vendredi 31 juillet 2009

Comments on Subversive Thinking's A critique of Sebastian Dieguez's review of Irreducible Mind

I have been informed that someone on the internet wrote a comment on a book review I wrote for Skeptic magazine, about the book Irreducible Mind. The blog hosting this comment does not allow comments, and unfortunately I have some. So I guess it is only fair that I take the whole thing into my own blog.
To make things clear, what follows is the entire text taken from the blog Subversive Thinking (which contains lots of interesting information and vigorous defenses of the forces of the unknown). In grey is the main text, in bold gray are quotations from my review in Skeptic, and in bold blue quotations of the book Irreducible Mind. My comments are in red.

TUESDAY, JULY 28, 2009

A critique of Sebastian Dieguez's review of Irreducible Mind

In a recent issue for the "Skeptic" magazine, Sebastian Dieguez wrote a review of the book Irreducible Mind. Let's to examine some of Dieguez's considerations:

People trying to study the biological basis of consciousness are currently involved in many debates that range from the methodological to the metaphysical, and one can find a lot of books out there on these issues. Do we know how consciousness emerges out of a group of connected neurons? Do we have a firm grasp on how and why it evolved? Is there even an agreement as to what consciousness is? No, there are many things we don't know yet, and this is the reason why cognitive neuroscience and its related fields are so interesting. But in IM you won't find any sense of this awe. Kelly, et al. simply assume that researchers are on the wrong tracks and should adopt a radically new approach. As such, IM intends to be the kind of textbook that could redirect the whole enterprise of the scientific study of consciousness by leading a new generation of researchers down the right path

The authors of IM don't "simply assume" that mainstream neuroscientists are wrong. The entirte book is an argument, based on empirical evidence and theoretical considerations to the conclusion that mainstream neuroscience is wrong.

In some places, they say that "mainstream neuroscience" is not wrong, but incomplete. In other words, everything works, except for the existence of phenomena which reality and/or actual mechanisms are precisely the things at stake here. Sorry, I’m not convinced by either the “empirical evidence” or the “theoretical considerations” in IM. In fact, I’m appalled by them. For one thing, you don’t base any theory on controversial data or rogue phenomena. All of the phenomena described in IM are controversial, very controversial, and at best poorly understood. As well as extremely diverse. If you want to take them seriously, if you manage to perceive a common thread among these things, but you don’t really have an explanation, then what you’ve got amounts to a “soul of the gaps” argument, which is the title of my review. Some philosophers think there is an “explanatory gap” somewhere in between our understanding of mind-brain relationships. Well, this gap is the dustbin where to throw your century-old ghost stories and medical wonders. This is what IM amounts to, by the own account of its authors (last chapter: "sorry, no theory, it’s for our next book").

It's not an assumption, but a conclusion based on evidence (if the evidence is correct or not, or if the conclusion is sound or not, is another question. The point is that Dieguez misrepresent the IM argument to suggest it's an argument from ignorance).

It is an argument from ignorance. As well as from personal incredulity. It can be put this way: I don’t understand how “will” can be translated into “motor commands” and then into “actions” + I believe in ghost stories, therefore the soul. To which you might add: also Myers was right all along. See, the point is indeed not whether the evidence is correct or not, but whether the evidence is evidence at all, and if so, evidence of what exactly?

You can see that IM tried to be coherent. But it failed: the extended literature reviews do not serve to make the case for a precisely stated hypothesis, they are merely a freak show of psychological and medical research. Fun, intriguing, bizarre publications from the past. Nothing more.

In the authors' words "Despite their intrinsic difficulties, however, these diverse materials combine to produce what we think is a compelling demonstration that current mainstream opinion in psychology must change, and in directions that are both theoretically fundamental and humanly momentous. In a nutshell, we are arguing for abandonment of the current materialistic synthesis, and for the restoration of causally efficacious conscious mental life to its proper place at the center of our science. We hope to catalyze the emergence of an enlarged and reunified mainstream psychology, one that does not systematically ignore—as the present-day mainstream does—many large bodies of evidence deeply relevant to our most central and abiding human concerns" (preface)

Yes, this is a charming aspect of IM: it’s enthusiasm. While it gets horribly boring in places, IM’s authors never tire of saying that everybody is wrong except them, and that they can really make the world a better place. Which somehow brings to mind the following question: how can a “transmissive” theory of mind-brain relationships help explain synesthesia and binocular rivalry?

And: "Views of this sort unquestionably hold sway over the vast majority of contemporary scientists, and by now they have also percolated widely through the public at large.3 They appear to be supported by mountains of evidence. But are they correct?

Note the exquisite irony of these last two sentences, when IM repeatedly implores the reader to take into account the overall quantity of evidence they have “marshaled”, not so much the crazy details.

The authors of this book are united in the conviction that they are not correct—that in fundamental respects they are at best incomplete, and at certain critical points demonstrably false, empirically. These are strong statements, but our book will systematically elaborate and defend them" (Introduction)

Note that, contrary to Dieguez's straw man, the authors are not "assuming", but "concluding" after the examination of the evidence (including some of the best evidence of parapsychology, something that most neuroscientists and philosophers ignore).

Accordingly, the reader is warned from the onset that the reality of paranormal phenomena (psi) is taken for granted in IM. For those not convinced, Kelly, et al. direct you to the references listed in the appendix, where all the evidence can be found. This, of course, is really begging the question, since psi clearly is not an established phenomenon, and the convenient phrase "see the Appendix" that recurs incessantly throughout the book really translates as "we realize that what we just wrote sounds crazy, but there are some books that say it's true, and we chose to believe them.

Dieguez's straw man tries to portrait a simplistic view of IM arguments. Note how he reconstruct the argument in this way "We realize that what we just wrote sounds crazy, but there are some books that says it's true, and we chose to believe them" (emphasis added).

But this is a fair assessment! This sentence is exactly what they mean with the paragraph you conveniently quote right below!

