Climate change as a test of empiricism and secular democracy

The cover of the May 27 New Scientist bluntly asks, regarding climate change, “What Does It Take?” What will it take, that is, to convince our political leaders to start braking the accelerating runaway train we’ve created in global warming? I won’t review the (overwhelming) evidence here; for that, see some of the good writing on climate change lately, such as Mark Bowen’s Thin Ice or Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe. My concern here is not the evidence but our failure to act on it. Global warming is serving, in a way that, say, evolution doesn’t, as a test of science and of its place in today’s society. The results aren’t encouraging.

We like to think we live in the age of science — that is, that science, our most rigorous attempt at thought, is an important arbiter of fact and a foundation of secular society. And empiricism has indeed made much headway over the centuries. We now demand far better evidence in matters of both science and society. We demand replicable observations or experiments in science and (mostly) insist on that matters of law and policy be decided by weight of evidence.

The spread of empiricism, in fact, has been essential not only to the rise not just of science but of pluralistic democracy. In order to accommodate many perspectives and beliefs, we agree to abide by the rule of law rather than religiion. Deciding policy and law based mainly on facts — on testable questions — frees us from quibbling endlessly about what beliefs are correct. We use rules based on a small handful of secular values, such as the integrity of the individual and the rights to property and privacy. And we agree to adjudicate those rules according to testable fact. Empiricism underlies not just science but all of pluralistic, rights-based society.

If that’s so, our leaders fail these ideals horribly when they don’t act on the massive evidence showing we’re changing the planet’s climate. The refusal to acknowledge global warming resembles on its face the wide rejection, at least in the United States, of the theory of evolution. In fact it is far more sinister. Much of the resistance to evolution rises from its conflict (for some) with deeply held religious beliefs. Not so with climate change. Our leaders’ refusal to acknowledge the reality of global warming and its causes guards not a religious ideal but the self-interest of those whose profits may fall if we quit spewing carbon. This failure rises not from religious reservations but as a bald assertion of commercial and self-interest over the stability of the environment and future society and economies. This assertion is an affront as well to the respect empiricism that underlies secular society — as well as the foundations of science.

Fortunately, scientists are starting to see this and speak up. Recent objections by leaders like David Baltimore and Eric Kandel suggest that (at least among Nobelists) scientists are beginning to see that a resistance to evidence threatens the values that have advanced both science and western society for centuries. Hopefully it’s not coming too late.

Wild birds do .., no wait, they don’t … well. maybe they DO spread H5N1

from New Scientist, 30 May 2006:

Wild birds have helped transmit the deadly H5N1 bird flu across Eurasia, a meeting of 300 scientists at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) concluded on Wednesday. But killing them to prevent further spread of the disease is not the answer, they warn.

[contextly_sidebar id=”fa25923c51d4121ad464b300d0356428″]I wrote an article about this in Audubon this spring, concluding from the divided and tenuous opinions and facts then that wild birds almost certainly did help spread avian flu. Since then, opinion among scientists has swung a couple of times as the evidence bounced about. The appearance of infected birds in Africa this winter encouraged many to think the birds were spreading H5N1 — a notion the subsequent failure of significant summertime spread to Europe cast into doubt. And some of the most convincing evidence in favor of a spread theory showed holes. For instance, the death from bird flu of hundreds of gulls at a highly isolated lake on the Tibetan plateau last winter seemed firm evidence that wild birds were spreading the flu, since no poultry farms were known to be nearby. Then a few weeks ago it came out that there were poultry farms nearby.

Last week the UN FAO conference, after sorting through such variables and ambiguities, concluded that wild birds are playing a significant role in spreading H5N1. It concluded, reports New Scientist, that

while poultry has dominated the spread of the disease, wild birds have also played a role, particularly in transmitting the H5N1 virus long distances across Eurasia during migration.

The FAO’s chief vet, Juan Lubroth, says “we don’t need prime ministers to come out and say, ‘we’ll cut off the tops of trees or drain the wetlands’ [to kill the carriers]”. Instead, scientists at the meeting called for increased research to see which species carry the virus, whether it can persist in wild bird populations, and to where the birds migrate.

Given how uncertain we remain about how this is spreading, this seems a good idea.

My article on Mirror Neurons

My Scientific American Mind article on mirror neurons is out, and includes some amusing and apt photographs and art. Mirror neurons, as the story explains, are motor neurons that fire not only when we perform an action (like reaching for an apple) but when we see someone else perform an action — or even, as it turns out, when we read, think, or hear about someone performing that action. This mechanism, discovered about a decade ago, seems to underlie much motor, social, and even cultural learning.

You can read the story here or buy the digital version online via Scientific American Mind.

Mirror Neurons

My Scientific American Mind article on mirror neurons is out, and includes some amusing and apt photographs and art. Mirror neurons, as the story explains, are motor neurons that fire not only when we perform an action (like reaching for an apple) but when we see someone else perform an action — or even, as it turns out, when we read, think, or hear about someone performing that action. This mechanism, discovered about a decade ago, seems to underlie much motor, social, and even cultural learning.

