The Target

January 10, 2011

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

Psychology Today:

Oops! Perhaps that was an infelicitous expression, in light of the shooting in Arizona, but less infelicitous than some of the off-the-cuff, armchair diagnoses from my colleague psychologists.

And I’ll throw myself on the mercy of the court of public opinion by pointing to the attention-getting quality of “Don’t jump the gun.” After all, the main point of our media is to grab attention, and rely on psychologists to be useful and willing fools.

When I looked at the alleged shooter’s You Tube postings, I predicted to myself that someone is going to publicly diagnoses Jared Loughner as a paranoid schizophrenic, and, sure enough, only hours after the shooting, I read this in Andrew Sullivan’s blog, “The Daily Dish,” from the Atlantic:

“I’m a licensed psychologist with 20 years experience. I’ve watched the Jared Loughner Youtube videos. They show evidence of delusions of persecution. Loughner’s less than coherent language also suggests a formal thought disorder. While Loughner can’t be diagnosed without a full exam conducted in person, there are significant indications in the videos that he suffers from a psychotic disorder.

“I would not rule out drugs as a factor, but he is within the age range that psychotic patients often suffer their first psychotic break. If I had to guess, I’d go with paranoid schizophrenia. If that’s the case, his politics are irrelevant. He may not even be fit to stand trial unless and until his psychotic thinking is brought under control with medication.”

Sure, he or she pays lip service to the idea that an in-person exam is required for a diagnosis, but this doesn’t prevent a full-blown diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. As an aside, this leaves out the fact that schizophrenics in general, as well as paranoid schizophrenics in particular are too disorganized to organize premeditated, multi-step acts of violence. In fact, paranoid schizophrenics tend to isolate themselves and more likely become violent when they feel their personal space is being violated. They don’t go out looking for trouble.

Sullivan’s psychologist is not alone. Google “Loughner and schizophrenia,” or “Loughner and diagnosis, and you will see the ubiquity of this type of armchair exercise.

But most studies conclude that substance abuse, which Sullivan’s psychologist does mention, is more likely to be associated with violence, whether there is schizophrenia or not.

Paranoia is more likely to lead to violence as a personality trait of a more organized individual–what we call a personality disorder. Stalin, for instance, was very paranoid, very violent. Unfortunately, he had the means to eliminate any perceived or actual enemy. During the period while he purged and liquidated millions, he would obsessively doodle pictures of wolves in aggressive poses. But no examination of his life and writings could conclude that he had schizophrenia. Someone with schizophrenia would not be organized enough to plot and outmaneuver Trotsky, consolidate power, and defeat the Germans in World War II.

What does the American Psychologist Association’s Code of Ethics say?

“When psychologists provide public advice or comment via print, Internet, or other electronic transmission, they take precautions to ensure that statements (1) are based on their professional knowledge, training, or experience in accord with appropriate psychological literature and practice; (2) are otherwise consistent with this Ethics Code; and (3) do not indicate that a professional relationship has been established with the recipient.”


“…psychologists provide opinions of the psychological characteristics of individuals only after they have conducted an examination of the individuals adequate to support their statements or conclusions.”

The psychiatrists are even more explicit in the American Psychiatric Association’s Code of Ethics,

“On occasion psychiatrists are asked for an opinion about an individual who is in the light of public attention or who has disclosed information about himself/herself through public media. In such circumstances, a psychiatrist may share with the public his or her expertise about psychiatric issues in general. However, it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.”

This would seem to preclude the promiscuous diagnosing we find in the media, but these provisions are never enforced. We don’t want to get psychologists–or psychiatrists–off the gravy train of self-promotion.

I gave many interviews while promoting my book about my work in eldercare, and I always felt a tad uncomfortable when I was on call-in shows fielding questions such as “Should I put Mom in a nursing home?” or “How do I convince my sister she’s wrong about Dad’s dementia?” I much preferred to talk about my own experiences as a caregiver to my father, or why the Kant’s Categorical Imperative was a guide to the organization of nursing homes, but I probably wouldn’t have been booked if not for my supposed expert opinions on psychology.

Thankfully–although it’s a thankless task, given the amount of air, print, and web space that needs to be filled–I’m not the only one who has a problem with vicarious diagnosis.

One psychologist, who writes a blog on privacy, comes down squarely on the side of keeping your mouth shut:”From my perspective, since there is no compelling reason to violate privacy or to engage in gossip, when the psychologist does not have detailed and in-depth information about the individual being discussed, psychologists should simply decline to comment specifically about the individual. Psychologists can still discuss general issues based on the professional literature and their relevant professional training and experiences, but an inquiry from a reporter or TV journalist is not a good enough reason to gossip or to ignore the importance of having an adequate assessment before offering an opinion.”

Read it all.

Foreign Policy:

A year ago this January, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took the stage at Washington’s Newseum to tout an idea that her State Department had become very taken with: the Internet’s ability to spread freedom and democracy. “We want to put these tools in the hands of people who will use them to advance democracy and human rights,” she told the crowd, drawn from both the buttoned-up Beltway and chronically underdressed Silicon Valley.

