Damned Heretics

Condemned by the established, but very often right

I am Nicolaus Copernicus, and I approve of this blog

I am Richard Feynman and I approve of this blog

Qualified outsiders and maverick insiders are often right about the need to replace received wisdom in science and society, as the history of the Nobel prize shows. This blog exists to back the best of them in their uphill assault on the massively entrenched edifice of resistance to and prejudice against reviewing, let alone revising, ruling ideas. In support of such qualified dissenters and courageous heretics we search for scientific paradigms and other established beliefs which may be maintained only by the power and politics of the status quo, comparing them with academic research and the published experimental and investigative record.

We especially defend and support the funding of honest, accomplished, independent minded and often heroic scientists, inventors and other original thinkers and their right to free speech and publication against the censorship, mudslinging, false arguments, ad hominem propaganda, overwhelming crowd prejudice and internal science politics of the paradigm wars of cancer, AIDS, evolution, global warming, cosmology, particle physics, macroeconomics, health and medicine, diet and nutrition.

HONOR ROLL OF SCIENTIFIC TRUTHSEEKERS

Henry Bauer, Peter Breggin , Harvey Bialy, Giordano Bruno, Erwin Chargaff, Nicolaus Copernicus, Francis Crick, Paul Crutzen, Marie Curie, Rebecca Culshaw, Freeman Dyson, Peter Duesberg, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, John Fewster, Galileo Galilei, Alec Gordon, James Hansen, Edward Jenner, Benjamin Jesty, Michio Kaku, Adrian Kent, Ernst Krebs, Thomas Kuhn, Serge Lang, John Lauritsen, Mark Leggett, Richard Lindzen, Lynn Margulis, Barbara McClintock, George Miklos, Marco Mamone Capria, Peter Medawar, Kary Mullis, Linus Pauling, Eric Penrose, Max Planck, Rainer Plaga, David Rasnick, Sherwood Rowland, Carl Sagan, Otto Rossler, Fred Singer, Thomas Szasz, Alfred Wegener, Edward O. Wilson, James Watson.
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Many people would die rather than think – in fact, they do so. – Bertrand Russell.

Skepticism is dangerous. That’s exactly its function, in my view. It is the business of skepticism to be dangerous. And that’s why there is a great reluctance to teach it in schools. That’s why you don’t find a general fluency in skepticism in the media. On the other hand, how will we negotiate a very perilous future if we don’t have the elementary intellectual tools to ask searching questions of those nominally in charge, especially in a democracy? – Carl Sagan (The Burden of Skepticism, keynote address to CSICOP Annual Conference, Pasadena, April 3/4, 1982).

It is really important to underscore that everything we’re talking about tonight could be utter nonsense. – Brian Greene (NYU panel on Hidden Dimensions June 5 2010, World Science Festival)

I am Albert Einstein, and I heartily approve of this blog, insofar as it seems to believe both in science and the importance of intellectual imagination, uncompromised by out of date emotions such as the impulse toward conventional religious beliefs, national aggression as a part of patriotism, and so on.   As I once remarked, the further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge.   Certainly the application of the impulse toward blind faith in science whereby authority is treated as some kind of church is to be deplored.  As I have also said, the only thing ever interfered with my learning was my education. My name as you already perceive without a doubt is George Bernard Shaw, and I certainly approve of this blog, in that its guiding spirit appears to be blasphemous in regard to the High Church doctrines of science, and it flouts the censorship of the powers that be, and as I have famously remarked, all great truths begin as blasphemy, and the first duty of the truthteller is to fight censorship, and while I notice that its seriousness of purpose is often alleviated by a satirical irony which sometimes borders on the facetious, this is all to the good, for as I have also famously remarked, if you wish to be a dissenter, make certain that you frame your ideas in jest, otherwise they will seek to kill you.  My own method was always to take the utmost trouble to find the right thing to say, and then to say it with the utmost levity. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life magazine) One should as a rule respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways. – Bertrand Russell, Conquest of Happiness (1930) ch. 9

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Times discovers mirror neurons – but remains blinded to its own

Monkey see, monkey do – Times reporters, like scientists, are not immune

With a headline, Cells That Read Minds, and a page of examples that hit the inattentive reader smack in the face, the New York Times Science section today (Feb 10 Tues) finally trumpets the existence of mirror neurons, only fifteen years after they were first detected by an Italian.

We give the accomplished Sandra Blakeslee credit, though – she writes them up better than anyone else has so far, vividly portraying the unfortunate experimental monkey that first showed us that these key networks exist in the brain, and that is what enables us to experience what others are experiencing as we watch them.