But the authors of IM has not argued such silly thing. In their own words: "This issue of scientific resistance has proved especially troublesome for one particular family of observations among the many kinds we draw upon in developing the central argument of this book—namely, observations adduced in the course of over a century of effort by workers in "psychical research" and its somewhat desiccated modern descendant, "parapsychology." My co-authors and I wish therefore to state immediately and unequivocally our own attitude toward this still-controversial subject. The irrational incredulity that remains characteristic of mainstream scientific opinion in this area seems to us a remarkable anomaly that will provide abundant and challenging grist for the mills of future historians and sociologists of science. Sufficient high-quality evidence has long since been available, we believe, to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt the existence of the basic "paranormal" phenomena, at least for those willing to study that evidence with an open mind.5

Our Appendix contains an annotated bibliography providing useful points of entry into this large and complex literature. I hasten to add that this literature is uneven and imperfect, like any other scientific literature, and that our endorsement does not extend to all parts of it equally" (p.28)

You see? If you don’t accept the reality of psi, it’s simply because you have not read the relevant, though “uneven and imperfect”, literature. If only you would read it, then you would believe. Therefore: go read the Appendix or shut up.

The problem is, as I very charitably wrote in my review, that parapsychology is still controversial. Why? I know you want to blame the hegemony of “materialism” in academia. But that's ok, we can leave you that, if that’s all you have: the academia is to blame.

Obviously, the authors are not defending "crazy" things, based on what some books "say", nor they are "chosing" (which subtle would imply an arbitrary decision) to believe in this. What they're saying is that the evidence for paranormal phenomena is good and that it have been neglected in mainstream academy (precisely, due to the materialistic influence).

See? Blame the black shadows hiding behind “materialistic influence”. Don’t work harder to provide just really good evidence and make your case, instead just keep referencing to Radin, and now IM, and keep blaming “close-minded” people. Which somehow brings to mind the following question: does anyone believe the PK Man could actually control the weather?

The reference to the Appendix is to suggest the readers to explore the literature for themselves, since the book IR is not a survey of the paranormal as such (the evidence of psi is used by the authors as part of their case, but the book is not basically about parapsychology findings)

That’s true. So if the evidence is so good, it could stand alone without the whole of parapsychological findings, right? So why not skip the parapsychology part altogether, since it’s still “controversial”?

And the authors are not accepting the paranormal because "some books that says it's true", but because the evidence presented in those books is good (in fact, many of this evidence has been gotten by the own authors!). Also, the evidence is available in lectures, like these by Dean Radin:

[Follows two videos of a most boring lecture by Radin, modestly comparing himself to Newton, Edison and Marie Curie ]

Dieguez seems to be ignorant that Michael Shermer (editor of the Skeptic Magazine) has gotten positive evidence for psi in his own test:

[Follows one video of a non-scientific test of Vedic Astrology]

It is not hard to imagine what Dieguez would say about the above test. Since it is evidence for psi (at least, evidence consistent with the existence of some psi abilities in the subject being tested), it DOESN'T COUNT for Dieguez.

I've watched this last video. Shermer didn't find evidence for psi, but for Vedic Astrology. Or is that all the same? So yeah, it totally seems that thanks to the science of Vedic Astrology, one can approximate some individual's personal features merely by knowing his or her date and place of birth. Unfortunately, this particular power is not addressed in Irreducible Mind, who seems curiously anti-astrology, despite the quality of the available data in that area.

No consistent pseudoskeptic would accept such evidence, because for a pseudoskeptic only counts evidence against the paranormal (never the one in favor of it, even if the evidence is gotten by a professional pseudoskeptic!) So it's a waste of time to rationally discuss with them any positive evidence for psi. For them, it simply doesn't exist nor can exist.

Well sorry. I just don’t accept the evidence as it stands. Keep it cool man, the point here is not that I’m being obtuse for simply remaining a skeptic - these things happen you know, because of opinions and such -, the point is that it’s been a long time now, it’s not like parapsychology was not given a chance, and yet parapsychology still remains the same mixed-back of sheer silliness, selective reports, debates about super-ESP, fraud, wishful thinking, and lack of any foreseeable theoretical advance. It’s not my fault, but parapsychology’s output has been poor in terms of scientific progress. I think part of this feeling is implicitly shared by the authors of IM: that’s why they don’t mention Gary Schwartz, Rupert Sheldrake and Ted Serios in the book. They feel ashamed of the state of their own field.

So, Dieguez's uncharitable reading and straw man is simply another example of a pseudoskeptical bias and prejudices.

Dieguez continues with the following condescending and arrogant comment: "While there is not space here to debunk one by one the innumerable wild claims that are taken at face value in IM, three very general remarks should provide an idea of the flaws in this kind of thinking"

Maybe is more accurate to say that Dieguez CANNOT debunk such "innumerable" claims. The "lack of space" argument is simply an euphemism ot Dieguez's unability to refute the substantive points made in IM. If the IM arguments and claims are so "wild" and false, why didn't Dieguez refute them (at least some of them)? Why does he engage himself in straw men and caricatures, instead of addresing the book's substantive points? Why the space is sufficient to speculate and misconstruct the authors' argument, but insufficient to refute them?

Very true, I CANNOT debunk the “innumerable claims” made in IM. No one can, it’s too much to handle (both physically and emotionally). Well I guess that’s a fair criticism. I didn’t address each and every extraordinarily claim made in IM. I note however that no one here seems alarmed by the “taken at face value” part of the quotation. Are the claims reported in IM more often than not “taken at face value”, or not?

You know what? We can do this privately. If there's something in particular you think in IM makes the case that it clearly cannot be explained by current mainstream neuroscience or psychology, please indicate it. I'll respond.

Instead of this, Dieguez posit "three very general remarks" against IM:

First, there is a very remarkable difference between the treatment of "mainstream" cognitive science and that of the "rogue" phenomena. There would be nothing left in this book if Kelly et al. would apply equal standards of scrutiny to both. They simply rant relentlessly about the limits of the former, while swallowing indiscriminately all of the latter.

This is demostrably false. Dieguez doesn't provide any example to support his claims (and he cannot, since his claims are false). He hopes his unsupported assertions be swallowed by the readers of the Skeptic magazine (which is probable, since most readers of that journal are materialistic atheists and agnostic, biased against the paranormal). Moreover, the IM book is expensive and it is not probable most people will read it.

