Querying Quammen on Craft: My Upcoming Talk with David Quammen on His Deadly Spillover

Calendar note of jubilation: AT 5:15 pm on Saturday, October 27, in Raleigh, North Carolina, I’ll be doing a live interview and Q&A on craft with David Quammen, whose book Spillover will be published October 1. The 60-minute talk, sponsored by The Open Notebook, is sited and scheduled to fall during a 90-minute break in the National Association of Science Writers annual meeting at the Raleigh Convention Center; it will be in Room 303, near to (but not one of) the conference-center rooms used for the annual meeting’s session.

Important update: You can guarantee a seat by registering at the event’s page at EventBrite. Details at bottom.*

I’ll be talking with Quammen about how he created Spillover, which, as I wrote a few weeks ago,

is about how human epidemics rise from diseases that spill over from the animal kingdom. Think HIV, SARS, bird flu, and other nasties. The book is riveting, terrifying, and inspiring, and it matches and possibly excels Quammen’s Song of the Dodo, which I consider one of the best science books of the 20th century.…

He is true to the real state of progress, the ‘growing island’ model: the more we expand our knowledge, the bigger is the border between what we know and what we don’t understand. He embraces constantly the mystery of where these diseases come from and how they spill into and spread through humanity. He mines the perplexity of the scientists trying to crack these mysteries in a way that reminds me of the way Georges Simenon mines the confusion of his French detective Jules Maigret. Maigret usually gets his man (or woman). Yet he’s mystified all the way through almost every novel, and the stories draw meaning at least as much from Maigret’s mystification as from the arrests at the end. When it’s over we see that Maigret has solved one mystery — whodunnit? — but remains confounded by the deeper, far more important questions of human nature, cause, chance, and epistemology.

We’ll discuss how one goes about structuring such a complex book; when and how to put oneself in a scene; why you  should keep your mouth closed when watching bats fly overhead; and how, once in a blue moon, maybe once in a lifetime, it might make sense to go fictive to describe a central event in one of the deadliest infectious disease outbreaks of the past century. We hope to have time for a few questions at the end.

I won’t lie; I can’t wait for this.

If you’re in Raleigh,  join us at the Raleigh Convention Center; we’ll be in a room very near the rooms where the NASW sessions are held, and there should be time to get from this conversation and over to the gala afterwards. (Gala open only to registered NASW attendees.) The event is free — and we’ll be giving away 10 copies of Spillover. Possibly with masks and gloves.


*Seating is limited, so do register at Eventbrite to guarantee a spot. Event is free, though donations to The Open Notebook are encouraged and most welcome, as they will defray the considerable costs of the room and A/V services. (Disclosure: TON will cover some of my expenses, but that money will come out of their normal editorial budget, and I’ll collect no fee on this one; as a TON advisory board member and an NASW member, I’m donating the time. Donations to TON will therefore  go to the event and to support TON.) Some seats will be saved for walk-ins, but not many, so secure a spot if you know you’re going — and PLEASE unregister if you decide not to.

In any case, I hope you’ll consider hitting the Open Notebook Tip Jar, with any amount. It all helps.


What Aging Looks Like: Watch a Man Speed Through Twelve Years

From FlowingData:

Remember photographer Noah Kalina? He took a picture of himself every day for six years and made a time-lapse video with the photos. The Simpsons even did a spoof that showed Homer’s life over a couple of minutes. Kalina’s kept the picture-taking going, and it’s been twelve and a half years now. He made a new video.

Six years is a long time, but you didn’t see that much change in the first video. In this one, you can start to see the age in his eyes. The forty-year update will be something to see.

I find this quite affecting. We all get that shock now and then when we look at a photograph of ourselves in which, bang, out of nowhere, we suddenly look young. This guy is still not old, by any means, but this video shows what it means to age: to have time’s passage show itself in tiny incremental changes to one’s flesh and affect. It’s more powerful for Kalina’s apparent decision to present a neutral expression: his deeper mood — what looks to me a growing seriousness — shows through the more. This time-lapse vid definitely gains power because he’s reaching out to work the camera: as he speeds through the years, Kalina looks as if he’s just trying to hold on — to life, or himself, or at least its image.

From the truly deeply marvelous FlowingData, with a hat-tip (from them) to the ever-watchtful kottke for the find.