On a hot summer day 15 years ago in Parma, Italy, a monkey sat in a special laboratory chair waiting for researchers to return from lunch. Thin wires had been implanted in the region of its brain involved in planning and carrying out movements.

Every time the monkey grasped and moved an object, some cells in that brain region would fire, and a monitor would register a sound: brrrrrip, brrrrrip, brrrrrip.

A graduate student entered the lab with an ice cream cone in his hand. The monkey stared at him. Then, something amazing happened: when the student raised the cone to his lips, the monitor sounded – brrrrrip, brrrrrip, brrrrrip – even though the monkey had not moved but had simply observed the student grasping the cone and moving it to his mouth.

The researchers, led by Giacomo Rizzolatti, a neuroscientist at the University of Parma, had earlier noticed the same strange phenomenon with peanuts. The same brain cells fired when the monkey watched humans or other monkeys bring peanuts to their mouths as when the monkey itself brought a peanut to its mouth.

Later, the scientists found cells that fired when the monkey broke open a peanut or heard someone break a peanut. The same thing happened with bananas, raisins and all kinds of other objects.

“It took us several years to believe what we were seeing,” Dr. Rizzolatti said in a recent interview. The monkey brain contains a special class of cells, called mirror neurons, that fire when the animal sees or hears an action and when the animal carries out the same action on its own.

But if the findings, published in 1996, surprised most scientists, recent research has left them flabbergasted. Humans, it turns out, have mirror neurons that are far smarter, more flexible and more highly evolved than any of those found in monkeys, a fact that scientists say reflects the evolution of humans’ sophisticated social abilities.

The human brain has multiple mirror neuron systems that specialize in carrying out and understanding not just the actions of others but their intentions, the social meaning of their behavior and their emotions.

“We are exquisitely social creatures,” Dr. Rizzolatti said. “Our survival depends on understanding the actions, intentions and emotions of others.”

She points to a long list of their intellectual ramifications in the worlds of science and culture, though she stops short of exploring the role of mirror neurons in the two key professions where they do the most damage these days, science and the media.

The discovery is shaking up numerous scientific disciplines, shifting the understanding of culture, empathy, philosophy, language, imitation, autism and psychotherapy.

Everyday experiences are also being viewed in a new light. Mirror neurons reveal how children learn, why people respond to certain types of sports, dance, music and art, why watching media violence may be harmful and why many men like pornography.

The monkey’s brain in Palma was triggered in a particular spot by observing humans or other monkeys in the University of Parma lab of neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti, when one of them lifted a peanut to his or her mouth. The brain neurons which fired were the same as the ones that fired when the monkey itself did the same thing – brought a peanut to its own mouth.

The findings were published ten years ago, and are already covered in books, such as last year’s The Ethical Brain by Michael Gazzaniga of Dartmouth (‘The Ethical Brain’: Mind Over Gray Matter

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The New York Times

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June 19, 2005

‘The Ethical Brain’: Mind Over Gray Matter

By SALLY SATEL

TOM WOLFE was so taken with Michael S. Gazzaniga’s ”Social Brain” that not only did he send Gazzaniga a note calling it the best book on the brain ever written, he had Charlotte Simmons’s Nobel Prize-winning neuroscience professor recommend it in class. In ”The Ethical Brain,” Gazzaniga tries to make the leap from neuroscience to neuroethics and address moral predicaments raised by developments in brain science. The result is stimulating, very readable and at its most edifying when it sticks to science.

As director of the Center of Cognitive Neuroscience at Dartmouth College and indefatigable author of five previous books on the brain for the general reader alone, Gazzaniga is less interested in delivering verdicts on bioethical quandries — should we clone? tinker with our babies’ I.Q.? — than in untangling how we arrive at moral and ethical judgments in the first place.

Take the issue of raising intelligence by manipulating genes in test-tube embryos. Gazzaniga asks three questions. Is it technically possible to pick out ”intelligence genes”? If so, do those genes alone determine intelligence? And finally, is this kind of manipulation ethical? ”Most people jump to debate the final question,” he rightly laments, ”without considering the implications of the answers to the first two.” Gazzaniga’s view is that someday it will be possible to tweak personality and intelligence through genetic manipulation. But because personhood is so significantly affected by factors like peer influence and chance, which scientists can’t control, we won’t be able to make ”designer babies,” nor, he believes, will we want to.

