The Most Popular Politeia Posts of 2011

After more than two years of writing this blog, I still haven't learned how to predict how people will respond to my writing. The posts I am most proud of—and the ones I work the hardest on—often get relatively little response, while posts I dash off on the spur of the moment are sometimes the ones that get the most hits. Today I thought I would look back at the posts that were the most popular with readers last year:

“If Sarah Palin Were Black,” January 20, 2011

I can hardly take credit for this. In this post I simply discussed a hypothetical question Chauncey DeVega posed in 2010: how would we treat Sarah Palin if she were black? DeVega wrote that if Palin were black she never would have risen to political prominence in the first place. If she were black, he argued, “her daughter’s out-of-wedlock, ‘baby daddy drama’ would have been presented as an example of both pathological behavior and a dysfunctional family that is symbolic of the social problems in that community. If Sarah Palin were black, never would the poor decision making by the Palin family be marked off as challenges overcome, or deeds to be valorized.”

“Is America Broke?” March 16, 2011

As the debt ceiling discussions began to heat up last spring, I argued that the U.S. was hardly broke. The country had—and has—a large debt. But that is not the same thing as being out of money. The country's debt is counterbalanced by its enormous assets. The U.S. is easily rich enough and productive enough to pay its debt off. The reason the government can’t pay its bills—and the reason we accumulated this debt in the first place—is that we have made a political choice to borrow money rather than tax our citizens at the same level as essentially every other rich nation does. In other words, we can pay off our debt. We just don’t want to.

“America’s War in Libya,” March 22, 2011

In this post I questioned the wisdom of fighting a war in Libya—which at the time we insisted was not really a war—when the U.S. was already involved in conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. This is essentially the same issue we face now as we consider how to oppose the brutal regime in Syria. While I was glad to see the U.S. support a popular movement against a dictator in Libya—and I certainly welcomed the overthrow of Qaddafi—I warned against the illusion that military intervention can bring lasting positive change. It's all too easy for the U.S. to become part of the problem, rather than be the solution.

“Why Osama’s Death Matters” May 2, 2011

I wrote this post right after watching President Obama’s announcement that the U.S. had killed Osama bin Laden in an operation in northern Pakistan. Although Bin Laden may no longer have played much role in Al Qaeda’s operations, his death nevertheless represented an important symbolic victory. With Bin Laden gone, Al Qaeda began to look more like it has become: “a small, ineffectual group that has stood on the sidelines as real change sweeps the Middle East.”

“Is the Debt Ceiling Legal?” July 4, 2011

As the debt ceiling negotiations came to a head over the sumer, I considered the complicated question of whether it's constitutional for Congress to impose a debt ceiling on the government. The key point is that the debt ceiling does not merely prevent the government from spending more money, but also from paying back debts that Congress has already authorized it to incur. This was an issue after the civil war, Southern politicians sought try to repudiate government debts incurred during the Civil War. So in order to prevent politicians in Congress from using the threat of default for leverage—as they did last summer—the Fourteenth Amendment includes a clause that says “the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law... shall not be questioned.”

“Do Presidential Speeches Matter?” September 11, 2011

In early September, President Obama addressed a joint session of Congress to push a new $450 billion jobs plan. In this post I examined the conventional wisdom that the president can use what Teddy Roosevelt called “the bully pulpit” of his office to sway public opinion. As I wrote, there’s relatively little evidence that presidential speeches do much to affect public opinion, although it’s clear that presidents like to declare their support for ideas that are already popular. Political scientist Brandice Canes-Wrone has found some evidence that presidential speeches can pressure Congress to act, however.

Image of President Obama and Michelle Obama at the National September 11 Memorial from Chuck Kennedy

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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