A noble attempt at fighting viral racism. But is it telling only half the story?
As the tide of refugees rises in Europe, so does the frequency and amplitude of some very nasty rumours about these "others."
These rumours echo historical slander against Jews, Gypsies, and other groups of outsiders previously seen as threatening. You’ve probably heard variations of some of these:
Their customs are barbaric and they hold ours in contempt; they don’t feel bound by our rules and laws; they get preferential treatment from the government; they harass, rape, and kill; they have too many children, and they’re here to "take over."
Many of these stories are very specific and detailed, and thus sound convincing. Yet they usually have no clear source, and often they grow taller in the telling. It’s the classic urban legend syndrome, seasoned with a dose of racism — and enhanced by Twitter, Facebook, and other modern means of communication.
One concerned German netizen has decided to fight back against this rising tide of viral xenophobia.
“Since the middle of last year, we’re witnessing an increasing trend of rumours about asylum seekers going viral — ranging from them poaching swans to desecrating graves. Those stories are collected here,” writes Karolin Schwarz on Hoaxmap, which has gone live on 8 February.
Hoaxmap uses a map of Germany and Austria as the geographic backdrop for a growing collection of rumours reported and invalidated. Each rumour is described, dated, localized, categorized — and refuted, with a link to the evidence. Some examples:
By far the most widespread rumour involves sex crimes committed by refugees.
And on and on it goes. The rumours, 200 and counting, are depressingly repetitive. They paint a picture of a world in which all of Germany's and Austria’s horses and swans are rapidly disappearing into refugees’ cooking pots; towns and cities are handing out money, mobile phones, and other favours to ungrateful, thieving newcomers; and girls and women are no longer safe to walk the streets, for fear of being raped and killed.
But most of all: They reflect a world in which these rumours are fabricated, out of fear or malice, and are spread faster than ever before, via social media. Even if lies like these are refuted by the traditional press, most people remember the screaming front-page headline, not the grudging correction buried on page 54. Intentionally or not, these rumours create a climate in which extremist attitudes and politics can thrive.
So at the very least, Hoaxmap is a noble attempt to fight back against the rising tide of hate for "others." But perhaps its good intentions are also a fatal flaw. Case in point: Zoom in on Cologne. Nothing. As some will recall, the city on the Rhine was the scene of mass assaults last New Year’s Eve, reportedly perpetrated by as many as 1,000 men of foreign extraction, with numerous thefts and some rapes reported to the police.
Quite probably, these incidents fueled some of the hoaxes reported after 1 January — exposing the complex relationship between actual news and malicious rumour. By only reporting refuted incidents, Hoaxmap is vulnerable to the criticism that it obscures the magnitude of a very real problem. Would it not be more useful to produce a map that tracks both real and false incidents?
Map found here (in German only). Many thanks to Peter Dupont for pointing it out.
Strange Maps #765
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- The meaning of the word 'confidence' seems obvious. But it's not the same as self-esteem.
- Confidence isn't just a feeling on your inside. It comes from taking action in the world.
- Join Big Think Edge today and learn how to achieve more confidence when and where it really matters.
If you're lacking confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, try writing your life story.
In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- 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.
A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.
- Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
- If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
- It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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