Or consider what a ”smart pill” might do to old-fashioned sweat and toil. Gazzaniga isn’t especially worried. Neither a smart pill nor genetic manipulation will get you off the hook: enhancement might enable you to grasp connections more easily; still, the fact remains that ”becoming an expert athlete or musician takes hours of practice no matter what else you bring to the task.”

But there are ”public, social” implications. Imagine basketball stars whose shoes bear the logo not of Nike or Adidas but of Wyeth or Hoffman-La Roche, ”touting the benefits of their neuroenhancing drugs.” ”If we allow physical enhancements,” Gazzaniga argues, ”some kind of pharmaceutical arms race would ensue and the whole logic of competition would be neutralized.” Gazzaniga has no doubt that ”neuroscience will figure out how to tamper” with neurochemical and genetic processes. But, he says, ”I remain convinced that enhancers that improve motor skills are cheating, while those that help you remember where you put your car keys are fine.”

So where, as Gazzaniga asks, ”do the hard-and-fast facts of neuroscience end, and where does ethics begin?” In a chapter aptly called ”My Brain Made Me Do It,” Gazzaniga puts the reader in the jury box in the case of a hypothetical Harry and ”a horrible event.” This reader confesses impatience with illuminated brain scans routinely used to show that people ”addicted” to drugs — or food, sex, the Internet, gambling — have no control over their behavior. Refreshingly, Gazzaniga declares ”the view of human behavior offered by neuroscience is simply at odds with this idea.”

”Just as optometrists can tell us how much vision a person has (20/20 or 20/40 or 20/200) but cannot tell us when someone is legally blind,” he continues, ”brain scientists might be able to tell us what someone’s mental state or brain condition is but cannot tell us (without being arbitrary) when someone has too little control to be held responsible.”

Last year, when the United States Supreme Court heard arguments against the death penalty for juveniles, the American Medical Association and other health groups, including psychiatrists and psychologists, filed briefs arguing that children should not be treated as adults under the law because in normal brain development the frontal lobe — the region of the brain that helps curb impulses and conduct moral reasoning — of an adolescent is still immature. ”Neuroscientists should stay in the lab and let lawyers stay in the courtroom,” Gazzaniga writes.

Moving on to the provocative concept of ”brain privacy,” Gazzaniga describes brain fingerprinting — identifying brain patterns associated with lying — and cautions that just like conventional polygraph tests, these ”much more complex tests . . . are fraught with uncertainties.” He also provides perspective on the so-called bias tests increasingly used in social science and the law, like one recently described in a Washington Post Magazine article. Subjects were asked to pair images of black faces with positive or negative words (”wonderful,” ”nasty”); if they pressed a computer key to pair the black face with a positive word several milliseconds more slowly than they paired it with a negative word, bias was supposed. The unfortunate headline: ”See No Bias: Many Americans believe they are not prejudiced. Now a new test provides powerful evidence that a majority of us really are. Assuming we accept the results, what can we do about it?”

Nonsense, Gazzaniga would say. Human brains make categories based on prior experience or cultural assumptions. This is not sinister, it is normal brain function — and when experience or assumptions change, response patterns change. ”It appears that a process in the brain makes it likely that people will categorize others on the basis of race,” he writes. ”Yet this is not the same thing as being racist.” Nor have split-second reactions like these been convincingly linked to discrimination in the real world. ”Brains are automatic, rule-governed, determined devices, while people are personally responsible agents,” Gazzaniga says. ”Just as traffic is what happens when physically determined cars interact, responsibility is what happens when people interact.”

Clearly, Gazzaniga is not a member of the handwringer school, like some of his fellow members of the President’s Council on Bioethics. At the same time, his faith in our ability to regulate ourselves is touching. He notes that sex selection appears to be producing alarmingly unbalanced ratios of men to women in many countries. ”Tampering with the evolved human fabric is playing with fire,” he writes. ”Yet I also firmly believe we can handle it. . . . We humans are good at adapting to what works, what is good and beneficial, and, in the end, jettisoning the unwise.”

Gazzaniga looks to the day when neuroethics can derive ”a brain-based philosophy of life.” But ”The Ethical Brain” does not always make clear how understanding brain mechanisms can help us deal with hard questions like the status of the embryo or the virtues of prolonging life well over 100 years. And occasionally the book reads as if technical detail has been sacrificed for brevity.

