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.

Democracy in the Balance

Science has a special feature in its 4 September 2020 issue on “Democracy in the Balance” arguing for urgent scientific study of what will help democracy survive and hopefully flourish. Introducing the special feature, Tage Rai and Brad Wible observe that democracy is losing ground. “Advances in technology are making it easier to distort true voter representation . . . political campaigns continue to struggle with reaching voters and persuading them to participate. Worryingly, state violence, which has always been a core feature of the democratic experience for some, is spreading in democratic societies.” A scientific understanding of the phenomena that underlie democracy’s operation, Rai and Wible argue, may help us enhance it. [1]

Deen Freelon, Alice Marwick and Daniel Kreiss argue that in the industrialized West, left- and right-wing activists use digital and legacy media differently to achieve their political goals. Left-wing actors operate more strongly through offline protest. Right-wing activists manipulate legacy media, migrate to alternative platforms, and work strategically with partisan media. Isolation of the far right from the rest of the ideological spectrum results in asymmetric polarization and disinformation is a function of right-wing media. We do not know enough about how processes on the left of politics work; they are not equivalent or similar to those on the right. [2]

Susan Hyde argues for a better understanding of how even a superficial experience of democratic institutions may influences citizen behaviour when formal democratic institutions erode or disappear. Are citizen movements alone sufficient to restrain autocracy? [3]

Rohini Pande asks, “Can democracy work for the poor? Science 369, no. 6508 (4 Sep 2020): 1188–92. Millions of the world’s poorest live in middle-income democracies thatcould use their resources to end extreme poverty. But this rarely happens. Somehow we must also improve democratic institutions so that vulnerable populations themselves can push for redistributive policies. But how? [4]

Delia Baldassarri and Maria Abascal identify two features of modern societies—social differentiation and economic interdependence—that can set the stage for constructive interactions with dissimilar others. Whether societal adaptations to diversity lead toward integration or division depends on the positions occupied by minorities and immigrants in the social structure and economic system, along with the institutional arrangements that determine their political inclusion. [5]

1. Tage Rai and Brad Wible, “In flux and under threat,” Science 369, no. 6508 (4 Sep 2020): 1174–5.
2. Deen Freelon, Alice Marwick and Daniel Kreiss “False equivalencies: Online activism from left to right,” Science 369, no. 6508 (4 Sep 2020): 1197-120
3. Susan D. Hyde, “Democracy’s backsliding in the international environment,” Science 369, no. 6508 (4 Sep 2020):1192–6.
4. Rohini Pande, “Can democracy work for the poor? Science 369, no. 6508 (4 Sep 2020): 1188-92.
5. Delia Baldassarri and Maria Abascal, “Diversity and prosocial behavior,” Science 369, no. 6508 (4 Sep 2020): 1183-7.

Why the bushfire royal commission not talking about greenhouse emissions?

“To reduce disasters, we must cut greenhouse emissions. So why isn’t the bushfire royal commission talking about this?” So asks Robert Glasser in The Conversation (1 September, 2020). Glasser was formerly the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction. He saw first-hand the impacts of natural disasters, and nations’ efforts to build their climate change resilience. “The royal commission process,” he says, “is a unique opportunity to accelerate progress in these areas, which are so critical for Australia’s future.” But thus far, the Commission has said little on that front.

With next fire season already underway, the bushfire royal commission has now released an interim report. A “glaring omission,” Robert Glasser says, “involves the most urgent measure to reduce the risk of future disasters: reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The royal commission is tasked with finding ways to improve disaster management in three main areas: 1. how the federal government coordinates with other levels of government; 2. resilience to climate change and mitigating disaster risk; and 3 the laws governing the federal government response to national emergencies.

“Resilience to future disasters, Glasser says, “must start with action on climate change. So it’s disappointing the royal commission has not yet commented on the need to lower greenhouse gas emissions as rapidly as possible.” . . .

“While it’s difficult to scientifically demonstrate that climate change ‘causes’ any one disaster, the general direction is crystal clear. As the climate continues to warm, the frequency and severity of these events will increase.”

The prime minister has argued that “Australia, on its own, cannot control the world’s climate, as Australia accounts for just 1.3% of global emissions.” True. But because we’re disproportionately vulnerable to the threats of climate change, we must convince other nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Which of course demands that we lead by example. “Our international advocacy,” Glasser says, “will only be credible if we strengthen our own ambition to mitigate climate change.”

A recommendation from the Royal Commission to reduce emissions would be “appropriate and extremely useful.”