The Phrenological Slope of the Post

Do some blog-brains have a pronounced proclivity propelling profuse postings, and can the inclination be felt in the shape of their skulls? A blogger has fallen from grace with the blogging sea. I’ve been meaning to post on the phenom, and even though it’s old news in today’s Blogger Ocean, where tides rise and fall every few minutes instead of twice a day, here goes.

Phrenology was taken for a serious science in the late 1800s, and occupied thinkers from all occupations. I first learned about phrenology back at CSUDH, reading “Moby Dick” in an American Lit. class taught by Abe Ravitz. The idea behind phrenology was that a person’s predilections, proclivities, and personality could be read by feeling the shapes of the person’s head, its bumps and curves and slopes. The person doing the feeling was the phrenologist. There may be some basis for comparing the phrenology of the 19th Century to the neuroscience of the 21st.

Can a blogger post too much? Frequent blogging appears to be an acceptable practice as long as the blogger does not repeat posts, but there are rules within rules, so it is okay to repeat a post as long as the previous post is properly cited, even if the post is one’s own. A post of one’s own should not (recent criticism makes clear) with a change of venue be presented as a new post. So, what bump within the neuroscience journalist Jonah Lehrer’s head provoked the young but already venerable writer and speaker from doing just that? What pressures build in the brain from the habit of frequent posting?

I’ve been reading Jonah’s blog, The Frontal Cortex, for some time. The first time I mentioned it in the Toads, I hasten to cite, was on November 21, 2009, in a post titled “This Is Your Brain on Books.” Your brain on posts, apparently, looks and feels differently. I still like Jonah’s work, and find much of the recent criticism following his reposting old posts and ideas previously sounded elsewhere to his blog following a change of venue to The New Yorker somewhat opportunistic (taking advantage of the breaking news to call out Jonah on issues having nothing to do with the current topic), exaggerated (sounding like the Queen in “Alice”), and off point.

The electronic world never sleeps. Surely, the brain feels this, and posting can be addictive, and so can the attention a writer might crave. Over at Twitter, we find writers whose followers number in the thousands. One simply can’t “follow back” that many tweeters, certainly not at the frequency many tweeters are known for. This is seen in blogs also. Does the blogger really want to write the blog everyone follows? In blogs begin responsibilities (follow link, and see Delmore Schwartz).

The best critical review of the Jonah Lehrer self-plagiarism issue I found at Slate, in an article by Josh Levin titled “Why Did Jonah Lehrer Plagiarize Himself? Because he stopped being a writer and became an idea man.” Levin says, in the last paragraph of his article: “A blog is merciless, requiring constant bursts of insight.” This is true of the daily blog, the hourly post, or every minute the blogger is awake blog. But Levin is even more brutally honest: “Most of us journalists have one great idea every few months….” But there are so many different kinds of blogs, dedicated to so many pursuits. But maybe all blogs break down to two basic kinds, the serious (series, < Latin, promotions; ex ordine, no break) and the not so serious (enough posting for today; want to do some yard work). And where will the Toads go, adrift on the Blogger Ocean?

Follow-up, Jul 31, 2012: My sister Barb just sent me this from a Guardian blog: “Journalist resigns for fabricating Bob Dylan quotes.” The journalist? Jonah Lehrer.

Now is the Science of our Discontent: E. O. Wilson and the Sacrifice of Science

Why do humans sacrifice for one another, sometimes even giving their lives so that others may go on living? We are an exceptionally selfish species, if measured by our propensity to hoard, to covet power and control, to manipulate and coerce. Scientists appear to be part of the species. Nature published last August a new paper by E. O. Wilson, with Marin Nowak and Corina Tarnita, all of Harvard (Wilson, now 81), but we wonder what’s become of the peer review process when after publication 137 scientists see fit to call Wilson a heretic, signing a letter chastising Nature for publishing his argument. Of course there’s disagreement – no disagreement, no argument; no argument, no need to publish results. One would think the scientist would be the first to understand this. So what’s going on here?

Borrowing from the medical peer review scandal, about which we posted last October: In the Atlantic’s “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science,” David H. Freedman (November, 2010) said, “Though scientists and science journalists are constantly talking up the value of the peer-review process, researchers admit among themselves that biased, erroneous, and even blatantly fraudulent studies easily slip through it.” The motive appears to be funding. If you are a scholar at work on research on kin selection, it’s possible that Wilson’s breakaway article renders your work null and void. Yet most disturbing is the suggestion that many of the scientists signing the letter of discontent have not even read Wilson’s paper, or, if they have, have not studied the mathematics addendum, or if they have, have not understood the math. A Boston Globe interview (April 17, 2011) with Wilson, interestingly titled “Where does good come from?,” discusses the letter of discontent and his revised theory. According to the Globe, Richard Dawkins said, “It’s almost universally regarded as a disgrace that Nature published it.” That’s not a rebuttal; it’s an insult. Wired Science’s Brandon Keim summarized the support that does exist as well as opposing viewpoints: See “E. O. Wilson Proposes New Theory of Social Evolution.”

The crux of the matter was usefully stated by Robert B. Laughlin in A Different Universe (2005): “The pig-headed response of the science establishment to the emergent principles potentially present in life is, of course, a glaring symptom of its addiction to reductionist beliefs – happily abetted by the pharmaceutical industry, which greatly appreciates having minutiae relevant to its business worked out at taxpayer expense” (173). Laughlin defines emergence this way: “Emergence means complex organizational structure growing out of simple rules. Emergence means stable inevitability in the way certain things are. Emergence means unpredictability, in the sense of small events causing great and qualitative changes in larger ones. Emergence means the fundamental impossibility of control. Emergence is a law of nature to which humans are subservient” (200-201). Further, Laughlin explains, perhaps, both the medical research scandal and the dissing by so many scientists of Wilson’s paper: “A measurement that cannot be done accurately, or that cannot be reproduced even if it is accurate, can never be divorced from politics and must therefore generate mythologies” (215). What Laughlin is talking about is science that shifts in focus from explaining things based on “the behavior of parts to the behavior of the collective” (208). And that is precisely the direction taken by Wilson’s new paper.

