Conspiracy in the News: 30 Jan 2011

January 30, 2011

Like Douglass MacArthur, I have returned. Unlike MacArthur, I bring with me the best in conspiracy. We could go on for a few hours about the wild-assed speculation about events in Egypt. Personally, I think that the withered, gnarly hands of the pharaohs are behind them, but we’re going to sidestep that for now.

Conspiracy Theory of the Week:

RJB


All Hail Akhenaten!

January 30, 2011

Our chum Akhenaten has designed a new logo for Skeptical Humanities, the “Shakespearean Facepalm.” It is perhaps the most awesome arrangement of electrons in the history of computer screens.

The image comes the Shakespeare memorial in the Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey:

The statue was funded by Alexander Pope, designed by William Kent, erected by Peter Scheemakers and perfected by Akhenaten. Thanks so much!

RJB


Psychoanalytic Literary Theory: Where Freud Ended Up

January 27, 2011

I’m suspicious of literary theory, and, as you might imagine, this is a problem for someone in my profession. A lot of criticism is grounded in philosophical positions that seem to me unproven and possibly unprovable. This, of course, is not their problem, but mine. Nonetheless, I would very much like to single out one school of literary theory and beat it savagely as a warning to other schools of theory. I am talking about psychoanalytic literary theory.

The purpose of psychoanalytic theory has always eluded me. I mean, as far as I can tell, even what constitutes the object of psychoanalytic critique is in doubt. I have seen psychoanalytic literary criticism directed at authors, works, characters in the works, even entire cultures. Once, and I swear I’m not making this up, I saw an author claim (and publish, fer cryin’ out loud) that Much Ado About Nothing had analyzed him.* I mean, what does that even mean? Professional psychiatry, with the exception of a dwindling cult of hardcore Freudians, has long recognized that Freud’s understanding of the mind was fundamentally flawed. Why is it so hard for literary theory to jettison Freud?

My personal objections to Freud stem from his misunderstanding of memory, which was very important to my dissertation on the memoirs and fiction of WWII combat veterans. The model of memory that Freud employs is pretty much at odds with everything that we know about how memory works from empirical studies. Central to psychoanalysis is the idea of repression, that traumatic events get displaced, forgotten from the conscious mind, but can still exert influence on the conscious life. Memory is, to Freud, similar an object that gets tucked away in the attic of memory, one which the analyst and patient must dislodge and bring to light. The memory is whole and essentially unchanging.

Most laboratory findings, however, refute this model of the mind. Memories are not mental objects; they are representations of events reconstructed anew with each remembering, subject to decay and alteration over time. Most importantly for any discussion of Freud, the more traumatic an experience is, the more likely we are to remember it, a process that seems to be governed by stress hormones. Indeed, there is no good evidence for “memory repression” in the Freudian sense. So-called “recovered” memories don’t count, because it is entirely possible to plant memories that are indistinguishable from regular memories–we can’t even in principle distinguish the two. Yikes!

If you think about it, psychoanalysis and literary interpretation have a lot in common, and depending on how far you are willing on how far you are willing to go, they may ultimately be variations of the same process. At a basic level, psychoanalytic criticism allows you to say that “A” equals “B.” That is, it is an exploration of metaphor, an examination of something expressed in terms of something else.  This also underlies an important (and true) assumption of literary criticism, that the “texts” we are examining often mean something more than what they literally say.

