In the House of Advanced Primates

In French you can say, without blushing, “les sciences de l’homme”; in German you can say “Geisteswissenschaften”; but if you say “the human sciences” or “the sciences of the spirit” in American English, you have the feeling of perpetrating a mistranslation, a misconception, or even a fraud. Why is that? Well, one reason jumps off the page of Jamie Cohen-Cole’s The Open Mind: Cold War Politics and the Sciences of Human Nature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014):

As it was originally organized, the National Science Foundation did not include a specific mandate to support the social sciences. This was because the public, Congress and many natural scientists either equated the social sciences with socialism or did not find them to be sciences at all. … Speaking for the “average American,” Congressman Clarence Brown (R-Oh.) [said]: “If the impression becomes prevalent in Congress that this legislation [for the National Science Foundation] is to establish some sort of organization in which there would be a lot of short-haired women and long-haired men messing into everybody’s personal affairs and lives, inquiring whether they love their wives or do not love them and so forth, you are not going to get this legislation.” (p. 96)

So that’s why anthropologists and others of that tribe have mostly depended on private foundation money in this country. And at the beginning, at least, the bargain didn’t seem Faustian at all. Private money was interested in generating innovative, consequential research, with a lingering aftertaste of the great interdisciplinary efforts that had won the last war for democracy. When there was bounty, the ideas bubbled quickly to the surface. Already in 1955, the Wenner-Gren Foundation was underwriting the founding conference of environmental studies, “Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth.” Also a taboo topic today.

Though Cohen-Cole’s book is a bit repetitive and overuses the passive voice, it tells an important story from which I pull this corollary: The humanities and social sciences aren’t “irrelevant.” It’s the definition of “relevance” that shrank, as the community of interest and support behind academia changed its objectives from building worldwide support for “the American way of life” (pluralistic, democratic, plentiful, permissive) to guaranteeing the highest return on investment. “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small” (Sunset Boulevard).


Do Feed the Public Intellectual

(Introducing Paul Farmer, Human Rights Program Kirschner Memorial Lecture, June 5, 2014)

Good evening and welcome to tonight’s Kirschner Memorial Lecture. I’m delighted to see so many of you here tonight, a direct acknowledgment of the significance of our Human Rights Program and a hint that our benefactors’ generosity has not been totally misplaced. The questions examined in the Human Rights Program are among the most serious questions raised in a university, and I would say that for us, specifically, in this country, with our history and assumptions, the area of health and human rights has the greatest power to change the way we see ourselves and others.

For many of us in Paul’s and my generation in the United States, the first time we heard about human rights as a field of activism, it was in connection with the denial of people’s rights to free speech and assembly, their right to emigrate, their right to seek redress, their implicit right to representative government. And we learned about this in the context of the Cold War, when it seemed self-evident that people in some part of the world benefited from the recognition of those rights, while people lacked them in many other parts of the world—not only the Soviet bloc and China, but also Latin America, Asia and Africa, where the client states of the great powers all seemed to repress their dissidents with the greatest indifference. Of course, it didn’t stop there. The response to human rights activism by official representatives of the socialist countries and by some of our own home-grown leftists was to point out how inequitably the market system distributed such basic goods as food, housing, education and medical care, goods which, it was implied, were a fair trade for civil and legal rights. The funny thing about this answer is that it was taken just as a rebuke of the West’s hypocrisy. Despite some laudable exceptions, we did not experience, even in the Carter era which made such a noise about making human rights the driving force of our foreign policy, a large-scale effort to wrap social and economic rights around the uncontestable but rather abstract goods of free speech and fair elections at home. The struggle for civil rights and equality within the US, which had concluded in the courts with a handful of imperfect measures for instituting fairness in civil life, did not carry over into an effective War on Poverty. The Great Society spent most of its surplus on weaponry, with a small percentage allocated to nagging our rivals about their bad human-rights record.

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Planetary Thinking of 1876

Ernest Renan (whose enormous body of work stands heaped in front of your correspondent) was “one of the few nineteenth-century writers to think on a planetary scale,” observes Simone Fraisse (“Péguy et Renan,” Revue d’Histoire littéraire de la France 73 [1973], 264-280, at 269). But planetary scale and prophetic futurity do not equal being a nice guy. Some excerpts from Renan’s Dialogues et fragments philosophiques (1876), with translation below:

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Recidivism in weight loss

Nice article from NY Mag on the psychological and physiological adjustments that come with having lost large amounts of weight.

Cultural fantasies of weight loss present a tidy, attractive proposition – lose weight, gain self-acceptance – without addressing the whole truth: that body image post-weight loss is often quite complicated. Perhaps that helps explain why the rate of recidivism among people who have lost significant amounts of weight is shockingly high – by some estimates, more than 90 percent of people who lose a lot of weight will gain it back. Of course, there are lots of other reasons: genetic predisposition towards obesity, for one. For another, someone who’s lost 100 pounds to get to 140 pounds will need to work harder – including eating much less each day – to maintain that weight than someone who’s been at it her entire life. (Tara Parker-Pope’s excellent piece “The Fat Trap” explains these physiological factors in much greater detail.) But what about the psychological? Who would be surprised if a person – contending with both a new body that looks different from the one she feels she was promised, and the loneliness of feeling there’s no way to express that disappointment – returned to the familiar comfort of overeating? At least its effects are predictable.

Two thoughts: first that the last bit is of a piece toward a more general understanding of how psychologically difficult deprivation is, and how things like being fat or being poor change the wiring of our bodies and our brains. Beginning from that understanding makes compassion for the choices others make far easier (and moralizing judgment oriented around disgust more difficult).

Second is that Iwonder if anyone’s ever done a comparative analysis of the disappointment one feels after losing a great deal of weight and the post-pregnancy/childbirth body. Both are situations in which one does not return (unless one is a certain sort of celebrity, I suppose) to the status quo ante; in the case of weight loss this is exacerbated or made more weird, of course, by the fact that the new status quo may never have been ante. I was 6’1″, 215 pounds at age 16, 6’3″ 240 at 18, and 6’3″ 278 in summer 2002. Since 2007 I’ve bounced between 190 and 200 (I was at 184 at one point, but never again) and I’m still not used to it.


For External Use Only


One of the things I am always asking France– because, vous savez, lovers are always full of questions– is why the ideas that are taken to their worst extremes of actualization elsewhere have so often begun here. France, mère des arts, des armes, et des lois, I know. But that’s not all. Alongside a lot of civilisation and rayonnement, égalité and parité, it was on French territory that the theory of the fascist state grew to completeness (so that Mussolini could then borrow it from the Action française), that racism and antisemitism took their modern forms (Gobineau, Drumont), that the most eminent medical researchers, decorated with Nobel prizes, advocated a strong eugenics program (Charles Richet, Alexis Carrel). But in comparison with other places, France had a mild case of fascism, antisemitism, racism, eugenics, etc. These could achieve a loud minority, a persistent subtheme, but not (so far) domination of French political life.

You might say: Vichy. But Vichy was a capitulation to invaders who came waving a monstrous growth of bad French ideas. Vichy is an example of what happens when the precarious balance of things that kept people like Maurras and Barrès on the loud lunatic fringe got broken. And no, I am not denying the existence of plenty of nasty racists and exterminationists in la grande patrie, some of them elected officials.

How were moments of crisis averted, by and large, the moments when the same ideas jumped into the saddle elsewhere? My theory is not that French people are uniquely virtuous or that France has some secret ingredient (too bad for me; I could be writing best-sellers and New York Times Magazine pieces about the special Frenchness of the French!), but just that the democratic process kept going here despite the many coups, restorations, revolutions, wars and invasions. Not immaculately; just enough. We can all take encouragement from that.



“A thermocline (sometimes metalimnion) is a thin but distinct layer in a large body of fluid (e.g. water, such as an ocean or lake, or air, such as an atmosphere) in which temperature changes more rapidly with depth than it does in the layers above or below. In the ocean, the thermocline may be thought of as an invisible blanket which separates the upper mixed layer from the calm deep water below.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermocline

I like to think of an octopus at night, reaching out when it gets chilly and arm by arm by arm by arm cuddling his invisible blanket around himself.


Air pollution in China: alpha/omega?

Useful and interesting discussion at China File on “airpocalypse now.”

Quote from Alex Wang to set up the discussion:

My own view is that China’s tipping point, in a sense, already arrived a few years ago. But the official response has been wholly inadequate to the task. Fundamental weaknesses in the way that China has approached its environmental protection efforts mean that the environmental crisis has continued to run amok.

Put all this in the “why I’m down on China” file, whose contents explain why my family will not be spending my 2013-14 sabbatical there.


Genentech: An Interview

I had the pleasure of speaking with Sally Smith Hughes recently about her book on the history of Genentech and the business of recombinant DNA technology. You can find our conversation here.

(For a list of previous interviews on NBSTS, click me.)


Attention is a resource

This piece at Marginal Revolution draws our attention once again to the ways in which being rich benefits the rich twice–once in terms of a direct access to wealth, and once in terms of how it allows the wealthy to preserve cognitive resources that allow them to make decisions that benefit their long-term self-interest.

Thus, SMS [the researchers] show that poverty (over)-stimulates attention to urgent problems which results in less attention given to important problems–thus, reduce some day to day urgencies and people may become more open to devoting attention to important problems like deworming or hygiene or paying the rent which would in the not-so-long-run result in greater benefits.

Crucially, notice that SMS’s experiments are about the effect of poverty not about the poor. In other words, at least some of our discussion of the poor may suffer from the fundamental attribution error.

That bit about fundamental attribution error seems crucial. And this sort of research, which we have seen more and more of in the last decade, seems to me to offer–via rationality and science–the best non-ethical, non-moral arguments for things like affirmative action that I can imagine being put forward. No idea if they’ll change anyone’s mind but it’s good to know, as always, that social science will help “prove” things that I have known all along were “true.”