A final, speculative section, ”The Nature of Moral Beliefs and the Concept of Universal Ethics,” explores whether there is ”an innate human moral sense.” The theories of evolutionary psychology point out, Gazzaniga notes, that ”moral reasoning is good for human survival,” and social science has concluded that human societies almost universally share rules against incest and murder while valuing family loyalty and truth telling. ”We must commit ourselves to the view that a universal ethics is possible,” he concludes. But is such a commitment important if, as his discussion suggests, we are guided by a universal moral compass?

Still, ”The Ethical Brain” provides us with cautions — prominent among them that ”neuroscience will never find the brain correlate of responsibility, because that is something we ascribe to humans — to people — not to brains. It is a moral value we demand of our fellow, rule-following human beings.” This statement — coming as it does from so eminent a neuroscientist — is a cultural contribution in itself.

Sally Satel is a psychiatrist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a co-author of ”One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture Is Eroding Self-Reliance.”

* Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

Apart from a mention a year ago (in a piece on Robert Krulwich and his new PBS program, Nova Science Now, The Magic of Science Elicits His ‘Hmmm! (for full text click “show”)

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New York Times

THE ARTS/CULTURAL DESK

The Magic of Science Elicits His ‘Hmmm!’

By JOHN SCHWARTZ (NYT) 1108 words

Published: January 25, 2005

It was a bitterly cold day, and Robert Krulwich was momentarily fascinated by the amount of static electricity that had built up on his wool overcoat as he slipped it off.

Mr. Krulwich is, in fact, fascinated by a dizzying array of things. In the first few minutes of a lunchtime conversation , he jumped enthusiastically from thought to thought: There’s the discovery of tiny, archaic humans on the Indonesian island of Flores, who battled giant rats and hunted dwarf elephants and Komodo dragons. And there’s the changing nature of currencies used in international black markets. Not long ago, 94 percent of all foreign cash used on the street in Russia was in dollars, he explains. In just two years, it has dropped to 84 percent. Is it the dollar’s fall, or simply a ”portability question,” what with the availability of a 500-euro note, which makes lighter work of schlepping payoffs? ”Hmmm!” he said.

But at the moment he is most excited about a ”magical thing,” a tiny wood frog that lives in a wide area from Canada down into Pennsylvania and gets through the winter by freezing solid, its cells protected by a kind of natural antifreeze. In the spring ”It will thaw and wake up and go ‘ribit!’ right in your hand!”

Robert Krulwich has what could be called Elephant’s Child Syndrome: like the character from Rudyard Kipling’s Just-So story, he has a ”’satiable curiosity.” He is seemingly always looking at things great and small and saying to himself, ”Hmmm!” This has served him well over his years of reporting for ABC and PBS, and CBS before them. He has reported on economics, paparazzi, the hip-hop executive Russell Simmons and Barbie.

But he always seems to come back to science, as he does in a new show that has it’s debut tonight on PBS. He is unafraid of big ideas, happily plunging into difficult concepts. Genetics. Time. Whether bubblegum spat out onto the ramps leading to the No. 7 train in Times Square always ends up smeared into exclamation marks, or just sometimes. (Always, he thinks. He’s still investigating that one.)

That is why Mr. Krulwich is one of the few people on network news you might actually enjoy being stranded on a deserted island with. You can imagine many long, unpredictable conversations, and you have the impression that he might actually be able to come up with an escape, MacGyver style, like a jet pack made from coconuts and bat guano.

His new program is an offshoot of the venerable science program Nova, and is called ”Nova Science Now.” (He says he agitated, briefly, for calling it ”Hmmm!” but was overruled.)

In the first episode, a kind of Bill Nye the Science Guy for grown-ups, he promises ”breaking science, science that’s right out of the lab, science that sometimes bumps up against politics, art, culture.”

Well, maybe he’ll get to bumping up against politics later; there is, he says, a piece about stem cell research in the works. But this first show is about as controversial as a kitten, and no less cuddly. (This point should not be taken as a challenge, please, to Mr. Krulwich’s two relatives at this newspaper: his wife, Tamar Lewin, a reporter, and his sister, Sara Krulwich, a photographer.)

The most engrossing part of the show concerns so-called mirror neurons, nerve cells that fire when people move, but also when they see others move. The ”monkey-see, monkey-do” neurons, which have actually been pretty hot in scientific circles for several years, have been linked to the feeling of vicarious enjoyment from watching sports, and the sadness that comes from weepy movies. Further theories suggest connections to empathy and many forms of learning.

To illustrate the concept, Mr. Krulwich performs one of his characteristically goofball stunts before the camera: He carries boxes stacked higher than his head down a crowded Manhattan sidewalk with a bumbling Bill Irwin aplomb. People watch askance, and, Mr. Krulwich said, you could see in their expressions that ”they can feel themselves moving.”

