Category Archives: Science

Getting Better, VI: Looking Beyond the Headlines for the Trend Lines

A report last month from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation indicates that humanity is headed in the right direction in many important ways. “Goalkeepers: The Stories Behind the Data” sheds light on how far public health officials have come in the fight against infectious disease and poverty.

Bill Gates says that global trends—including wins in the following areas over the last twenty-five years—indicate that “the world is far from falling apart. In fact, it has never been better—more peaceful, prosperous, safe, or just.”:

  • Childhood mortality
  • Maternal mortality
  • Family planning
  • HIV
  • Stunting
  • Poverty
  • Smoking
  • Sanitation
  • Financial services for the poor
  • Neglected tropical diseases
  • Vaccines

“Looking beyond the headlines for the trend lines,” as President Bill Clinton says, and understanding how many challenges have been overcome so far can be motivation to help solve current problems and prevent even more in the future.

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What Might This Be?

In the 1950s, the Rorschach inkblot test was “as closely identified with the clinical psychologist as the stethoscope is with the physician.” Since their publication in Psychodiagnostics, in 1921, Hermann Rorschach’s ten inkblots have not only been used as a military, educational, corporate, legal and anthropological tool, but also:

In his book, The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing, Damion Searls describes the progression that led from Rorschach’s visual work with a particular patient—”a wall painter with artistic ambitions” for whom the existing techniques of talk therapy, dream interpretation, and word association were ineffective—to the development of his famous test and the reasons it has endured for so long.

In the early twentieth century, klecksography, the art of making images from inkblots, was not only a popular parlor game—along with “readings” of patterns in tea leaves, coffee grounds, fireplace ashes and candle wax drippings—but also a method used by psychologists to measure the extent of people’s imagination, particularly children.

Rorschach—who prior to becoming a psychologist was an artist—began to show people the inkblots he created himself “in connection with research on the nature of perception, not the measuring of imagination; he was…interested in what people saw, and how, not just how much.”

Searls ultimately insists that the resilience and power of Rorschach’s unique “visual psychology” stemmed from the fact that “we evolved to be visual” and therefore, “seeing runs deeper than talking.” The visual nature of Rorschach’s test—movement, color, form—was the key that rescued it from relativist uncertainty.

“Rorschach’s fundamental insight was a visual version of Jung’s types: we all see the world in different ways. But the fact that it’s visual makes all the difference. Understanding the real inkblots and their specific visual qualities gives us a way to move beyond the relativism, at least in principle. It’s not all arbitrary: there’s something truly there that we’re all seeing in our own way. Rorschach’s insight can stand without forcing us to deny the existence of valid judgments, Truth with a capital T.”

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The Unrecognized Beginning of Modern Man

In her book, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, Barbara Tuchman described the worldview-altering effect of the Black Death, the devastating spread of bubonic plague across Europe that killed 50 million people in the years 1346 to 1353: “Survivors of the plague, finding themselves neither destroyed nor improved, could discover no Divine purpose in the pain they had suffered. God’s purposes were usually mysterious, but this scourge had been too terrible to be accepted without questioning. If a disaster of such magnitude, the most lethal ever known, was a mere wanton act of God or perhaps not God’s work at all, then the absolutes of a fixed order were loosed from their moorings. Minds that opened to admit these questions could never again be shut. Once people envisioned the possibility of change in a fixed order, the end of an age of submission came in sight; the turn to individual conscience lay ahead. To that extent the Black Death may have been the unrecognized beginning of modern man.”

Before the 14th century, most people believed disasters—earthquakes, floods, plagues—were punishment from God for their sins. But it is a sign of progress that we mostly understand now that the universe does not exist and operate merely to teach us a lesson.

It is good and right to gather wisdom and strength from the experience of life but, as the protagonist’s wife in the 2000 movie, Remember the Titans pondered, “Sometimes life’s just hard, for no reason at all.” It takes courage to deal with the realization that, as Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.

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The Last Blossom from a Dying Plant?

In Never at Rest, largely regarded as the standard biography of Isaac Newton, Richard Westfall describes the moment in history when Newton and others reached a tipping point for how modern man would evaluate the truth of ideas:

“The antipodes of alchemy with its eternal and exasperating secretiveness was mathematics, the very claim of which to be called knowledge rested on demonstrations open to all. Where the one made its way deviously with allusion and symbolism, the other proceeded in the cold light of rigorous logic. The diversity of the intellectual world of the seventeenth century has perhaps no better illustration than the coexistence of two such antithetical enquiries, both apparently in flourishing condition. Only to later ages would it be clear that seventeenth-century alchemy was the last blossom from a dying plant and seventeenth-century mathematics the first blooming of a hardy perennial. Whatever the state of alchemy, certainly it was manifest in 1661 that mathematics was a flourishing enterprise.”