Often, however, I think that people run too far with the comparison and mistake the metaphor for the real thing. This is perhaps most prominent in the area of psychoanalytic theory that purports to look at “cultural or social memory,” the shared narratives that knit together large groups of people. A claim that might come out of this area of study would be, for instance, “America has expunged from its national memory the one of the greatest holocausts ever perpetrated by humanity, the displacement of Native Americans.” Academics, in this case, take an inadequate model of the human mind and use it for a metaphor for how societies remember, then they mistake the metaphor for the actual historical process of building up a national narrative. In its more flamboyant forms, what is being repressed, because it is naturally hidden, turns out to be…whatever the academic’s kink is. If it’s imperial conquest, they find imperial conquest. If it’s patriarchy, they’ll find patriarchy. If it’s pandas, they’ll find pandas. When A (the text) is defined and B is perfectly hidden, waiting to be “discovered” or “uncovered” by the theorist, well, you get widely divergent and often silly interpretations. When you are allowed to substitute any word or idea for any another word or idea, hell, you can make anything mean anything that you want! Postmodern criticism that finds the meaning “outside” of the text is especially vulnerable to this type of goof, and when you fuse the two in Lacan, you get unfettered bollocks.

I’m not saying that this might not be a useful exercise in some cases–I glean a lot from the historical research that informs much of this type of literary criticism. I think that the way in which that context is applied does not add much to the actual knowledge about the text the critic is analyzing. I suspect, and this has been said of Freud, that you learn more about the critic than you do about the object of criticism at this point. This in itself, however, has the potential to be a useful poetic, creative, and artistic project in its own right, and I wonder if that is not the one saving grace of psychoanalytic criticism– that it is the artistic synthesis of a creative mind.

But who’d want to read it?

So, what’s the “proper” use of Freud? I think that question is up for debate, but I would use Freud sparingly. Freud transformed all he touched, and I think that it is an important area of scholarship to show the influence that Freud’s ideas had on culture. So, you need to have his ideas in the back of your head (heheh) when surveying the art of the twentieth century, for instance. It would be nonsensical to look at the work of Salvador Dali and not consider the influence of psychoanalysis on his work and the work of other surrealists. Once we mistake his theories for useful models of how the mind actually works (say authors’ minds), however, that’s when we start to misuse him.

RJB

——-

*Krims, Marvin Bennett.  The Mind According to Shakespeare: Psychoanalysis in the Bard’s Writing. Westport: Praeger, 2006. Introduction, xv.


Dear Wikipedia, If You’re Going to Plagiarize…

January 26, 2011

Wikipedia takes a lot of heat. People enjoy complaining about it. Some argue that it is biased one way or another, just ask Conservapedia. A more serious complaint concerns its accuracy: since anyone can edit it, mistakes, jokes and lies inevitably sneak in.

Personally, I love Wikipedia: I want to marry it and have its children. It’s a great resource. If you want to find out some information about…almost anything really, and you want to do it quickly, Wikipedia is a useful place to start. Yes of course one must look at it carefully and skeptically, and one would probably want to verify most information before relying on it. But, hey, what’s that there at the bottom of the page? Is it a list of footnotes and sources? Yes, it is! Yee haw! Wikipedia also does a good job of flagging problems, such as a lack of citations, apparent bias and the presence of weasel words.

So, if used with care, it’s a good resource. It’s not a good source, however. I discourage students from citing it in papers for a number of reasons. For one thing, the content is constantly in flux: information that was there when a student wrote a paper may be gone by the time someone else reads the paper. And, of course, dubious content may be hiding among the reliable and verifiable information.

There are other problems as well. A few years ago, I was looking for some basic information on Francis Beaumont (I think it was he; the entry has changed, of course). I found what I was looking for, but the entry sounded very strange. When I reached the end, I realized why: there was a notice saying it had come from an edition of the Encylopedia Britannica that was no longer in copyright. There’s nothing wrong with that: it’s not plagiarism, and it’s not copyright infringement. It is, however, very old and out-of-date information. If I recall correctly, the entry had been written by Algernon Charles Swinburne. More recently, I have seen entries that apparently “incorporate” material from works no longer in copyright. This is even worse. How would you cite such an entry? You should cite the original source, but which bits come from the original source?