Of course, what I wrote is perfectly true. On the one hand, the authors of IM mount a violent attack against current or cognitive science in general, with lengthy explanations of the limit of such and such cognitive model, on the other hand they mention levitation, stigmata and mediumship favorably, hardly mentioning the controversial nature of these things. Well, if computational neuroscience has problems and limits, surely do ghost stories from the 19th century!

It’s easy to resort to the experience of “free will” as an argument against materialist causality, which the authors of IM and especially Emily Kelly do repeatedly, because it appeals almost irresistibly to anybody. Everybody can experience what the “explanatory gap” means, everybody feels to be in charge, to be someone. If you find a theory that says it’s actually not like that, that the more we learn about motor cognition the less consciousness seems to be a relevant aspect for everyday behaviour, that it’s all in the brain and, yes, just an illusion that will disappear with death, then nothing would be easier than to reject this theory merely on emotional grounds. So I’m not alone, to be “biased”. But I’m the one, here, with the best data on his side. It’s good data that we have now, you know, solid neuroscientific facts, a lot of them.

Dieguez doesn't specify any example where a difference on the "standard of scrutiny" support the book claims. It's pure pseudokseptical speculation.

Well I say something about NDEs in there, I think. I ask: if dysfunctional brain activity cannot account for the type of experiences lived during a NDE, why should no brain activity at all be a better explanation? Lots of questions like this pop out when you read the book in fact. I used the abbreviation BQ in the margins of almost every page of the book: begging the question. They do that a lot.

Second, a good exercise while reading IM is to imagine what the world would look like if everything in this book was true. One would think that if there was "something" more to consciousness, mind, and the self than the workings of the brain, then the real world, and hence science itself, would obviously look drastically different.

This is a rhetorical strategy common in pseudoskeptics. They appeal to our wishes to imply that a certain claim is false.

Since if IM claims are true, then science and the world would be different; and we don't want science and the world be different, so IM claims are false. Bravo!

Wait no, this is bizarre. The publication of IM did not make de facto true the phenomena it reports! Or any truer. The problem here is not that I don’t want the world to change, it’s that the world does not look at all as it should look, were the claims in IM true.

Is that a rational, scientific argument? Note that Dieguez has not posited any scientific factual argument to refute the IM claims. He tries to undermine by association, appealing imaginative "exercises" and other fallacies.

For example, psi, NDEs and apparitions would be all over the place. This, in fact, is candidly acknowledged in chapter 4, where a lengthy rendition of such a magical world is conveniently provided (293)

This is false. Psi could be "all over the place" (in different intensities), but NDEs and apparitions won't, because they can manifest only under specific conditions.

No, you just don’t know this. If NDEs are a peek in the afterworld, I don’t see why only a tiny minority of cardiac arrest survivors report them, and I don’t see either why so many who report them were actually not near-death at all. And why should “Psi be all over the place (in different intensities)”. What do you know about the intensity and epidemiology of psi? You’re just begging the question, assuming that psi comes “in different intensities”. And what is the unit of psi? Psi?

Regarding the "magical world" "candidly acknowledged" in chapter 4, Dieguez is intentionally misrepresenting an imaginative conjeture posited by the authors desgined to ILLUSTRATE a point about Myers' ideas on personal identity. Let's to cite it at long: Nonetheless, the spatiotemporal criterion of personal identity, however useful under ordinary circumstances, is, as I have argued, by no means sacrosanct. It is in fact not difficult to conceive a world that is recognizably similar to, but in some respects considerably different from, our own, in which memory would be generally accepted as a criterion of personal identity at least equal to, and sometimes capable of overriding, bodily track, and in which (for related reasons) certain sorts of supernormal phenomena (not there regarded as supernormal) might be widely accepted or indeed taken for granted. These phenomena would of course be especially the ones which Myers regarded as constituting evidence for survival of bodily death.

Imagine, for instance, a world, occupied by humans like us, in which instances of telepathy and other forms of ESP and also of PK, or telekinesis, are quite common, and in which many persons routinely undergo altered slates of consciousness (ASCs) of various kinds, including vivid dreams and visions, states of dissociation, trance and secondary personality, and episodes of automatic writing and speaking. Next let it be the case that the episodes of telepathy, ESP, and PK occur with particular frequency and effectiveness when the persons undergoing or initiating them are in an ASC. And let us assume that the ESP manifesting during the ASCs takes the form not just of information or warnings about distant happenings, past, present or impending, but of messages, written or spoken, from living persons, and that on further inquiry or as the result of experiment, it turns out that these messages were intended or appropriate and that the ostensible senders were often themselves in an ASC or even undergoing an OBE in which they believed themselves to be visiting the spot at which and the person through whom the message was received. And let it further be the case that quite often messages containing correct and appropriate information be similarly received ostensibly from deceased persons.

The stage is now set for the final and most dramatic aspects of this imaginary world. Suppose, there are also many cases in which it is found that one person may be associated with more than one body, or one and the same body with more than one person. Suppose, for instance, there are cases in which a living person undergoing an OBE or NDE or in some other abnormal state manifests as a mediumistic communicator and exhibits the right kind of memories, cases in which a person has disappeared from a seriously ill or comatose body and been replaced by a totally different and lately deceased personality with a completely different but appropriate set of memories, cases in which a mediumistic communicator manifests with a continuous memory through different and independent mediums, and cases in which a mediumistic communicator of impressive authenticity announces his or her impending reincarnation and then turns up as predicted as one of Stevenson's children who ostensibly remember past lives. Into this interesting assortment of phenomena we might also throw post-mortem apparitions of various nunciative or message-bearing kinds.

