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Teeming Links – July 19, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Locking Out the Voices of Dissent (Truthdig)
Chris Hedges on how the security and surveillance state, after crushing the Occupy movement and eradicating its encampments, has mounted a relentless and largely clandestine campaign to deny public space to any group or movement that might spawn another popular uprising.

Tomorrow’s Surveillance: Everyone, Everywhere, All the Time (TechCrunch)
What civil libertarians should be worried about isn’t online snooping and wiretapping. It’s the surveillance that’s already becoming pervasive, if not ubiquitous, throughout the real, physical world. It’s a government that knows where you are at all times, and has an indelible record of everywhere you’ve ever been, and everything you’ve ever done in any public space.

NSA scandal delivers record numbers of internet users to DuckDuckGo (The Guardian)
Gabriel Weinberg, founder of search engine with zero tracking, credits Prism revelations with prompting huge rise in traffic

DHS warns employees not to read leaked NSA information (The Washington Post)
The Department of Homeland Security has warned its employees that the government may penalize them for opening a Washington Post article containing a classified slide that shows how the National Security Agency eavesdrops on international communications.

The Social-Media Bubble Is Quietly Deflating (Bloomberg Businessweek)
New buzzwords have arrived: Big data and cloud companies are grabbing the imaginations of venture capitalists.

Thank You For Using The Internet! We Regret To Inform You That Your Free Trial Has Expired. (BuzzFeed)
The internet got us hopelessly addicted, all for free. Now we’re coming to terms with paying for it all.

Meat industry doesn’t want to tell you where your meat comes from (Grist)
Eight meat and livestock groups sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture in federal court in Washington Monday, July, 9, 2013, to block implementation of a new labeling rule that requires meat labels to detail where animals grown for meat were born, raised and slaughtered.

Global survey: Majority feel corruption has worsened, think governments can’t fix it (CBS News)
The protests that have raged globally in the past few months, from Turkey to Brazil, to the ongoing turmoil in Egypt, have appeared to share a common root: a widespread feeling of government mismanagement and cronyism.

Don’t Call Them Superheroes: An Interview With Zero and Dark Guardian of the New York Initiative (Disinformation)
They’re real-life “superheroes” trained in martial arts and parkour. They don’t wear bright superhero costumes or pose for photos with tourists. They live in no-frills apartments filled with exercise equipment and go out “on patrol.” And they’re setting up branches all over America.

The Glory of the Commons (Washington Monthly)
Jonathan Rowe’s brilliant posthumous meditation on the shared, non-commercialized realms of life that sustain us.

Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep by Jonathan Crary: Sleep is a standing affront to capitalism (New Statesman)
When hungry digital companies measure success in “eyeballs” is sleep the last remaining zone of dissidence, of anti-productivity and even of solidarity?

“World’s oldest calendar” discovered in Scottish field (BBC News)
“Our excavations revealed a fascinating glimpse into the cultural lives of people some 10,000 years ago — and now this latest discovery further enriches our understanding of their relationship with time and the heavens.”

Army admits helicopters buzzed town in Washington state (USA Today)
The Army apologizes for an unannounced chopper training mission over a town in Washington state.

Army apologizes for copters that ‘terrorized’ Port Angeles (Peninsula Daily News)
Army special-operations helicopters on a training exercise buzzed the Port Angeles area late Thursday night in an episode that the mayor says “terrorized my city.” Dozens of alarmed residents called police to ask what was going on and said the noise and lights panicked horses and other livestock. Residents said they were awakened from their sleep, and that spotlights stabbed down from the low-flying helicopters into their backyards.

Rupert Sheldrake and Jill Purce: Liberating Minds and Voices (Extraenvironmentalist)
In this talk Rupert Sheldrake and Jill Purce discuss the dogma of scientific materialism and the shaky foundations on which they are based. Jill demonstrates resonance with her voice and through leading the group with chants. Rupert discusses resonance and what its implications are for the scientific worldview.

