The Signal and the Noise on Dissertation Embargoes

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Audrey Truschke over at Dissertation Reviews recently posted up a lengthy essay to junior scholars worried about the impact of letting their dissertations roam about, unfettered, in the wild. And various people seem to think it’s something we should all pay attention to. Well-written it is, and chock-full of data as well. The crux of Truscke’s argument (though you should go read it yourself): newly minted PhDs who worry about letting their research live in open-access land while they furiously try to turn their dissertation into a first book are wasting their mental time and energy. There’s no reason to worry. Unfortunately, little persuasive proof is marshaled in defense of this position, while simultaneously–and here’s the kicker–nothing is done whatsoever to show that embargoing one’s dissertation is detrimental to one’s status as a junior scholar.

Much of her discussion will be familiar to those of us who follow this topic with some measure of regularity. Truschke’s ace-in-the-hole here is that she spoke to “university press editors” themselves to ascertain how they operate–both in theory and praxis–from first books. To be fair she manages to glean some useful information from pressing her interviewees. We discover, for instance, that this lingering sense of “it’s already out there so folks won’t buy it” plagues university press editors just like the rest of us dialed into this conversation. This itself remains a potent data point. We learn some specific bits about how the dissertation and first book are very different animals (“cut the literature review, reduce the notes by one-third, spend less time directly quoting other scholars, write better, have a punchier and broader argument, and make the introduction and conclusion more dynamic”). We learn also a little about the behind-the-scenes operations of the book contract itself, which is interesting but really not all that relevant.

The problem with Truschke’s piece is that she manages to minimize those data that are cause for concern, ignore any kind of cost-benefit analysis, fails to critically analyze the other side of the equation, and in general mucks up this conversation further with a bunch of white noise.

For instance, she cites a 2011 study:

“a mere seven percent of university press editors said they would refuse to consider a book based on a thesis that had been made previously available in an electronic repository . . . [though] there is good reason to question whether even that seven percent actually act as they claim.”

I disagree vehemently with the word “mere” in there. 7% is plenty high enough in this current academic climate (just as it was when I first read this study three years ago) to be worried about, acted upon or not. If I can do something as little as click a button and dramatically increase my chances at a book contract with 7% of editors with nothing on the debit side of that balance sheet, and you think I won’t do it, you have an ill-informed sense of the pressures I currently face in the academic job market. But let’s go along with Truschke for a moment, and entertain her larger point: that even if these editors say they don’t consider open-access dissertations for first books, in practice they often won’t look for it/compare them. At this moment, even if I concede she’s right in ninety percent of cases, that still means I can increase my chances with .7% very easily. I’ve done a lot more for a lot less.

Secondly, her evidence to the contrary ends up boiling down to: these editors told me they don’t bother looking at the online version of a then-dissertation and now-manuscript, because it would be a waste of time. They’d rather trust their own judgment that what sits in front of them remains substantially changed from its original form. Something about years of experience that the revision process from both ends will substantially change any work (certainly true to an extent, I’m sure). But that’s where Truschke stops, and ultimately its what’s left unsaid that jumps off the page. There’s a prominent negative space which puts the reader in the difficult position of concluding either dissertations and first books actually are so dissimilar that it really would be a waste of time (something in History, especially, we pretty much know not to be true in a significant enough percentage to make this claim), or that university press editors are too [insert uncomfortable adjective here] to make use of a resource that would directly and without question assist them in their job of sifting through stacks of book proposals (the preponderance of) which have all been polished enough to get the job done (something I refuse to believe).

Truschke goes on to offer a couple other reasons embargoing your dissertation is a waste of time.

There’s something in here about a two-year embargo being the norm anyway which isn’t enough time to produce a monograph so why bother? To which I say “Interesting. Love to see your data there.” My university allowed any period you could name, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an historian who wants to go up for a TT position unable/unwilling to revise and submit a proposal in four to six years (which is the real norm in practice, as far as I am aware). Plus, you can always extend the embargo.