Physicist Yanks Sheets Off Sex Scandal

I’m speaking of cosmologist and writer Sean Carroll, who gently informs his peers that Scientists, Your Gender Bias Is Showing:

I know it’s fun to change the subject and talk about bell curves and intrinsic ability, but hopefully we can all agree that people with the same ability should be treated equally. And they are not.

That’s the conclusion of a new study in PNAS by Corinne Moss-Racusin and collaborators at Yale. (Hat tip Dan Vergano.)

This study, Carroll relates, took a bunch of academic scientists and gave each one a sham application supposedly from a student applying to be a lab manager. The applications were all identical — except that half had male names and the other half had female names. Alas, the scientists, both male and female (as groups), rated the applications with female names on them lower in competence, hireability, and mentoring ability.

Here’s the damning data:

Does this matter? Right where it hurts. The scientists said they’d pay the male applicants a starting roughly $5000 a year more — a bonus of almost 20% for the Y chromosome.

Carroll’s message to earthling scientists: “This is my profession, and I’d like to see it do better.”

Get the whole thing (and lots of other goodies) at the excellent Cosmic Variance: Scientists, Your Gender Bias Is Showing 

Study at PNAS: Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students


To Win at Olympics, Go Commie or Stay Home

Figure 1. Total medals per nation and year

Now this is fun: Over at Pascal’s Pensées, Lascap talies medal totals since 1988 among five big medal-winning countries and finds some interesting trends. Most interesting to my eyes: Communism pays; home-field advantage counts for a lot.

The communism/central funding advantage shows not just in China’s rise, but in the most startling negative result: the free-fall in medals won by Germany (the descending black line). In 1988, Germany — the stats in the chart include both West Germany and the East German team of the time, heavily funded and apparently heavily drugged — kicked everybody’s bums. The German medal count then dropped by over a third before the next Olympiad, in 1992,  for that was period in which the wall fell and communist East Germany, amid chaos, could not devote its usual resources to the Olympiad; by 1992, it was re-united with West Germany. The fall slowed down then (between 1992 and 1996) and was checked in this most recent Olympiad, held in London. Soviet Russia, meanwhile, went through a roughly similar but more wiggly gyration. China’s been coming on strong.

As to home-field advantage, Lascap argues that it rises less from psychological factors than from increased resources poured into training and facilities. This reflects the two factors that Lascap concludes drive medal counts in general: the means to train top athletes (population, money, expertise); and the national will to commit the resources, which of course rises as a country anticipates hosting the games. Means and motivation — ain’t it ever so?

Below is some explanation straight from Pensées; I recommend going there to read the whole fascinating thing, with more good graphs and such.


Two major trends become apparent:

1. Communism/central planning boosts medal counts. It is hard to distinguish between the two, as basically all remaining central planning regimes are also communistic in nature. The dramatic decline in medals from countries that abandoned communism (Germany, Bulgaria, Soviet Russia as well as others not shown) contrasts with the continued success of countries that retained it (China, and others not shown, e.g. Cuba, North Korea). The effect is very real, but it is unclear how to interpret it. Do communist countries value the olympics more (perhaps as an outward sign of pride)? Does sports performance lend itself to central planning? The German results highlight that this might be so. In 1988, East Germany won 2.5 times the medals that West Germany did, despite the West having almost 4 times the population at the time. In other words, based on population alone, East Germany was outperforming West Germany by a factor of almost 10:1. Note that this happened in spite of the famed abundance of economic resources in the west, compared to the east.

2. The outcomes of the UK, Australia and China show that countries that host the olympics see their results boosted not only in the year in which they host the olympics itself (which could be due to some kind of home-advantage), but also in the run-up to the olympics (maybe reflecting an increased allocation of resources on athletics in a given country in preparation for the big event, perhaps not uncorrelated with the fact that they were awarded the olympics in the first place). This is consistent with a steep rise of the UK performance even before the 2012 olympics was given to London in 2005 and likely due to direct investment from the proceeds of a lottery program. Also, the performance of Australia suggests that hosts might be able to put some persistent sports infrastructure in place, which allows them to retain most – but not all of their gains. In this sense, it might be interesting to watch the Chinese performance in the future. The rise of China has led to much insecurity in the US, but it remains to be seen whether this rise is sustainable, or if the strong Chinese showing in 2008 was simply due to a confluence of several of these factors.