Recommended Reading 41

This installment of Recommended Reading might almost be described as a special Apocalypse and Extinction edition, as evidenced by the first four items below. Today: A new book about the reality of mass extinction and the human race’s best strategies for survival. John Michael Greer on the entrenched historical tendency, especially among Americans, to posit and even long for all-encompassing apocalyptic disasters as a means of avoiding responsibility for the future. A consideration of why, in the face of the real-life threat of catastrophic climate change, we’re all likely to simply wring our hands and do nothing until it’s too late. Thoughts on the theological implications of our Orwellian society of total technological surveillance. Rupert Sheldrake on the parallels between bad religion and bad science. The sudden and widespread rise of belief in and about an afterlife, including among scientists. Read the rest of this entry

Recommended Reading 34

The Teeming Brain’s “Recommended Reading” series has been on hiatus since last November. And now it’s back, with a slightly altered/streamlined format (read: no graphics, just links and text) that’s more sustainable in the context of your trusty editor’s various other claims on time, energy, and attention.

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Madrid: Dignity and Indignation
Aaron Shulman, The American Scholar, Winter 2013

[EDITOR’S NOTE: An American ex-pat living in Spain — and deeply loving it — explains how the country’s apocalyptically awful socioeconomic situation is forcing him and his wife to leave. Reading his description of the situation, one can’t help but extrapolate from it and speculate about the possible preview it provides for what will happen, and already is happening, elsewhere, especially since the stated causes and progression of the crisis sound so very familiar here in, e.g., the United States.]

Spanish paro [unemployment] has already surpassed the worst levels of the American Great Depression. The Red Cross recently launched a campaign to combat hunger in Spain, redirecting resources previously dedicated to Haiti. More than one in every four children live in households below the poverty line. Things are bad in a way no one could have imagined even five years ago.

. . . . Spain’s unemployment figures depress me because they seem to presage collapse, but the reality of life in a country with so many unemployed is even sadder. Elisa and I relocated from Córdoba to Madrid this past April, and since then almost every day I see a corriente, or average, person rooting around in the trash in search of food — never mind homeless people, who now also have competition at soup kitchens and food banks. The border between the perennially homeless and the newly homeless is increasingly porous and irrelevant.

. . . . What brought Spain to this point? The Spanish economic boom in the years preceding the crisis was a grim parable described as a fairy tale we’re all familiar with: subprime mortgages, unchecked speculation, laughable regulation, political complicity—a world built on fictions. The Spanish version had a result even more disastrous than elsewhere because way too many of the country’s economic eggs were in the construction sector basket.

. . . . On top of the increasingly untenable work situation, the comportment of police in the face of demonstrations is becoming more brutal and frightening. In September we happened to leave Neptune Plaza just minutes before police began beating demonstrators who had nonviolently surrounded the congress. In a restaurant we watched live TV coverage of defenseless people holding up their hands and yet still receiving blows. The next morning a shocking video appeared of police launching projectiles in a train station. A few days later the head of the riot police was awarded a medal by the government.

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Killer Robots Must Be Stopped, Say Campaigners
Tracy McVeigh, The Observer, February 23, 2013

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The title and subject of this article would tend to invite scorn and skepticism for their seemingly over-the-top invocation of outlandish science fictional-type fears if it weren’t for the fact that, as described by the following excerpts, the imminent rise of autonomous killer robots, as well as the present rise of serious opposition to them by people in positions of authority and respect, really and truly is happening.]

A new global campaign to persuade nations to ban “killer robots” before they reach the production stage is to be launched in the UK by a group of academics, pressure groups and Nobel peace prize laureates. Robot warfare and autonomous weapons, the next step from unmanned drones, are already being worked on by scientists and will be available within the decade, said Dr Noel Sharkey, a leading robotics and artificial intelligence expert and professor at Sheffield University. He believes that development of the weapons is taking place in an effectively unregulated environment, with little attention being paid to moral implications and international law.