There’s a long tangential section about the current economic climate of library acquisitions, which doesn’t share anything new until it gets to Truschke’s discussion of a company called YPB which apparently flags first books that began their lives as dissertations. We don’t really get any of the data required to assess just how significant this is, however: not how prevalent YPB’s presence is in the total academic publishing pie, not how they know a book is a revised dissertation, not how many university libraries use/know about/care about their existence. This is a throwaway section for me (though it’s also important, I think, to note that Wikipedia lists a hundred and two university presses in the United States, eight of which serve as the basis for her article. Truschke says she interviewed big ones. Considering the difference between Duke UP (120 titles and 40 journals annually) and Kent State UP (30-35 titles annually) is so disparate, I might expect market forces to act on them differently: this study has some data on p. 372 regarding this).

Equally unhelpful is this little gem towards the end:

“[S]ome university press editors that are concerned with an online dissertation adversely affecting book sales favor takedowns over embargoes . . . Ten years ago, Harvey said, taking down the dissertation from ProQuest was required for authors publishing with Stanford University Press . . .  I wonder, however, if many junior scholars underestimate their ability to disagree with the press publishing their book and perhaps feel pressured to take down the dissertation when they would prefer not to do so.”

The issue here isn’t what to do once you’ve got a UP book contract. Embargoes are enacted to increase our chances on the front end–to get the offer in the first place. Plus, if Harvey wants to publish my first book but our dealbreaker is that I want my dissertation to remain online, I’m not going to be all that concerned about finding another home for the manuscript in the near future. Which Harvey clearly understands: “These days, however, the press concedes that authors hold varying views, and they will not insist on a takedown.”

The larger problem here, of course, is the murkiness of the whole enterprise of academic publishing. There has yet to be (to my knowledge) any robust statistical evaluation of the interaction between the open-access phenomenon and university press contracts that moves beyond “lets talk to the UP editors/directors/someone ‘in the know.'” Let alone one that is able to account for all the other forces acting in the field (which Truschke mentions at different times)–the contraction of library budgets, the reductions in and changing criteria for TT hirings at universities, piracy, etc., etc.

In the end, then, here’s the clearest formulation of Truschke’s argument: embargoing your dissertation doesn’t seem, in most of the cases university press editors were willing to share with me so I could write this piece about a practice that directly comments upon their access to the very material that would allow them to do their job to its fullest, to have any negative or positive benefits. Because even when seven percent tell you it matters whether your dissertation is freely available, their not really telling the truth. Except for right now, to me.

What we are left with is either a) statistical evidence like the kind Truschke (or this study she cites) is using, which mostly doesn’t tell us anything all that useful for those considering embargoing their dissertations, and b) anecdotal evidence like the kind Truschke offers which says not to worry. Well, you have your anecdotal evidence. I have my own. And until someone comes along with some more persuasive data I’ll keep my embargo, thank you very much.

 

 

How Not to Fix Health Care: Steven Brill’s Time Magazine Piece

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Steven Brill, the author of the well-known Time piece “America’s Bitter Pill” (now a book), recently published something of a follow-up story in the magazine called “What I Learned from My $190,000 Surgery.” Aside from a title indicative of a print world attempting desperately to stay relevant in an increasingly digital, clickbait-ridden universe, it’s not a terribly written article. If I were still teaching comp-lit to freshmen, I’d point out the mish-mash of ethos and pathos in that title as well, as if simply receiving a surgery approaching a quarter million dollars confers some type of authority, and how we’re supposed to empathize with this journey of Brill’s as it becomes clear that this shocking sum of money is something each of us could easily fall under the aegis of in the current medical therapeutics landscape. But cheap tricks aside, it’s generally readable and full of some useful statistics, like the astonishing sum the U.S. spends on healthcare each year—$3 trillion.