From: A statistical analysis of Olympic outcomes of the past 28 years | Pascal’s Pensées

The “Vagina” Scientist Strikes Back: Dr. Jim Pfaus’s Defense of Naomi Wolf, Fact-Checked

Earlier this week, I wrote a post criticizing Naomi Wolf’s use of science in her book “Vagina: A New Biography.” (See Naomi Wolf’s “Vagina” and the Perils of Neuro Self-Help, or How Dupe-amine Drove Me Into a Dark Dungeon.) My complaint was that Wolf treated an incredibly complex and ambiguous body of science — the neurobiology of sexual desire and behavior — as settled and simple so that she could present a particular view of sexuality, identity, and consciousness. Though Wolf draws heavily in her book on the work of Jim Pfaus, a Concordia University psychologist and neurobiologist, I did not evaluate or criticize Dr. Pfaus’s particular work, for I wanted to focus on Wolf’s treatment of the larger body of science on sexual neurobiology. 

Dr. Pfaus, however, has now entered the fray directly. Below you will find a rebuttal article that Pfaus wrote, titled “Who’s Afraid of the Vagina-Brain Connection” — a play on the play and movie “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” that, perhaps unfortunately, raises the question of whether Wolf is even a faint echo of Woolf.  Wolf’s book publisher submitted this article for publication here at Wired Science on Thursday. Though we were told that it had been submitted only to Wired Science, the article appeared in the Huffington Post on Friday evening, while I was still preparing a response. 

I have now incorporated my response into what you find below — Pfaus’s article as it appears at HuffPo, but with annotations at some of the many places in which Pfaus misrepresents my argument or says things that strike me as unsupported by the literature. If you want to read the article without my annotations, you may do so at HuffPo — or just read the bold parts below; the whole thing is there. If you want the fact-checked version, see below. 

Please note, dear reader, that in my post on the science in Wolf’s book, I did not argue, as Pfaus suggests below, that there is no neurobiology of sexual desire or behavior, or that neurochemicals or brain-genital-connecetions play no role; of course they do.

I argued instead that Wolf grossly oversimplifies these very complex systems and their dynamics by ignoring both the youth of the disciplines that studies them and the ambiguous  nature of their findings. Along with neglecting this complexity and ambiguity, Wolf makes all of these systems all about the vagina — a notion consistent with her book goals, but not with science. I’d be just as miffed if she’d made them all about the penis. She approaches three immensely complicated neurobiological systems — brain-organ, reward, and dopamine — and works their narrow overlap in the nether region as if that triangular juncture contained all the most important things about all three of them.  A friend drew up a Venn diagram  illustrating this:

Your brain forms connections with many organs aside from the vagina. Pleasant sensations from these can feed into the reward system, which can also be stimulated by non-visceral experiences. The reward system relies on the neurotransmitter dopamine (among others), but that’s just one of this chemical’s many functions; dopamine is about salience as much as it is about pleasure. In trying to make the vagina/brain/dopamine link central to so many experiences, Wolf ignores all this and a bunch of other messy complexity outside of the tiny central area of this Venn diagram. Note:Circles and their overlap for demonstration purposes only. Do not try this at home.

Dr. Pfaus or Ms. Wolf may take issue with some of my fact-checking. While I’ve done my best to be accurate, it’s possible I got a couple things wrong — as I said, it’s complicated. However, to prove themselves right, Pfaus and Wolf would need to show not that I’m wrong about any particulars — but that Wolf and Pfaus are right in saying the science unambiguously supports their simplified, narrowly focused view. It’s not just the book reviewers who differ Wolf and (as we shall see) Pfaus on this. It’s 60 years of research.

So here’s Pfaus’s article, as submitted, but with my annotations. To make it a bit easier to read, I’ve put Pfaus’s article in bold and my annotations in italics. I have limited my comments to correcting his misrepresentations of or rebuttals to my argument. I have not annotated his critiques of Zoe Heller’s’ review in the New York Review of Books.

NB: IF YOU WANT JUST THE HEART OF MY RESPONSE, READ “THE GIST,” A SECTION ABOUT HALFWAY DOWN LABELED AS SUCH. That deals with the central issue of the Pfaus & Wolf’s failure to recognize the science’s ambiguity and complexity.