The Stop the Killer Robots campaign will be launched in April at the House of Commons and includes many of the groups that successfully campaigned to have international action taken against cluster bombs and landmines. They hope to get a similar global treaty against autonomous weapons.

“These things are not science fiction; they are well into development,” said Sharkey.

. . . . Last November the international campaign group Human Rights Watch produced a 50-page report, Losing Humanity: the Case Against Killer Robots, outlining concerns about fully autonomous weapons.

. . . . US political activist Jody Williams, who won a Nobel peace prize for her work at the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, is expected to join Sharkey at the launch at the House of Commons. . . “Killer robots loom over our future if we do not take action to ban them now,” she said. “The six Nobel peace laureates involved in the Nobel Women’s Initiative fully support the call for an international treaty to ban fully autonomous weaponised robots.”

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The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food
Michael Moss, The New York Times, February 20, 2013

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is simply riveting, and in a way that explodes an all-too-easy and glib dismissal along the lines of “Yeah, we already know junk food is addictive. So what else is new?” Moss names names and gives specifics in an article, adapted from his new book Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, that sounds like it could blow open the junk food industry in much the same way the famous 1996 Vanity Fair article that served as the basis for Michael Mann’s The Insider blew open the shady world of Big Tobacco.]

The public and the food companies have known for decades now. . . . that sugary, salty, fatty foods are not good for us in the quantities that we consume them. So why are the diabetes and obesity and hypertension numbers still spiraling out of control? It’s not just a matter of poor willpower on the part of the consumer and a give-the-people-what-they-want attitude on the part of the food manufacturers. What I found, over four years of research and reporting, was a conscious effort — taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery-store aisles — to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive. I talked to more than 300 people in or formerly employed by the processed-food industry, from scientists to marketers to C.E.O.’s. Some were willing whistle-blowers, while others spoke reluctantly when presented with some of the thousands of pages of secret memos that I obtained from inside the food industry’s operations. What follows is a series of small case studies of a handful of characters whose work then, and perspective now, sheds light on how the foods are created and sold to people who, while not powerless, are extremely vulnerable to the intensity of these companies’ industrial formulations and selling campaigns.

. . . . If Americans snacked only occasionally, and in small amounts, this would not present the enormous problem that it does. But because so much money and effort has been invested over decades in engineering and then relentlessly selling these products, the effects are seemingly impossible to unwind. More than 30 years have passed since Robert Lin first tangled with Frito-Lay on the imperative of the company to deal with the formulation of its snacks, but as we sat at his dining-room table, sifting through his records, the feelings of regret still played on his face. In his view, three decades had been lost, time that he and a lot of other smart scientists could have spent searching for ways to ease the addiction to salt, sugar and fat. “I couldn’t do much about it,” he told me. “I feel so sorry for the public.”

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Is Smart Making Us Dumb?
Evgeny Morozov, The Wall Street Journal, February 23, 2013

Teaser: A revolution in technology is allowing previously inanimate objects—from cars to trash cans to teapots—to talk back to us and even guide our behavior. But how much control are we willing to give up?

In 2010, Google Chief Financial Officer Patrick Pichette told an Australian news program that his company “is really an engineering company, with all these computer scientists that see the world as a completely broken place.” Just last week in Singapore, he restated Google’s notion that the world is a “broken” place whose problems, from traffic jams to inconvenient shopping experiences to excessive energy use, can be solved by technology. The futurist and game designer Jane McGonigal, a favorite of the TED crowd, also likes to talk about how “reality is broken” but can be fixed by making the real world more like a videogame, with points for doing good. From smart cars to smart glasses, “smart” is Silicon Valley’s shorthand for transforming present-day social reality and the hapless souls who inhabit it.

