Anthropologizing Environmentalism – review by E Donald Elliot of “Risk and Culture”, Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavksy, Yale Law Review, 1983

Recently I have been posting  on the cultural theory of risk developed by Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky. This is a PDF of a review of Douglas and Wildavksy’s 1982 book “Risk and Culture” by E Donald Elliott adjunct professor of Law at Yale.

The review summarises Wildavksy and Douglas’ thought very well, and gets to the heart of one issue I struggle with in their writing ; their oft dismissive approach to environmental risk:

Most readers will be struck not by the abstract theory but by its application to the rise of environmentalism. This emphasis is unfortunate. The attempt to “explain” environmentalism makes a few good points, but on the whole this part of the book is crude, shortsighted, and snide. On the other hand, the sections that consider the relationship between risk and culture on a more fundamental level are sensitive and thoughtful.

I think it unfortunate that cultural theory of risk has ended up so much overshadowed by this “crude, shortsighted, and snide” discussion of environmental risk (Wildavksy, if I recall correctly, was revealed to have taken undisclosed payments from the chemical industry) It remains a powerful explanatory tool, and in clinical practice and team working one finds that different approaches to risk are rooted in cultural practices.

Elliott’s review focuses on the environmental realm, but serves as a good and sceptical discussion of the more general focus of cultural theory of risk – and an introduction to what is sometimes a less than lucidly explained theory.

Can fMRI solve the mind-body problem? Tim Crane, “How We Can Be”, TLS, 24/05/17

In the current TLS, an excellent article by Tim Crane on neuroimaging, consciousness, and the mind-body problem. Many of my previous posts here related to this have endorsed a kind of mild neuro-scepticism, Crane begins his article by describing an experiment which should the literally expansive nature of neuroscience:

In 2006, Science published a remarkable piece of research by neuroscientists from Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. By scanning the brain of a patient in a vegetative state, Adrian Owen and his colleagues found evidence of conscious awareness. Unlike a coma, the vegetative state is usually defined as one in which patients are awake – they can open their eyes and exhibit sleep-wake cycles – but lack any consciousness or awareness. To discover consciousness in the vegetative state would challenge, therefore, the basic understanding of the phenomenon.

The Addenbrooke’s patient was a twenty-three-year-old woman who had suffered traumatic brain injury in a traffic accident. Owen and his team set her various mental imagery tasks while she was in an MRI scanner. They asked her to imagine playing a game of tennis, and to imagine moving through her house, starting from the front door. When she was given the first task, significant neural activity was observed in one of the motor areas of the brain. When she was given the second, there was significant activity in the parahippocampal gyrus (a brain area responsible for scene recognition), the posterior parietal cortex (which represents planned movements and spatial reasoning) and the lateral premotor cortex (another area responsible for bodily motion). Amazingly, these patterns of neural responses were indistinguishable from those observed in healthy volunteers asked to perform exactly the same tasks in the scanner. Owen considered this to be strong evidence that the patient was, in some way, conscious. More specifically, he concluded that the patient’s “decision to cooperate with the authors by imagining particular tasks when asked to do so represents a clear act of intention, which confirmed beyond any doubt that she was consciously aware of herself and her surroundings”.

Owen’s discovery has an emotional force that one rarely finds in scientific research. The patients in the vegetative state resemble those with locked-in syndrome, a result of total (or near-total) paralysis. But locked-in patients can sometimes demonstrate their consciousness by moving (say) their eyelids to communicate (as described in Jean-Dominique Bauby’s harrowing and lyrical memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, 1997). But the vegetative state was considered, by contrast, to be a condition of complete unconsciousness. So to discover that someone in such a terrible condition might actually be consciously aware of what is going on around them, thinking and imagining things, is staggering. I have been at academic conferences where these results were described and the audience was visibly moved. One can only imagine the effect of the discovery on the families and loved ones of the patient.

Crane’s article is very far from a piece of messianic neurohype, but he also acknowledges the sheer power of this technology to expand our awareness of what it means to be conscious and human, and the clinical benefit that is not something to be sniffed at. But, it doesn’t solve the mind-body problem – it actually accentuates it:

Does the knowledge given by fMRI help us to answer Julie Powell’s question [essentially a restatement of the mind-body problem by a food writer]? The answer is clearly no. There is a piece of your brain that lights up when you talk and a piece that lights up when you walk: that is something we already knew, in broad outline. Of course it is of great theoretical significance for cognitive neuroscience to find out which bits do what; and as Owen’s work illustrates, it is also of massive clinical importance. But it doesn’t tell us anything about “how we can be”. The fact that different parts of your brain are responsible for different mental functions is something that scientists have known for decades, using evidence from lesions and other forms of brain damage, and in any case the very idea should not be surprising. FMRI technology does not solve the mind–body problem; if anything, it only brings it more clearly into relief.

