Don’t Write Articles Like This
Tauriq Moosa is a tutor in ethics, bioethics and critical thinking at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. He is currently pursuing a Masters degree at the Centre for Applied Ethics, Stellenbosch University. He has published essays and articles on practical ethics, focusing on subjects like free expression, killing, sex, and religion in public life. He debated religion with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the BBC documentary, the Tutu Talks, and has been featured on local radio shows. He is also an avid comic book writer and reader.
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I’m looking at Jonathan Jones’ incredibly bizarre article in The Guardian (of all places), which undermines and short-circuits an important moral discussion, about Tony Nicklinson and the right to die. I’ve previously written about Tony Nicklinson and the ethical justifications for his decision. It is important for us to have these discussions, to engage in multiple views, even if we disagree, since the complexity means inviting perspectives we otherwise consider "obviously" wrong. However, even the side we consider wrong can still couch their views in being interested in the arguments, in the situation, without undermining the unfortunate people suffering.
What we should not do is write articles like Jones', which bizarrely offers contradictory ideas in the same breath, inserts bland and bizarre comparisons (to an artwork? Really?!), and offers nothing to the debate.
Mr Jones begins his strange piece by correctly describing Mr Nicklinson’s state.
“Nicklinson is totally helpless, unable to move, yet his mind is fully agile. Modern medicine means he may live another 20 years if he is not allowed the option of euthanasia. It is more than easy to understand why he appears in such despair.”
This might portray Mr Nicklinson as being in perpetual despair – which, according to his and his family’s Twitter account, isn’t entirely true – but that’s not important for now.
“It seems monstrous of us even to be sitting around discussing his case, the philosophical pros and cons, while he suffers in this very visible way despite having clearly and lucidly declared that he wants his life to end.”
I don’t quite know what to make of this. It seems merely an emotional assertion. To whom does it seem monstrous? Jones doesn’t say. “Monstrous” is not a reason not to do something, just as a “disgusting” isn’t sufficient for criminalising. What I think monstrous – keeping someone alive who wishes not to be – and what Mr Jones thinks monstrous – tthat we’re even discussing it – differs, so it can’t be good basis upon which to reason morally. But the other reason is that discussing the philosophical pros and cons, which Mr Nicklinson and his supportive family have been doing for some time now, is essential: it can change minds, it can influence the law, it can reduce suffering of future people caught in such horrible situations, so that they need not be kept alive against their will. Comparing Mr Nicklinson to a piece of art, as Mr Jones does later – I am not kidding – seems to me, if not monstrous, than entirely and utterly unhelpful to this important discussion.
“Video images of this locked-in man's fury and misery are powerful evidence in support of his case. At least, that is presumably why he and his wife allowed a camera to film him at such an intimate and shattering moment… The crying face of Nicklinson speaks eloquently of his desire to die. Is this an exploitative use of a sick man's image? On the contrary, it is clearly his best available way to get his message across, to communicate his anguish.”
Though I think some might perceive Jones as being cynical or malicious, I think we ought to read him in the best light here. This is merely an assessment of the situation and, I think, probably correct. The problem is what occurs after this.
“And yet, I think it backfires. The image of Nicklinson in despair makes a case for life, not death. I see a lot of life in this man.”
Look carefully at these two sentences: “The image of Nicklinson in despair makes a case for life, not death.” And “I see a lot of life in this man.”
What does Mr Jones mean by life? Biological life? Even if we assume that Mr Nicklinson could, with proper medical care survive for as long as anyone else, that is not a reason to oppose his decision. Mr Nicklinson does not want mere biological life. The “life” he wants is forever denied him; the life of a normal, moving, self-reliant and “dignified” adult is completely gone.
On what basis, then, is Mr Jones asserting that he sees “a lot of life in this man”? Nicklinson has told us himself what life he wants and that life is no more; what he does have, he doesn't want. Is Mr Jones telling Mr Nicklinson that the latter is wrong? Why? By what standards is Jones saying Nicklinson's view of his own current life is mistaken?
We're not told.
“They are the responses of someone who despite everything, is heroic and tragically strong. Is that someone who should be put to death, however "good" the intentions?”
What does this even mean? Mr Jones appears to be saying that because someone is “heroic and tragically strong”, that this person should not have the right to decide to end his life because that’s not “someone who should be put to death”. That’s a circular argument: because a person is heroic and strong, he shouldn’t be killed. He shouldn’t be killed because we shouldn’t kill people who are heroic and strong. This is a not helpful at all.
“I am wary," says Jones, "of comparing this man's tears with images of sorrow in art.” He then proceeds to do just that in a passage that adds nothing to the discussion, or even to his “argument”.
“Her [Picasso's Weeping Woman's] face is a jagged splinter of suffering, her eyes stars of shattered normality. Her handkerchief is an exploding bomb. Yet her knotted mask of pain is somehow cathartic: out of her agony comes life, in the form of a tear that is a revitalising river.”
Yes, you are reading the same post. What he’s getting at in a very bizarre way is the tired argument that anguish is strengthening, or, as he says, “In these works of religious art the extremity of despair is somehow liberating, the pain of the worst thing imaginable releases a supreme pathos.”
“Lest this be mistaken for a Christian point of view, these tragic works of religious art echo the sorrows of pagan ancient Greece. The most famous image of suffering in the Renaissance was an ancient statue dug up in 1506 of the pagan priest Laocoön being strangled by snakes, his face a contorted image of pure suffering. This statue reflects the emotional depths of Greek tragic theatre which gave us the word "catharsis" in the first place.”
This paragraph is never tied into the post. This and the previous paragraphs are space fillers in a post that ties nothing up, offers no argument, but with a wink-and-a-nod, implies that Mr Nicklinson’s suffering is the sign of a good person that we ought not to let die. Because apparently we don’t let good people die.
But these are not arguments. They don’t justify why we should (or don’t? Again, it’s not clear) let good people die. Surely, that a good person is suffering, that a good person has no life that he wants left, is precisely why we should respect him enough to end his life, at his choosing, with dignity? Mr Jones never clarifies what he means by “plenty of life”, when there’s ample evidence of the contrary. And if he means “biological life”, then that is morally meaningless to this discussion.
This really might be one of the worst pieces of writing, but, furthermore, it’s worse still for invading a complex, difficult discussion that is not aided by stupid paragraphs about art history and Greek mythology.
UPDATE 1:Mr Nicklinson lost the case and died six days later. This is both saddening, but also good - for him. His suffering is now over.
UPDATE 2: Iain Brassington is I think equally disastisfied and horrified by other kinds of responses, especially the smug insensitivity emerging from certain religious corners.
Image Credit: Mopic/Shutterstock
It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction
- It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
- If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
- The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.
- The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
- You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
- This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.
Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.
Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.
The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.
Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv
Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.
The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.
While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.
One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.
"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"
Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.
The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.
Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.
Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.
- Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
- Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
- The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.
The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.
To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.
In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.
An "unthinkable" engineering project
"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.
One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.
The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.
Source: Wolovick et al.
An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.
But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.
Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.
"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.
"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."
A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.
"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."
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