But there is reason to worry about this approaching revolution. As smart technologies become more intrusive, they risk undermining our autonomy by suppressing behaviors that someone somewhere has deemed undesirable. Smart forks inform us that we are eating too fast. Smart toothbrushes urge us to spend more time brushing our teeth. Smart sensors in our cars can tell if we drive too fast or brake too suddenly. These devices can give us useful feedback, but they can also share everything they know about our habits with institutions whose interests are not identical with our own. Insurance companies already offer significant discounts to drivers who agree to install smart sensors in order to monitor their driving habits. How long will it be before customers can’t get auto insurance without surrendering to such surveillance? And how long will it be before the self-tracking of our health (weight, diet, steps taken in a day) graduates from being a recreational novelty to a virtual requirement?

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Unlike: Why I’m Leaving Facebook
Douglas Rushkoff, February 25, 2013

[EDITOR’S NOTE: When somebody of Rushkoff’s status and stature as a commentator on the world of information technology goes and does (and says) something like this, you can know that a sea change is brewing.]

I used to be able to justify using Facebook as a cost of doing business. As a writer and sometime activist who needs to promote my books and articles and occasionally rally people to one cause or another, I found Facebook fast and convenient. Though I never really used it to socialize, I figured it was okay to let other people do that, and I benefited from their behavior.

I can no longer justify this arrangement. Today I am surrendering my Facebook account, because my participation on the site is simply too inconsistent with the values I espouse in my work. In my upcoming book Present Shock, I chronicle some of what happens when we can no longer manage our many online presences. I argue — as I always have — for engaging with technology as conscious human beings, and dispensing with technologies that take that agency away.

Facebook is just such a technology. It does things on our behalf when we’re not even there. It actively misrepresents us to our friends, and — worse — misrepresents those who have befriended us to still others. To enable this dysfunctional situation — I call it “digiphrenia” — would be at the very least hypocritical. But to participate on Facebook as an author, in a way specifically intended to draw out the “likes” and resulting vulnerability of others, is untenable.

Facebook has never been merely a social platform. Rather, it exploits our social interactions the way a Tupperware party does. Facebook does not exist to help us make friends, but to turn our network of connections, brand preferences, and activities over time —  our “social graphs” — into a commodity for others to exploit. We Facebook users have been  building a treasure lode of big data that government and corporate researchers have been mining to predict and influence what we buy and whom we vote for.  We have been handing over to them vast quantities of information about ourselves and our friends, loved ones and acquaintances. With this information, Facebook and the “big data” research firms purchasing their data predict still more things about us.

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Is it OK to be a Luddite?
Thomas Pynchon, The New York Times Book Review, October 28, 1984 (reprinted at The Modern Word)

The word “Luddite” continues to be applied with contempt to anyone with doubts about technology, especially the nuclear kind. Luddites today are no longer faced with human factory owners and vulnerable machines. As well-known President and unintentional Luddite D.D. Eisenhower prophesied when he left office, there is now a permanent power establishment of admirals, generals and corporate CEO’s, up against whom us average poor bastards are completely outclassed, although Ike didn’t put it quite that way. We are all supposed to keep tranquil and allow it to go on, even though, because of the data revolution, it becomes every day less possible to fool any of the people any of the time.

If our world survives, the next great challenge to watch out for will come — you heard it here first — when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge. Oboy. It will be amazing and unpredictable, and even the biggest of brass, let us devoutly hope, are going to be caught flat-footed. It is certainly something for all good Luddites to look forward to if, God willing, we should live so long. Meantime, as Americans, we can take comfort, however minimal and cold, from Lord Byron’s mischievously improvised song, in which he, like other observers of the time, saw clear identification between the first Luddites and our own revolutionary origins. It begins:

As the Liberty lads o’er the sea
Bought their freedom, and cheaply, with blood,
So we, boys, we
Will die fighting, or live free,
And down with all kings but King Ludd!