It think it best to state our credentials and conflicting interests up front:

Jim Pfaus is researcher and professor of psychology at Concordia University. Competing interests: According to one of his webpages at Concordia, he holds “consulting grants from several pharmaceutical and  biotech companies, for example, Boehringer Ingelheim, Eli Lilly, and Lundbeck, to … work on the identification of new pharmacological tools to treat male and female sexual dysfunctions.”

David Dobbs writes on science and culture here at Wired.com and for publications including the New York Times, National Geographic, Nature, and Slate. He’s currently working on a book on how genes and culture shape temperament. Competing interests: He paid just over $10 for a Kindle copy of Naomi Wolf’s book, “Vagina: A New Biography,” and he resents it.


Who’s afraid of the vagina-brain connection?

by Jim Pfaus

A curious dialogue has developed with the publication of Naomi Wolf’s new book, “Vagina: A New Biography”, one that seems hell-bent on poking holes in her central theme that the connection between the vagina and the brain influences a woman’s mood and creativity.

Continue reading →

Naomi Wolf’s “Vagina” and the Perils of Neuro Self-Help, or How Dupe-amine Drove Me Into a Dark Dungeon

Someone should have warned Naomi Wolf what slippery material she’d get encounter by taking a neuro angle into Vagina: A New Biography.

As Zoe Heller explains in her smart, raucous, ripping review in The New York Review of Books,

[Wolf’s] original plan was to write a book surveying cultural representations of the vagina through the ages. In the course of her research, however, she decided that “the truth about the vagina” lay not in history or culture, but in the latest findings of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. So the survey was sidelined and her book became instead a sort of character study of the vagina. What now remains of the original, “biographical” project—a fifty-seven page overview of some of the “dramatic shifts” in historical attitudes toward the vagina—is a shoddy piece of work, full of childlike generalizations and dreary, feminist auto-think: the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians worshiped the vagina, the post-Pauline Christians were really horrid about it, male modernists objectified it, and so on.

Bad enough; but apparently it gets worse when Wolf puts the science machine in gear:

The truncated version of Wolf’s cultural survey may give us no reason to wish it were longer, but her enthusiastic foray into the “new science” comes with its own set of problems. Like many who have drunk shallow drafts from the fountains of evolutionary biology and neuroscience, Wolf is so excited at the idea of explaining complex, overdetermined features of human behavior with simple reference to the prehistoric savannah or the hypothalamus that she often ignores the promptings of common sense and logic.

Whether she knows it or not, investigations into the adaptive “purpose” of orgasms, vaginal or otherwise, are far more contentious and inconclusive than she suggests. The classic data on which the “upsuck” theory of female orgasm is based derive from one study, involving a single participant, conducted in 1970. And the fact that between a third and two thirds of women rarely or never achieve orgasm through intercourse would seem by itself a pretty conclusive argument against any evolutionary explanation for female orgasm.

I’m not one to tell people to steer clear of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, despite their extreme dangers. But as Heller notes, shallow sips from these fresh founts can generate an epiphanous but unjustified confidence.* The (apparent) answers some researchers offer may seem simple and complete, but they rise from young, rapidly growing, and highly complicated disciplines that have a long way to go and many falls to take along the way. Wolf seems to have missed this reality or set it aside.

She seems especially buzzed on oxytocin and dopamine. Dopamine, declared the slut gene in other contexts, apparently becomes for Wolf “the ultimate feminist chemical,” one that accounts for not just sexual wholeness but female consciousness. Says the Neurocritic,

I almost feel sorry for Ms. Wolf because it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. Dopamine is not a feminist neurotransmitter, unless snails and insects have been secretly reading Betty Friedan and listening to Bikini Kill. Chapter 4 of Vagina is on Dopamine, Opioids, and Oxytocin. Other than the excerpt and review in the Guardian, only three pages of the chapter were available online.** But here’s one choice quote:

Those of us who are not scientists often forget that brain chemicals are vehicles for very profound human truths.

I thought brain chemicals were vehicles that bind to receptors and trigger signal transduction molecules. Even the most reductionistic neuroscientists among us realize we are worlds away from understanding how oxytocin might explain morality (Paul Zak notwithstanding).

