Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Nip the STEM in the Bud

According to recent research schizophrenic brains prune more neurons more aggressively than other brains.

And this explains 1.25% of schizophrenia, on the authors' own admission. One point two five percent.

A few months before that, it's that schizophrenics have too many neuronal connections.

Or it's a parasitic worm.


And in the news article, the university PR department's retweet that this is a huge mega breakthrough. Allowing the actual scientists the wiggle room for the “batteries not included” disclaimer that it isn't one (so give us more funding). Adding up to a nice truthsome package.

And this sort of thing is why “humanities is in decline”? STEM on the rise? STEM called STEM?

The stem of anything simply can't be blind computation and the stem of learning can't be training how to be a much less good calculator than the app in my phone. And the result of all that machination, and machination funding, can't be leaving 98.75% of my brother's condition unexplained.

You know what? I'm making a late breaking new years' resolution.

1.25%? Until neuroscience can explain what schizophrenia actually is—and this will, ahem, require proving that it exists—I'm not going to believe another word it says (I was already down to about 10%). And write a little note to whatever media outlet delivers an irksome scientistic factoid as The Truth.

At least theoretical physicists have the good grace to admit that they are entangled with the patterns in data they are paid to find and think about. Which is why a huge majority of them are now concerned that we don't actually know s*** about reality.

In the mid 90s I was sitting next to a neuropharmacologist on a plane, and I was desperate about my schizophrenic brother, and he was telling me all about olanzapine (drug for people with schizophrenia). And I was so ready to believe what I later realized was just a snake oil pitch.

“This new miracle fact/drug will explain everything (away). Relax!” Once you've heard it 678436742 times you start to get a little bit exasperated.

The first peoples did a much better job of defining what we call schizophrenia. You hear the voice of ancestors or spirits more than others? You need to go to shaman camp!

Even the early agrilogisticals did a better job. You hear the voice of god, maybe you should be the king's astrologer or whatever.

Can these new guys even explain what a hallucination is? And can they make a clear distinction between one and a “normal” thought?

The media: “Since the dawn of time, man [deliberate] has been investigating schizophrenia, an ancient illness...”

No “he” hasn't. It was invented in the later nineteenth century. Read a book. Meanwhile my brother is still suffering.

(Incidentally, talking of man, and this needs a subsequent post, I need to tell you what happened when I went through my nth training at my new job on how to interview people, aka how not to be a complete sexist or racist or ask people about their religion etc. It involves a chemistry professor who “Just didn't understand why it's always the men who are obviously better candidates for our jobs” and a computer science professor so angry that he stormed out of the room red faced. And me, the ranking humanist in the room, doing my best hard Paddingtonian stares. And the brave psychology professor who convened the meeting doing her best to teach the stats on how questions can distort interviews to men who were acting mostly like schoolboys being punished. It's 2016 folks! And they say humanities is dead and STEM, etc etc etc ack.)

The MRI machine is the most expensive light show in history. “People played jazz on little wraparound touch sensitive sheets while listening to jazz on headphones. We saw lights on a display. This means that when you play jazz, our machine lights up. [DISCLAIMER: which came first is still, for some reason, inexplicable, by us.]” Wow. I must skin up immediately. This is cosmic.

Meanwhile, my kids spend the weekend doing computational tasks so onerous that most parents at their state schools end up doing those for them anyway. And it's not enough just to calculate. You have to present your calculations in boutique form. Decorate that meaningless cake! Or else! Which results in using computational prosthetics, so no one learns even computation.

Recently my 11-year-old daughter had to do a scale model of her bedroom. The rich kids came in on the Monday with plastic models that daddy's architecture firm had printed using a 3D printer--just input the numbers and hit return. One kid had been bought an iPod Touch simply to simulate the flat screen TV in her bedroom. The 3D printed model had been scaled to the iPod Touch! Simple. Plug in the ratio between the real TV and the iPod Touch. Then scale the model around that. Click. STEM.