You can read the story here or buy the digital version online via Scientific American Mind.

It appears we perceive more than we perceive

‘Wow Factor’: Humans Perceive More Than They Think They Do:

From the “Interesting If True” Department:

[contextly_sidebar id=”7ad6c22dc7b76234676f3055c7ef331a”]Faces tell the stories in UC Riverside Professor Larry Rosenblum’s ecological listening lab, as volunteer test subjects show that they can ‘read’ unheard speech — not just from lips, but from the simple movements of dots placed on lips, teeth and tongue.

They can also recognize people’s voices just from seeing their faces, and vice versa, and seem to be able to distinguish among a variety of rooms on campus just from their echoes.

from ScienceDaily Headlines: Mind & Brain.

Much Madness about Depression

Before I wrote my Times Magazine story on treating depression with deep-brain stimulation implants, several people (including myself) warned me I'd hear complaints about promoting psychosurgery. Those warnings proved fair, Letters to the Times and myself, as well as blogs, opined that the story was "trumpeting psychiatry's latest 'cure' for depression" (The Alliance for Human Research Protection); that the Times was "hyping yet another reckless and scientifically baseless approach for treating depression"; and that we should be doing more talk therapy (agreed) instead of surgery (not necessarily agreed; the latter doesn't rule out the former).

One letter writer, apparently thinking he'd caught me out, noted that a Times story by Benedict cary last October, "Can Brain Scans See Depression," reported that

"After almost 30 years, researchers have not developed any standardized tool for diagnosing or treating psychiatric disorders based on imaging studies."

These complaints assume that I'm hailing this experimental surgery as a cure to recommend — despite that the entire story, beginning with the first sentence, makes clear that the procedure is experimental, its results provisional, and its promise as a direct therapy limited, at best, to a few thousand severely ill patients:

[No] one sees this becoming the new Prozac. The procedure costs too much (around $40,000) to use on anyone who hasn't tried everything else. The appropriate candidates for D.B.S. probably number in the thousands, not the millions. Perhaps the most sensible worry is that if the thing works, doctors might use it too freely, as they tend to do with successful new treatments; witness the problematic boom in D.B.S. for Parkinson's.

In the end, the procedure's greatest clinical value may lie in inspiring less intrusive ways of tweaking key nodes — localized delivery of drug or gene therapies, or other means still to come. Such possibilities probably lie at least a decade away.

Now that seems pretty plain. That it gets read as a trumpet call for depression's latest wacky cure speaks to how strongly people feel about the patchy history of psychiatry. What with Freud's more bone-headed theories, hack work like lobotomies, and the current excesses of the drug companies, there's plenty of reason for skepticism and anger. To treat shoddily the mentally distressed is malpractice particularly foul. But this DBS trial is being done carefully, using a reversible intervention proven effective and safe in tens of thousands of Parkinson's patients. (That the objections have to do with mental health treatment rather than tweaking the brain is suggested by the utter lack of outcry about the tens of thousands of Parkinson's patients. No one hollers about wiring them up.) No neurons are destroyed, and the voltage is low and affects an area about the size of a pea.

To paint this as kin to lobotomies and early, punitive shock therapy misses the mark.

The story did get some more thoughtful looks. The Neurocritic offers some interesting observations, and Liz Spikol's fascinating blog "The Trouble with Spikol" took notice, and Searchblog posts a lively personal reaction titled "I Am Not a Toaster.. And — my favorite — a concert pianist didn't like my orchestra metaphor.

Merging Genes & Mood Networks

Even as my
New York Times Magazine article about deep brain stimulation for depression went to press, a new study came out throwing more light on the "network model" of depression discussed in the article.

In the article I wrote about (among other things) how some interesting work by Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg has begun the work of linking genetic and neurochemical models of depression to the "network" model that's emerged over the last 5 to 10 years. As the article explains, the neurochemical model, which emphasizes levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin (the focus of drugs like Prozac), has of necessity focused on brainwide effects so far, while the network or "systems" model focuses on the pathways between particular brain areas.

Meyer-Lindenberg is among those working to merge the two views, and the Times DBS story mentions a paper he did that found that genetic differences affecting the availability of serotonin, the mood-critical neurotransmitter affected by antidepressants such as Prozac, had particular effects in Area 25 — the brain area targeted by the experimental implants described in my Times Magazine story.

Now Meyer-Lindenberg has come out with another paper finding a similar dynamic. In this case, he found that a particular form of the gene — the “L” form — affecting levels of monoamine oxidase (MAO-A) made some people react to stress more violently and aggressively than others. One key difference was that people with the L version often showed more activity in their amygdalas, a mid-brain area associated with fear. (For more on the amygdala, see my story on Joseph LeDoux.) Fear and anxiety, of course, are crucial in depression; they seem to form much of the “active anguish” that William James speaks of, and that makes depression so hard to live with. This MAO-A L variant, though, seemed to turn that fear and anxiety outward.