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Miracles and the Historians
Peter Berger, The American Interest, December 21, 2011

Modern science has achieved high credibility and prestige, not only for its intellectual plausibility, but because of its immense practical successes. Modern science, and the technology it has made possible, has fundamentally changed the circumstances of human life on this planet. One result of this has been the ideology of scientism, which asserts that science is the only valid avenue to truth. On the part of believers there has been the understandable impetus to present belief itself as being based on science. The prototypical figure in this has been Mary Baker Eddy, founder of a denomination aptly called Christian Science, with Jesus transformed into someone called Christ, Scientist. Not only does this do violence to the Jesus found in the New Testament, but equally so to science as an intellectual discipline. In the same line there have been attempts to establish a Christian economics, a Christian sociology, and so forth. Such constructions are as implausible as a Christian geology, or a Christian dermatology.

But there is something more fundamental involved in all of this: The refusal to accept the fact that there is more than one way to perceive reality.

. . . . If [the historian] wants to claim the status of “science” for his discipline, he has no alternative to following in the “naturalistic tradition”. The acts of God (miraculous or otherwise) cannot be empirically investigated or falsified. How the historian then looks at the same phenomenon, such as a Biblical account of ancient events, will obviously depend on his theology. If he believes in Biblical inerrancy — every sentence is literally true — he will definitely have some serious problems.  But there are other, more flexible ways of looking for revelation “in, with and under” the Biblical text. In that case, even the most rigorous historical scholarship cannot undermine the approach of faith.

Anomalies, Materialism, and the Liberating Death of Ufology

On November 4, The Telegraph reported that the field of ufology, at least as it’s viewed and practiced in Britain, may be dead or dying:

For decades, they have been scanning the skies for signs of alien activity. But having failed to establish any evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial life, Britain’s UFO watchers are reaching the conclusion that the truth might not be out there after all. Enthusiasts admit that a continued failure to provide proof and a decline in the number of “flying saucer” sightings suggests that aliens do not exist after all and could mean the end of “Ufology” — the study of UFOs — within the next decade.

— Jasper Copping, “UFO enthusiasts admit the truth may not be out there after all,” The Telegraph, November 4, 2012

This assessment comes from several expert sources, including Britain’s well-regarded Association for the Study of Anomalous Phenomena, which has scheduled a meeting to discuss the issue:

Dozens of groups interested in the flying saucers and other unidentified craft have already closed because of lack of interest and next week one of the country’s foremost organisations involved in UFO research is holding a conference to discuss whether the subject has any future. Dave Wood, chairman of the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (Assap), said the meeting had been called to address the crisis in the subject and see if UFOs were a thing of the past. “It is certainly a possibility that in ten years time, it will be a dead subject,” he added. “We look at these things on the balance of probabilities and this area of study has been ongoing for many decades. The lack of compelling evidence beyond the pure anecdotal suggests that on the balance of probabilities that nothing is out there. I think that any UFO researcher would tell you that 98 per cent of sightings that happen are very easily explainable. One of the conclusions to draw from that is that perhaps there isn’t anything there. The days of compelling eyewitness sightings seem to be over.” He said that far from leading to an increase in UFO sightings and research, the advent of the internet had coincided with a decline … The issue is to be debated at a summit at the University of Worcester on November 17 and the conclusions reported in the next edition of the association’s journal, Anomaly.

These developments are in turn linked to the recent closing of the UK’s official investigations into UFO phenomena:

The summit follows the emergence earlier this year of the news that the Ministry of Defence was no longer investigating UFO sightings after ruling there is “no evidence” they pose a threat to the UK. David Clark, a Sheffield Hallam University academic and the UFO adviser to the National Archives, said: “The subject is dead in that no one is seeing anything evidential.”