In a world like this, I think it is fair to say, a socially sanctioned conceptual framework would be almost universally adopted within which survival of death would be more or less taken for granted and with it the overriding importance of memory as a criterion of personal identity. To explain the phenomena in terms of so-called "super-ESP" would involve weaving a web so tangled that "super" would be a wholly inadequate prefix to apply to the "ESP" required. But at the same time the citizens of this imaginary world, at least the more philosophically oriented ones, would be cautious about saying they had "proof" of survival. Personal survival cannot be directly demonstrated by third-person observation, as one might demonstrate (though with difficulty) that certain terrestrial bacteria can survive on Mars. Nor can it be demonstrated by theory-based logico-mathematical inference from observable phenomena to the postulated existence of something not itself directly observable, as the existence of dark matter can be mathematically inferred from its gravitational effects. In our imagined world, acceptance of survival would be almost a foundational assumption of life in society, a broad canvas picture without which the citizens could not even begin to make sense of much that they encountered on a daily basis, but within and through which many matters would be seen to fit together in ways which might in the future be refined and which would already seem to confirm the larger schema. In some ways it would be like the "foundational assumption," shared by all of us save perhaps a few psychopaths, that other people are sentient beings like ourselves. The power of the whole would derive not from its generating exact predictions but from the fact that it and it alone would render adequately comprehensible the nature of and the relations between certain classes of otherwise puzzling phenomena. (pp. 293-294)

Note that the authors are presenting an imaginary world to illustrate a specific point. But Dieguez presents such scenario as the world is according to the authors (that is, how the "world would look like if everything in this book was true"). The conflating is subtle, but you recognize the fallacy in Dieguez's thinking if you hav read the book (if you have not read it in its context, you possibly would be fooled by Dieguez's subtle rhetoric)

You have to agree that for a skeptical neuroscientist, this long description of a magical world really looks“candid”. It is hilarious in fact, and I thank you for reproducing it in extenso.

And there’s no fallacy in my "subtle rhetoric", I’m using irony.

But more important, if the advice of Kelly, et al. was actually followed, it would be interesting to know what exactly cognitive scientists should be expected to do. Should they all become parapsycologists? The response to this question is left unclear, especially when one considers what is not in IM. Indeed, I have noticed that Uri Geller and Ted Serios are not featured in this book.

This is irrelevant regarding the truth or falsehood of IM arguments. Is Dieguez pretending that such "argument" undermine the empirical and theoretical claims of the IM book? Note, again, that Dieguez doesn't address, with scientific arguments, any of the claims made in IM. He tries to debunk them by association.

No, this is actually the most relevant part of my review. I’m asking a very legitimate question. Let’s assume that IM becomes widely read in neuroscience schools, and everybody comes to accept its proposals. Then what would that change in the daily work of cognitive scientists? Should they always refer to a hidden creative energy in their reports? Should they become parapsychologists? What would that change to science exactly? Interesting question, no? But you won’t find an answer in IM.

So, acccording to Dieguez, if the IM claims are true, then cognitive scientists will dissapear or, at least, will become parapaychologists. And how most cognitive scientists don't want to lose their jobs (nor become parapsychologists), then IM claims have to be false! (Note that Dieguez's argument is essentially an appealing to the emotions of cognitive scientists, not a rational argument against the claims of IM).

Well yes, as a cognitive scientists I was pissed off by this book. I took it very personally, just as any evolutionary biologist is appalled when he reads the attacks of creationists.

See for example Dieguez's "argumentation" against the transmission theory of consciousness: "Nonetheless, IM claims though-out that the "evidence" it presents supports an alternative theory of the nature of mind-brain relationships (that is, alternative to what most researchers in this area are supposed to think). This theory is not only meant to do justice to the glorious diversity of ghost stories, miraculous healings and other "rogue phenomena" reviewed in IM, but would also accommodate most of what we know about the brain. The idea is that the brain does not produce consciousness or cognition, it merely "constrains, regulates, restricts, limits, and enables or permits expression of the mind in its full generality" (607). This is the so-called "filter" or "transmission" theory of mind-brain interaction. One is asked to believe that the brain actually gets in the way of the mind, the latter really being something that Myers called the Subliminal Self, a purposeful entity that lurks somewhere inside of you and sometimes manifests itself in the form of supernormal phenomena. Where does this "mind" come from? We don't know, maybe it's turtles all the way down. This "theory" doesn't really get any dearer than that in IM, although towards the end of the book the whole idea is unsurprisingly buried under the usual quantum babble that one expects in pseudoscience books. In any case, Kelly, et al. acknowledge that they are still thinking hard about all this and confide that hopefully a more coherent treatment of the "theory" will see the light in a further book (638).

So, don't expect to find much sense in this one. Instead, for the time being, at least, their strategy is to convey the illusion that sheer quantity of information somehow amounts converging significance that some kind of "soul" must magically spring out of current gaps in knowledge."

Obviously, Dieguez's rhetoric doesn't amount to the level of an argument. He doesn't address the substantive points; nor he specifies what his scientific objections to the transmission theory are.

Have you just read what you quoted from me? It is not for me to provide a rational framework for the "transmission" theory. My point was precisely that the concept is empty, and I drew attention to the important fact that near the very end of the book, the authors admit that they don't have any theory to provide. They say that they are still working on it, and that maybe they will publish another book when they find answers. The transmission theory is not a theory: it is the "soul of the gaps" argument.

His "review" is just another propaganda tool to convince the readers of the Skeptic magazine that the IM book is not worth reading. But you won't find any scientific, philosophical or theoretical contribution to the mind-body debate in his review

Well I only wish I had those propaganda powers. But I don't need them anyway for my daily work. It is when you claim to turn over the edifice of science because of some old medical wonders and various reports of magical powers that you need propaganda.

dimanche 19 juillet 2009

Erik Estrada: from CHIPS to CHUMP

I found a video where actor Erik Estrada remembers an interesting out-of-body experience he had in 1980, while recording an episode of CHIPS. Sorry, the film is dubbed in French (via this wonderful website with plenty of amusing woo woo videos).

So, briefly Estrada explains that during the shooting of an episode it was decided that he, Estrada, could do his own stunt on a motor-bike. He could not. What followed the terrible accident is that Estrada had an OBE with veridical perceptions of his surrounding. Interestingly, it's one of these OBEs that start with the subject not actually realizing that he is out of his body. Usually, it is the autoscopy, when they first see their own body standing or lying in front of them, that leads them to the striking realization that they see the world from a disembodied perspective. Well, that's what happened to Estrada. Also interesting is the apparent long duration of the OBE. Well anyway, the problem is that the actor is not interested in OBEs is the exact same way that I am, he simply believes that NDEs and OBEs are the real thing. That's where he begins wildly begging the question, by starting from the premise that having an OBE is de facto evidence that the center of one's consciousness can sometimes be shifted away from the physical body. And that God and Heaven exist.