The threat of Wilson’s change in focus is to the dominance of the individual, the single gene as well as the single person. When humans come together, the resulting behavior of the group is something different from the behavior of each individual within the group. The same may be true of genes. This is what Dawkins can’t tolerate, for the focus changes from competition, which his work is bound to, to cooperation, which is probably an emergent phenomenon. If we are to have the truth, it appears that someone in the scientific community is going to have to make a sacrifice. Perhaps E. O. Wilson already has.

Opening the Patient in Open Access Week; or, the Great Research Hoax

At first glance, The Atlantic’s “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science,” by David H. Freedman (November, 2010), about the inaccuracies, contradictions, reversals, and errors in medical and pharmaceutical research, looks like something out of the National Enquirer: can this hoax be, to this extent, true? Alas, Dr. John Ioannidis’s 2005 article, published in JAMA, goes unchallenged – its conclusion: “Contradiction…[is] not unusual in highly cited research of clinical interventions and their outcomes.” What this means is that 90% of your doctor’s advice about what you should or should not be doing health-wise is probably based on faulty or biased research. The timing of The Atlantic article, arriving in mailboxes in the middle of the international Open Access week, couldn’t be better. “Though scientists and science journalists are constantly talking up the value of the peer-review process, researchers admit among themselves that biased, erroneous, and even blatantly fraudulent studies easily slip through it,” reports Freedman.

Sponsored by SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, Open Access week seeks to raise awareness of Open Access initiatives worldwide. It’s possible that the Open Access movement will alleviate many of the pressures on researchers that have led to the problematic results described in The Atlantic article, primarily, as Freedman quotes Ioannidis, because “at every step in the process there is room to distort results, a way to make a stronger claim or to select what is going to be concluded.” But why? Why would researchers not want to discover what’s really going on? Because, Ioannidis says, “There is an intellectual conflict of interest that pressures researchers to find whatever it is that is most likely to get them funded.” It’s that conflict of interest that Open Access has the potential to cure.

Our friends the physicists have been both dipping into the infinite cookie jar of funding and publishing open access style for some time. It was at the FQXi Community site that we first became aware of Garrett Lisi’s paper “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything.” But if Ioannidis is right, and as the number of papers on string theory might suggest, most research probably reduces to simply that most everything is wrong. But, no worries, for Ioannidis concludes, at the end of Freedman’s piece in The Atlantic, that “Science is a noble endeavor, but it’s also a low-yield endeavor. I’m not sure that more than a very small percentage of medical research is ever likely to lead to major improvements in clinical outcomes and quality of life. We should be very comfortable with that fact.” Buckminster Fuller was very comfortable with that fact. Fuller thought it was necessary to pay for all the researchers on the bet that one of them would come up with a viable idea to pay for all the others and then some.

If science is a low-yield endeavor, what’s poetry? Still, Open Access holds the potential for improving the quality and honesty of research, publication, access, and discussion of scholarly papers in the sciences and the humanities. The irony of course is the cost associated with behind the pay wall journals coupled with the findings of Ioannidis. And why would the problem be any different in the Humanities? But will Open Access remedy the research problems discussed by Ioannidis? It’s possible, since the peer review process changes – with more eyes on the product, and the strength of closed and biased editorial voices of certain periodicals and coteries of peers is quieted down. What should we be reading? Open Access has the potential to open the walled cherry orchard to everyone with an appetite, for is 90% of our poetry critics’ advice about what we should be reading also based on faulty and biased research? Ioannidis and his meta-researchers have uncovered a hoax, one that’s been a long time in the making and continues to sicken the patient.

Gaggle Me-Researcher Project Spilled on WankiLeaks

Gaggle, a new Internet start-up whose IPO and purpose have been double-secret rumors for months (it’s not yet clear if Gaggle portends a new great vowel shift or if there’s a schism in the works), has just had its cover blown by WankiLeaks, the surreptitious, hole-and-corner whistle-blowing site.

According to the story just leaked, Gaggle’s primary project is called “Gaggle Me-Researcher.” You enter your information in the Gaggle Me-Researcher tool, and it reveals “thyself,” which you can then come to know.

Using a kind of sic et non computer code, Gaggle Me-Researcher collects all the data from your computer, from your email, your social networking sites, your documents, your Excel files, your photos – any program, file, or folder beginning with “My.” It also collects all of the data from all of your friends’ computers, from anyone ever connected to your computer in any way, including spammers – the information, the data, from anything you’ve ever touched using your computer. Gaggle Me-Researcher then compiles a comprehensive profile of you, called “Meself.”

It’s not yet clear how Gaggle Me-Researcher collects your DNA, but it apparently does. This allows Gaggle Me-Researcher to trace the individual user’s “self-data” all the way back to Mitochondrial Eve or Y-chromosomal Adam. Thus, ultimately, according to Professor emeritus Stephen Jama of South Santa Monica Bay College, insider consultant to the Gaggle Me-Researcher project, to “know thyself,” is to know everyone else.

According to WankiLeaks, Gaggle’s introductory offer will include the catchy claim, “It’s never been easier to ‘know thyself.’”

“Ask not for whom the whistle blows,” Professor Jama concluded, somewhat cryptically, “it blows for thee.”