Obviously, this is all quite interesting. But more than that, it’s highly significant, and not just for people who are directly interested in UFOs. Despite the fact that the Telegraph article perpetuates the perennial rhetorical and philosophical foolishness of dividing the UFO-interested community into “believers” and “skeptics” (and also uses the word “enthusiasts” to maddening effect), it’s a very valuable piece of work, because it points to a deeply meaningful cultural moment for the study of anomalous phenomena, and also, more broadly, for our collective understanding of the relative meanings and statuses of anomalies, paranormal events, and material science. Read the rest of this entry

Recommended Reading 31

This week’s recommended reading includes: a warning about and meditation upon the possible dire consequences of the human species’ spectacular success in dominating the planetary petri dish; a profile of a literary journal devoted to injecting ancient wisdom into the wasteland of the modern cyber-soul; a beautiful explanation and defense of literature’s inherent resistance to being “understood” by algorithmic data analysis; information and opinions on Mind and Cosmos, the new book in which philosopher Thomas Nagel argues for the inadequacy of the standard materialist version of science; a warning and lament about the artistically decrepit state of American cinema; a long 1979 article, written in the immediate aftermath of the original Stars Wars movie, that examines both the movie’s seismic cultural impact and its origin in the mind and machinations of George Lucas; notes on a recent lecture given by psychological anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, famed for her research into the phenomenon of “hearing voices” and its psychological and cultural meanings; and a fascinating New York Times piece about a Greek island where people tend to live longer and healthier lives than anywhere else on the planet. Read the rest of this entry

Recommended Reading 29

This week, we bring you a roundup of readings spanning a rainbow of trends and topics, from the collapsing economy to the destruction of modern sociopolitical and cultural myths to the imaginal realm of shamanism, creativity, and mythic descents to the underworld.

More specifically, we have: a report on the U.S. Army’s stated criteria for recognizing potential terrorists, and why you and your coworkers probably meet one or more of them; an indictment of the Baby Boomers for destroying America (economically, ecologically) and leaving the wreckage to their children; a deep analysis of the current crack-up in the presiding Western myth of liberal individualism as bequeathed to us all by Adam Smith; an examination of the raging crisis in Western secularism as the implicit religiosity lying beneath the veneer of the secular mind is drawn to the surface; a paean to the lost joys of reading aloud; a scornful take on neuroscientific “discoveries” about the value of reading and the meanings of art; a first-person account of and reflection upon the imaginal and alchemical experience of descending into the underworld for death and reconstitution; and a brilliant exposition of the supreme value of poetic metaphor in the context of the deep linkage between shamanism and creativity. Read the rest of this entry

Recommended Reading 22

This week’s recommended reading includes: a report on the real-world rise of nightmarish SF-type threats from widely deployed nanobots; a satirical exposure of the essence of bipolar political demonization; a story from National Geographic on the way ancient Rome’s obsession with borders and wall-building was directly implicated in the empire’s fall; information about a new book exploring advertising’s insidious impact on our unconscious selves; a rather riveting examination of Alcoholics Anonymous and its still-unexplained effectiveness at treating addictions; and some sage words from Dr. Rupert Sheldrake about the dogmas that currently have a semi-stranglehold on science.

Read the rest of this entry

Recommended Reading 11

This week’s reading covers: social, political, economic, and cultural craziness and breakdown in America and Europe; a dystopian view of smartphones; an official CDC denial of a zombie holocaust in the wake of horrific incidents flooding the American media; the possible action of quantum effects in the macro-world; a cogent criticism of scientistic materialism in light of psychedelic experience and the mystery of consciousness; stories about and interviews with several leading figures in the new philosophy-spirituality-consciousness movement; a deep look at the economic imperialism of Amazon and the future of reading; thoughts from C.S. Lewis on why it’s always important to read old books along with new ones; and thoughts on the death of Ray Bradbury.

