Thursday, February 25, 2010

Should children be medicated to deal with their psychological issues?

In this book review that's probably a more worthwhile read than the book, Alison Gopnik writes:

Within the past few years more and more children have been given powerful brain-altering drugs to deal with a wide range of problems. . . .

You can sympathize with the impulse of parents to do something, anything at all, to help their children. But that doesn't alter the fact that the scientific evidence just isn't clear about what to do. On balance, though, the evidence suggests that we should be conservative about prescribing drugs to children, and much more conservative than we actually are. Even the scientists who advocate some use of drugs acknowledge that they are overprescribed and badly managed. Brains are complex enough, children's developing brains are even more complex, and determining the long-term effects of drugs that alter those brains is especially difficult. Children are different from adults, often in radical ways, and many childhood problems resolve just as part of development.

On top of that, each generation of doctors discovers that the last generation was disastrously misguided in its medical interventions, from lobotomies to estrogen replacement, at the same time that they assure the patients that this time is different.
I'm also glad to see that the review highlights the importance of compatible "levels of description":
[Judith] Warner's book [We've Got Issues] also reflects a common confusion in popular writing about psychology. She writes as if there are just two kinds of explanations for human behavior. Either the everyday narratives are right—so that children are unhappy because their parents don't care about them, or they fail at school because they are lazy. Or else the right answer is that the children's problems are the result of "something in their brains." Warner's logic seems to be that since the parents do care about their kids, the problem must be in the children's brains and therefore drugs will fix it.

But everything about human beings, cultural or individual, innate or learned, is in our brains. Loss and humiliation change our serotonin levels, education transforms our brain connections, social support affects our cortisol. Neurological and psychological and social processes are inextricable. The work of psychological science is to identify causes at many levels of description—social, cultural, individual, and neurological.
There was a very insightful blog post (on Psychology Today's website) that makes a similar point about evolutionary psychology: "Is it evolutionary, or is it . . . ?" (That post speaks of "levels of causation," which is the same thing as the "levels of description" in the above block quote.) I've also blogged this concept before: "Can you give a neurological or evolutionary explanation of love without debunking the whole idea of love?"

By the way, that book review has several points that could be added to my list of ways blogs are better than books. The bias in favor of conclusions that come from riveting stories is huge.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Should kids have heroes?

In a long conversation about Tiger Woods, Robert Wright subscribes to Tiger's spin that one of his great failings was to let down kids who had viewed him as their hero. But my mom, Ann Althouse, sees this as a good thing. Here's the clip, with my partial transcript below:

Wright: Do you agree that this kind of really matters, in the sense that there's all these kids who are at an impressionable age, he was God . . . Do you agree that this kind of matters in terms of affecting the future behavior patterns of these kids who are worshiping him?

Althouse: . . . Maybe a good lesson is: don't have heroes. Don't look at these people -- these are just men; they're not gods. Maybe it's a little humility . . .

Wright: So you think it's good? . . .

Althouse: Yeah, yeah.

Wright: This is good for America's kids, to see that their heroes have feet of clay, so that they don't make the mistake of deifying other heroes?

Althouse: Hey, life is not a bed of roses -- learn it now, kids! No, I think kids should have values. And maybe they should be taught religious values or secular ethical values. But the idea that, oh, here is an icon, you should worship him -- I don't think that is good. I don't think those are good values. I think this idea of having heroes is not a good value.
Wright goes on to argue that it's futile to criticize "this idea of having heroes," because the idea is hard-wired into human beings, especially children. But I agree with my mom. I can't remember ever having a "hero" when I was a kid, or at any other time. And if I did, it was a ridiculous idea, not a concept that I'd insist remain untarnished for the kids of the present and future.

The clip below is their whole conversation on Tiger Woods. I don't generally follow sports, golf, Tiger Woods, etc., but Tiger Woods has turned out to be a very rich topic: in addition to heroism, they talk about race, Buddhism, addiction therapy, sex . . .

UPDATE: The same section I excerpted above is now featured in the New York Times.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Redistributive tipping

If you're an egalitarian-minded customer, shouldn't you tip in inverse proportion to the attractiveness and charisma of the server?

A gorgeous and charming waiter is going to make above-average tips. Therefore, if you believe in redistribution of wealth as a general principle, you should give that person a low tip, and use the money you save to augment your tips for the plainer servers.