Read the whole thing, as they say. It is a highly stimulating read, and also one which, while it points out the limits of neuroimaging as a way of solving the difficult problems of philosophy, gives the technology and the discipline behind it its due.

Less-than-busy doctors: “The Beetle Hunter” Arthur Conan Doyle

S J Perelman wrote a series of New Yorker articles titled “Cloudland Revisited”, wherein he re-read or re-watched various books and movies of his youth. In what now seems a slightly grating way , he invariably finds them ludicrous pulp. Anyhow, in “Doctor, What Big Green Eyes You Have”, Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu stories come in for the treatment. In this, Perelman writes:

“Petrie, I have travelled from Burma not in the interests of the British Government merely, but in the interest of the entire white race, and I honestly believe – though I pray I may be wrong – that its survival depends largely on the success of my mission.” Can Petrie, demands Smith, spare a few days from his medical duties for “the strangest business, I can promise you, that ever was recorded in fact or fiction”? He gets the expected answer: “I agreed readily enough for, unfortunately, my professional duties were not onerous.” The alacrity with which doctors of that epoch deserted their practice has never ceased to impress me. Holmes had only to crook his finger and Watson went bowling away in a four wheeler, leaving his patients to fend for themselves. If the foregoing is at all indicative, the mortality rate of London in the nineteen-hundreds must have been appalling.


My understanding is that Arthur Conan Doyle had a quiet career as a private ophthalmologist before literary work overtook his medical efforts. Of course, the structure of medicine as a career was very different then. The medical student and junior doctor of popular and popular-ish fiction tends to have more free time than is the norm nowadays.

Conan Doyle’s short story The Beetle Hunter is very much in this mould. Perhaps this paragraph reflects more about Conan Doyle’s own view of the medical professional than strictly being a piece of social history, but there you go:

I had just become a medical man, but I had not started in practice, and I lived in rooms in Gower Street. The street has been renumbered since then, but it was in the only house which has a bow-window, upon the left-hand side as you go down from the Metropolitan Station. A widow named Murchison kept the house at that time, and she had three medical students and one engineer as lodgers. I occupied the top room, which was the cheapest, but cheap as it was it was more than I could afford. My small resources were dwindling away, and every week it became more necessary that I should find something to do. Yet I was very unwilling to go into general practice, for my tastes were all in the direction of science, and especially of zoology, towards which I had always a strong leaning. I had almost given the fight up and resigned myself to being a medical drudge for life, when the turning-point of my struggles came in a very extraordinary way.

A story in which a recent medical graduate now is immersed in idleness would be seen as fatally implausible. He or she would be doing pro bono work down the lab, sequencing some beetle genome or other. Of course, this striving means we are Much Better People than those of long ago. Doesn’t it?








Collective trauma and long term health impacts

Collective trauma and long term health impacts

On my other blog I have written about The Glamour of the West, an obscure book from 1928. One passage in this collection of episodic sketches deals with something I have have wondered about myself – the ultra long terms effects of collective trauma on the psyche. Of course, much tendentious stuff along these lines has been written, but I wonder about serious study of the topic:

Here’s the passage from Kelleher:

In the year 1928, when this book is being put together, there are many thousands of living Irish people whose parents were born in or about the Famine times. No wonder, here and there, if a melancholia should appear in the Irish. A generation born around the famine year could not escape the famine complex. In the west especially, life turned black with the black blighted potato. Social historians discuss the incidence of hysteria, and worse, due to the Zeppelin nights in London. The long duresse of the famine of 1847 was deeper shock to the whole population than any number of night-raids. Death might ensue from a bomb, but despair and death both were surer in Ireland. In Mayo the tragedy was at its height. At Westport workhouse, built to hold one thousand inmates, three thousand clamoured for entrance sometimes in a single day. Yet the pride of the Irish poor if well known; they will only enter the poorhouse when ruined and hopeless. The gate of the workhouse would be closed and barred early. Then the desperate, weak, lonely, agonised outcasts would throw themselves down to rest and snatch a sleep at the foot of the wall on the opposite side of the road. As many as seven corpses were found one morning like that, dead where they lay.

Here it is in the original (blurry photo and all) :


Beyond Knowing Nature – 5 Pathways to Nature Connection

Once again I am reblogging an interesting post by psychologist Miles Richardson on connection with nature and well being.

Particularly interesting is the research finding that factual knowledge does not necessarily correlate with emotional connection with nature. As Richardson writes, “the brain feels before it thinks”, and by focusing too much on how well species can be identified, we can miss the potential of emotional, experiential connection.

Finding Nature

Owing to the benefits to both human and nature’s well-being, and wide spread disconnection, a connection with nature is something many people and organisations are keen to increase. So there is a need to know how best to do this. We’ve already developed specific interventions, such as 3 good things in nature, but our wider framework of effective routes to nature connection has just been published in Plos One. I’m excited about this work is it provides guidance for those seeking to re-connect people with nature, indeed it has been central to much of our recent nature connections work, for example, guiding the type of activities promoted as part of The Wildlife Trusts highly successful 30 Days Wild campaign.

