Saturday, December 26, 2009


In the spirit of end-of-the-year lists, here is an amusing collection I just came across: who you are, as revealed by your favorite philosopher.

Socrates: People who didn’t study philosophy.
Plato: People who did study philosophy, but only as an elective.
Aristotle: People who know they should tidy their room, but never do.
Parmenides: People who cross their legs in a slightly stiff and awkward way.
Pythagoras: People who are suspicious of beans.
Thomas Aquinas: People who express overly convoluted arguments to justify things that we all already agree with.
Francis Bacon: People who like art, but know little about science.
Thomas Hobbes: Highly intelligent, highly irritable men.
Rene Descartes: Americans who call him “dez-car-dees” and love saying “I think therefore I am” but don’t know what “cogito ergo sum” means.
John Locke: People who read Newsweek, but only because they haven’t yet discovered The Economist.
David Hume: Jolly people with a lingering sense of urgency.
Immanuel Kant: People who are never, ever late.
Machiavelli: People who wear their collars turned up, and probably earn more than you.
Gottfried Leibniz: People who wear berets, but shouldn’t.
George Berkeley: People who got the heebie-jeebies from watching The Matrix.
Hegel: People who pause in conversation, grasping for the longest word they can think of to express a simple idea.
Friedrich Nietzsche: People who came to philosophy during the most awkward 15 minutes of their teenage years.
Adam Smith: People who secretly enjoy romantic comedies.
Karl Marx: Men with beards and women who don’t wear makeup.
John Stuart Mill: People who like scotch and soda.
Gottlob Frege: People who wear different coloured socks.
Bertrand Russell: People who secretly want to smoke a pipe.
Ludwig Wittgenstein: People you’re always surprised to see in the queue to the latest Hollywood blockbuster.
Jean-Paul Sartre: People who once smoked – and may still do – even though they hate it.
Simone de Beauvoir: Men who think quoting philosophy impresses women; women who aren’t impressed by men quoting philosophy.
Martin Heidegger: People with a disconcerting lazy eye, so you never know if they’re talking to you.
Jaques Derrida: People with expansive bookshelves, prominently displayed, few of which have been read.
Michel Foucault: Good looking people who wish they were better looking.
John Rawls: People who fantasise about working for Obama.
Ayn Rand: People who are polite but insistent, and who wear comfortable shoes.
Richard Rorty: People who still like merlot, no matter what anyone thinks.
Noam Chomsky: People who confuse a conversation for an argument at dinner parties.
Daniel Dennett: People who have never watched commercial television.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Crowdsourcing Science

What does science mean to you? Don't say it; draw it! Tim Jones, a science communicator in London, has initiated a worldwide science art project collecting drawings from scientists, students, journalists, artists – in short, just about everyone. In an attempt to find out the true narratives behind people's view of science, he "persuaded friends and even complete strangers—all of whom belonged to one of three categories: scientists, professional communicators, and the general public—to sit down with a pen and paper and draw what they think is important in science." I think this is a pretty cool idea, and will be checking to see how the project develops. Add your own drawing to the mosaic here.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Science vs. Religion – False Assumption or True Conflict?

I want to look again at the science/religion topic – this time specifically from a science advocacy perspective. In this context, religion poses a problem because it interferes with the acceptance of science by a large portion of the public. Why? Because many people think that science will threaten their religious beliefs. Chris Mooney argues that this is a mistaken assumption. But correct or not, the sentiment is so powerful that it effectively blocks much of the effort by scientists and educators to promote science in the US. Therefore, in order to raise the status of science in our culture, Mooney claims that we will first have to tackle the misconception that science and religion are opposed.

It won’t be easy. The "science vs. religion" narrative is used in media coverage to the point of cliché (the "battle" most recently being fought in schools over the teaching of evolution). It is also continually perpetuated by people on both extreme sides of the debate – religious fundamentalists on the one hand and militant atheists on the other. Meanwhile, the Americans in the middle, those who don’t necessarily posit any inherent conflict between the sciences and religion, are relatively quiet (Mooney dubs them the “silent majority”). The pressure is on the science advocates to encourage the silent majority to speak up. Until they do, we’ll continue to hear only a few voices.

