”. He’s beaten up and left unconscious in the Dead Man’s Tower, a brutal attack from which he never fully recovers. Later, the family discover that someone had inserted “a two-inch iron nail in his cranial cavity that must have entered through his temple, leaving a scar so small no one had paid it any attention”. The nail had rusted, spreading infection through his brain tissue and leaving him in a vegetative state.
It’s the children’s desire to know who committed the crime that leads to their own fracture. As Jiaqi observes: “Secrets become secrets and get hidden away because they have the capacity for destruction... It’s hard to say what it was that suppressed our childhood creativity, but we couldn’t create, only destroy. Or maybe it’s because in this country, destruction is always seen as the highest form of creation.”
Zhang believes “the point of literature is to bring us to a deeper level of existence, so we can experience something we never have before.” She manages to do just that in this remarkably astute novel, superbly translated by Jeremy Tiang. Her compelling narrative never lets up as she weaves together threads of memory which the reader has to unpick to reveal the truth. Cocoon is a powerful and stark account of intergenerational trauma.
This piece is from the New Humanist spring 2023 edition. Subscribe here.
I am very excited to announce that I have a new podcast out!
Each episode, science journalist Marnie Chesterton and I will be exploring one of my favourite psychological topics, such as happiness, lying, laughter, and luck. We will be taking a deep dive into the research and revealing simple ideas that could help to improve your life.
We launched yesterday and have already reached the Number 2 slot on the Apple Science Chart! Thank you so much to everyone who has listened so far. During the episodes we will be answering 1000 questions about the mind, so feel free to post your questions on my blog.
It’s called Richard Wiseman’s On Your Mind and the link to the podcast is here.
My thanks to Podimo and TellTale studios for supporting and producing the podcast.
A few years ago I had the idea of making a comic devoted to three of my favourite topics: Magic, psychology and the paranormal. I teamed up with ace comic book artist Jordan Cullver, writer Rik Worth and colourist Owen Watts, and together we created 5 issues of Hocus Pocus.
Each issue introduces true stories of amazing feats, describes astounding psychic investigations, celebrates the history of magic, and examines the psychology of the paranormal. Not only that, but we included lots of interactive elements, including tests of your paranormal abilities, magical illusions, psychic readings and much more. The comics were well received and even ended up being nominated for a prestigious Eisner award! As a result, many of the issues sold out and are now unavailable.
This week, those nice folks at Vanishing Inc have kindly put all five issues into a lovely, full colour, hard backed book. Not only that but it contains some extra material for HOCUS POCUS fans:
A new introduction by me
A beautiful Cover Gallery showcasing Jordan’s fantastic artwork from all five issues
“How we made HOCUS POCUS: The Secrets Revealed!” — Rik spills the beans all our deceptions.
The complete live HOCUS POCUS issue used as an interactive element from Lawrence Leung’s The Davenport Séance reprinted here for the first time.
PLUS, pick up your copy from Vanishing Inc and you’ll also receive a copy of the exclusive, one-of-a-kind “Hiding the Elephant Puzzle” comic. Not only will you learn the history of one of Houdini’s greatest illusions, you’ll make an elephant vanish as you do so. While stock lasts.
I hope that you enjoy it, and the book is available here.
I am delighted to announce that I have a new book out! This one is written for psychologists and students, and is the book that I wished I had read when I was an undergraduate. It examines why psychologists do what they do and aims to inspire the next generation of researchers. It’s a personal journey into my favourite aspects of psychology, exploring how research can reveal the hidden workings of the mind, boost critical thinking, debunk myths, and improve lives. Along the way, I explain how to think like a psychologist, spot a liar, uncover the truth about happiness, and much more. Several colleagues have been very kind about it and I hope that you enjoy it too!
“This engaging yet scrupulous introduction is ideal for those who wonder what psychology is really about.”
Uta Frith, University College London
“Reading this one-of-a-kind book, you feel as if you’re in a personal conversation with Richard Wiseman, one of the world’s most creative psychologists. He beautifully explains how psychologists gain insight into the human mind, expertly regales you with findings that are fascinating and surprising, and uncovers some of the many ways in which psychology improves lives. Perfect for students and professionals alike.”
Elizabeth Loftus, Past President, Association for Psychological Science
“A fantastic book. No one is better than Richard Wiseman to write about what psychology does and doesn’t offer. The quality of the writing and research reported is excellent.”
Cara Flanagan, top-selling author of A level psychology textbooks
“This wonderfully entertaining book celebrates why psychology really matters, calls for even more meaningful research, and presents a manifesto for change. A thought-provoking text that is deserving of serious consideration by both students and professional psychologists.”
Adrian Owen, OBE, neuroscientist and author, Western University
The book is available in the UK here.
Hi, a quick update about two projects that have just magically appeared!
First, I have co-authored (with Prof Caroline Watt) an article in PeerJ about the psychology of the impossible. It takes a look at research into impossible experiences across many different areas (including magic, dreaming, children’s play, and science fiction), examining how these experiences inspire creativity and have changed the world. It is free and can be be seen by clicking here.
Second, the fifth and final issue of our Hocus Pocus comic has landed! This comic celebrates magic, mystery and the mind, and this issue is all about levitation. It has stories about stage magic, the Indian rope trick and seance room trickery. It has been enormous fun working with the creative team of Jordan Collver, Rik Worth and Owen Watts. The comic has been selling out fast and this issue is available now at Propdog.
Do you know how best to cut your carbon footprint?
I recently invited people to take an online survey about sustainable lifestyle changes and over 800 people kindly responded. The work was conducted with Prof Mike Page from the University of Hertfordshire and Edinburgh Science, and the results are now in!
Everyone were asked to estimate how many kilograms of carbon dioxide would be saved by taking a range of actions. Many of the ratings were hugely inaccurate, with people generally overestimating the effects of less impactful changes, such as unplugging appliances, but underestimating the contribution of larger lifestyle changes such as following a vegetarian diet. For example
….unplugging a mobile phone charger saves around 2kg of CO2 emissions per year; yet one third of respondents thought that it saved five times that (100kg or more).
….leaving a television on standby emits around 15kg of CO2 per year, but a third of respondents estimated that it was far more significant (125 kg or more).
….becoming a vegetarian can save over 600kg, yet half of the respondents thought that it only saved 300kg or less.
…buying a blue jumper rather than a red one has no impact at all, but, on average, people thought that it would save 37kg.
The good news is that other estimates about, for example, the impact of flying, were more accurate. Every little helps, and people should consider doing whatever they can to cut emissions. However, these results suggest that there are many widely believed myths about sustainable behaviour. There’s a real appetite to make changes, which is great, but many of us may need clearer information on how make the biggest impact.
Many thanks to everyone who was kind enough to take part.