For instance, at some point in the video, Estrada explains that he might very well have walked outside of his hospital room while out of his body, and might also have wandered around in the building without ever going "up or down". Erik Estrada takes for granted that people, when they die, go either "up" or "down". Otherwise, it means that they are cursed and have to wander aimlessly amidst the living. That's common sense, universally accepted knowledge, he thinks. Also, very interstingly, Estrada has all these thoughts about Heaven and Hell during his OBE. This means either that OBEs are brain induced hallucinations colored by the subject's own personal background and set of cultural expectations, or that during NDEs you really get to glimpse the afterworld but you retain your stupid earthly superstitions.

Alright, so at 11' he tells another story: at another point in his life, he saw a ghost in a French castle. How cool, he saw a ghost. In a castle. He gives some details also: it's a transparent apparition, of course. Unfortunately, he then proceeds to go through and repeat many times all of the uninteresting details of this ridiculous story. Estrada tries hard to understand his personal contacts with the paranormal, but of course only in terms of the paranormal. It never crosses his mind that there might be normal explanations. No, it is absolutely necessary that the apparition might have been the ghost of a lady from the 16th century, who had a child, and such. And he goes on with the idea that the OBE might have led his soul away from his body, like, forever. This is the hallmark of the gullible and the stupid.

I recommend especially you look at Estrada's face around 13'03, when he explains that the "apparition" might actually have been a "wandering spirit", you know, like we have so much evidence pointing to the existence of wandering spirits in the first place. But of course, he explains, only people that had no faith in their lives end up as wandering spirits, that's their punishment. Estrada really knows about stuff. Well, look at his face there: this is the face of stupidity, there's really no other way to put it.

What follows then at 13'15 is also astonishingly idiotic. Estrada explains, in all seriousness, that when he dies he's "not gonna come back on the surface". No no no. Not him. Like we care. But anyway, he immediately changes his mind, and adds, again like we should care, that he would only "come back" as a "force" in order to help and protect someone or save a life. "That I could shoot for, you know", he says, hoping anyone will think he's a hero for holding such a courageous opinion. God, the man is stupid. Obviously, he believes he is Poncerello.

Now, notwithstanding the cognitive abilities of the man, his OBE is actually quite interesting. Of course, given the way he talks in the documentary, the stupid and ridiculous things he says, and the low-brow re-enactment that has been made, I don't trust any of his story. Nevertheless, I like the idea of an OBE so well construed and so convincing that the subject is surprised to realize that he is actually not in his body. The level of surprise in OBEs is rarely reported and not at all studied as such in the literature on the topic.

Now for something completely different. I wonder if Estrada's paranormal experiences might explain this:

Frégoli delusion and erotomania.
S Wright, A W Young, and D J Hellawell (1993). Frégoli delusion and erotomania. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry, 56(3): 322–323. (paper available here).
We describe a further case for whom the Fregoli delusion arose in the context of the form of erotomania known as de Clérambault's syndrome, in which patients suddenly arrive at the delusional belief that someone (usually of higher social standing) is in love with them. Although this patient had other delusions, the Fregoli and de Clerambault delusions dominated the clinical picture, and were strongly held and persistent.
The patient was a 35 year old, divorced, unemployed woman who lived on her own. She had a psychiatric history from the age of 16, and was diagnosed as suffering from chronic paranoid schizophrenia. She stopped medication 6 weeks before admission. She was agitated and verbally hostile, and reported auditory hallucinations of famous actors who she said were her friends. She claimed to be telepathic, saying her actor friends put their thoughts into her head, and that her thoughts were broadcast to them. She showed grandiose delusions, believing she could arrange to stop all television and radio communications by telling her actor friends to go on strike using her "telepathic powers".
The patient believed that she was the girlfriend of Erik Estrada (an American actor and pin-up), with whom she communicated across the Atlantic via telepathy. She also believed that Erik Estrada visited her home city regularly, disguised as acquaintances or her current boyfriend. She stated that she knew her actual boyfriend was Erik Estrada in disguise due to the absence of a previous scar on his face. She was convinced that Erik Estrada was in love with her and planned to marry her one day.
Past medical history revealed childhood epilepsy until the age of 9 years, phenobarbitone being stopped at the age of 11 years. There was no family history of mental disorder. Routine haematological, biochemical and serological examinations were normal. Physical examination revealed no abnormality. An EEG showed a moderate excess of mixed irregular and rhythmic slow activity at 2-6 HZ and 10-30uV in the central and post-central regions. She refused neuroimaging. The patient was able to recognise photographs of emotional expressions
(happy, angry, sad, etc) without significant difficulty. She was impaired at recognising photographs of familiar faces, but showed no tendency to misidentify unfamiliar faces as familiar (20/20 correct rejections of unfamiliar faces). In this face recognition test, she did not claim that any of the photographs showed Erik Estrada, in disguise or otherwise. She performed at the borderline of the impaired range on the Benton Test (which requires matching of unfamiliar faces) and was very poor at matching unfamiliar faces when they were masked by various disguises. On the Warrington Recognition Memory Test, she showed normal recognition memory for words but severely impaired recognition memory for faces.
The patient was started on a fluphenazine depot and her mental state improved considerably. Twelve months later, however, she still believes she is to marry "Erik" and that he continues to visit her regularly, albeit in disguise. (...)
Her pattem of impairment on face processing tests was comparable to that found for another case we investigated, in which the Fregoli delusion arose in the context of cerebral infarction of the right hemisphere." (...) She thought that she was being pursued by her cousin and a female accomplice, both of whom adopted different disguises. It was later found that some years previously the patient had a long love affair with this cousin (lasting over 20 years, and leading to the birth of her only child).
Here's my theory. This patient isn't crazy at all, what she keeps seeing is the astral double that fled from Estrada's body during his hospital OBE.