Read the rest of this entry

Scientism, the “social sciences,” and the assault on the human self

Maybe it’s the rise of “positive psychology,” “happiness studies,” “happiness economics,” and other attempts to quantify human happiness and gain a “scientific understanding” of it that has gotten under my skin. Maybe it’s the veritable tsunami of poll results and policy recommendations flooding through the collective consciousness during the current American presidential campaign season, all with the purported purpose of telling us what we think and how we should vote. Whatever the provocation, the following passages are hitting me really hard right now, and I commend them to your reflective reading.

From Neil Postman,Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992):

Technopoly wants to solve, once and for all, the dilemma of subjectivity. In a culture in which the machine, with its impersonal and endlessly repeatable operations, is a controlling metaphor and considered to be the instrument of progress, subjectivity becomes profoundly unacceptable. Diversity, complexity, and ambiguity of human judgment are enemies of technique. They mock statistics and polls and standardized tests and bureaucracies…It becomes necessary, then, to transform psychology, sociology, and anthropology into “sciences,” in which humanity itself becomes an object, much like plants, planets, or ice cubes. That is why the commonplaces that people fear death and that children who come from stable families valuing scholarship will do well in school must be announced as “discoveries” of scientific enterprise. In this way, social researchers can see themselves, and can be seen, as scientists, researchers without bias or values, unburdened by mere opinion. In this way, social policies can be claimed to rest on objectively determined facts.

[…] Unlike science, social research never discovers anything. It only rediscovers what people once were told and need to be told again. If, indeed, the price of civilization is repressed sexuality, it was not Sigmund Freud who discovered it. If the consciousness of people is formed by their material circumstances, it was not Marx who discovered it. If the medium is the message, it was not McLuhan who discovered it. They have merely retold ancient stories in modern style.

[…] [Scientism] is the desperate hope, and wish, and ultimately the illusory belief that some standardized set of procedures called “science” can provide us with an unimpeachable source of moral authority, a suprahuman basis for answers to questions like “What is life, and when, and why?” “What is death, and suffering?” “What is right and wrong to do?” “What are good and evil ends?” “How ought we to think and feel?”…To ask of science, or expect of science, or accept unchallenged from science the answers to such questions is Scientism. And it is Technopoly’s grand illusion.

From Theodore Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Post-Industrial Society (1972):

Can one help concluding that there is something more radically corrupted than humanist intellectuals suspect about a standard of intellect which requires a lifetime of professional study and strenuous debate, much ornate methodology and close research to produce at last a meager grain of human understanding, cautiously phrased and nearly drowning in its own supporting evidence? That people are very likely not machines…that love is rather important to healthy growth…that “peak experiences” are probably of some personal and cultural significance…that human beings have an emotional inside and are apt to resent being treated like stastical ciphers or mere objects…that participating in things is more rewarding than passively watching or being bossed about…how many books do I take up each year and abandon in anguished boredom after the first two chapters, because here once again is some poor soul offering me a ton of data and argument to demonstrate what ought to be the axioms of daily human experience? If our paleolithic ancestors were presented with these “controversial new findings,” surely far from applauding our deep-minded humanism, they would only wonder “Where along the line did these people become so stupid that they now much prove to themselves from scratch that 2+2=4?”

Fear and trembling in the medical-industrial complex

Asclepius, Greek god of healing and medicine

I’m tempted to exclaim, “Take that, medical-industrial complex! ” On the heels of a recent Atlantic article about the growing mainstream acceptance of “New Age” or alternative medical treatments comes one from The Wall Street Journal about the verifiable benefits of meditation, cognitive therapy, and other psychological interventions for chronic pain. The establishment, naturally, is quaking in its boots, especially since this trend is both arising from and contributing to the underscoring and highlighting of its fundamentally flawed (and evil) system that financially incentivizes “productivity” at the expense of authentic patient care.