Well, maybe. The expressions are priceless, but they might also be revealing thoughts like, ”Hey, it’s that guy from TV, wassisname, Chipwich — what, he can’t afford a messenger service?”

Mr. Krulwich takes the concept of mirror neurons and their meaning even further, interviewing a scientist who believes that a malfunction in these cells might even contribute to conditions like autism, which plunges those who have it into a kind of mental isolation. And he asks if this might be one of the things that separates people from other animals — the rapid learning, the gregariousness: ”deep in our architecture down in our cells we are built to be together.”

A stretch? Sure. But also: wow. That pinballing course through the sciences, culture and fun is the idea, Mr. Krulwich said over lunch. ”You take something that’s pretty fascinating, and you look at something else that might be fascinating and you walk the walk — you make the connection,” he said. ”The more unlikely the connection appears to be, the more profound the connection probably is.”

The first show also raises the possibility that a killer hurricane might hit New Orleans and has a profile of an engineer, James McLurkin, who experiments with ”swarming” robots and slices his time so thin that he waits to tie his shoes in the morning until he is stopped at a red light. There is a look at the ”booming dunes”: desert landscapes that generate a strange tone that seems to be the sound of loose sand moving over packed sand like a bow over a cello’s strings. The program closes with a look at hauntingly beautiful kinetic sculptures by an artist-engineer who gives almost-human motion to toy chairs and wishbones. All this in a packed hour.

Mr. Krulwich said that his onscreen goofiness ”really isn’t an act.”

”I’m sort of stuck with my true nature,” he said. What sets him apart from others, he said, is actually a slowness to grasp things — which, at first blush, might seem incompatible with his having earned a history degree from Oberlin and a law degree from Columbia. ”I’m not a stupid guy, but I’m not, like, a fast guy,” he explained. So he ponders, and tries to get others to ponder with him.

”What could be labeled a learning disability,” he said, ”I turned into my job.”

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

this is the first time (according to the Times’ own dysfunctional search engine., at least) that the paper that boasts that its readers feel they are “in the know” (“It makes me feel that I am in the know!” – actor in current Times ad) has acknowledged the existence of these immensely important cells.

Given the rate at which new scientific disocveries and achievements tend to implode these days, this conservative attitude on the part of the Times is not a bad thing, perhaps, even though for a topic which has been such a hot item in scientific circles for so long it might seem lethargic for a newspaper. In fact, we applaud it. It suggests that anything the Times covers must have been thoroughly checked out before they give it the honor of appearing in print.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case with science news covered by the Times, as we have pointed out in earlier posts. The classic example and most extreme case of the Times rushing into print with an empty claim is of course the HIV-is-the-probable-cause-of-AIDS claim, launched on the world by Margaret Heckler, Secretary of Health in the Reagan Administration, and Robert Gallo virus hunter at the NIH, in their precipitate news conference in 1984.

The next day CDC trained medical reporter Larry Altman reported in the front page that HIV is the cause of AIDS, rather than as was announced, “the probable cause of AIDS”, and that has been the position of the Times editors ever since. This despite the plain fact that the Gallo papers which tethered this kite had not yet been published in Science and said no such thing. They merely asserted a correlation in patient blood samples of about two thirds.

The Times has stuck with – or been stuck with – this position ever since. Aany time the cunningly AWOL virus is mentioned (that is to say, almost always when antibodies to it are the only things signaling its supposed presence or past visit) it is labeled “HIV, the virus that causes AIDS”, and not, as the Times should say to be accurate, “HIV, the virus believed to cause AIDS”.

Why Altman undertook this precipitate cheerleading for what amounted to a political solution to Reagan’s problem with the increasingly activist gays (who were the ones mysteriously targeted by the purple skin cancer of Kaposi’s Sarcoma and massive immune failure of the new syndrome AIDS) is not known. Perhaps gay activism had made its influence known at the Times in some manner also. Whatever the politics, it was poor science reporting.

What followed, however, seems to have been a classic case of mirror neurons at work in the media and throughout the land. All intellectual activity on the topic ceased as the attitude of conviction portrayed by the body language of scientific and bureaucratic spokesmen, such as David Baltimore, Robert Gallo and Anthony Fauci, prevailed against the best argued demolition in science, the reviews by retrovirologist and chemist Peter Duesberg of Berkeley in the top journals of the land.