samedi 18 juillet 2009


Au bénéfice des lecteurs qui seraient peu au fait des intrications protéiformes de la vie politique en Suisse, j'offre ici un exemple assez illustratif du genre de polémiques qui fait rage dans notre humble Confédération. Il s'agit de ce que j'appelle le Moustachegate, et à mon avis ça va encore faire pas mal de bruit. Voici le communauté de presse par lequelle tout à commencé:
Depuis qu’il a rasé sa moustache, le PDC fribourgeois a une allure moins alémanique. Parfait bilingue, Urs Schwaller a un pied dans chaque partie de la Suisse. Son parcours politique aussi est aussi rectiligne qu’ascendant: après avoir officié en tant que préfet de la Singine puis au Conseil d’Etat fribourgeois, il est sénateur depuis 2003. Le président du groupe PDC aux Chambres fédérales ajoute à l’estime de tous une connaissance virtuose de la politique suisse. Mais est-il vraiment Romand?"

Voici l'objet de la controverse, vous pouvez juger par vous-même.

A gauche: moustache. A droite: pas moustache.
Attention, vous avez 3 secondes: lequel à l'air plus "allémanique"? Vite! Sans réfléchir!... Une réponse!
C'est bon, vous avez répondu? Bon, c'est bien ce que je pensais. Comme moi, vous êtes vraiment bourré de préjugés. Désolé, mais vous ne pouvez pas juger de l'origine d'un individu simplement à la présence ou à l'absence de moustache. C'est du racisme, même.
Mais heureusement, il y a des gens vigilants qui sont toujours prêts à redresser la barque lorsque l'embarcation penche trop dangereusement du côté de l'intolérance et du politiquement incorrect, que ce soit à babord ou à tribord (métaphore maritime). D'où cette lettre merveilleuse publiée cette semaine dans le 24 Heures.


Après la tenue, voilà qu’on s’attaque à la moustache!

A propos des pages Point fort intitulées «Couchepin s’en va, les prétendants accourent» et l’allusion au fait que, depuis qu’il a rasé sa moustache, Urs Schwaller a une allure moins alémanique (24 heures du 13 juin 2009): Habitant depuis de nombreuses années en Suisse romande, j’ai été tentée plus d’une fois de prendre la plume pour réagir aux multiples articles empreints de préjugés contre les Suisses alémaniques. Mais je suis toujours arrivée à passer outre et à excuser ou ignorer l’esprit étroit dont ces textes témoignaient. Cependant, en lisant l’article portant sur la démission de Pascal Couchepin et sur ses éventuels successeurs, la moutarde m’est montée au nez.

Après les éternelles critiques concernant la tenue vestimentaire des politiciennes (Messieurs, vous avez bien de la chance!), voilà les attaques contre les hommes portant la moustache, attribut apparemment typiquement Suisse alémanique!

M. Jean-Claude Mermoud, conseiller d’Etat, aurait-il coupé sa moustache pour éviter qu’on se méprenne sur ses origines? Par ailleurs, auriez-vous oublié des personnalités romandes comme le général Guisan, le major Davel, l’écrivain C.-F. Ramuz et bien d’autres, ou celles-ci avaient-elles une ascendance suisse alémanique?

Ne pensez-vous pas qu’il serait bien plus intelligent pour un journal de votre envergure de laisser ces commentaires d’un niveau franchement médiocre à la presse people?

Monique Rusterholz,

Et toc!

vendredi 17 juillet 2009

Friday noise: the mighty Wipers and a groovy wrestler

Band: The Wipers
Song: Youth of America
Album: Youth of America
Comment: there's a nasty cover of this song by the Melvins (and think it's on the album Electroretard)

Aritst: Beauregarde
Song: Testify
Album: Testify
Comment: God bless Youtube for this gem. This wrestler from the 70's recorded an awesome album with Greg Sage (from the Wipers) on guitar.

lundi 13 juillet 2009

Camille Flammarion

Voici une lettre absolument pathétique de Camille Flammarion (1842-1925) à Urbain Le Verrier, son boss, au moment où ce dernier venait de le mettre à la porte... A cette époque, Camille Flammarion est un tout jeune assistant (ou plutôt un stagiaire dévolu aux tâches les plus ingrates) et Le Verrier est le prestigieux directeur de l'Observatoire de Paris (et découvreur de la planète Neptune). Camille a 21 ans et nous sommes en 1863 (je crois, d'après mes calculs, la photo à droite montre un Flammarion encore plus jeune que ça).
"Monsieur le directeur,
Je viens reconnaître mes torts et la négligence que j'ai apporté depuis quelque temps dans les travaux de l'Observatoire, et vous prier de vouloir bien prendre en considération les motifs qui me portent à vous adresser cette demande et la promesse que je vous fait ici d'être désormais sérieux et attaché à mes occupations. Je tenais à me faire à l'avenir une position à l'Observatoire, voilà pourquoi je me suis occupé d'autres travaux d'Astronomie que ceux qui m'y sont donnés et quelquefois dans le temps consacré à ceux-ci, sans réfléchir que je perdais réellement mon temps pour l'Observatoire et pour moi. Si d'un autre côté, mon travail et en particulier la correction des épreuves, sur laquelle Monsieur Servet n'avait jamais eu un reproche à me faire, a paru se ressentir ces jours derniers d'une négligence impardonnable, permettez-moi, Monsieur le Directeur, de vous en donner la raison.
J'espérais, depuis près de quatre and que je suis attaché à l'Observatoire, n'ayant que 90 fr. de traitement [mensuel], recevoir une augmentation au commencement de l'année, et j'ai été étrangement surpris de subir au contraire une diminution sans que l'on m'en ait donné la cause, et cela m'avait découragé.
Je vous prie, Monsieur le Directeur, de considérer que j'ai toujours travaillé en vue d'acquérir une position sérieuse dans la science, et qu'une réponse défavorable de votre part briserait d'un seul coup cet avenir que j'ai fait mes efforts de préparer jusqu'ici; je vous prie de considérer que cette demande vous est plutôt adressée par ma famille que par moi-même, et j'espère que vous voudrez bien croire à la sincérité de mes paroles.
J'attends avec la plus vive anxiété, Monsieur le Directeur, la réponse qui décide de mon sort.

