Anti-Intellectualism Exists for a Reason – but Not a Good One
Only two things will change the minds of science skeptics: appeals to their ego, or their wallets.
Margaret Atwood is a Canadian novelist, poet, and essayist. She is best known for her novels, in which she creates strong, often enigmatic, women characters and excels in telling open-ended stories, while dissecting contemporary urban life and sexual politics. She is among the most-honored authors of fiction in recent history. In addition to the Arthur C. Clark Award-winning "The Handmaid’s Tale," her novels include "Cat’s Eye," which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, "Alias Grace," which won the Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy, and "The Blind Assassin," winner of the 2000 Booker Prize. "Oryx and Crake" was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003. She was awarded the Prince of Asturias Prize for Literature in 2008. Her most recent novel is "The Year of the Flood."
Margaret Atwood: If you look at the history of what happened to Darwin when he published, what would you call that? Yes he was hugely attacked at the time. And it's often a case of people do not want to give up their cherished beliefs, especially cherished beliefs that they find comforting. So it's no good for Richard Dawkins to say let us just stand on the bold bear promontory of truth and acknowledge the basically nothingness of ourselves. People don't find that cozy so they will go around the block not to do that. And that's very understandable and human. And religious thinking, you know, the idea that there's somebody bigger than you out there who might be helpful to you if certain rules are observed, that goes back so far. We probably have an epigene or something or a cluster of epigenes for that and you see it a lot in small children that there is a monster under the bed and you can't tell them there isn't. They don't find that reassuring. What you can tell them is yes there is a monster under that bed but as long as I put this cabbage right in this spot it can't come out.
So yes anti-science. When science is telling you something that you really find very inconvenient, and that is the history of global warming and the changes that we are certainly already seen around us. First of all it was denial. It could not be happening. Now there's grudging admission as things flood and droughts kick in and food supplies drop and the sea level rises and the glaciers melt big time. I have seen that; been there. You can't deny that it's happening but you then have to pretend that it's nothing to do with us. So therefore nothing so we don't have to change our behavior. That's the thinking around that. And that can get very entrenched until people see that by trying to solve the problem jobs can be created and money can be made. And that will be the real tipping point in public consciousness in this country.
Other countries are already there. Norway, which is an oil state, is a huge green country because they know that the fossil fuel thing is going to run out so they are already preparing for that. If we were tall forward looking more of us would be doing that, although Elon Musk is the wave of the future. He's got the all electric car; he's got the rapid pre-charger for it; and he's got the Powerwall, which is a home battery storage unit that you can recharge through solar and then run your appliances off it when it's dark. And that is probably going to be the connecting link. When that becomes cheap enough and efficient enough you ask anybody, I don't care who they are, if you could get off the grid and have a car you could recharge your self and appliances you could run yourself just off some units on your roof or in your backyard would you do that? Everybody says yes. So that's the idea whose time has come. And now it's a matter of the price. So mentalizing the entire world with wind turbines is not going to be the answer, it's going to be individually owned and controlled off the grid electrical systems.
People do not want to give up their cherished beliefs, says author Margaret Atwood, especially the ones they find most comforting. What appears obvious and enlightening to atheists like Richard Dawkins, for example, it isn’t so straightforward for those whose identity and community is hinged on a certain set of beliefs. One person's liberation is another's nightmare.
It’s a very human quality to avoid things that are inconvenient or unappealing. Our days are vastly improved if we know to avoid the store with the long queues, to steer clear of dairy or gluten if it makes us sick, and to not order the whole roast duck if its head, still attached, is too much of a reminder. At some point, though, it’s necessary to confront uncomfortable truths – especially when a failure to do so affects the quality of human life (and all life) in a broader context. At that juncture, our avoidance moves beyond self-preservation and enters into exactly the opposite.
This mindset is what fuels anti-intellectualism, says Atwood, and it always has. When Galileo supported and expanded Copernicus’ heliocentric model of our solar system, he was punished by the church (Copernicus died too quickly to be reprimanded). Charles Darwin came under fire when he suggested we weren’t created but that we evolved. When new ideas interrupt what's comfortable, many will reject and discredit it simply to not have to change their behavior. Is this sounding familiar yet?
There will be a point when the position of climate-change deniers will shift, explains Atwood, but it won't be until the idea starts to appeal to our ego, or to our wallets. When the green energy sector becomes profitable enough, expect a sudden reduction in the amount of climate change opposition. "That will be the real tipping point in public consciousness in this country," Atwood says. She believes Elon Musk is the "wave of the future", with Tesla cars and the Powerwall home battery. When his technology becomes affordable and therefore profitable, the idea of green energy will truly have arrived in the wider consciousness.
Margaret Atwood's new book is Hag-Seed.
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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.
The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.
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- The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
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