So good were these reviews in logic and comprehensive survey of the evidence, that Walter Gilbert of Harvard, as we have mentioned before, gave them to his graduate students to study as examples of how to analyze a popular claim, and many people today offer them as evidence that Duesberg is one of the brightest men in science today, and call him a ‘genius’.

Certainly it is difficult to think of any papers that rival in quality of reason and grasp of such a wide range of knowledge as the papers Duesberg has written in the Proceedings of the National Academy and other journals on this topic, papers which have never been answered on the same level.

********************************************

SPECIAL NOTE: THREE CHALLENGE MATCHES, THREE DUESBERG WINS

In fact it is worth noting here for the record that there have been three exchanges on the topic in print in peer reviewed journals between Duesberg and his theoretical opponents, and in all three cases he evidently won the argument. The first was his article in the Proceedings of the National Academy in 1988, to which Robert Gallo sent galleys, promised the editors to respond – and never did. In other words, a win for Duesberg in the first round with the opponent unwilling to come out of his corner.

The second fight was between Duesberg and Howard Temin and David Baltimore in the pages of Science, where after each side fired off a broadside into the opponents’ hull, they reloaded and fired again in response to the points made in the first round. The discussion was then halted by the editor, who left it up to the readers to decide who won. Anyone who is willing to follow the discussion has to study the texts to decide for themselves who won, but those that do not have time to follow the arguments might reasonably conclude that if the discussion was arbitrarily halted without following the arguments to their logical conclusion, then the critical objections have not been effectively refuted. In other words, at the very least a draw, with prospects of Duesberg winning of allowed to continue.

An indication that a Duesberg win would have resulted if the debate had continued was the outcome challenge later taken by by Luc Montagnier to debate Duesberg in a European journal. Duesberg published his article, and Montagnier, like Gallo, never managed to come up woith a reply. In fact, it was at this point that apparently shaken by the Duesberg’s artillery, he began to talk of HIV needing a co-factor to become dangerous.

The co-factor idea can reasonably be viewed as a concession of defeat. Once such an idea is let in the door – that HIV needs a co-factor to be harmful – the question becomes, of course, does the co-factor need HIV? We think it is fair to say that in all the twenty years of promulgation of HIV=AIDS ideology, and all its concomitant and well funded research, no one has yet proved that any factor without HIV does any less damage than it does when HIV is present.

Be that as it may, Duesberg had scored a second knockout.

The record is thus three matches, two Duesberg wins by knockout in the first round, and one win which was a draw only because the match was halted, possibly for medical reasons, with the long term health of Duesberg’s team of opponents in jeopardy.

END of SPECIAL NOTE

**************************************************

So what went wrong? Mirror neurons, of course!

With her long list of fields to which this 15 year old breakthrough, the discovery of “mirror neurons”, seems to apply, Sandra Blakeslee does an excellent job of suggesting the all pervading importance of mirror neurons. All students of animal behavior, evolution of culture, the origins of verbal and sign language, autism, child development, psychology and psychotherapy, sports, sociology and political rhetoric will now have to take these networks into account, for they provide a mechanism for many phenomena observed but not scientifically accounted for.

But of course anyone with the slightest self-awareness knows this already. Watching a boxing or a tennis match on TV, we can all feel ourselves jerking in reflex response to a blow landed or a ball mishit.

What’s really important is what we are all not much aware of – the massive tendency of ideas to transmit in this fashion, so that whether they are justified or not they become universal memes through the sheer power of internal and involuntary mimicry. The conviction of a speaker, whether acclaimed scientist or mad politician, transfers through body language to the listener, possibly without passing through the mind of either.

This of course is the only way of accounting for the phenomenon of the scientific religion of HIV and AIDS, and the fact that so many otherwise reliable authorities believe in it contrary to the impeccable deconstruction and demolition of HIV-think perpetrated on the intellectual level in the scientific and lay literature by everybody from Peter Duesberg to journalists who are merely applying common sense.

Mirror neurons are a major part of the answer to the ever present paradox which infuriates critics of the conventional wisdom in HIV?AIDS. The paradox is that time and again spoken language and body language reveals the intellects, such as they are, of its supporters in science and in the media have been hijacked by their mirror neurons. Precisely like the members of a religion, they retain complete confidence in their belief in the face of any and all evidence and logic against a claims that flies in the face of orthodox science and common sense.

Only the phenomenon of mirror neurons could possibly account for the strength of their faith, for that can be the only source of their confidence in authority, for while authority projects the body language of conviction, and transmits the faith, it otherwise talks scientific nonsense.