The poor kids came in with drawings on paper. How do you think they felt?

Forget the fact that most of the universe appears to be dark matter and dark energy and that we still can't really explain what the heck is happening in the double slit experiment. We're talking about having so little idea of what a mind is, we can't even explain 98.75% of schizophrenia on our own admission, yet we get funded and the humanities scholars who might have helped out get ignored and unfunded. Might it not be surprising that they are a little bit lost and peeved right now?

Let's get back to how things should be:

You let humanists figure out what the f*** schizophrenia is, or isn't. Then you pay attention. Then you go and do some nice research to find out some more about stuff based on what you heard us say, okay?

Humanists need to learn about science and start getting out of their bunkers. Yes. But the reason for the bunkers needs to be addressed. The “third culture” vibe (Brockman) needs to be stopped.

You've got years and years and years to learn how to compute. It's a fun hobby for all. Maybe if you took the time to think a bit beforehand, you wouldn't rush into research (and funding research) that explains a statistically almost meaningless sliver of a major, horrifying (in our world) mental condition, then have the PR department feed it to news outlets conditioned to act as if it were the Truth.

Science does appearance. Engineering does how to manipulate appearance. We do reality. Nip the STEM in the bud.


Bill Benzon said...

Sydney Lamb begins Pathways of the Brain with a story about his daughter (p. 1):

Some years ago I asked one of my daughters, as she sat at the piano, "When you hit that piano key with your finger, how does your mind tell your finger what to do?" She thought for a moment, her face brightening with the intellectual challenge, and said, "Well, my brain writes a little note and sends it down my arm to my hand, then my hand reads the note and knows what to do." Not too bad for a five-year old.

Lamb goes on to suggest that an awful lot of professional thinking about the brain takes place in such terms (p. 2):

This mode of theorizing is seen in ... statements about such things as lexical semantic retrieval, and in descriptions of mental processes like that of naming what is in a picture, to the effect that the visual information is transmitted from the visual area to a language area where it gets transformed into a phonological representation so that a spoken description of the picture may be produced....It is the theory of the five-year-old expressed in only slightly more sophisticated terms. This mode of talking about operations in the brain is obscuring just those operations we are most intent in understanding, the fundamental processes of the mind.

I agree with Lamb whole-heartedly. My impression is that most of the neuroscientific effort goes into getting observations – using some really cool technology, too – but when it comes to thinking about what's going on, the inner child just takes over – and a rather dim one at that.

Incidentally, Tim, Lamb is in Linguistics at Rice, though he may be emeritus by now.

D. E.M. said...

"You let humanists figure out what the f*** schizophrenia is, or isn't. Then you pay attention. Then you go and do some nice research to find out some more about stuff based on what you heard us say, okay?"


I once attended a big lecture in the Fac of Medicine in which all the physicians there thought women's cycles were for the birds & could be /should be medically / pharmacologically eliminated.

And when I countered with, "this system has everything to do with pregnancy too" I sounded like a raging pro-lifer.

Which I'm not.

What I wanted to say: it's the humanities who go back into history & pre-history to make sense of endocrine events that scientists don't quite get.

Don said...

I wonder if you've heard the latest idea, that there may be no such thing as schizophrenia, and that people who are diagnosed with it may have some form of bipolar disorder (or "schizoaffective" as they sometimes refer to it).

I don't see (as a psychologist, I must confess) how these labels help anything very much. They're supposed to help us know how to treat someone, but I know very few therapists/nurse practitioners/psychiatrists etc who pay much attention to anything beyond the grossest, objectified diagnoses

And then there's the "hearing voices" worldwide network, people who have learned mindfulness, to be aware of voices - and even delusions! - and are able to let the voices go.

No matter what is happening "neurologically", people are living in the meshes of a story that either works or doesn't - for them, and/or for society. I wonder what happens when you engage your brother in a shared story - or one that goes beyond the boundaries of sharing........

I think many more things are possible than we ordinarily allow ourselves to consider....