Author Archives: Brian

Coviod-19 and the burden of stigma.

Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar, “The burden of stigma,” Science 369, no. 6510 (18 Sep 2020): 1419-1423, doi: 10.1126/science.369.6510.1419.

After Mumbai dentist Azmera Shaikh and her mother tested positive for COVID-19, their neighbours ostracized the rest of her family, refusing to let them put out garbage or help them buy groceries. As the new coronavirus spread around the world early this year, some people around the world responded in similar ways. In Nepal, health workers were thrown out of accommodations. In Chennai, India, some doctors avoided getting tested to avoid trouble with neighbours. Such responses would have been familiar to our ancestors. From ancient times, humans have feared disease and shunned those thought to have it. But today, those old responses can undermine public health efforts. Stigma encourages people to hide illness and avoid treatment, and it intensifies patient stress and reinforces inequality. The history of past epidemics, from leprosy and cholera to HIV, shows the hidden burden of stigma on individuals and societies.

HIV all over again.

God, learned implictly

Implicit learning is the learning of complex information in an incidental manner, without awareness of what has been learned. The result of implicit learning is knowledge in the form of abstract rather than verbatim or aggregated representations.

Learning to ride a bicycle or to swim are supposed examples of the nature of implicit learning and its mechanism. Not so in my case. I had to learn to ride a bicycle very explicitly and deliberately; it took days. And I still cannot swim.

Implicit learning is believed to differ from explicit learning by the absence of consciously accessible knowledge. Brain areas involved in working memory and attention are often more active during explicit than implicit learning. That being so, I cannot recall anything of significance that I have learned implicitly except, that is, for two most important things—some (by no means all) of my use of my native language (English) and a deep conviction and confidence, since earliest childhood, that there is a God, a heavenly Father, who loves me and cares for me. I would not say that confidence came explicitly from my parents in my early years, but it was certainly implicit in their care for me. And more recently I have tested it very explicitly through theological study.

In recent findings replicated across socio-religiously disparate samples studied in the U.S. and Afghanistan, implicit learning of patterns/order within visuospatial sequences (such as the outdoors, natural environment) were found by Weinberger, et. al. 1 to be predictive of (1) stronger belief in an intervening/ordering god, and (2) increased strength-of-belief from childhood to adulthood. This is consistent with research implicating this type of implicit learning as a basis of intuition, and intuition as a basis of belief. Do observation and implicit learning of patterns within life and the natural universe, thus lead to belief in ordering gods?

1. Adam B. Weinberger, Natalie M. Gallagher, Zachary J. Warren, Gwendolyn A. English, Fathali M. Moghaddam and Adam E. Green, “Implicit pattern learning predicts individual differences in belief in God in the United States and Afghanistan,” Nature Communications 11, 4503 (2020), doi:10.1038/s41467-020-18362-3]

Covid and hope

Christians are people of hope—hope in the resurrection life of Christ. I find that especially challenging at the moment.

Humans simply do not know how to manage viable societies in which people stay two metres apart except for couples and their dependents. It will take years to figure out if it is possible at all, at huge cost in life and livelihood. In the meantime, there are deaths and suffering. That is just how it is.

Even if a vaccine is found and can be manufactured in quantity, it will take years for the whole world to be immunized—unless there is a radical increase in political freedom and international generosity.

The consequence may be a significant drop in population, whether from disease or simply because fewer people make babies. That is what happened with the plague in Europe and Asia centuries ago; the Black Death resulted in the deaths of hundreds of millions of people. There were repeated outbreaks for centuries. Although we now have better care systems, they are seriously overtaxed. It is mindless arrogance to suppose we are exempt from pain and loss.

We look, therefore, for a hope that gathers up and surpasses human suffering and tragedy.

“It is not your duty to finish the work”

“It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.”

This saying does the rounds regularly on Facebook. It is a helpful thought for me as I try to plot my future as a theologian. But it peeves me when sources are not cited. So I dug it out.

It is a saying of Rabbi Tarfon, from Pirkei Avot, 2:16. Many Jews would know this, I discover, as Pirkei Avot is much used. it was composed in Talmudic Israel (c.190-230 CE) and its first two chapters trace the transmission of the Torah from Sinai down through history. Thus the rabbis of the Mishnah define themselves as the possessors of the authentic tradition. The aphorisms of Pirkei Avot include everyday ethics, advice to the wise, and sayings about the relationship between God and humanity.

רַבִּי טַרְפוֹן אוֹמֵר, הַיּוֹם קָצָר וְהַמְּלָאכָה מְרֻבָּה, וְהַפּוֹעֲלִים עֲצֵלִים, וְהַשָּׂכָר הַרְבֵּה, וּבַעַל הַבַּיִת דּוֹחֵק:

Rabbi Tarfon said: the day is short, and the work is plentiful, and the laborers are indolent, and the reward is great, and the master of the house is insistent.

הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה. אִם לָמַדְתָּ תוֹרָה הַרְבֵּה, נוֹתְנִים לְךָ שָׂכָר הַרְבֵּה. וְנֶאֱמָן הוּא בַעַל מְלַאכְתְּךָ שֶׁיְּשַׁלֵּם לְךָ שְׂכַר פְּעֻלָּתֶךָ. וְדַע מַתַּן שְׂכָרָן שֶׁל צַדִּיקִים לֶעָתִיד לָבֹא:

He [Rabbi Tarfon] used to say: It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it; If you have studied much Torah, you shall be given much reward. Faithful is your employer to pay you the reward of your labour; And know that the grant of reward unto the righteous is in the age to come.

Covid-19 and seismic noise

The reduction in atmospheric pollution following Covid-19 restrictions has been well publicised. The restrictions have also reduced noise—not only noise transmitted through the air, but seismic noise. Vibration from trains, aeroplanes, industry, and other sources is recorded on seismometers worldwide. Disentangling this noise is important to isolate natural signals of earthquakes, faults, volcanoes and so on. The human-made noise can also roughly track population movements. An article in the latest issue of Science describes recent world-wide work that found a substantial decrease in seismic noise corresponding closely with the timing of Covid-19 lockdown measures. Thus seismic noise offers a way to track and analyse aggregate human behaviour. — Thomas Lecocq and 75 others, “Global quieting of high-frequency seismic noise due to COVID-19 pandemic lockdown measures,” Science  369, no. 6509 (11 Sep 2020): 1338-43.

Fascinating, and yet another indication of the great impact that humanity has on the natural realm of which it is a part.