Neurocritic says he can find little peer-reviewed literature to back Wolf’s claims. Wolf suggests otherwise in a piece in The Guardian:

Why write about the vagina? And why now? The main answer is that new neuroscience, which has been very little reported outside of scientific journals, is providing truly revolutionary new information about what the vagina is and does…

This should alarm. Wolf is asking us to believe that both the quick-dip pop-science press and an extremely attentive and rather bawdy science blogosphere have overlooked a substantial body of “truly revolutionary” findings in neuroscience, consciousness studies, and sexuality —  all closely watched, red-hot disciplines beloved of university public relations officers — that insist on a sharp revision of female sexuality. I think not. We live in a world where even the thinnest findings about oxytocin and dopamine get quickly hyped. As for more subtle, subsurface stirrings of sexual science, someone should assure Wolf that if substantial, credible, replicated science of that sort were published in scientific journals, scicurious and Kate Clancy, those peer-reviewed goddesses of the sciences of psych, sex, and lady parts, would be all over it.

This is dispiriting. Should we just stop writing about neuroscience, evo psych, evo anthropology, and the genetics of behavior? As I’m writing a book that involves many of those things, you won’t hear me call for a ban. But we should approach these young disciplines skeptically, write about them carefully, and be slow to treat their findings as settled certainties.

Perhaps those writing about these sciences should think more about genre. The sciences investigating mood, thought, and behavior offer plenty of stories, but they’re rarely stories of clear revelation, and more rarely yet are they stories from which we can extract Guides To Personal Behavior and Fulfillment, much less fables about the vaginal roots of female consciousness. Enough with the self-help — or, as Suzanne Moore put it in a scorching assessment in the Guardian, with self-help masquerading as feminist tract.

Years ago, some clever and wise writer, forgive me for forgetting who***, noted that it’s just as hard to write a cookbook as it is to write Moby Dick — so you might as well write Moby Dick. I love that. It’s funny, and it’s useful to remember if an alluring offer to write a cookbook threatens your attempt at Moby Dick.

But it’s not true. It’s actually much harder to write Moby Dick. Likewise it’s much harder to write a science-book equivalent of Moby Dick than to write the science-book equivalent of a cookbook or, for that matter, of a self-help book. This is why we get Neuro Self-Help books every week and Big New Idea books every month but must wait much longer for the more difficult, demanding, valuable, and lasting hard genres, like the race-to-the-pole (Tracy Kidder’s Soul of a New Machine), the police procedural (Maryn McKenna’s Superbug), the detective story (Carl Zimmer’s Microcosm), or a sort of geek-scientist bildungsroman like James Watson’s The Double Helix. And for  Moby Dicks — such as Horace Judson Freeland’s Eighth Day of Creation, David Quammen’s Song of the Dodo, Deborah Blum’s Love at Goon Park, and Rebecca Skloot’s Immortal Life of Henrietta Lack — we must, as you’d expect, wait years.

We needn’t everyone try to write Moby Dick. We don’t want everyone to try to write Moby Dick. “Call me Naomi”? No. But it would tickle my oxytocin if writers smitten with the neuro evo anthro genetico sciences to resist overselling  provisional findings as epiphanies of self-realization and self-help. Behavior and evolution are excruciatingly hard problems. We’re just figuring out the ingredients and where the burners are. It’s way too early to write cookbooks — or, for that matter, certain biographies.


*Is neuroscience, over a century old, a fresh fount? Put it this way: I asked a table full of neuroscientists at the big neuro conference last year “Of what we need to know to fully understand the brain, what percentage do we know now?” All the answers were in single digits.

** I too was limited to peeks provided at this site by Wolf’s publisher, since the book comes out tomorrow and HarperCollins didn’t offer or send me a review copy (though I get receive review copies of several neuroscience books each week). HarperCollins site gives access to only a few of the many pages that consider dopamine. They’re not encouraging. Page 56, where Wolf apparently first dives into the dopamine pool, is aswim with sweeping generalizations that reach far out in front of the complicated, constantly updated and revised science on dopamine’s function. Much of it, such as the statement, “A woman with low dopamine will have low libido and depression,” is flat-out wrong. Low dopamine levels might produce any number of effects, and they might (or might not) contribute to depression in some cases; but they will not reliably produce it, and low dopamine levels will almost certainly not produce depression on their own.