C. Flammarion"
J'ai trouvé cette lettre dans la jolie biographie que James Lequeux consacre à Le Verrier (2009, EDP Sciences, 416 pages, une foule d'annexes). Bon, c'est quand même un peu spécialisé et l'astronomie ça n'est pas trop mon truc. Mais j'aime bien le 19ème siècle et les personnages unanimement détestés, et un livre avec un sous-titre pareil, comment resister... "Savant magnifique et détesté", la classe.

Mais pourquoi Flammarion s'est-il fait virer? Cela n'est pas très clair, mais il semble que ce ne soit pas pour une histoire de correction d'épreuves. Non, Camille Flammarion a été engagé probablement parce qu'il a impressionné ses employeurs par son enthousiasme et ses vastes connaissances astronomiques. Il se retrouve donc à l'Observatoire de Paris, avec toutes les cartes en main pour entamer une brillante carrière de scientifique. Et qu'est-ce qu'il fait? Il emploie tout son temps à écrire un livre parfaitement irrationnel qu'il n'hésite pas à faire publier, au nez et à la barbe des prestigieux scientifiques qui lui ont rendu le service de le laisser traîner parmi eux. Ce livre, c'est La pluralité des mondes habités, une oeuvre absolument désopilante dont je suis l'heureux propriétaire d'une édition de 1874. J'ai une certaine tendresse pour Flammarion, je lui ai même réservé un petit coin de ma bibliothèque qui autrement est totalement désorganisée:

Quelques oeuvres immortelles de Flammarion, dans ma bibliothèque super bien organisée (de gauche à droite): Fantômes et sciences d'observation (truc posthume réédité par JMG Editions); La mort et son mystère (en 3 volumes, une fierté personnelle); La pluralité des mondes habités (une jolie édition); Les maisons hantées (chez Flammarion, dans l'hilarante collection L'Aventure mystérieuse, J'ai lu)

Vous l'aurez compris, Flammarion croit en absolument tout et n'importe quoi, et n'hésite jamais à soutenir les témoignages les plus invraisemblables avec un aplomb qui ne peut susciter que de l'admiration (titre du chapitre 1 de Fantômes et sciences d'observations: "Fantômes incontestablement vus: témoignages inattaquables", on se demande bien pourquoi il y a d'autres chapitres... Ah oui, tout de même, chapitre 10: "Fantômes douteux" J'adore ce type). Voici ce que le brillant parapsychologue-astronome rapporte de la triste histoire de son éviction de l'Observatoire dans ses mémoires, où il profite de fanfaronner sans reproduire un mot de ses pleurnicheries ci-dessus. C'est dans Mémoires d'un astronome (p.210), gracieusement téléchargeable sur l'excellent site L'Encyclopédie Spirite que j'ai découvert récemment:
"Je n'ai pas encore dit que M. Le Verrier avait le caractère le plus épouvantable qui se puisse imaginer. Hautain, dédaigneux, intraitable, cet autocrate considérait tous les fonctionnaires de l'observatoire comme des esclaves. Il était très détesté. Le jour de son arrivée à l'Observatoire de Paris, le 5 février 1854, nommé par décret de l'empereur à la succession d'Arago, tous les anciens fonctionnaires s'enfuirent, sans exception. Il ne resta personne!"
Et voici ce que soit-disant Le Verrier lui aurait dit le jour fatidique:
"Je vois; monsieur, que vous ne tenez pas à rester ici. Rien n'est plus simple, vous pouvez vous retirer". J'avais cessé de plaire; tout ce que je faisais était mauvais; mes idées étaient fausses ; je n'étais pas un élève-astronome, mais un élève-poète. Quand on veut tuer son chien, on déclare qu'il est malade."
Oui oui, un élève-poète, le regard perdu dans les étoiles, sondant les infinis mystères du cosmos. Ou peut-être un charlatan qui écrit des pamphlets antiscientifiques pendant ses heures de boulot de... scientifique?
"En m'obligeant à quitter l'Observatoire pour ne plus subir d'interminables tracasseries, M. Lc Verrier brisait ma carriére, comme on casse un verre, sans le moindre scrupule. Jaloux de toute indépendance et de toute initiative personnelle, il était accoutumé à régner seul et à tout écraser. Mais pour moi l'événement était grave et arrivait mal à propos. Je ne suis pas méchant, et l'on assure que j'ai très bon caractère. Cependant, en partant, je fis un serment, comme autrefois les Romains, nos aïeux, le serment de me venger : "IL ME FAIT PARTIR, IL PARTIRA!"
Ce serment, je l'ai tenu, comme on le verra dans la suite. Nous parlerons plus loin de la révocation de Le Verrier. Elle a été retentissante. Celui qui sème le vent récolte la tempête."
Très impressionant. Le Verrier s'est effectivement fait virer, mais à ma connaissance Flammarion n'a rien à voir avec ça. Simplement, le boss était tellement insupportable qu'une fronde s'est levée contre lui, et en gros tout le monde à l'Observatoire refusait de travailler tant que le vieux salopard ne se ferait pas éjecter.

Aller, assez pour aujourd'hui. Je vous tiendrai au courant des mésaventures de mon gentil gogo favori dans des futurs posts (notamment son hilarant discours d'intronisation comme président de la Society for Psychical Research, qui vaut bien son pesant de Poltergeists).

Sur Flammarion, voir aussi: Patrick Fuentès (2002). Camille Flammarion et les forces naturelles inconnues. In Bensaude-Vincent B. & Blondel C. (eds.) Des savants face à l'occulte: 1870-1940. Paris: La Découverte, pp. 105-123.

dimanche 12 juillet 2009

Worthless Amazon Alerts

Soul Purpose: Awaken Your Perfect Self

by Kent D Schuette

Product Description

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The trouble with "neuroethics"

Here's a letter to the editor that I've just found in the latest issue of
Science. It's a call for the generalization of teaching "neuroethics" to neuroscience students. Read it first, and then - if you care - take note of the low opinion I have of such a proposal. Warning: I'm angry at this letter.