Of course, my thoughts and feelings are strongly impacted by the many years I’ve spent in deep personal involvement with somebody who suffers from chronic health problems, including chronic pain, and who has been helped more by alternative treatment methods and modalities than mainstream ones. These methods and modalities are generally branded “quackery” by the mainstream medical mindset — even though several years of intensive treatments of the mainstream variety not only utterly failed to help but actively exacerbated the problems.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that the dawning new age of American medicine is part and parcel  of the gathering cultural-philosophical-scientific tide that promises to deal a death blow to physicalism, materialism, and scientism. Bob Dylan was right. The times, they are a-changin’.

The Triumph of New Age Medicine” — David H. Freedman, The Atlantic, July/August 2011

Medicine has long decried acupuncture, homeopathy, and the like as dangerous nonsense that preys on the gullible. Again and again, carefully controlled studies have shown alternative medicine to work no better than a placebo. But now many doctors admit that alternative medicine often seems to do a better job of making patients well, and at a much lower cost, than mainstream care — and they’re trying to learn from it.

[…] Every single physician I spoke with agreed: the current system makes it nearly impossible for most doctors to have the sort of relationship with patients that would best promote health. The biggest culprit, they say, is the way doctors are reimbursed. “Doctors are paid for providing treatments, not for spending time talking to patients,” says Victor Montori, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic. A medical system that successfully guided patients toward healthier lifestyles would almost certainly see its cash flow diminish dramatically. “Last year, 75 percent of the $2.6 trillion the U.S. spent on health care was for treating chronic diseases that, to a large degree, can be prevented or reversed through lifestyle change,” says Dean Ornish of UCSF. Who (besides patients) has an incentive to make changes that would remove that money from the system?

[…] [A] more open-minded consideration of alternative-medicine practices has become par for the course at medical schools. In recent years, the American Medical Student Association has co-sponsored an annual International Integrative Medicine Day, which, according to this year’s press release, “will increase awareness and availability of integrative medicine, promote inter-professional collaboration, encourage self-care, foster cultural awareness and enhance patient-physician communication” (an “infiltration of quackademic medicine,” blogged David Gorski, a surgical oncologist at Wayne State University and one of the more prickly anti-alternative-medicine warriors, in despair).

Thinking Away the Pain” — Jonah Lehrer, The Wall Street Journal, July 9, 2011

Despite the increasing prevalence of chronic pain — nearly one in three Americans suffers from it — medical progress has been slow and halting. This is an epidemic we don’t know how to treat. For the most part, doctors still rely on over-the-counter medications and opioid drugs, such as OxyContin and Vicodin. While opioids can provide effective relief, they’re also prone to abuse, which is why overdoses from prescription painkillers are now a leading cause of accidental death.

But there are glimmers of progress in the war against pain. New therapeutic approaches don’t target body parts or nerves close to the source of the problem. They don’t involve highly technical surgeries or expensive new drugs. Instead, they focus on the mind, on altering the ways in which we perceive the pain itself.

[…]A brain scanner showed how the intervention worked. Learning to meditate altered brain activity in the very same regions, such as the insula and anterior cingulate cortex, that are targeted by next-generation pain medications. It’s as if the subjects were administering their own painkillers.

[…]But meditation isn’t the only mind-based approach that has gotten impressive results. Researchers at Duke University recently looked at a wide variety of psychological interventions for chronic lower back pain, including cognitive behavioral therapy, biofeedback and hypnosis. In almost every case, these treatments proved effective, leading to improved health outcomes at a fraction of the cost of conventional medical approaches.

The larger lesson is that, for far too long, we’ve been treating pain as a purely physical problem, a sensation rooted in the breakdown of the flesh. As a result, we’ve invested in costly and often ineffective surgeries, such as spinal fusion, that attempt to fix the mechanical failure.

But this approach oversimplifies an extremely complex condition. It’s now clear that pain is best understood as a mental state concerning the body, an objective sensation terribly twisted by the brain. And that’s why these psychological interventions sometimes work better than scalpels: They help us to untwist our thoughts.

Photo credit: Nina Aldin Thune [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons