2012-03-15

Intolerance: criticizing what somebody *is*, not they ideas they believe in

Somebody just asked the following question to the csail-related mailing list about the appropriateness of political slurs during public talks:

On Wed, Mar 14, 2012 at 9:19 PM, IJ wrote:
I was wondering what people in CSAIL think about speakers including gratuitous political insults in their talks.

I was at a talk last week at HMS about systems-based analysis of disease. The speaker, Joseph Loscalzo (Chairman of Medicine at the Brigham), said that before Hippocrates people thought illness was caused by evil spirits. He then added that this view is shared by Republicans.

Coming from a background in industry where one often encounters very nice, very intelligent people of all political leanings, I found it shocking that the speaker would be so unprofessional as to insult people who, for whatever reason, have a political affiliation different from his own. Still worse was his subsequent joke that there might "even" be some Republicans in the audience, with its presumption that all or almost all of his audience must share his political views. I thought he would next suggest that if we spot one of these Republicans we might examine him or her as an interesting specimen!

As discussed in this New York Times article, and borne out by my own acquaintances, academia can be a hostile environment to people who are not liberal Democrats (www.nytimes.com/2011/02/08/science/08tier.html). The researcher mentions how these non-liberals remind him of closeted gay students in the 1980's, how they "hid their feelings when colleagues made political small talk and jokes predicated on the assumption that everyone was a liberal." I know of medical students who were justifiably afraid that they would be discriminated against if their political affiliations were "outed".

I hope that in CSAIL we would not tolerate remarks like these that create a hostile environment for any of our members, students, or guests, whether they are women, gays, or even Republicans.

Does CSAIL have a policy on this?

Should it?

RMS jumped in with the following:

On Thu, Mar 15, 2012 at 12:22 AM, Richard Stallman wrote:
People are responsible for their opinions; criticizing and even
condemning political opinions is a normal part of political discourse.

Here's my take on it:

There is a difference between criticizing a theory that somebody holds, and something that a person *is*. The former is the foundation of academic discourse, and theories must be able to withstand scrutiny to be of value. The latter -- criticizing what somebody is, and either hasn't chosen to be (in the case of phenotypic attributes -- skin color, gender etc.) or has chosen to be, by culture or agency (religion, political orientation etc.), is intolerance. In the context of the original poster's situation, it is OK to criticize a theory about how the government should be run, and to subject that theory to academic discourse about relative merits or lack thereof. It's not OK to poke fun at somebody's *identity* as a person that follows a given ideology ("one of those people", in label-speak).

I really don't like the word "intolerance" however: the grand irony is that much of the time that this word is used, it is used to superciliously indicate that another person's views are quaint, and not broad enough to include one's own views. Whether or not that is true, unless one party is being harmed, tolerance must be extended in both directions, or a claim of intolerance is plain hypocrisy.

The word "intolerance" seems to have therefore lost a lot of its real meaning, because it is often used in this self-serving way. Is there a less worn-out word available for use than "intolerance"? (I guess this is why policies about this generally refer to harassment, not intolerance, because they deal with cases where one party is in fact harmed?)

Stephen Wolfram, Quantified Self and LifeScope

Stephen Wolfram's recent blog post that presents a visualization of a lot of his life data is opening a lot of eyes. I submitted an app to the original Android Developer Challenge back in 2008 that produced many of the same exact data plots. I called it LifeScope. It contains its own custom graph plotting library and a completely generic data handling backend that you should be able to plug a range of different data sources into.

Stephen Wolfram's blog post has inspired me to clean up my code and get the app out. Please leave a comment if you would find this app useful, and let me know what data sources in your life you would be interested in plotting.

2012-03-08

On life, death and so-called "brain death"

Cross-posted from my reply to the following TED Conversation: "How does life/death manifest itself in the human brain? Is brain death the ultimate end stage of life?"


There is something to the fact that, to maintain a living state, the brain requires a pattern of oscillatory activity with the power distributed in certain frequency bands according to the type of activity that the brain is engaging in. (See Rhythms of the Brain by G. Buzsáki.) However, even after a massive epileptic seizure, which typically indicates a widespread state of electrical noise, the brain is usually able to recover these baseline rhythms.

I think in persistent vegetative state, the brain has very little normal electrical activity, but still, the activity is non-zero -- and the brain appears able to wake itself in some cases. There are stories of people waking up from PVS after several years. It's also curious that you can keep a person's body alive for a long time after their brain is declared "dead" as long as you keep blood flowing and oxygen and nutrients at the right levels. Personally I think that implies the organism couldn't really be declared dead to start with. I don't think it's possible to accurately declare an organism dead until rigor mortis sets in and its microbiome begins to consume it -- in my opinion, decay and the succumbing to entropy is the only true sign of death -- and these forces are set in motion very quickly once an organism "actually dies".

Note that recent research has shown that administering an intravenous dose of Ritalin to a comatose mouse can cause the mouse to wake up almost instantly. They have yet to start human trials, but this may hold real hope for "rebooting the brain".


How long should we keep a PVS patient alive for though? Is it worth 20 years of stress on the family and untold cost of life support? I don't know, but I would say that we need a better understanding of the types of baseline electrical situations from which the brain is able to reboot before we can authoritatively say we know that a patient is actually "brain dead", i.e. beyond the chance of recovery.