Here is the whole Blakeslee article:

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The New York Times

January 10, 2006

Cells That Read Minds

By SANDRA BLAKESLEE

On a hot summer day 15 years ago in Parma, Italy, a monkey sat in a special laboratory chair waiting for researchers to return from lunch. Thin wires had been implanted in the region of its brain involved in planning and carrying out movements.

Every time the monkey grasped and moved an object, some cells in that brain region would fire, and a monitor would register a sound: brrrrrip, brrrrrip, brrrrrip.

A graduate student entered the lab with an ice cream cone in his hand. The monkey stared at him. Then, something amazing happened: when the student raised the cone to his lips, the monitor sounded – brrrrrip, brrrrrip, brrrrrip – even though the monkey had not moved but had simply observed the student grasping the cone and moving it to his mouth.

The researchers, led by Giacomo Rizzolatti, a neuroscientist at the University of Parma, had earlier noticed the same strange phenomenon with peanuts. The same brain cells fired when the monkey watched humans or other monkeys bring peanuts to their mouths as when the monkey itself brought a peanut to its mouth.

Later, the scientists found cells that fired when the monkey broke open a peanut or heard someone break a peanut. The same thing happened with bananas, raisins and all kinds of other objects.

“It took us several years to believe what we were seeing,” Dr. Rizzolatti said in a recent interview. The monkey brain contains a special class of cells, called mirror neurons, that fire when the animal sees or hears an action and when the animal carries out the same action on its own.

But if the findings, published in 1996, surprised most scientists, recent research has left them flabbergasted. Humans, it turns out, have mirror neurons that are far smarter, more flexible and more highly evolved than any of those found in monkeys, a fact that scientists say reflects the evolution of humans’ sophisticated social abilities.

The human brain has multiple mirror neuron systems that specialize in carrying out and understanding not just the actions of others but their intentions, the social meaning of their behavior and their emotions.

“We are exquisitely social creatures,” Dr. Rizzolatti said. “Our survival depends on understanding the actions, intentions and emotions of others.”

He continued, “Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling, not by thinking.”

The discovery is shaking up numerous scientific disciplines, shifting the understanding of culture, empathy, philosophy, language, imitation, autism and psychotherapy.

Everyday experiences are also being viewed in a new light. Mirror neurons reveal how children learn, why people respond to certain types of sports, dance, music and art, why watching media violence may be harmful and why many men like pornography.

How can a single mirror neuron or system of mirror neurons be so incredibly smart?

Most nerve cells in the brain are comparatively pedestrian. Many specialize in detecting ordinary features of the outside world. Some fire when they encounter a horizontal line while others are dedicated to vertical lines. Others detect a single frequency of sound or a direction of movement.

Moving to higher levels of the brain, scientists find groups of neurons that detect far more complex features like faces, hands or expressive body language. Still other neurons help the body plan movements and assume complex postures.

Mirror neurons make these complex cells look like numbskulls. Found in several areas of the brain – including the premotor cortex, the posterior parietal lobe, the superior temporal sulcus and the insula – they fire in response to chains of actions linked to intentions.

Studies show that some mirror neurons fire when a person reaches for a glass or watches someone else reach for a glass; others fire when the person puts the glass down and still others fire when the person reaches for a toothbrush and so on. They respond when someone kicks a ball, sees a ball being kicked, hears a ball being kicked and says or hears the word “kick.”

“When you see me perform an action – such as picking up a baseball – you automatically simulate the action in your own brain,” said Dr. Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies mirror neurons. “Circuits in your brain, which we do not yet entirely understand, inhibit you from moving while you simulate,” he said. “But you understand my action because you have in your brain a template for that action based on your own movements.

“When you see me pull my arm back, as if to throw the ball, you also have in your brain a copy of what I am doing and it helps you understand my goal. Because of mirror neurons, you can read my intentions. You know what I am going to do next.”

He continued: “And if you see me choke up, in emotional distress from striking out at home plate, mirror neurons in your brain simulate my distress. You automatically have empathy for me. You know how I feel because you literally feel what I am feeling.”

Mirror neurons seem to analyzed scenes and to read minds. If you see someone reach toward a bookshelf and his hand is out of sight, you have little doubt that he is going to pick up a book because your mirror neurons tell you so.

In a study published in March 2005 in Public Library of Science, Dr. Iacoboni and his colleagues reported that mirror neurons could discern if another person who was picking up a cup of tea planned to drink from it or clear it from the table. “Mirror neurons provide a powerful biological foundation for the evolution of culture,” said Patricia Greenfield, a psychologist at the U.C.L.A. who studies human development.