And yet, at the end of this piece which employs the age-old rhetorical trick of calling something broken and suggesting the best way to fix it is, inconceivably (at first…), to let events run their course, I found myself just mostly disappointed. Dramatic fixes to the desperate problems of health care in America are a dime a dozen these days, and this essay—despite my hopes—offers nothing really very new.

Brill’s argument, seemingly one the reader should intimate during the course of the piece is that those we look up to to fix these fragile meat-sacks we call bodies (doctors) are also in some places increasingly those we have been conditioned to loathe in this “capitalist” world (health insurers, and large corporations, and the avaricious), and rather than a harbinger of the coming Armageddon this is in fact A Good Thing. These doctor-entrepreneurs, the author suggests, who (the historically uninformed among us assume) revolutionarily step across the traditional divide between treating disease and paying for that treatment, are not in fact indicative of a system in deterioration, but rather in rebirth. We only need to help it along. In this way we can cut costs while simultaneously ensuring an excellent standard of care in our clinics, hospitals, and emergency rooms. By letting hospitals offer insurance, he declares, we cut out a middleman who remains at a distance from the act of medicine as it takes place. Doctors would no longer inflate the costs of the medical care they provide, because they’re the ones paying for it. Seems commonsensical, right?

And yet, like so many other simple solutions to complex answers, Brill’s falls apart once it’s removed from the neat and uncomplicated place where thought experiments are conducted.

Brill assures us his solution would elegantly solve many of our current woes, and yet from the outset I’m suspicious of anyone who looks at a bad situation getting worse and suggests that the best solution is to lean into it. He does nothing to allay those anxieties.

The piece is remarkably absent of any sense of how, for instance, medical care costs for regular people have fallen in the area served by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center—one of these revolutionary new systems headed by Jeffrey Romoff, who’s managed to buy up a significant percentage of doctor’s practices, clinics, and hospitals in the region and extend his hospital’s health insurance division’s market share at the expense of traditional insurance.

It treats not at all geographic disparities in both income and quality of care in the United States—one of, in my eyes, the single things nationally penetrating insurance companies can offset to some degree by shifting costs from those who can’t afford to pay to those who can, and offering networks of knowledge and expertise so that patients can go to where the best treatment is.

Brill assures us competition, that magical force of the free market, would ensure the best medicine at the best price. How? Regulation, of course, that magical, opposite force of the social welfare state! Contradictory? Not necessarily, but I’ve never met a federal regulatory agency doing its job well, so it’s an uphill case to be made for that being the sole line of defense between us and them.

Similarly confounding is Brill’s argument that at least two of these entities in a given market would prevent monopolistic practices, with naught to help but a little government oversight. Right. In an industry worth $3 trillion. By comparison, the cable industry (Comcast-TWC-etc) is maybe a tenth as big, and we all know the FCC and Congress do an excellent job of keeping things equitable, consumer-friendly, and above-board.

I have no solutions here, but I do have a suggestion: let’s stop pretending health care is something that can be fixed with simple economics. Health and wellness are schemas that are way too complicated to be quantified that easily, and echo across all the registers of a modern society. They’re ineluctably rooted in what we imagine good health to be, as well as what it’s not. Their theorization, definition, and enactment necessitate acknowledging all of the multifarious economic, cultural, social, and psychological forces of three hundred million people who don’t want to be sick at the lowest possible cost but then will spend anything to stave off death for a few more days, weeks, months, and years. If we stop pretending the solution can neglect all these things, maybe we can get somewhere.

 

Exorcising the Demons of our Past: Why Eugenics Wasn’t What You Think It Was, and Why That Matters

Science of human perfection

BOOK REVIEW: Comfort, Nathaniel. The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

With for-profit companies offering genetic testing at prices approaching the commercially viable for the first time since the sequencing of the human genome ($1,000), eugenics as a topic of discussion in academic circles and in the popular news cycle alike will increase dramatically in frequency over the course of the next decade. In fact, it will likely be one of the conversational signposts of the twenty first century.  Designer babies, three-parent children, genomic medical therapeutics, and the stubborn persistence of racism and poor arguments disguised as science, like an eye booger clinging crustily on and just generally being a pain in the ass for everyone.