Another problem is plagiarism. The internet is rife with plagiarism. You can find the same phrase/sentence/paragraph/passage/entire article repeated over and over and over, often with the same typos. It can be virtually impossible to track down the original. Oh, in some cases Blogger A will properly cite his immediate source (Blogger B), but chances are that that isn’t the original, and Blogger B simply copy and pasted from somewhere else, without mentioning her source. Quite frequently, the repeated passage can be found somewhere on Wikipedia. I have always suspected that Wikipedia is usually the ultimate source of the plagiarized versions. I still believe that it often is, but occasionally, Wikipedia may include plagiarized material as well.

Case in point: I have been reading Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln (I am doing this, dear Reader, so you don’t have to). I spend about an hour reading the book and noting the many dubious claims. Then I spend several hours looking up the dubious claims. Then I bang my head a hard surface for a bit. Then I sit quietly petting a cat until I feel calmer. During the looking-up-dubious-claims phase, I often find myself drawn to Wikipedia. It’s certainly better than the conspiracy sites that either believe and repeat everything in Holy Blood, Holy Grail or think that HB,HG is just a smokescreen for a different conspiracy. Generally, I have found Wikipedia a good place to begin, and I use the footnotes/list of sources to follow up what I find there. But when I looked up Catharism, I found this:

This is the passage in question:

The dualist theology was the most prominent, however, and was based upon an asserted complete incompatibility of love and power. As matter was seen as a manifestation of power, it was believed to be incompatible with love.

The Cathari did not believe in one all-encompassing god, but in two, both equal and comparable in status. They held that the physical world was evil and created by Rex Mundi (translated from Latin as “king of the world”), who encompassed all that was corporeal, chaotic and powerful; the second god, the one whom they worshipped, was entirely disincarnate: a being or principle of pure spirit and completely unsullied by the taint of matter. He was the god of love, order and peace.

According to some Cathars, the purpose of man’s life on Earth was to transcend matter, perpetually renouncing anything connected with the principle of power and thereby attaining union with the principle of love. According to others, man’s purpose was to reclaim or redeem matter, spiritualising and transforming it.

This placed them at odds with the Catholic Church regarding material creation, on behalf of which Jesus had died, as being intrinsically evil and implying that God, whose word had created the world in the beginning, was a usurper. Furthermore, as the Cathars saw matter as intrinsically evil, they denied that Jesus could become incarnate and still be the son of God. Cathars vehemently repudiated the significance of the crucifixion and the cross. In fact, to the Cathars, Rome’s opulent and luxurious Church seemed a palpable embodiment and manifestation on Earth of Rex Mundi’s sovereignty.

Oooh, deja vu! Hadn’t I just read that somewhere? Oh, yeah, here:

But the Cathars carried this dichotomy much further than orthodox Catholicism was prepared to…. For the Cathars a perpetual war was being waged throughout the whole of creation between two irreconcilable principles–light and darkness, spirit and matter, good and evil. Catholicism posits one supreme God, whose adversary, the Devil, is ultimately inferior to Him. The Cathars, however, proclaimed the existence not of one god, but of two with more or less comparable status. One of these gods–the “good” one–was entirely discarnate, a being or principle of pure spirit, unsullied by the taint of matter. He was the god of love. But love was deemed wholly incompatible with power; and material creation was a manifestation of power. Therefore, for the Cathars, material creation–the world itself–was intrinsically evil. All matter was intrinsically evil. The universe, in short, was the handiwork of a “usurper god,” the god of evil–or, as the Cathars called him, “Rex Mundi,” ” “King of the World.”

….According to some Cathars the purpose of man’s life on earth was to transcend matter, to renounce perpetually anything connected with the principle of power, and thereby to attain union with the principle of love. According to other Cathars man’s purpose was to reclaim and redeem matter, to spiritualize and transform it….

In the eyes of the Roman Church the Cathars were committing serious heresies in regarding material creation, on behalf of which Jesus had supposedly died, as intrinsically evil and implying that God, whose “Word” had created the world “in the beginning,” was a usurper. Their most serious heresy, however, was their attitude toward Jesus himself. Since matter was intrinsically evil, the Cathars denied that Jesus could partake of matter, become incarnate in the flesh, and still be the Son of God….

