Tag Archives: technology & politics

Expectations vs. Reality: More Key Questions on Molecularization of Identity

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[Above: Rendering of DNA–aka “what most people think about when they hear ‘molecular identity'”–via ynse on Flickr & Creative Commons. 

Below: What scientists actually look at when they’re trying to sort out molecular identities. By Micah Baldwin via Flickr & Creative Commons]

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Two posts and two weeks later, I’ve only covered a fraction of the ideas presented at “The Molecularization of Identity” conference. Molecular identities factor into so many aspects of our lives that disentangling and summarizing them is pratically impossible. 

But maybe summary shouldn’t be the goal. 

After all, succinct summaries tend to create expectations--either for futures that promise to cure all our ills and end all suffering or for apocalyptic technology that robs us of our humanity.  However, reality is always a mixed bag. Science isn’t separate from the rest of society, and most corners of society have already been shaped by science. 

Maybe we’d be better off if we admitted that the biological, chemical, physical, geological, and cultural worlds are all entangled. 

The Blurred Boundaries of Bhopal

Three decades have passed since a pesticide-manufacturing Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India leaked 30 tons of a deadly gas called methyl isocyanate into the surrounding countryside. Over two thousand people died immediately, but the effects of the pesticide lingered and continued to kill.  Several thousands more died in the first two weeks after the leak, and many more were left disabled.

Continue reading “Expectations vs. Reality: More Key Questions on Molecularization of Identity” »

“Perceive. Identify. Regulate.” How to be Racist with 21st Century Science

[Image via Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary & Creative Commons]

[“Molecularization of Identity” Workshop Recap, Part 1]

The diagram of racism was shockingly simple: four highlighted brain regions with black arrows between them, forming an almost-isosceles triangle.

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[Diagram by Elizabeth Phelps’ group at NYU via The Brain Bank blog]

Perception. Identification. Regulation. 

Those are the three steps in the cognition of racism, according to a handful of neuroscientists.

The diagram’s presenters weren’t the neuroscientists themselves, but a pair of sociologists who study neuroscientistsOliver Rollins of Penn and Torsten Heinemann of University of Hamburg.  The neuroscientists who try to spot neural patterns of racism in fMRI argue that  before a racist action occurs, several things happen in a person’s brain: First, they have to see or hear the other person, which triggers a response in the amygdala, a brain structure that contributes to people becoming jumpy and/or aggressive. Next, the signal moves to the anterior cingulate cortex, which identifies the other person as a threat or a non-threat. Finally, the signal moves to the prefrontal cortex, which makes a conscious decision: “Do I hurt or try to escape from this person?” 

The neuroscientists who study racism tend to be optimistic about the possibility of changing racist individuals’ cognition patterns via social interaction or even through medication, Rollins and Heinemann explained. However,  though the neuroscientists’ approach is commendable, it doesn’t address systemic racism. 

“If there’s a racist ‘Stop-and-Frisk‘ policy in place that allows you to stop any black men, it may not matter whether the individual cop has a racial bias,” Rollins said.

Continue reading ““Perceive. Identify. Regulate.” How to be Racist with 21st Century Science” »

We Need Investigative Science Journalism But Learning to Investigate Science is Hard-Part 1

[^^”How do you know?”: The question that science journalists must not forget to ask.]

One night about a month ago, I was at a friend’s birthday party, knocking back tequila and rum with assorted MIT-affiliated twentysomethings. Somehow I ended up talking about tardigrades with a post-doc from an  uber-spiffy genetics institute.

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[This is what a tardigrade looks like. Photo via Peter Von Bagh]

Tardigrades are a clan of microscopic but thoroughly adorable invertebrates, that recently found themselves at the center of a huge genomics controversy.  The tardigrade genome “kerfluffle” also happened to be one of the stories I wrote about for MIT Science Writing class.

So when the post-doc told tipsy me something to the effect of: “The guy whose tardigrade genome paper got criticized actually came to our institute and gave a talk. We found out later that some of his slides had been plagiarized from a third tardigrade genome group in Japan!” I was pretty appalled.

Continue reading “We Need Investigative Science Journalism But Learning to Investigate Science is Hard-Part 1” »

Top 23 One-Liners from a Panel Discussion that Gave Me a Crazy Idea

This past Saturday, I got to listen in on an all-star panel sponsored by the Future of Life Institute on the potential risks and benefits of technologies like artificial intelligence, personal genetics, and automated factories.

We heard from George Church, one of the world’s best-known synthetic biologists, on the future of bioengineering; Ting Wu, director of the Personal Genetics Education Project, on how to convince laypeople to learn about genetics; Andrew McAfee of MIT’s Center for Digital Business on how automated factories will impact developing countries’ economies; Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek on the difficulties we’ll face ensuring that robots won’t decide to harm us; and Jaan Tallinn of Skype on the ethics of creating sentient AIs. Alan Alda, of M*A*S*H* and The Flame Challenge was the moderator.

The conclusion: There are definitely both benefits and risks to all of these technologies, and people need to continue discussing these issues because they cannot be resolved in a single two-hour panel discussion. Not even an MIT panel discussion. Continue reading “Top 23 One-Liners from a Panel Discussion that Gave Me a Crazy Idea” »

Why scientists aren’t necessarily the best science-explainers

Earlier today, I stumbled across this review of Susannah Cahalan’s Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, that was written by a neuroscience grad student. I liked the piece, but it got me thinking….

Cahalan was a healthy 24-year-old, working at The New York Post, who suddenly “went mad” and would have almost certainly died, if one of her doctors had not realized that her “madness” may have been the result of a rare auto-immune reaction. Anti-NMDA encephalitis, to be precise.

If you read my review of Molly Caldwell Crosby’s book on encephalitis lethargica (or know anything at all about chronic Lyme disease), you know that anything that causes encephalitis (swelling in the brain) is bad news.

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Space of autonomy: between Twittersphere and urban spaces – Recap of a talk by Dr. Manuel Castells

The Talk:

The Space of Autonomy: Cyberspace and Urban Space in Networked Movements

In Plain English:

One of the world’s most honored sociologists discusses the relationship between online social activism and grassroots protests in urban centers

The Speaker:

Manuel Castells of University of Catalonia (UOC)’s Internet Interdisciplinary Institute

The Location:

Harvard Graduate School of Design

What it covered:

Manuel Castells been exploring the relationship between urban spaces and social movements for decades, but in recent years, he’s turned his attention toward social movements as they mobilize through social media. In this talk, he was summarizing/expanding on ideas that he wrote about in his most recent book Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age.

He began by arguing that the internet is not the birthplace of networked social movements but that modern communication technology has allowed the emotionally-charged conversations that coalesce into social movements to happen over a global network in real time. The overall effect is that more people are speaking more often and responding to issues raised by people in adjacent communities more quickly than ever. Continue reading “Space of autonomy: between Twittersphere and urban spaces – Recap of a talk by Dr. Manuel Castells” »