I’m troubled too by how Wolf draws on quotations and presumed authority on these pages. On these three pages she cites two ‘researchers’. One, Jim Pfaus, really is a researcher, and while it appears he sometimes talks expansively about his findings and it’s possible Wolf represents his scientific views accurately here, her use of his quote sounds suspiciously like a wild extrapolation from a general statement. Pfaus says, “You could call dopamine the ’cause-effect’ chemical.” This is quite true at some level or even several levels; the chemical causes things to happen. But what effects does it cause?  Wolf jumps from Pfaus’s statement, without setting it directly into context, to state in essence that dopamine is the key to “good orgasmic sex.”

Got dopamine? I hope so, because apparently if you have enough, you can have great transformative sex, and if you’ve too little, well, you’ll be blue. Glad we know this! This is astoundingly simple, direct effect for a neurochemical used in numerous complex neurological conversations among multiple brain areas  that are also using other important neurotransmitters for the same operations! But wait: I feel my dupe-amine system going off here; either Pfaus is badly oversimplifying (in which case Wolf should have done enough work to know and note that) or Wolf is.

I lean toward the latter partly because of Wolf’s use of the work of the other ‘researcher’ cited on these available pages that open her dopamine chapter (and in many other spots in the book), whom Wolf refers to in her first appearance, on page 56, as “dopamine researcher Marnia Robinson.” Unless that Marnia Robinson is hiding her PhD and all her peer-reviewed dopamine publications, she is only a dopamine researcher in the loosest sense, since the Marnia Robinson Wolf cites is, according to her bios at Psychology Today and Huffington Post, a former corporate lawyer who now writes about sex and evolution and, apparently, dopamine. A PubMed search shows no published scholarly research. Perhaps Wolf clarifies this later in her book; but even if so, identifying Robinson as a “dopamine researcher” in her first appearance in the book seems shifty.

This stuff drives my dopamine down into a dark and most unsexy dungeon.

***TC Shillingford kindly informs me that Annie Dillard wrote this, and indeed some searching that I should have found time for before reveals she did so (roughly) in 1999 in the NY Times: ‘It is no less difficult to write sentences in a recipe than sentences in ”Moby-Dick.” So you might as well write ”Moby-Dick.”’


Amazon.com: Vagina: A New Biography (9780061989162): Naomi Wolf: Books

Pride and Prejudice by Zoë Heller | The New York Review of Books

New Statesman – Naomi Wolf’s “Vagina” is full of bad science about the brain

Naomi Wolf Exalts the Vagina : The New Yorker

Vagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf – review | Books | The Guardian

Naomi Wolf’s book Vagina: self-help marketed as feminism | Suzanne Moore | Comment is free | The Guardian

YouTube clip from Woody Allen’s Manhattan

The Glory of Straphanging, Obscured in America

Commuter on the Paris Métro

Note 9/9/12 3:37 pm: After I posted this, a couple people on Twitter pointed out that the Thatcher quote may be wrongly attributed to Thatcher instead of Brian Howard. I changed my copy accordingly (see strikeouts below), but left the quote from review intact.

Two days ago PD Smith, author of the magnificent City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age, published a particularly rich review of “Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves From  the Automobile,” by Taras Grescoe. Smith’s opening confirms something unfortunate about my own country even as it offers some hope we might join the wiser:  tells me something newly horrid about Maggie Thatcher:

Margaret Thatcher  once declared that “a man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself a failure”. [Dobbs’ note: possibly misattributed; see note at bottom] Taras Grescoe is proud to be – in Thatcher’s estimation, at least – a failure. Although he can drive, the Canadian author, who is in his mid-40s, has never owned a car. And he is not alone. Half the population of cities such as New York, Toronto and London do not own cars. Every day some 155 million people take the underground. And although being a straphanger in North America may be, as Grescoe shows, a “depressing experience” due to underfunding and bad planning, elsewhere public transport – particularly in cities – is enjoying a renaissance. The heyday of the car has passed.