What was eugenics? For those unfamiliar, eugenics was a wildly popular scientific, cultural, social, and political movement in America (most popular) during the first half of the twentieth century. Spurred by advances in genetics after the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s famous work with pea plants in 1900, it developed simultaneously to medical genetics (i.e. using knowledge about genes to improve medical care). Both stretch all the way back to the beginning of the twentieth century (though most histories of medical genetics really begin in the 1950s).

So eugenics developed alongside humanity’s first stumbling investigations about what, how, and why traits get passed along from generation to generation. Eye color, physical build, demeanor, mental ability, susceptibility to disease—these are the types of qualities a new breed of scientists called geneticists initially sought out in the base material responsible for the direction taken by human evolution. Naturally, many quickly (and early on) suggested that now that humanity had access to the “germ plasm” (as they called DNA, which wouldn’t be discovered until the 1920s) we could take a conscious hand in directing the future of human evolution.

What does this have to do with Nathaniel Comfort’s Science of Human Perfection? Everything! This book is an attempt by Comfort, an historian of genetics and medicine at Johns Hopkins University, to do two things: 1) recover the thread of “medical genetics” from the history of eugenics, and 2) Demonstrate how the larger eugenics movement, reviled in the popular mind as the twisted progeny of the Nazis unleashed upon Europe’s non-Aryan ethnicities, was in fact a far more complex phenomena that, at its heart, was about “human improvement and the relief of suffering” (x). Now “human improvement” sounds an awful lot like the superman programs of the Third Reich, but, as Comfort shows clearly, the larger aim of the movement saw “improvement” as eliminating disease, inherited disorders, as well as increased intelligence and a stronger constitution.

Comfort traces this thread of medical genetics as it gradually thickened from 1910-1930. He notes the abandonment of most geneticists of eugenics by the 1930s as two obstacles appeared: first, the complexity of designing reliable experiments that could account for the complicated milieu going on inside the “germ plasm” as it was affected by environment (this is the classic nature vs. nurture dichotomy), and second, the ethical boundaries to carrying out those experiments on human beings. Instead, scientists like Michael F. Guyer at places like the University of Wisconsin occupied themselves with mice, fruit flies, and corn.

During this process, Comfort introduces another welcome formulation of distinguishing the strands of eugenic thought: Galtonian vs. Garrodian. The former settles its gaze on the population, whilst the latter emphasizes the individual. This opens up a whole new framework for understanding American eugenics that moves beyond the positive-negative dichotomy and adds nuance without sacrificing the accomplishments of previous scholarship.

Comfort follows the narrative into the 1950s and the advent of heredity clinics (which we still have today in the form of marriage counseling as it pertains to heredity), and shows how geneticists, with the onset of the Cold War and worries about the effects of radiation on the human genome, and also now bolstered by a quarter century of advances in knowledge and technique, re-approached medical genetics in the 1950s. There, The Science of Human Perfection ends.

This is a monograph that is, importantly, thoroughly researched and convincingly argued. Despite seeing increasing popularity in the scholarship during the last twenty years or so, eugenics still remains something of the bastard stepchild of history of science in academia. To blame this trend solely on the uncomfortableness the subject tends to engender (being tied so closely with the (bio-)political) seems to come, at least in part, from a public that wishes to forget the United States ever had an active movement for forced sterilization  and a larger history of science community of scholars who have gone along with that. At the same time, this is something of a copout and a cliché all at once. American eugenics was not Nazi eugenics: in intellectual grounding, structure (both in terms of the individuals proponents and organization), praxis, or even mostly time. And the threads of American eugenics, as we can see in Comfort’s excellent treatment (and elsewhere), certainly didn’t die with Hitler in that underground bunker in April of 1945. Comfort, thankfully, elaborates with nuance and persuasiveness on both realities.