But I've never heard of anyone doing this. I also doubt if any liberals I know give larger tips to lower-wage servers to compensate for their lower wages. They have one fixed percentage, and that's what they always tip. So, if one restaurant has prices that are double the prices at another restaurant, the waiter at the pricier restaurant will make twice as much in tips. It's straightforward class stratification, freely abetted by individual customers.

I know a lot of people (including myself) who claim to be fans of redistribution of wealth, but we don't neutrally apply that principle in all contexts. We want equality, but not too much equality.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Resigning by Twitter haiku, or senryu

A CEO resigns with quirky dignity by posting this on Twitter:

Today's my last day at Sun. I'll miss it. Seems only fitting to end on a #haiku.

Financial crisis
Stalled too many customers
CEO no more
That was all one tweet, but I've added the line breaks so it's in proper haiku form. The CEO is Jonathan Schwartz, and he resigned from Sun Microsystems.

I sent this to my dad, and he responded with (1) a correction:
These poems are senryu, not haiku. Same structure, but haiku are about nature and include a seasonal reference, while senryu are about human experience.
. . . and (2) a senryu of his own:
CEO only
of myself, if I resigned
who would take over?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Paradoxical theories of language, knowledge, and the absurd

My mom points out "the paradox of 'insisting' that words have no 'fixed or stable set of meanings'":

If you really believed what you are insisting, you wouldn't be insisting, you'd be, perhaps, entertaining a suggestion or toying with a notion or musing about the possibility, now wouldn't you?
She's reacting to this description posted on a wall in the Art Institute of Chicago describing an artwork by Bruce Nauman:
Human Nature / Life Death . . . insists on language's inability to deliver a fixed or stable set of meanings, conveying a deep suspicion about what constitutes truth, especially in the public realm.
She adds a great detail:
[W]hen I voiced these thoughts (to Meade) the museum guard overheard, laughed, and nodded knowingly.
It reminds me of one of my philosophy professors from back when I attended the University of Wisconsin, Keith Yandell, who has a knack for devastatingly concise refutations of theories that contradict themselves. For instance, he defined empiricism as the theory that we can only gain knowledge through sensory experience. Then he pointed out that this theory itself is not known to be true through sensory experience.

Another example of this kind of paradox (is there a name for it?) is the problem of the absurd. It's supposed to be a profound problem that our lives are "absurd," in the philosophical sense. That is, you take your life very seriously from day to day, but you can also take a step back and wonder if the whole thing is ultimately pointless, meaningless.

Now, that problem -- the problem of the absurd -- is itself a paradox, but it's not the kind of paradox that this blog post is about. The paradox I want to focus on is one that Thomas Nagel pointed out in his wonderful book Mortal Questions. The problem of the absurd contains a couple of subtle internal contradictions. And if you grasp these contradictions, you may start to feel that the absurd is not such a problem at all -- or at least, not a deeply troubling one. Nagel explains:
[A]bsurdity is one of the most human things about us: a manifestation of our most advanced and interesting characteristics. . . .

If . . . there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that does not matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

6 ways blogs are better than nonfiction books

I'm glad someone (Henry Farrell) has finally put into words what's been bothering me for years about nonfiction books (via):

[1.] I would estimate that about 80% of the non-academic non-fiction books that I do not find a complete waste of time ... are at least twice as long as they should be. They make an interesting point, and then they make it again, and again, padding it out with some quasi-relevant examples, and tacking on a conclusion about What It All Means which the author clearly doesn’t believe herself. The length of the average book reflects the economics of the print trade and educated guesses as to what book-buyers will actually pay for, much more than it does the actual intellectual content of the book itself.
A major defect of nonfiction books is that they're not blogs. (I'm obviously biased in making this statement because I'm not a book author but I am a blogger. On the other hand, I have good reasons for choosing to blog but not to write a book.) Ezra Klein points out one fairly obvious advantage blogs have over books:
[2.] It's possible to follow an issue in real time. People who really wanted to understand the health-care reform conversation were better off reading Jon Cohn's blog than any particular book or magazine. Did those people spend more time reading Jon and less time reading books? Probably. But it was time well spent.
Penelope Trunk's advice to people who want to write a book includes a couple further points, which complement Klein's:
People ask me all the time how they can get a book deal. ... But really, I'm telling you, you probably don't need to write a book. Every time I ask someone why they want to write a book, they have a terrible answer. ...