In this passionately argued and important book, Grescoe takes the reader on a whistle-stop tour of world cities and their transport systems. He accuses the private car of destroying cities, turning streets into kill-zones for the vulnerable, polluting the air and burning up increasingly scarce fossil fuels. Although the scope of Straphanger is global, it clearly targets car-loving, gas-guzzling North America and the statistics he cites are truly shocking. In the US – “the most extravagantly motorised nation in the history of the world” – vehicles now outnumber drivers by five to four. Los Angeles, once hailed as an “autopia”, is now the most congested city in the US with drivers wasting 72 hours a year stuck in traffic jams – Americans now spend nine years of their lives sitting in their cars, and the pollution they produce kills 30,000 US citizens each year.

It’s not all bad. Both Smith’s review and, I take it, Grescoe’s book emphasize an encouraging move away from this idiocy. Even the U.S. is seeing a drop in its (ludicrously high) rate car ownership (5 autos to every 4 people), particularly among Americans in their twenties. More people here are using mass transit than ever; by the Brian Howard metric (mis?)attributed to Thatcher , over half the people in New York are failures, including the mayor;  streetcars “are being reintroduced in such unlikely places as Houston and Denver.”

We remain way behind,, though, and even our best systems fall short of some of the worst in Europe. The London Underground is hardly considered the best or brightest of European systems. (Forgive me, UK friends, for mashing you into Europe for convenience here.) The beloved Tube is old and crowded and loud, and hot in summer. But after using it for a year and returning to the U.S., I was dismayed at how infrequent and unreliable the service seemed in Washington and New York and the Bay Area, all supposedly among our best. I’m glad that more Americans are riding these rails but wish these systems came closer to standards set by countries with far less wealth. If Americans could enjoy for a year the convenience of  trains that go almost anywhere at almost any time, as I did in the UK (which train system, again, pales to some systems on the Continent), I think most would be loathe to turn back. (Ditto with the healthcare over there.) Yet rather than join the modern world, many of our leaders are actively killing rapid transit and high-speed rail systems, refusing funds that would speed transit in their states and create jobs as well. Would they were as wise as some of our neighbors way down south:

Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of the Colombian capital Bogotá, which revolutionised its public transport with a bus rapid transit scheme, makes a powerful point to Grescoe: “I believe a city is more civilised not when it has highways but when a child on a tricycle is able to move about everywhere with ease and safety.” In too many places multi-lane highways have sliced through the cityscape, destroying communities and creating barriers between districts. But the act of driving also fundamentally changes the way people use the city. Inside cars, people are insulated from the sights and sounds of the city and isolated from other citizens. By contrast, public transport is a democratic and a social experience. In Tokyo someone tells Grescoe: “To use public transport is to know how to cooperate with other people, how to behave in a public space.”

Public space, of course, is something the US right seems reluctant to recognize, much less invest in. Sharing public transport acknowledges what Barack Obama insisted on in his convention speech and Mitt Romney wants us to ignore: We share not just space but infrastructure, not just location but a society.  The small niceties — offering one’s seat to someone older or less fit, answering a visitor’s questions about where to eat — connect inevitably to larger issues of civility and decency, like whether Rosa Parks should have to sit in the back of the bus, or whether we should all get healthcare and education.

Perhaps the most toxic thing about the American obsession with the car — which is saying a lot — is its encouragement of the fantasy that we are completely independent individuals whose agency and fate depends only on our own decisions about where to go and how fast. Freedom and independence! What a childish fantasy. Especially when so often it leads us to sit stranded on frozen rivers of pavement, surrounded by thousands of others doing the same,  isolated and insulated from one another in our expensive little bubbles.

Image: Commuter on Paris Metro, Eric Feferberg/EPA, public domain, via Guardian

Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile by Taras Grescoe – review | Books | The Guardian

Neurocritic Asks, Where Are Psychiatry’s Clinical Tests?

In an age of laboratory medicine, psychiatry’s reliance on interviews, confession, and often funky diagnoses remain the disciplines great bugbear. The move over the last two or three decades to ‘biological psychiatry,’ which got hijacked by the drug industry, has hovered  between disappointment and disaster. Neurocritic looks at the dilemma from a neuroscientist’s point of view:

The lack of laboratory diagnostic tests for mental disorders, along with the shady marketing practices of the pharmaceutical industry, are often viewed as the most fatal flaws in the medical practice of psychiatry.… Widespread perceptions that the field is relatively low in scientific precision, and that the patients have a poor prognosis, are among the possible reasons for this.…

This lack of respect from other medical professionals, not to mention from consumer/survivor advocates, puts neuroscientists in an awkward position. We believe in neurobiological explanations for the full gamut of human behavior, yet we’re left to defend a specialty that relies on clinical interviews and a disputed classification system. There is in fact a large and growing literature on structural and functional differences between the brains of those with and without psychiatric disorders, but these discoveries have not yet translated into reliable diagnostic tests.