In any case, all Cathars vehemently repudiated the significance of  both the Crucifixion and the cross….And…Rome, whose opulent, luxurious Church seemed to the Cathars a palpable embodiment and manifestation on earth of Rex Mundi’s sovereignty. (Holy Blood, Holy Grail, New York: Bantam-Dell, 1982, pp. 53-54)

This portion of the Wikipedia entry clearly seems to be a condensed version of the material in HB,HG (the parts in red appear nearly word-for-word in Wikipedia). If I found this in a student paper, I would call it plagiarism, and there would be consequences. I should note that the information is not wrong: it is one of the longest passages I’ve come across in HB,HG so far (close to two pages) that hasn’t contained questionable information. Still, the borrowing serves as an example of why Wikipedia should be viewed with skepticism.

ES


Guess Where I’m Going?

January 25, 2011

I won’t be writing about it much here, because I’ve been invited to write about it for a real, live skeptical magazine. I still might do a podcast about it here, but we’ll see what my schedule allows:

I’ve already been to a preliminary meetup held by the organizer, and it was very interesting. Apparently, saying that you can electrify women’s naughty chakras is actually an effective pickup line in some social circles. Clearly my sparkling personality, humor and preternatural wisdom is only worth so much against saying that you have the ability to deliver psychic thrills directly into ladies’ pants. Oh, well.

RJB


Conspiracy in the News

January 22, 2011

If the conspiracy theorists are to be trusted, it has been the most momentous week in the entire of global history, just like last week. And the rest of the world didn’t even manage to even notice. Shame on you, entire world.

Onto the news that is news to the rest of us:

 

Conspiracy Theory of the Week

Though it is in the spirit of the aflockalypse two weeks ago, this headline has a sort of “Beowulf is an anonymous medieval poem written by Robert Cotton in the 18th century”-quality to it (that’s an actual opening line from a paper Eve once received):

Wow. I mean. Wow.

RJB


FDR’s Paralysis: A Fortuitious Misdiagnosis?

January 21, 2011

A few days ago, an antivaxxer by the name Mayer Eisenstein made a comment that FDR may have gotten Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS) from a reaction to a flu shot. This, I found, is simply not possible because the first influenza vaccines were not available for far more than a decade after Roosevelt fell ill. So, big fake facts out of the big fake health guru.

Nonetheless, an interesting story lies behind Eisenstein’s painfully inaccurate mutterings. Roosevelt’s diagnosis of polio was made in 1921, after a string of misdiagnoses (the first doc said it was a bad cold, the second doc first diagnosed a blood clot in spine and then a lesion). The diagnosis that ultimately stuck is polio.

Several reasons appear responsible for the original diagnosis and why it remains a popular diagnosis today. First, Roosevelt fell ill in an era when polio was rampant, and several outbreaks had occurred in previous summers, mostly in cities. It’s a virus spread by interpersonal contact, either oral-oral or oral-fecal. Children are especially vulnerable. At the time FDR fell ill, polio was one of a fairly limited number of known diseases that caused flaccid paralysis, muscular weakening with no immediately obvious cause (like traumatic nerve damage).

After bouncing, metaphorically, from physician to physician, Roosevelt was diagnosed by Boston doctor Robert W. Lovett, who Pierce A. Grace describes “the leading American authority on polio.” He immediately diagnosed polio. It was a fairly late stage in the disease by this point, and he shortly thereafter began his slow recovery. I suspect that once his initial crisis had passed, the urgency of coming up with a diagnosis may have abated, but that’s speculation on my part.

Another factor that seems to have contributed to the story found in the biographies is the fact that on July 28, 13 days before he fell ill, Roosevelt had toured and visited a Boy Scout camp for disadvantaged city youth, something that Roosevelt delighted in. Historians have speculated, and this is the story that I was familiar with, that he contracted the disease while he was at the scouting event. I haven’t seen anything to suggest that there had been polio at the camp, but someone who is infected but not yet showing symptoms can be contagious. Regardless, it’s plausible that Roosevelt contracted polio at the camp, because the incubation period of the disease is between 3 and 35 days.