Until now, scholars have treated culture as fundamentally separate from biology, she said. “But now we see that mirror neurons absorb culture directly, with each generation teaching the next by social sharing, imitation and observation.”

Other animals – monkeys, probably apes and possibly elephants, dolphins and dogs – have rudimentary mirror neurons, several mirror neuron experts said. But humans, with their huge working memory, carry out far more sophisticated imitations.

Language is based on mirror neurons, according to Michael Arbib, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California. One such system, found in the front of the brain, contains overlapping circuitry for spoken language and sign language.

In an article published in Trends in Neuroscience in March 1998, Dr. Arbib described how complex hand gestures and the complex tongue and lip movements used in making sentences use the same machinery. Autism, some researchers believe, may involve broken mirror neurons. A study published in the Jan. 6 issue of Nature Neuroscience by Mirella Dapretto, a neuroscientist at U.C.L.A., found that while many people with autism can identify an emotional expression, like sadness, on another person’s face, or imitate sad looks with their own faces, they do not feel the emotional significance of the imitated emotion. From observing other people, they do not know what it feels like to be sad, angry, disgusted or surprised.

Mirror neurons provide clues to how children learn: they kick in at birth. Dr. Andrew Meltzoff at the University of Washington has published studies showing that infants a few minutes old will stick out their tongues at adults doing the same thing. More than other primates, human children are hard-wired for imitation, he said, their mirror neurons involved in observing what others do and practicing doing the same things.

Still, there is one caveat, Dr. Iacoboni said. Mirror neurons work best in real life, when people are face to face. Virtual reality and videos are shadowy substitutes.

Nevertheless, a study in the January 2006 issue of Media Psychology found that when children watched violent television programs, mirror neurons, as well as several brain regions involved in aggression were activated, increasing the probability that the children would behave violently.

The ability to share the emotions of others appears to be intimately linked to the functioning of mirror neurons, said Dr. Christian Keysers, who studies the neural basis of empathy at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and who has published several recent articles on the topic in Neuron.

When you see someone touched in a painful way, your own pain areas are activated, he said. When you see a spider crawl up someone’s leg, you feel a creepy sensation because your mirror neurons are firing.

People who rank high on a scale measuring empathy have particularly active mirror neurons systems, Dr. Keysers said.

Social emotions like guilt, shame, pride, embarrassment, disgust and lust are based on a uniquely human mirror neuron system found in a part of the brain called the insula, Dr. Keysers said. In a study not yet published, he found that when people watched a hand go forward to caress someone and then saw another hand push it away rudely, the insula registered the social pain of rejection. Humiliation appears to be mapped in the brain by the same mechanisms that encode real physical pain, he said.

Psychotherapists are understandably enthralled by the discovery of mirror neurons, said Dr. Daniel Siegel, the director of the Center for Human Development in Los Angeles and the author of “Parenting From the Inside Out,” because they provide a possible neurobiological basis for the psychological mechanisms known as transference and countertransference.

In transference, clients “transfer” feelings about important figures in their lives onto a therapist. Similarly, in countertransference, a therapist’s reactions to a client are shaped by the therapist’s own earlier relationships.

Therapists can use their own mirror system to understand a client’s problems and to generate empathy, he said. And they can help clients understand that many of their experiences stem from what other people have said or done to them in the past.

Art exploits mirror neurons, said Dr. Vittorio Gallese, a neuroscientist at Parma University. When you see the Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s hand of divinity grasping marble, you see the hand as if it were grasping flesh, he said. Experiments show that when you read a novel, you memorize positions of objects from the narrator’s point of view.

Professional athletes and coaches, who often use mental practice and imagery, have long exploited the brain’s mirror properties perhaps without knowing their biological basis, Dr. Iacoboni said. Observation directly improves muscle performance via mirror neurons.

Similarly, millions of fans who watch their favorite sports on television are hooked by mirror neuron activation. In someone who has never played a sport – say tennis – the mirror neurons involved in running, swaying and swinging the arms will be activated, Dr. Iacoboni said.

But in someone who plays tennis, the mirror systems will be highly activated when an overhead smash is observed. Watching a game, that person will be better able to predict what will happen next, he said.

In yet another realm, mirror neurons are powerfully activated by pornography, several scientists said. For example, when a man watches another man have sexual intercourse with a woman, the observer’s mirror neurons spring into action. The vicarious thrill of watching sex, it turns out, is not so vicarious after all.

* Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

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