Even more welcome by those of us in the history of science who are too used to slogging through interminably boring prose, is that The Science of Human Perfection is incredibly well-written.Comfort has a wonderful way with words, and an ability to render primary sources into a compelling narrative. It is, aside from being one of the more important revisions of the historical literature on eugenics, one of the best-written studies in any sub-discipline of history I have had the pleasure of reading.

For anyone interested, Comfort runs the excellent Genotopia over at scienceblogs.

Hill Folk and Hereditary Pauperism: The Eugenic Family Study

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Numbers are seductive to us all, alluring, like the aroma of a fine (organically grown and fairly traded) coffee. They whisper promises of clarity in our ears. Easy solutions to complex problems are likewise appealing and easily sold to a public who, while its individual members are capable of critical thinking and sacrifice, collectively believe any burden at all in the name of the greater good is a burden too much. And new methodological tools and frameworks are like powdered alcohol to academics (especially those looking to professionalize and legitimize a new discipline)—easily transported, flexible, and everyone wants to be a dealer and corner the market.

Add these individual ingredients together in a world all of a sudden uncomfortably crowded, shrinking, apparently degenerate, and confusingly modern, and you get a monumentally potent tool that would, eventually, usher in American eugenics: the family study.

The eugenic family study has its roots in a genealogical report done by Richard Dugdale in The Jukes: A Study in Crime, Pauperism, Disease and Heredity (1877), which I won’t regurgitate at length here because Wikipedia exists. In any case, what it was is far less important than what it suggested for future generations of social scientists—that one’s familial line was an accurate predictor of intelligence, success, indigence, and criminality. The more palatable offshoot of this brand of progressivism was, of course, the “fitter family” contests of the first quarter of the twentieth century.

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These family studies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries located specific familial clans (like the pseudonymously named Jukes or the Kallikaks or the Nams or the Zeros) and attempted to trace their lineage and prove that imbeciles and criminals reproduced in proportionally greater numbers more imbeciles and criminals. Funded by organizations like the Eugenics Records Office at Cold Spring Harbor, and either submitted to state review boards or, in a couple of cases, published by philanthropists and eugenicists like John D. Rockefeller, these eugenic family studies were powerful artifacts of a cultural ethos. They were birthed by those taking part in a countermovement to public welfare reform in the United States, the latter of which itself had been stimulated by a public worried by the excesses of unregulated capitalism in what Twain called the “Gilded Age.”

Coetaneously, the eugenic family studies were a driving force in their own right. Proliferating between 1890 and 1924, they were read, cited, and built upon by prominent eugenicists in their efforts to maximize reproduction of the fit and reduce procreation of those deemed “feebleminded.” As such they were part of a much larger ideological and political stance, which in no small part stressed the burden on the state of families of these “degenerates.” They were no less than scientifically-sanctioned statements of bloodline worth, ontologies of heredity which would have much wider implications in decades to come.

1881-State-Expenses-for-Maintaining-State-Institutions-for-the-Socially-Inadequate-Classes-1916-Eugenical-News-vol-5

But they were also something more, and served yet another purpose that heavily influenced their methodology, content, and scope. Because the investigators who undertook these projects—going into the countryside and seeking out the poor in rural areas and pestering them with questions about their immediate and extended families—were themselves preoccupied with privileging a merit-based hierarchy where mental capacity was equated with genetic worth (in order so that they could advance their own careers and reputations), the studies subsequently came to reflect and validate the ambitions of middle-class professionals who emerged to fill this new niche of social control in a culturally tumultuous time.