People who have a lot of ideas need a blog, not a book.

[3.] A blog is more immediate, so you’ll get better feedback. And getting feedback as you go is much more intellectually rigorous than printing a final compendium of your ideas and getting feedback from the public only when it's too late to change anything.

[4.] Many people think they have a ton of ideas and they are brimming with book possibilities when in fact, most of us have very few new ideas. If you have so many ideas, prove it to the world and start blogging. There is nothing like a blog to help you realize you have nothing new to say.
To rephrase point 4, a blog is an efficient and flexible test of the richness of a writer's ideas. A book also tests the richness of a writer's ideas, of course, but without the same efficiency and flexibility. A blogger has immense freedom to put out a mishmash of ideas that don't cohere to form a beautifully unified whole but nevertheless contain valuable insights. The author of a nonfiction book, in contrast, has to devote so much time to supporting a single thesis in the same time a blogger could have disseminated 10 (20? 50?) ideas on a variety of loosely related or even unrelated topics.

This tradeoff for the book author may be worth it if the result is the rare nonfiction book that thoroughly supports a ground-breaking thesis and is written lucidly enough to engage the minds of a general audience. (Flow, Stumbling on Happiness, The Moral Animal, In Defense of Food.)

[5.] But even this idealized scenario has another downside: The pressure on a nonfiction-book author to support a single, clear thesis means that the author has a stubborn bias in how they view the world. The author shines a spotlight on the facts that support the thesis, meanwhile sweeping inconvenient facts under the rug. Even the best nonfiction books suffer from this bias. Bloggers are biased too -- no one is objective -- but a blogger is likely to be far less invested in any particular thesis.

Of course, some people who have nothing new to say are going to disregard Penelope Trunk's advice and write nonfiction books anyway. And then what happens? My mom's answer to this question underscores point #1:
[6.] I just paid $25+ for a 300+-page book that was an expansion of an article from The Atlantic. I did that for a Bloggingheads diavlog, and — you'll see when it's up — the author scolded me for skimming. Did that open the door for me to scold her for padding? Readers and writers — we all have our tactics and must guard our own interests. You pad. I skim.
Yet, defenders of books will argue that the internet, with its relentless flood of free content that can be accessed as rapidly and vapidly as flipping channels on TV, diminishes the quality of our reading experience and thought processes. Nicholas Carr, in his widely linked article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?," said:
The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.

If we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with "content," we will sacrifice something important not only in our selves but in our culture.
Carr is right about the value of not just reading books but "any other act of contemplation." What Carr glosses over is that, in 2010, blogs as well as books can lead to "contemplation" that helps us "make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas." In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if, on any given day, more of the thinking being done in the world is spurred by a blog post than by a nonfiction book.

Anyway, who knows? This doesn't have to be a competition. All of the content we're talking about is just human thought expressed in words. We should accept it in whatever form it happens to present itself to us.

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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Sooner or later, love is gonna get ya

Two weekends ago, four days shy of a year after our first date, we made a peaceful, level-headed, and final decision to end our relationship. I don't plan to say much about it here, due to obvious privacy concerns. If that means I have to settle for a blog post like this that's somewhat dull and abstract, instead of publishing the more vividly revealing thoughts in my head, then so be it.

I have an unfortunate tendency, which I'm sure is very common, to obsess after a breakup over all the things that seemingly went wrong. A couple different kinds of regret are inevitable, but important to transcend: (1) feeling bad about all the things that, in retrospect, were wrong with the relationship (how could I have been so blind to how deeply problematic factors X, Y, and Z were?), and (2) feeling bad about how good things used to be (how am I ever going to find such a perfect match again?). It's like Woody Allen's lame joke in Annie Hall: relationships are the restaurant where people say, "The food at this place is really terrible ... and such small portions." In response to point 2: I know, and I try to remember, that you can never get back the past. It doesn't matter whether you'd like to or not; you won't. (This is true of relationships in general, not just breakups.) In response to point 1: I'm reminded of some wise words someone told me years ago:

If you make sure that nothing bad ever happens to you, you'll also make sure nothing really good ever happens to you either.
I wouldn't trade the mix of good and bad times (mostly good, by far) that we had together over the past year for anything. They were flawed and beautiful. No one other than two people will ever know about them; I simultaneously relish and cringe at that fact. 2009 may have been a pretty dismal year for the country as a whole, but it was a great year for me. At the same time, I have to believe there's someone better out there, for both of us. It's popular and palatable, as a single person, to claim you're "not looking for a relationship." I'd love to say I'm totally self-reliant and don't "need" someone else. But it's not true. I just don't know who it is yet.

