Review of Oliver Sacks, “The River of Consciousness”, TLS 13th March 2018

I have a review in the current TLS of Oliver Sacks’ essay collection, “The River of Consciousness” . The full article is subscriber only so here is the opening….

Who is the most famous medical doctor in the world today? Until his death in 2015, a reasonable case could be made that it was Oliver Sacks. Portrayed by Robin Williams on screen, inspiring a Michael Nyman opera and plays by Peter Brook and Harold Pinter, Sacks took his followers far beyond the confines of neurology.

In their Foreword to The Rivers of Consciousness, a posthumously published collection of Sacks’s essays, the editors recount the time Sacks appeared in a Dutch documentary series, A Glorious Accident. Along with, among others, Daniel Dennett, Freeman Dyson and Stephen Jay Gould, Sacks discussed “the origin of life, the meaning of evolution, the nature of consciousness. In a lively discussion, one thing was clear: Sacks could move fluidly among all of the disciplines”. Specialists can have a suspicion of polymaths, and professionals can have a suspicion of those with a media profile. In his…

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“They should teach that in school….”

One of the academic studies I haven’t had time to pursue (so only blog about) is a thematic analysis of editorials in medical journals – with a focus on the many many “musts”, “need to s”, “shoulds” and “have to s” imposed on doctors, “policymakers”, and so on.

Education is more prone to this, and from a wider group of people. Everyone has their idea of what “they” should teach, ascribing to schools magical powers to end social ills by simply putting something on the curriculum.

Much of this is very worthy and well-intentioned. People want their children to be prepared for life. That the things suggested may not lend themselves to “being on the curriculum” with any degree of effectiveness is rarely considered.
That curricula are pretty overloaded anyway is rarely considered.

Anyway, the UK Organisation “Parents and Teachers for Excellence” has been keeping track of these “X should be taught in schools calls” in 2018 so far.:

How often do you hear the phrase “Schools should teach…” in the media?
We’ve noticed that barely a week goes by without a well-meaning person or organisation insisting that something else is added to the curriculum, often without any consideration as to how it could be fitted into an already-squeezed school day. Obviously the curriculum needs to be updated and improved upon over time, and some of the topics proposed are incredibly important. However, there are only so many hours in the school week, and we believe that teachers and schools are the ones best placed to decide what their students need to know, and not have loads of additional things forced on them by government because of lobbying by others.

So far, as of today, this is the list:

So far this year we count 22 suggestions for what schools should do with pupils:
Why We Should Teach School Aged Children About Baby Loss
Make schools colder to improve learning
Schools ‘should help children with social media risk’
Pupils should stand or squat at their desks, celebrity GP says
MP’s call for national anthem teaching in schools to unite country
It’s up to us: heads and teachers must model principled, appropriate and ethical online behaviour
Primary school children need to learn about intellectual property, Government agency says
Call for more sarcasm at school is no joke
Schools should teach more ‘nuanced’ view of feminism, Girls’ School Association president says
Schools ‘should teach children about the dangers of online sexual content’
Schools should teach children resilience to help them in the workplace, new Education Secretary says
Government launches pack to teach pupils ‘importance of the Commonwealth’
Schools must not become like prisons in fight against knife crime, headteacher warns
Schools should teach all pupils first aid, MPs say
Call for agriculture GCSE to be introduced as UK prepares to leave the EU
Councils call for compulsory mental health counselling in all secondary schools
Set aside 15 minutes of dedicated reading time, secondary schools told
Pupils must be taught about architecture, says Gokay Deveci
A serious education on the consequences of obesity is needed for our most overweight generation

Teach girls how to get pregnant, say doctors
Start teaching children the real facts of life

I am confident there are a lot more out there PTE haven’t been linked with. From sarcasm to “how to get pregnant” to first aid to intellectual property to resilience.

I do wish someone would do my study on medical journals’ imperatives for me!

Critical thinking about critical thinking

At Aeon, an interesting piece on “critical thinking”, by Carl Hendrick:

Essentially, “critical thinking” as a skill detached from context is meaningless and illusory:

Of course, critical thinking is an essential part of a student’s mental equipment. However, it cannot be detached from context. Teaching students generic ‘thinking skills’ separate from the rest of their curriculum is meaningless and ineffective. As the American educationalist Daniel Willingham puts it:

[I]f you remind a student to ‘look at an issue from multiple perspectives’ often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives … critical thinking (as well as scientific thinking and other domain-based thinking) is not a skill. There is not a set of critical thinking skills that can be acquired and deployed regardless of context.

This detachment of cognitive ideals from contextual knowledge is not confined to the learning of critical thinking. Some schools laud themselves for placing ‘21st-century learning skills’ at the heart of their mission. It’s even been suggested that some of these nebulous skills are now as important as literacy and should be afforded the same status. An example of this is brain-training games that claim to help kids become smarter, more alert and able to learn faster. However, recent research has shown that brain-training games are really only good for one thing – getting good at brain-training games.

Hendrick concludes:

Instead of teaching generic critical-thinking skills, we ought to focus on subject-specific critical-thinking skills that seek to broaden a student’s individual subject knowledge and unlock the unique, intricate mysteries of each subject. For example, if a student of literature knows that Mary Shelley’s mother died shortly after Mary was born and that Shelley herself lost a number of children in infancy, that student’s appreciation of Victor Frankenstein’s obsession with creating life from death, and the language used to describe it, is more enhanced than approaching the text without this knowledge. A physics student investigating why two planes behave differently in flight might know how to ‘think critically’ through the scientific method but, without solid knowledge of contingent factors such as outside air temperature and a bank of previous case studies to draw upon, the student will struggle to know which hypothesis to focus on and which variables to discount.

As Willingham writes: ‘Thought processes are intertwined with what is being thought about.’ Students need to be given real and significant things from the world to think with and about, if teachers want to influence how they do that thinking.

Medicine of course has had a vogue for “problem-based” learning for over half a century now. The premise of this is similar to that of critical thinking skills, and both have a laudable root of increasing learner engagement and showing the relevance of what they learn to “the real world.” Yet there are all sorts of assumptions, and wishful thinking involved.

Silence and the limits of language

I have found that an interest in silence and its meanings transcends the divide between clincal/”medical” interest and wider concerns. The auld philosophy of silence bit will take a bit longer to tease out… if ever.

Séamus Sweeney

“That for which we find words in something already dead in our hearts. There always is a kind of contempt in the act of speaking.”

Nietzsche, The Twilight of the Idols

Some popular sayings about education and mastery reflect a intuition that what is remembered is not always the full truth, or even the essential. There is the saw that “education is what remains when you have forgotten what you learned in school”, one of those quotes ascribed to multiple authors from Einstein to Lord Halifax. There is near-taunt that, on topic X, “I have forgotten more than you will ever know”.

The Nietzsche aphorism above is the epigraph of Harold Bloom’s “Shakespeare the Invention of the Human”. In another translation, the full paragraph is as follows:

We no longer have sufficiently high esteem for ourselves when we communicate. Our true experiences are not at all…

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Why isn’t William C Campbell more famous in Ireland?

There have been only two Irish winners of Nobel Prizes other than Literature and Peace – Dungarvan-born Ernest Walton for physics in 1951 and Ramelton-born William C Campbell for Physiology or Medicine in 2015.

My memory of being in school in the 1990s was that Ernest Walton loomed fairly large in science popularisation at the time. I recall quite vividly coverage of his death in 1995, but also recall his being quoted and profiled fairly extensively. Of course, I could be a victim of a recall bias – I probably am. Yet it does seem that William C Campbell has not had nearly as much coverage, especially when you consider how media-saturated we are now.

Or perhaps that is the whole point. It feels like a silly comparison, but is may be like the Eurovision; once we cared deeply about winning this competition and getting recognition, now there is a flurry of excitement if we get to the final. Having said that, it isn’t like we have had any other science Nobels to get excited about since 1995.

Of course there is a reasonable amount of coverage of Campbell, in the Irish Times in particular some of it quite recent. A fair percentage of online coverage seems to be from the Donegal papers of the hail-the-local-hero variety, which is fair enough.

A search for ‘William Campbell “Irish Independent”‘ starts with two articles from the Independent on Campbell, then has this , then a range of articles about unrelated topics.

I came across this excellent piece on “the fragile culture of Irish journalism” by Declan Fahy – the fragility exemplified by the coverage of Campbell’s prize:

The reporting of Campbell’s Nobel win illuminated several more general features of Irish media coverage of science. The story originated outside Ireland, yet its local dimension was stressed. Its tone was celebratory. It was not covered by specialist science journalists. Only The Irish Times probed deeper into the background of the scientist and his work.

The story was interesting also because of the aspects of Campbell’s story that were not developed. Reporters did not use the announcement as a jumping-off point to explore some of the novel dimensions of Campbell’s story, such as the rights and wrongs of pharmaceutical companies’ ownership of drugs that could help millions of the world’s poorest people, the unseen research work of an industry-based scientist, and the complex case of a scientist of faith with an admitted “complicated sense of religion”.

The superficial reporting of the Campbell story is not an isolated case. It reflects more generally the state of Irish science journalism, where there are few dedicated science journalists, a shortfall of science coverage compared to other countries, a neglect of science policy coverage, a reliance on one outlet for sustained coverage, a dependence on subsidies for the production of some forms of journalistic content, and a dominant style of reporting that lacks a critical edge.

(in passing, Walton was also a scientist of faith, although perhaps with less “complicated sense of religion” than Campbell)

Fahy goes on, in what is a an extract from a book co-edited by Fahy, “Little Country, Big Talk” to enumerate some fo the issues both within the structure of media institutions and within Irish society and culture overall which contribute to this relative neglect. While there is an Irish Science and Technology Journalists Association, there is not a critical mass of science journalists. Writing in 2017, Fahy observes:

Compared to the US and UK, Ireland has a far less developed culture of science journalism. There are currently no full-time science journalists in mainstream Irish newspapers and broadcasters. The Irish Times had a dedicated science editor in Dick Ahlstrom, who has now retired (and, during his tenure, he had other significant editorial duties at the news organisation).

The Irish Times also had a longtime environmental correspondent, Frank McDonald, who retired in recent years. Earlier this year, former editor Kevin O’Sullivan combined these two roles, becoming environment and science editor. The paper also has a health correspondent and a specialist medical writer. The Irish Independent has an environment editor, Paul Melia.

The public service broadcaster, RTÉ, has had specialists in science or technology, but its correspondents have usually had dual briefs, reporting on education or health as well as science, and tending to cover education or health more so than science. That tendency, identified by Brian Trench in 2007’s Mapping Irish Media, has continued. In 2016, the incumbent in the role is responsible for science and technology, and tends to cover technology more than science.

Fahy also discusses the wider place of science in Irish culture and society. There are many many fascinating stories to tell about science in Ireland, such as Erwin Schrodinger’s time here (perhaps illustrative of Fahy’s point is that the very first Google result for “Schrodinger in Ireland” is this) and the many many stories collected by Mary Mulvihill in Ingenious Ireland. As I have just posted on Seamus Sweeney, I only learnt while researching this post that Mary Mulvihill died in 2015.

Of course, some of these stories can be told with a celebratory, or I-can’t-believe-this-happened-in-little-auld-Ireland focus, which again illustrates Fahy’s point. My own perception is that in 1995 the situation was actually a little better than it is now – that Irish science journalism is not in stasis but actually in reverse .

One striking point made by Fahy is that the science beat is often combined with health or technology- and these tend to win out in terms of focus. And the hard , critical questions don’t tend to get asked – often there is a strong bang of barely rewritten press release about articles on science topics.

Another thought – the retirement of Dick Ahlstrom and death of Mary Mulvihill alone robbed the already small pool of Irish science writers of some of the finest practitioners. Irish journalism – like Irish anything- is pretty much a small world and a couple of such losses can have a huge impact.

“Of swallows, hares and horrors” – Simon Barnes on nature in the Age of Terror

Coming across this post on my other blog last year I was struck by the link with the nature connection material I have posted about (well, posted other people’s work on) here. In a way this piece – written in the direct aftermath of last year’s terror attacks in the UK – is as timely now as it was then, and holds up well to the passage of the months.

Séamus Sweeney

Original here:

Wild June moves into Day 5 and I’m spoiled for choice again. Shall I write about the swallows above the meadow? Or the hare in the garden? We saw each other at the same time and we both froze, holding a 15 yard stand-off for a full minute. Or perhaps I’ll turn to the butterflies that –

Tell me: is it wicked to enjoy such things in a time of devastation, after the horrors of Manchester have been followed by the horrors of London Bridge? Of if not wicked, is it not infinitely trivial, lacking in all seriousness, to bother with nature at times of random urban murder?

I did a piece for The World at One the other day, on the drastic decline of lesser sported woodpeckers. They put it on right at the end, cheerily describing it as “light relief”. I was a little surprised that…

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The Clinic of Dr Gross

Reblogged from the blog of Charles Saumarez Smith
, quite apart from the art-historical interest, this painting exemplifies a certain image of medicine and medical practice. It seems to embody some of those many many dictums ascribed to William Osler

I didn’t know the story of the portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross, known as The Clinic of Dr. Gross: that it was agreed that it should be sold by Jefferson Medical College on 11 November 2006 with a proviso which allowed the city of Philadelphia to make a pre-emptive bid for a matching price […]

via Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross — | Charles | Saumarez | Smith |