126-Data-collected-by-Miss-Devitt-May-and-Nov-1915-Eugenics-Records-Office-fieldworker

How popular did they become? Nathaniel Comfort offers a nice pithy summation for us:

“The ERO [Eugenics Records Office] introduced a novel and durable method of collecting human genetics data. Elaborating on [Francis] Galton’s idea of the eugenics ‘record,’ [Charles] Davenport developed a questionnaire of the type Galton used. But instead of marching people though his kiosk one by one, Davenport used mass-mailing, and, most effectively, ‘fieldworkers’ to collect data. The fieldworkers—more than 250 of them between 1910 and 1924—were mostly young women, many of them nursing students form the New York City area . . . [t]rainees spent a summer in Cold Spring Harbor, where their received twenty-five lectures encompassing interview methods, construction of pedigrees, and the elements of statistics and biometry. The young women then went out in the field for a year, where they catalogued and documented the hereditary patterns of the diseased and insane. The data were recorded three-by-five-inch cards and stored in a fireproof vault back at Cold Spring Harbor. By 1924, fieldworkers had filled out and filed 750,000 cards.”[1]

The result is that they helped grease the wheels for American eugenics with a potency long forgotten by high-school history textbooks, a movement which resulted in the sterilization of over 63,000 individuals between 1907 and 1964.

The general consensus is that the eugenic family studies died a justifiable death by the early 1920s, succumbing to advances in genetics which ate at the crumbling foundations of easy, simplistic biological determinism. And yet, polemics invested in the notion of races and classes of hereditary worth have been with us ever since.

 

Further reading

Dugdale, Richard. The Jukes. New York: Putnam, 1877. Link to full text via archive.org.

Estabrook, Arthur Howard. The Jukes in 1915.Washington: Carnegie Institution, 1915. Link to full text via archive.org. 

Comfort, Nathaniel. The Science of Human Perfection: How Genes Became the Heart of American Medicine. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

Rafter, Nicole Hahn. Creating Born Criminals. Urbana-Champagne: Illinois University Press, 1998.

—. White Trash: The Eugenic Family Studies, 1877-1919. Boston:   Northeastern University Press, 1988.

Smith, J. David and Michael Wehmeyer, Good Blood, Bad Blood: Science, Nature, and the Myth of the Kallikaks. Washington: American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 2012.

 

*Image 1: The Jukes, ca. 1910, by Arthur Estabrook

**Image 2: State expenses for maintaining the socially inadequate classes, Eugenical News, 1916.

***Image 3: medium family winner, fitter family contest at the Kansas Free Fair, 1927.

****Image 4: ERO data collected by Miss Devitt in Oklahoma in May and November, 1915.

Endnotes

[1] Comfort, The Science of Human Perfection, 40.

Downwingers and dilettante-ism: Bryan Appleyard on Futurism

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Appleyard is a British journalist and contributor at The New Statesman, a generally well-respected if left-leaning political and cultural magazine that’s been around since 1913 and has hosted the musings of such luminaries as John Maynard Keynes, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchins. But this is the nature of modern journalism, so it’s not surprising that The New Statesman recently gave us yet another lesson that no matter what, or who, or where you imbibe your news and information, it’s a process which should be done with a critical eye. That’s why history, despite the best efforts of arts and humanities deans, school boards, and football coaches, is not going anywhere soon. It is the discipline, the most successful discipline, I think, that teaches evidence-based inquiry, critical thinking, and the big picture. Because without it, you might read this new article by Bryan Appleyard and think he knows what he’s talking about. Caveat: because this is the internet, I’d like to head off the professional offense-takers by saying I don’t think Appleyard himself is stupid. Many of his pieces are good. But smart, generally thoughtful people can say stupid things. Except me. I never say stupid things.

Check out the article here. Essentially, in a nutshell, he says futurists are all naïve utopians and we should never listen them, because doing so robs us of our humanity:

 http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/04/why-futurologists-are-always-wrong-and-why-we-should-be-sceptical-techno-utopians

To begin: there are plenty of legitimate criticisms to be leveled at technoprogressives (a far more accurate, descriptive and less generally disingenuous term than Appleyard’s deliberate “techno-utopian”), so there’s little point in muddying the waters by making up illegitimate ones by expressing poor thinking using bad writing. Lack of consideration of all the sociocultural implications of the posthuman future, occasional prophetic tendencies, tendency to rely on trite, meaningless phraseology (“the future is now”), willingness to pin down a date past which “everything” will change—these are quality criticisms to be made, and yet don’t all movements have such elements within? So shouldn’t we be careful about generalizations?