Science 10 July 2009:
Vol. 325. no. 5937, p. 147
DOI: 10.1126/science.325_147a


Neuroscientists Need Neuroethics Teaching

With the advancement of neurosciences in recent years, there is a growing need to ensure that its students are educated in applied neuroethics as part of their formal studies. However,neuroethics education is not commonly an integrated part of neuroscience training. Discussions we have had with members of the Russell group, an association of the 20 major research-intensive universities in the United Kingdom, indicate that the majority of their neuroscience students do not receive formal neuroethics teaching.

Neuroscience research findings have begun to have far-reaching ethical implications on education, treatment, and even the law. For example, ascertaining that cognitive enhancing drugs not only improve performance in neuropsychiatric groups, but may also enhance cognition in young healthy adults has raised concerns and debate about the safety, access, and equity in education, work, and academic settings where taking drugs for enhancement purposes is becoming increasingly widespread (1, 2). Functional magnetic resonance imaging has been used to identify residual cognitive function and conscious awareness in patients assumed to be in a vegetative state, yet who retain cognitive abilities that have evaded detection using standard clinical methods (3). Several companies offer neuromarketing and brain-based lie-detection services, which has raised concerns from the academic communityat large about the use and misuse of neuroscientific results (4).

Neuroethical issues are surely going to become ever more pertinent with new developments in imaging analysis techniques, the simultaneous integration of multiple neuroimaging systems, and the linking of genetics with imaging. Although we realize that both students and lecturers are often plagued with already challenging schedules, we propose that as standard good practice, academic departmentsshould ensure that mechanisms are in place for teaching neuroethics. A solid education in the neurosciences should encompass the ability to consider the ethical implications of one's research. Such an education will ultimately also promote future neuroscientists integrating socially relevant questions into their research and ensuring from an early stage that the public at large is supportive of advances in neuroscience.

Barbara J. Sahakian1,2 and Sharon Morein-Zamir1

1 Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine, Addenbrooke's Hospital and the MRC/Wellcome Trust Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute (BCNI), University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK.
2 Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.


  • 1. B. Sahakian, S. Morein-Zamir, Nature 450, 1157 (2007).
  • 2. H. Greely et al., Nature 456, 702 (2008).
  • 3. A. M. Owen et al., Science 313, 1402 (2006).
  • 4. E. Racine et al., Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 6, 159 (2005).
Ok, so let's see, why should students in neuroscience waste precious time in neuroethics classes? Why is this so urgent and important right now? Are Sahakian and Morein-Zamir so alarmed at the ignorance of their students on matters of ethics that they fear they might becomes dangers to society? Should neuroethics be teached very early on so that neuroscience students, god forbid, never become evil scientists?

This letter is simply ridiculous. Isn't it self-evident that every human activity has ethical implications, and that everybody should be required to ponder the ethical implications of what they do? I mean, shouldn't we worry about the ethical behaviour of future physicists? Chemists? Geneticists? Lawyers? Economists? Doctors? Taxi drivers? Car retailers? Catholic priests? Pop singers? What about the ethics of the man-on-the-street? Do we need a new field of ethics for each and every human activity and field of research? Why on earth should students in neuroscience be singled out for such a stupid proposal?

"A solid education in the neurosciences should encompass the ability to consider the ethical implications of one's research", the authors of the letter say. Please take a few seconds to let that sentence sink in. "The ability to consider the ethical implications"? What does that even mean? Only psychopaths don't have such an ability. Why should that even be taught?

And by the way, what would a class of neuroethics entail anyway? What the hell would "formal neuroethics" teaching look like , and why does it seem so natural and unquestionable that this would be "standard good practice"? Hey, neuroscientists have been exploiting and killing animals for as long as the field came into existence, but now the younger generations should really stop to ponder the problems that humanity face because we start using fMRI to "detect lies"? And so what exactly will be solved by teaching "neuroethics"? That this could be misused by nasty people, that society can be changed by new knowledge, and so forth? And then what? What is the point? Are students in business school taught that capitalism can alienate lives, diminish cultural diversity and pollute the environment? Should they be? Would that make a difference? Would we then restrict or forbid capitalism?

And what is "neuroethics" anyway? The field hardly even exists, for god's sake. (yeah I know, there is a journal, a bunch of books, vocal proponents that all say different things, etc. And I say this is not a field at all, there). It's not like the philosophical domain of ethics is firmly settled and uncontroversial by now, you know. I think we would know if ethics and neuroethics were actually helpful to society, in any sense. Look at the examples they give in their letter: yes, people take drugs for "enhancement purposes". So fucking what? Why on earth should neuroscience students receive special teaching about that? For one thing, this has been going on for millenia, and then it's an issue that concerns everyone, not only students in neuroscience: how about chemists, laypeople, sellers, users, politicians, etc? Why should neuroscientists in particular be super special concerned about this, and why shouldn't neuroethics be taught to everyone, then? Because drugs mess with people's brains, and neuroscientists happen to specialize about the brain? That's the reason? How pathetic is this reasoning? Why is this embarrassing piece even published in Science?

And then there is the very idiotic idea that teaching neuroethics would ensure that "the public at large is supportive of advances in neuroscience". What if it does? In what sense exactly should we scientists care what the "public at large" thinks of our research? What does the "public at large" know about science and ethics anyway, and why should an "ethical" neuroscience necessarily be supported by it? This is simply crazy.

The thing is I actually think that "neuroethics" might end up being a legitimate field. But sending the message that there is something particularly disturbing about what future neuroscientists will be up to is simply self-defeating (the authors of the letter are neuroscientists). Because that's the essence of the letter: without special teaching, students in neuroscience are unable to understand "big questions" about culture, society, right and wrong. Even worse, they are unable to spontaneously ponder or consider such questions. Nevermind that society and the world are already entirely messed up by the financial crisis, wars, violence, corruption, pollution, stupidity, religion, poverty, and so forth. No, the real problem right now is neuroscience.