And they’re not the voices that Mooney wants to hear. At least, not the only ones. He admits there is a place for denouncing religion, but it shouldn't take center stage among scientists. Mooney harshly criticizes figures like the popular science blogger PZ Myers and other vocal atheists for their gratuitous attacks on religion (Myers apparently skewed a Eucharist with a rusty nail, chucked it in the trash, and displayed a photo of his “Great Desecration” online, just to make a point). Coming from what the journal Nature has rated as one of the "Top Five Science Blogs", Myers' hostility toward religion only heightens the tension between the scientific community and much of the religious public. Insults and ridicule turn even the religious moderates away from science, all the while giving religious fundamentalists more ammunition (an anti-science creationist can quite easily point to the unholy atheists as proof that science is an attack on their faith). If promoting science is a priority, scientists cannot afford to bolster the science vs. religion narrative – it’s a useless strategy.

It seems clear from Mooney’s arguments that it may be tactically beneficial to take a conciliatory attitude towards religion. In some cases, like teaching evolution, it may be politically necessary to gently woo a religious audience into a natural engagement with science, rather than shoving the “truth” in their faces. But what if the goal is larger than that? Dawkins, for example, has stated that while winning the battle over evolution would be nice, he is fighting a larger war. It is a war over deep truths of the nature of the universe, and in this fight, religion (inasmuch as it claims ownership of these deep truths) really does get in the way of science. For him, the conflict is real, and denying it exists is dishonest and wholly unscientific.

So it looks like we are faced with two competing priorities. Those in Mooney’s camp want to focus on promoting science in American culture by winning political battles, and those in Dawkins' camp want to defend scientific truth at any cost. These are different goals, but I don’t think they require two vastly different strategies of communication. Regardless of the topic of discussion, adopting a disparaging tone usually doesn’t help. But more importantly, spewing “truths” at people, whether about the value of teaching evolution or the falsities of the virgin birth, won’t change their mind. The message must be packaged in such a way as to persuade, which requires “a sensitivity to the state of mind of the audience” (the words of science educator Neil deGrasse Tyson). Combining this sensitivity with the facts, shaping the content and form of a message to best fit the audience’s capacity to receive it, is how communication functions at its best, at any level. Ultimately the most important thing is to keep the channels of conversation open and not prematurely shut down any chance at dialogue by beginning with a fight.

Note that while it doesn't come up in favor of either position on the "science vs. religion" issue,  this strategy spans both the goals of science advocacy and defending scientific "truth". It is about creating impact and being effective – with any audience. And given that the religious audience forms about 80% of the American public, it seems wise to consider how religion will affect the capacity to understand any message from the scientific community.  I think Mooney would agree.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Paradox, a Paradox!

The story of science and religion has a new narrative – not war, but paradox. Framing their findings in a variation of the typical "conflict thesis", this recent Pew Research Center report describes the relationship between faith and science in the United States as somewhat of an internal contradiction. On the one hand, most Americans hold scientists in high esteem and value the advancements of science and technology. On the other hand, many of these same Americans, because of religious beliefs, are hesitant to accept either widely established scientific theories (such as evolution) or support new technologies (like stem cell research). What follows is rather unsettling:

What is at work here? How can majorities of Americans say they respect science and yet still disagree with the scientific community on some fundamental questions? The answer may be that many in the general public choose not to believe scientific theories and discoveries that seem to contradict religious or other important beliefs. When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, for instance, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people in an October 2006 Time magazine poll said they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept a contrary scientific finding.

If religious belief continues to take precedence over science, the scientific community will face a formidable challenge to improving scientific literacy and engagement. What stands in their way, as these findings highlight, is an underlying sentiment in America today that science is a threat to religion. As I've mentioned in earlier posts, there are some people (prominent scientists and religious fundamentalists alike) who hold that science is incompatible with or necessarily destructive to religious belief. And when so much media attention is focused around contentious episodes between, for example, creationists and evolutionists, it's not hard to see where this sentiment comes from. But a vast majority of both scientific and religious communities disagree that these two are mutually exclusive. The official position of the National Academy of Sciences as well as many religious organizations is that faith and science can exist together just fine. Therefore, promoting this more accommodationist position may be an effective way to approach the science/religion paradox – and it's a strategy that Chris Mooney argues for in his book, Unscientific America. I want to explore his (apparently rather controversial) ideas about religion in more detail, so that'll be coming soon...

Friday, November 20, 2009

Typography – What Language Looks Like.

Typography, I hold you responsible.