Other people have looked to the immense stress that Roosevelt had recently been under. He was in the middle of an especially saucy sex and vice scandal, in which a Senate Naval Affairs committee alleged that members of a vice-squad at a naval training facility under his command (and not necessarily AT his order) were reported to have engaged in sodomy while attempting to entrap homosexuals among recruits. Stress may leave people susceptible to infection, and perhaps there was a perfect storm of stress and filthy children that led to his contracting the disease, which was, after all fairly rare in adults.

And let’s not overlook FDR’s symptoms, the major one being progressive paralysis, which at its worst extended from his chest down and was ultimately permanent in his legs, accompanied by a fever (102 degrees). Marooned in a wheelchair for much of the rest of his life, Roosevelt certainly looked like a polio survivor (though remarkably few photos of the man in his wheelchair exist).

In the years following his disease, Roosevelt became an advocate of polio research and in 1938 founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which became known as the March of Dimes and supported the development of Jonas Salk’s vaccine. As a sort of recognition of his association with that organization (in 1946, the “March of Dimes” was the group’s annual fundraiser), the disembodied head of FDR now graces the US dime:

See?

Regardless of what condition Roosevelt suffered, his name will always be closely associated with polio.

As best I can tell, a serious challenge has been raised to the diagnosis of
polio. Now, as historical questions go, this is not as pressing an issue as, say, “Did the Holocaust happen?” but it is an interesting question, the type of point that you could possibly argue on Jeopardy if the question they accept is, “What is polio?” Hey, that could be worth money.

Anyway, in 2003 the Journal of Medical Biography published an article by Goldman, Schmalstieg, Freeman, another Goldman and yet another Schmalstieg (apparently the University of Texas was suffering from an outbreak of Goldman-Schmalstieg in 2003). The article, “What was the cause of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s paralytic illness?” The researchers looked at 11 features of the disease reported in FDR’s medical record. Then they did something called Bayesian Analysis, which as I understand it is a retrospective analysis of probability based on a subsequently established incidence rate (in this case of disease) in a population. So, they were asking questions like, “What is the relative probability that someone FDR’s age would have contracted polio versus GBS?” and “What is the relative probability that someone with polio would have fever versus someone with GBS?” (GBS, by the way, is a condition where the immune system, which has started fighting an infection, mistakenly starts to attack parts of the nervous system. Dr. House is always ruling it out.)

By comparing the features of FDR’s disease, the Goldman-Schmalstieg-infected Freeman makes a strong case that the GBS hypothesis is worth serious consideration (from Goldman):

Click to embiggen!

It really does seem as if most of FDR’s symptoms are most commonly associated with GBS. This is not, however, conclusive diagnostically. At the same time, it seems to me that a good Bayesian analysis would need to accurately determine the prevalence of the diseases and symptoms at the time, and I have no way of assessing that and still maintain a blog. The only way to do be sure of what Roosevelt had would be to tap his spine. Modern interventions gor GBS had not yet been developed, and the authors conclude that it is unlikely his treatment would have changed if FDR had a different diagnosis.

The nearly complete elimination of polio from the planet is a powerful testimony to the efficacy of vaccination, and one may wonder how the course of history might have been altered if Roosevelt’s intense interest in polio research had been redirected toward autoimmune disorder research. Whether he had it or not, FDR will always be closely associated with polio and the search for the cure.

RJB

References

Goldman, Armond, et al. “What Was the Cause of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Paralytic Illness?” Journal of Medical Biography 11.4 (2003): 232-240.

Grace, Pierce A. “With Reluctant Feet–The Story of FDR’s Struggle with Polio.” Journal of the Irish Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons 21.1 (1997): 58-61.


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