Call it the Internet Freedom Agenda: the notion that technology can succeed in opening up the world where offline efforts have failed. That Barack Obama’s administration would embrace such an idea was not surprising; the U.S. president was elected in part on the strength of his online organizing and fundraising juggernaut. The 2009 anti-government protests in Iran, Moldova, and China’s Xinjiang region — all abetted to varying degrees by communications technology — further supported the notion that the Internet was, as Clinton said in her speech, “a critical tool for advancing democracy.”

A year later, however, the Internet Freedom Agenda can boast of precious few real accomplishments; if anything, it looks more and more like George W. Bush’s lower-tech “Freedom Agenda,” his unrealized second-term push for democratization across the broader Middle East. Clinton’s effort has certainly generated plenty of positive headlines and gimmicky online competitions, but not much else. In July, the New York Times Magazine lavished almost 5,000 words on a profile of Jared Cohen and Alec Ross, the State Department’s digital-diplomacy wunderkinds. But it’s hard to say what exactly they succeeded in doing, beyond getting in trouble for tweeting from Syria about how delicious the frappuccinos were. The only big move that the State Department did make was granting $1.5 million to Falun Gong-affiliated technologists based in the United States to help circumvent censorship — a step that instead angered Falun Gong’s numerous supporters in Washington, who had originally asked for $4 million.

Elsewhere, the State Department’s enthusiasm for technology has surpassed its understanding of it. Early last year, in an effort to help Iranian dissidents, the U.S. government granted an export license to the company behind Haystack, a privacy-protecting and censorship-circumventing technology then being touted in the media as a revolutionary tool for Internet freedom. But Haystack proved to be poorly designed and massively insecure in its early tests in Iran, putting its users — the democracy advocates it was supposed to protect — in even greater danger. It was summarily shut down in September. Since October 2009, the State Department has been working to launch an anonymous SMS tip line to help law-abiding Mexicans share information about drug cartels. Like Haystack, it attracted plenty of laudatory coverage, but it succumbed to (still ongoing) delays when it ran into a predictable problem: Ensuring the anonymity of text messages is not easy anywhere, let alone when dealing with Ciudad Juárez’s corrupt police force.

But the Internet Freedom Agenda’s woes extend far beyond a few botched projects. The State Department’s online democratizing efforts have fallen prey to the same problems that plagued Bush’s Freedom Agenda. By aligning themselves with Internet companies and organizations, Clinton’s digital diplomats have convinced their enemies abroad that Internet freedom is another Trojan horse for American imperialism.

Clinton went wrong from the outset by violating the first rule of promoting Internet freedom: Don’t talk about promoting Internet freedom. Her Newseum speech was full of analogies to the Berlin Wall and praise for Twitter revolutions — vocabulary straight out of the Bush handbook. To governments already nervous about a wired citizenry, this sounded less like freedom of the Internet than freedom via the Internet: not just a call for free speech online, but a bid to overthrow them by way of cyberspace.

The lessons of the first Freedom Agenda should have been instructive. After youth-movement-driven “color revolutions” swept Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan from 2003 to 2005, Bush openly bragged about his support for such groups and vowed to help the new pro-democracy wave go global. The backlash was immediate. Countries like Russia, which had previously been relatively blasé about such activism, panicked, blocking foreign funding to civil society groups and NGOs and creating their own pro-government youth movements and civil society organizations. The end result in many countries was a net loss for democracy and freedom…

Read it all.

The Economist:

WHAT is the secret of innovation? There are many explanations. “You start with some very bright people, let them hang out with other very bright people and allow their imaginations to roam,” is how Susan Hockfield, the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), sums it up. But there seems to be an important local factor too.

Babbage has been along to an exhibition which has just opened at the MIT museum as part of the celebration of the institute’s 150th anniversary. Staff, students and others were asked to help pick the 150 artefacts that have been included. The idea is that these things illustrate not just some of the breakthroughs MIT has been involved with, but also the character of the institute. Some 700 nominations were made to a website and these were voted on.

As to be expected it is an eclectic mix. MIT’s exploits have ranged widely since it was founded by William Barton Rogers in 1861, just two days before the start of the American Civil War. Items on show include breakthroughs in engineering, electronics, medicine and design. There is a Technicolor film camera from the 1930s; Vannevar Bush’s 1931 differential analyser, which was a milestone in the development of analytical machines; the Whirlwind Computer, which started life in 1947 and was later used in radar development; instruments developed for NASA’s Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977 and still transmitting data. There are also modern inventions, like a battery running on genetically engineered viruses and an electric car. And there are more obscure artefacts which have given MIT its flavour, such as a 1970 recording of an impromptu concert at the campus by the Grateful Dead…

Read it all.

Help Arrives

January 10, 2011

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

The Job Hunt

January 10, 2011


This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 81 other followers