Appleyard’s polemic is really a mess of logical fallacies, bad analogies, and clumsy attempts at ad hominem. To take but a few:

1)      He equates Ray Kurzweil and Michio Kaku, two well-educated and thoughtful individuals, with Malcolm Gladwell (who no one with legitimate experience in any of the areas Gladwell ventures takes too seriously, though he is fun to read and no doubt a smart guy) with caricatured versions of Larry Page and Peter Thiel (the former of whom is in probably the most compromised position on any discourse regarding technoprogressivism and the latter who is, plainly and simply, a bombastic, self-important dilettante), and then some anthropomorphized version of the Ted Talks (which Appleyard and I will agree are mostly white noise obfuscating the real signal). Such easy comparisons betray a lack of nuanced consideration of the vast differences between these individuals, and does the unfamiliar reader no favors during a time such as now when science is already under attack by ignorance and misdirection on so many fronts already.

2)      Appleyard attempts also to equate futurism with a religion, and the singularity with the Rapture (using the 2045 date as a straw man). Completely laughable, if you go even one step beyond the most superficial “structural” similarities Appleyard trots out as hard proof. Plus, anything that smacks of religion has to be bad, right?

3)      After criticizing Michio Kaku for uncritical use of language regarding DARPA’s mission, Appleyard spends the rest of the essay calling Kaku and Kurzweil manic, foaming-at-the-mouth, poppie (because anything the public likes can’t be intelligent, apparently) and a host of other less-than-subtle attempts at pejoratives designed to get you on his team.

And then there are statements like this:

“Neuroscientists now routinely make claims that are far beyond their competence, often prefaced by the words “We have found that . . .” The two most common of these claims are that the conscious self is a illusion and there is no such thing as free will . . . The first of these claims is easily dismissed – if the self is an illusion, who is being deluded? The second has not been established scientifically – all the evidence on which the claim is made is either dubious or misinterpreted – nor could it be established, because none of the scientists seems to be fully aware of the complexities of definition involved. In any case, the self and free will are foundational elements of all our discourse and that includes science. Eliminate them from your life if you like but, by doing so, you place yourself outside human society. You will, if you are serious about this displacement, not be understood. You will, in short, be a zombie.”

And all of a sudden neuroscientists are a monolithic entity who are, en masse, incapable of recognizing astonishing logical non sequitors that render everything they do idiotic.

So what’s really going on here? What’s with the tone and substance of this piece? I think Appleyard is afraid. He’s afraid of the future (though he may not want to admit it), and as such is looking to the past to calm himself down. Ehrlich (whose Population Bomb came out in 1968, before the full implications of Borlaug’s dwarf wheat (taking shape during the early and mid-1960s) would be realized) and Somer and all the others were wrong, and so the current generation of futurists has to be wrong too, right? Check this statement from the piece out: “We are, it is said, on the verge of mapping, modelling and even replicating the human brain and, once we have done that, the mechanistic foundations of the mind will be exposed. Then we will be able to enhance, empower or (more likely) control the human world in its entirety. This way, I need hardly point out, madness lies.”

The fact is this entire piece is really just a regurgitation of Max Dublin’s twenty five year-old Futurehype, which was a far better critique of the worst elements of the futurist tendency. In fact, it sounds like Appleyard’s piece reads like that of a downwinger. But I agree with Appleyard’s frustration and the general unhelpfulness of “technological chatter,” that which is heavy on the fluff and language and light on hard evidence. It’s why I wonder books like his own Aliens: Why They Are Here and How to Live Forever or Die Trying, the latter of which is promoted on the dust jacket with claims that it is Funny, thought-provoking and often profound, it manages to grapple with the big issues of existence without blinding the reader with science” get published. Because thanks Appleyard. I wouldn’t want to be blinded with science.