For now, I'll be reflecting on how I can fine-tune "what I'm looking for," consciously doing things we used to do together and accepting that they're still worth doing, overinterpreting every love song playing in the background...

Friday, February 5, 2010

Birds play guitar

This is a snippet from an experimental art piece by Celeste Boursier-Mougenot.

And there's some experimental guitar playing by one finch who uses a twig as a guitar pick.

A similar installation -- with finches landing on other instruments as well as guitars -- will be in London starting later this month and going through May.

(Via Boing Boing, via Metafilter, where the music is called "some of the best angular, atonal, postpunk, improvisational guitar I've heard in a while.")

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What a good little atheist you've been!

Susan Jacoby says, in her new Washington Post column (or is it a blog? what's the difference anymore?) called The Spirited Atheist:

I was somewhat taken aback recently when I found myself on a list of "kinder, gentler atheists"--most of them women--compiled by a religious historian attempting to distinguish between socially acceptable atheism and the presumably mean, hard-line atheism expounded by such demonic figures as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett. This nasty versus nice dichotomy is wholly an invention of believers who are under the mistaken impression that atheism is a religion in need of a good schism. ...

Pleased as I was to find myself on a list in the company of such other spirited atheists as Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of the witty, recently published "36 Arguments for The Existence of God: A Work of Fiction," and Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of "Doubt: A History" (2003), it is nevertheless slightly insulting to find your name used not only to place female atheists in a special category but as a foil for a mythical enemy known as the New Atheists. The latter consist, in [the author, Stephen] Prothero's view, mainly of Angry White Men who believe that all religious people are stupid and that "the only way forward is to educate the idiots and flush away the poison."
Here's the article she's talking about, in which Prothero extensively criticizes the anti-religion writings of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Dennett without deigning to summarize any of their actual ideas. This has become the norm in critiques of the "new atheists": don't bother to engage with what they've written; simply declare that they've gone horribly awry and hope that your readers trust this conclusion. (I've complained about this before; see point #4 in this blog post about David Brooks.)

Meanwhile, Prothero describes a female atheist's presentation at a recent atheist conference as down-to-earth, emotional, and maternal (I don't even like referring to her as "a female atheist" rather than just "an atheist" or "Amanda Gulledge," but Prothero focuses on her gender as if it were her defining characteristic):
Amanda Gulledge is a self-described "Alabama mom" who got on her first plane and took her first subway ride in order to attend this event. Although Gulledge stood up on behalf of logic and reason, she spoke from the heart. Instead of arguing, she told stories of the "natural goodness" of her two sons who somehow manage to be moral without believing in God or everlasting punishment. But the key turn in her talk, and in the event itself, came when Gulledge mentioned, in passing, how some neighborhood children refuse to play with her sons because they have not accepted Jesus as their personal savior.
I do admire Prothero's article for drawing attention to how a softer, more anecdotal approach to critiquing religion has advantages over the more rationalistic, scientific approach of someone like Dawkins. That is a point worth making. But I'd like to see more focus on the commentators' actual words and ideas rather than their demographics. Framing the debate in terms of gender is probably a good way to drive more web traffic to an article like this, but we should be wary of attempts to reduce the atheist movement to conveniently PC gender stereotypes.

Finally, I feel compelled to point out that Prothero repeatedly criticizes Harris/Hitchens/Dawkins/Dennett for being not just men but white men. While he at least analyzes the gender angle, he doesn't bother to explain why the race of those writers is supposed to be a problem. (He doesn't clarify if any of the atheists who do earn his seal of approval are non-white.) It's as if we're supposed to smirk and nod in knowing recognition of how silly those "angry white men" are for being so white and so male. This kind of critique should not be an accepted part of the public discourse, but that's a subject for a whole other blog post.