General nature contact and knowledge based activities are often used in an attempt to engage people with nature. However the specific routes to nature connectedness have not been examined…

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Leandro Herrero – “The best contribution that Neurosciences can make to Management and Leadership is to leave the room”

A while back I reviewed I Know What You’re Thinking: Brain Imaging and Mental Privacy in the Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, and discussed a couple of studies which illustrate the dangers of what could best be called neuro-fetishism:

In 2010, Dartmouth University neuroscientist Craig Bennett and his colleagues subjected an experimental subject to functional magnetic resonance imaging. The subject was shown ‘a series of photographs with human individuals in social situations with a specified emotional valence, either socially inclusive or socially exclusive’. The subject was asked to determine which emotion the individual in the photographs were experiencing. The subject was found to have engaged in perspective-taking at p<0.001 level of significance. This is perhaps surprising, as the subject was a dead salmon.

In 2007, Colorado State University’s McCabe and Castel published research indicating that undergraduates, presented with brief articles summarising fictional neuroscience research (and which made claims unsupported by the fictional evidence presented) rated articles that were illustrated by brain imaging as more scientifically credible than those illustrated by bar graphs, a topographical map of brain activation, or no image at all. Taken with the Bennett paper, this illustrates one of the perils of neuroimaging research, especially when it enters the wider media; the social credibility is high, despite the methodological challenges.

I am becoming quite addicted to Leandro Herrero’s Daily Thoughts and here is another. One could not accuse Herrero of pulling his punches here:

I have talked a lot in the past about the Neurobabble Fallacy. I know this makes many people uncomfortable. I have friends and family in the Neuro-something business. There is neuro-marketing, neuro-leadership and neuro-lots-of-things. Some of that stuff is legitimate. For example, understanding how cognitive systems react to signals and applying this to advertising. If you want to call that neuro-marketing, so be it. But beyond those prosaic aims, there is a whole industry of neuro-anything that aggressively attempts to legitimize itself by bringing in pop-neurosciences to dinner every day.

In case anyone doubts his credentials:

Do I have any qualifications to have an opinion on these bridges too far? In my previous professional life I was a clinical psychiatrist with special interest in psychopharmacology. I used to teach that stuff in the University. I then did a few years in R&D in pharmaceuticals. I then left those territories to run our Organizational Architecture company, The Chalfont Project. I have some ideas about brains, and some about leadership and organizations. I insist, let both sides have a good cup of tea together, but when the cup of tea is done, go back to work to your separate offices.

It is ironic that otherwise hard-headed sceptics tend to be transfixed by anything “neuro-” – and Leandro Herrero’s trenchant words are just what the world of neurobabble needs. In these days of occasionally blind celebration of trans-, multi- and poly- disciplinary approaches, the “separate offices” one is bracingly counter-cultural…

#OceanOptimism, powerlessness, hope, and change.

The current BBC Wildlife Magazine has a fascinating article by Elin Kelsey, of the Ocean Optimism Project, on how media-fuelled environmental despair and nihilism ends up demoralising people to the degree that positive action seems impossible. She cites much research on the “finite pool of worry” and the paralysing effect of despair, and the power optimism to reverse this trend. The article isn’t available online, but in the post below from my other blog I highlight relevant passages from a Kelsey piece in Smithsonian Magazine on similar themes.

This article is obviously focused on ecology, but is all too true of our healthcare systems. For similar reasons to those Kelsey ascribes to environmentalists who are wary of being overly focused on good news, frontline workers in the health service naturally tend to focus on what is wrong, what is proving impossible, what needs to change. This is necessary, but can become an overwhelming counsel of nihilism, fostering cynicism and very often helping to entrench negative practices.

This is very relevant to the various themes on valuesmorale, “blame culture”, and possibility of positive change within not only the HSE but any healthcare organisation.

Séamus Sweeney

The current issue of BBC Wildlife Magazinehas a fascinating cover story by Elin Kelseyon hope and optimism versus despair in how we think about they environment. Essentially, much media discourse on the environment tends to be gloomy, doom, and generally despairing. Kelsey cites a wide range of research on how this negativity effects how we think about the environment and our beliefs about what can be done – and therefore what is done – to improve things. The full article is not available online. This article from Smithsonian Magazine is briefer, but captures her idea:

Things are far more resilient than I ever imagined. Me, green sea turtles, coral reefs blown to bits by atomic bombs. In a twist of fate that even surprised scientists, Bikini Atoll, site of one of the world’s biggest nuclear explosions, is now a scuba diver’s paradise. Bikini Atoll located in the Pacific’s…

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