Why has it taken so long for biological psychiatry to develop clinical tests?

What follows — NC’s attempt to answer this question — is essential reading for anyone trying to understand psychiatry as it struggles desperately to revise its Diagnostic Statistical Manual.

The Neurocritic: Where Are the Clinical Tests for Psychiatric Disorders?

Image: Surgeon’s exam room, via otisarchives1, h/t @Neurocritic. Some rights reserved

Is PTSD A Product of War, or Of Our Times?

Marines at Dong Ha, Operation Hastings, Vietnam, July 1966.

How long has PTSD been around? Is the response to trauma outlined in our current PTSD diagnosis something that has long happened to a subset of people facing trauma? Or did our current concept of PTSD rise from cultural and medical concerns and definitions peculiar to a particular time in history?

This question is debated fiercely. Some — particularly those committed to the current diagnostic and treatment construct — argue that PTSD is just another name for a timeless affliction going back to Homer’s time. Others, including many who feel the PTSD diagnosis is baggy, too elastic, and wildly overextended, argue that while trauma is real, “PTSD” is a diagnostic construct — a categorial convenience — that can sometimes help and sometimes hinder our response to those who are distressed following troubling events.

In a fine post from the weekend, Vaughan Bell reviews two highly important studies supporting the idea that our current concept of PTSD describes a reaction that simply wasn’t seen in eras before the Vietnam War. I’m passing on a few snips here:

It was originally called ‘post-Vietnam syndrome’ and was promoted by anti-war psychiatrists who felt that the Vietnam war was having a unique effect on the mental health of American soldiers, but the concept was demilitarised and turned into a civilian diagnosis concerning the chronic effects of trauma.

Since then there has been a popular belief that PTSD has been experienced throughout history but simply wasn’t properly recognised. Previous labels, it is claimed, like ‘shell shock’ or ‘combat fatigue’, were just early descriptions of the same universal reaction.

But until now, few studies have systematically looked for PTSD or post-trauma reactions in the older historical record. Two recent studies have done exactly this, however, and found no evidence for a historical syndrome equivalent to PTSD.

A study just published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders looked at the extensive medical records for soldiers in the American Civil War, whose mortality rate was about 50-80 greater than modern soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In other words, there would have been many more having terrifying experiences but despite the higher rates of trauma and mentions of other mental problems, there is virtually no mention of anything like the intrusive thoughts or flashbacks of PTSD.

Taking an even longer view, a study published in Stress and Health looked at historical accounts of traumatic experiences from antiquity to the 16th century.

The researchers found that although psychological trauma has been recognised throughout history, with difficult events potentially leading to mental disorder in some, there were no consistent effects that resembled the classic PTSD syndrome.

The concept of PTSD is clearly grounded in a particular time and culture, but even from a modern diagnostic perspective it is important to recognise that we tend to over-focus on PTSD as the outcome of horrendous events.

Perhaps the best scientific paper yet published on the diversity of trauma was anarticle authored by George Bonanno and colleagues in 2011. You can read the full-text online as a pdf.If

It notes that the single most common outcome after a traumatic event is recovery without intervention, and for those who do remain affected, depression and substance abuse problems are equally, if not more likely, than a diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder.

Read the whole thing at A very modern trauma « Mind Hacks. And for  continual high-quality stimulation sensitive to this time and culture, follow Vaughan Bell on Twitter. Seriously, even if the post above (and/or my stance on PTSD) irk you, follow and read Bell, who’s one of our sharpest, most wide-ranging, and funny observers of psychiatry and culture.

For more context, see my Scientific American feature, which has quite a rowdy comment thread; if you hit a paywall there, see the open-access version here on Neuron culture; and for the deeper pool, or if you’re wondering, “Where do these people get the idea PTSD is overdiagnosed? Where are the studies?”, see my annotated list of sources and links.

Image: Marines at Dong Ha, Vietnam, July 1966, Operation Hastings. From National Archives, via Wikipedia.