But clearly, each generation confronts its own ideas which live by “exasperating secretiveness” and “[make their] way deviously with allusion and symbolism.” What was manifest more than 350 years ago must be made clear again and again.

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Getting Better, IV

Max Roser, an economist working at the University of Oxford, said that at the close of 2015, only 6 percent of Americans surveyed believed the world was getting better when, in fact—by many significant measures—it is:

According to Future Crunch, the year 2016 saw:

  • The discovery of potential cures for Parkinson’s, AIDS and sepsis, the rollout of a cheap vaccine for cholera, and dramatic declines in malaria death rates
  • Big wins for LGBT activists in Japan, Finland and Slovenia, and women’s rights in India and Iceland
  • Global declines in executions
  • Drops in income inequality in the US and China
  • Increases in German employment (despite huge refugee intakes)
  • Big conservation wins for tigers in China, elephants in Chad, bees in Europe, forests in Cameroon and oceans in Indonesia
  • The accelerating death of the fossil fuels industry and the incredible explosion of renewable energy around the world

…but these stories were vastly underreported.

“Forget fake news,” Future Crunch said. “Our real problem is balance. Respectable news outlets say they’re giving us an objective view of the world, yet drown us in a daily deluge of conflict and negative headlines. It’s manufactured drama and we can’t tear our eyes away. Bad news is great for business…because it’s an addictive product. That’s why it’s everywhere.”

Roser gives three more reasons for these overwhelmingly negative erroneous views:

  • It is hard-wired in human psychology to watch for signs of danger.
  • The 24/7 structure of the media highlights negative subjects.
  • We are unaware of how inconceivably exceptional our current living conditions are from the perspective of our ancestors.

Each of us controls the information we consume and the worldview we form as a result. Are you brave and discerning enough to recognize how far we’ve come and help continue to make things better?

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Getting Better, III: Cherish the Forces of Civilization and Enlightenment

In his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker insists that the conventional “romantic nostalgia [that] longs to turn back the clock”—to a time when things were great—is profoundly misplaced.

He admits that we can be reminded of the misery inherent in the daily lives of many of our ancestors—infested with lice and parasites; living above cellars heaped with their own feces; eating bland, monotonous, and intermittent food; laboring from sunrise to sundown before being plunged into darkness—and the absence as well of “the higher and nobler things in life, such as knowledge, beauty, and human connection.” But Pinker contends specifically that the basis of our most vehement appeal to return to the past—”the profusion of modern violence” (muggings, school shootings, terrorist attacks, wars)—is wrong, and that, in fact, the level of violence in our world has never been lower.

The false claim that the characteristics of the modern world—global trade, ethnic inclusion, racial and economic diversity—make it more violent, less safe and less personally rewarding is a transparent attempt by a few to increase control and power at the expense of the many, based on fear and hate. Much like those who refused for a century and a half to acknowledge the truth that the sun does not revolve around the earth, these fear mongers refuse to acknowledge the truth that the world no longer revolves around them.

The evidence of progress, for Pinker, is motivation to be grateful and continue working for even more progress. He says, “For all the tribulations in our lives, for all the troubles that remain in the world, the decline of violence is an accomplishment we can savor, and an impetus to cherish the forces of civilization and enlightenment that made it possible.”

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Getting Better, II

getter-better-chart

It has become a recurring theme for me to dwell on the belief that, in the grand scheme, things are truly getting better. I’m now considering a previous post to be Getting Better, I and this as a second installment.

Last month, Max Roser of Vox.com shared what he considers proof that life is getting better for humanity. Listed here and depicted by the chart above is my summary of that information:

  1. Percent of people living in extreme poverty:
    • 1910 – 82%
    • 1950 – 72%
    • 2015 – < 10%
  2. Percent of people dying by age five:
    • 1900 – 36%
    • 1940 – 24%
    • 2015 – 4%
  3. Percent of people literate:
    • 1900 – 21%
    • 1950 – 36%
    • 2014 – 85%
  4. Percent of people in democracy:
    • 1900 – 12%
    • 1950 – 31%
    • 2015 – 56%

May this data affirm that our efforts—large and small—do have a positive effect and motivate us to keep on keeping on to make the world better for as many people as possible.

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