Archive for May 28th, 2011
When I was young, I was often made to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. It was clear to all the little children I knew that they didn’t have the faintest idea about the meaning of most of the pledge. Nor did they understand why they were being made to recite it so often. Fast forward 40 years and I spot this:
Two extraordinarily unusual five-year old twins share more than conjoined skulls. They appear to share some of their thoughts. Susan Dominus of the New York Time covers this emotionally and scientifically rich story well from many angles.
Their brain images reveal what looks like an attenuated line stretching between the two organs, a piece of anatomy their neurosurgeon, Douglas Cochrane of British Columbia Children’s Hospital, has called a thalamic bridge, because he believes it links the thalamus of one girl to the thalamus of her sister. The thalamus is a kind of switchboard, a two-lobed organ that filters most sensory input and has long been thought to be essential in the neural loops that create consciousness. Because the thalamus functions as a relay station, the girls’ doctors believe it is entirely possible that the sensory input that one girl receives could somehow cross that bridge into the brain of the other. One girl drinks, another girl feels it.
It’s easier for most of us to think of our extreme droughts, floods and tornadoes as isolated unusual events, and to deny any connection to global warming. That denial makes good sense. It allows us the freedom to not consider that our daily actions are destroying people’s property and lives. Hence, this denial is the tactic of the mainstream media, which sees its job as keeping its audience in a good mood so that it can sell products for its advertisers.
Bill McKibben says we really do need to start connecting the dots, however. It’s not that we can say that any particular drought, flood or tornado is necessarily a result of human-caused carbon dioxide, but McKibben insists that it is time to invoke the phrase “climate change” to describe the current level of occurrences of extreme weather. And it’s time to force the Obama Administration to take this issue much more seriously at a time when many members of Congress refuse to consider the issue at all.
According to McKibben, who outlines numerous recent cataclysmic weather-related disasters worldwide, there’s a lot of room for improvement for the Obama Administration:
Now, to President Obama, look, the guy has done a better job on climate change than George Bush. That’s not an enormous claim to make, but, you know, happily, he’s doing something. He’s also doing a lot of things that are very, very damaging. He has opened this vast swath of the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming to coal mining. The early estimate is there’s enough coal there to be at the equivalent of having 3,000 coal-fired power plants running for a year. His administration is currently considering allowing a permit for a huge pipeline across the center of the country that will run from Canada from the tar sands in Alberta down to refineries in Texas. That’s the equivalent of lighting a fuse on the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.
What is the meaning of “350” in 350.org?
Three-fifty is the most important number in the world. The NASA scientists told us three years ago that any value for carbon in the atmosphere greater than 350 parts per million was not compatible with the planet on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted. That is strong language. It’s stronger still when you know that everywhere, outside your studios, up on top of Mount Everest, in the Antarctic, right now we’re at about 390 parts per million CO2 and gaining fast. That’s why this is not some future problem. It is the most pressing present crisis that we have.
I’ve previously commented on Phillips Zimbardo’s thoroughly engaging work, including his lecture on “The Secret Powers of Time.” He is well respected for his research on a wide variety of social psychology issues.
Forty years ago, Zimbardo unwittingly served as the mastermind of the infamous “Stanford prison experiment.” He selected healthy young men with no history of any psychological problems, drug abuse or violence and he put them into a situation where they would fill the roles of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison (in a school building) that soon turned ugly as Zimbardo stood by and observed. The prisoner abuse eventually become intolerable. During the course of the experiment, the “guards” became physically and emotionally abusive toward the “prisoners.” Zimbardo took a lot of criticism for running this experiment, even though he shut it down six days after beginning what was scheduled to be a two-week long experiment. Zimbardo still today notes that his own “passive role” enabled the abuse. The Stanford experiment clearly demonstrated that a toxic situation can cause “good” people to act grotesquely.
Based on his previous work, including the Stanford experiment, Zimbardo was called to serve as an expert witness in a case the US government brought against an Abu Ghraib guard who was accused of being a “bad apple.” Zimbardo disagreed with that characterization, opining that Abu Ghraib was a terrible situation that was likely to corrupt many good people. As indicated in an article by Greg Miller titled “Using the Psychology of Evil to Do Good” in the April 29, 2011 edition of Science (available online only to subscribers), the guard being prosecuted:
. . . soon found himself supervising about a dozen military police and dozens more Iraqi police responsible for guarding more than 1000 Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. The prisoner population had recently tripled, creating a chaotic environment in which standard procedures and oversight broke down. The language barrier made prisoner same anonymous, Zimbardo says, and many prisoners were forced to go naked, further dehumanizing them and creating a sexually charged atmosphere. Guards worked daily 12 hour shifts for weeks on end. Fear of a revolt-or an attack from outside-mixed with boredom and exhaustion to create a volatile brew.
In short, Abu Ghraib constituted an episode of déjà vu for Zimbardo. It was no surprise to him that guards with no history of troublemaking or bad character would engage in grotesque acts.