Responsible for hours spent scrolling through lists of fonts trying to find one that "works" with Copperplate Gothic. Responsible for giddy excitement at discovering free downloads of 1001 Mac Fonts. Responsible for awkward cringes at misused combinations of Futura and Verdana. Responsible for the Helveticazation of the corporate world and the Comic-Sans-zation of public health handouts. Responsible for homework procrastination, magazine destruction, poster fascination, headache provocation, design obsession. What do you have to say for yourself?

I don't know what Typography would say in its defense, but it would probably be in Braggadocio.

Recent NY Times article on type nerds.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Matters of Value

 The House passage of a health care bill means we're a little bit closer to getting some real health care reform in the United States. But the health care debate will undoubtedly continue even after a final vote on the matter (whenever that happens... fingers crossed for this year!) Health encompasses so much more than insurance and medical care – income, education, and other background social conditions all play a crucial role in improving health. And all of these conditions, which provide the structure and support for a healthy society, are informed by our deeper values: liberty, efficiency, responsibility, and fairness, to name a few. Exploring these values in more detail is a collection of essays by the Hastings Center, Connecting American Values with Health Reform. It's worth a read, as it both grounds the current discussion about reform to greater ideals, and also points to constructive ways to continue the conversation, regardless of the final legislation.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

In the Future...

As common wisdom would have it, predictions can be very difficult – especially about the future. But could they also be harmful? The cover story of The Scientist Magazine looks into the practice of predictions in the realm of science, and whether there is a danger (to research, policy, or science's reputation) in promising too soon. I admit I was a bit skeptical; I tend to think that scientific predictions are critical in gaining public support and engagement with science, and if scientists don't make the predictions, someone else surely will! But as this article makes clear, there are limits and responsibilities that come with any promise. Here are a few pieces of advice from the experts:
When asked how long it might take for your research to translate into therapies, try to communicate the complexities of the process rather than make a specific prediction. “I’ve come to recognize that these things take even longer than you hope,” says Ian Wilmut. So what would he say if asked about the prospects of tackling motor neuron disease with the iPS system? “I would say, one or two labs have now got nerve cells which are the genuine equivalent of those in a person who inherited the disease; it will perhaps take a couple of years before they have identified the molecular differences between them and healthy cells; it might take a couple of years after that to set up a high-throughput assay; a couple more years after that to run that and identify the first compounds. Which of course then simply gets you to the point where you have to put drugs through animal tests before you can get to patients. So, it’s likely to be at least ten years before there is the possibility of a new drug being used on any scale to treat human patients.”

According to Nik Brown, just heeding the lessons of past predictions and promises—both the successes and the failures—can help scientists avoid what he calls “institutional amnesia,” in which they deliver serial disappointments.

Harold Varmus’s gene therapy report concluded that scientists need to “inform the public about not only the extraordinary promise of gene therapy, but also its current limitations.” It might not be easy when the scientific culture encourages promise-making and hyperbole, but for Brian Wynne, science and scientists need to be more modest about their claims. “If modesty were institutional, politics and science would be completely transformed.” Adds Brown: “A more modest science would probably also be a more reliable science.”

“Scientists know about science, at least their own subdisciplines,” says Dan Sarewitz, “but they often know a lot less about technology and innovation and political context, so it’s not very surprising that they’re often wrong in their predictions.” Hilary Rose says that natural scientists are sometimes inclined to think of complex human social and political behavior in biological terms, which can introduce further error. A problem for ecologist Paul Ehrlich’s predictions in The Population Bomb, for example, was that “he did not know enough about demography,” she says. 

Monday, November 2, 2009

A Case to be Made

We’ve come to expect too much of God. We demand proof, evidence, reasons to believe. We assume that our prayers are being heard, our actions supervised, our world directed by a powerful know it all. We’ve got it all wrong.

At least, Karen Armstrong thinks so. The God she presents in her book “The Case for God” may not be recognizable to many present day believers, but she’s got an immense amount of historical and theological research to back it up. The main claim is this: God is not a being at all. God is a symbol, a gesture towards an ultimate reality that we cannot comprehend, let alone describe. Religion therefore is not about belief, it is a practical discipline that aims to bring us closer to this ultimate reality by ethical action and provide meaning to our lives. We would be woefully amiss to think we can get there by passive belief. Quite the contrary; religion is hard work.

So how exactly did Judaism, Christianity and Islam (the three “sister religions” as Armstrong calls them) end up with the notion of an all-knowing, all-powerful, personalized God? To answer this question it is necessary to trace the idea of God back to pre-modern religions. Beginning with pastoral and Neolithic societies and continuing through the medieval period, the idea of an “ultimate”, “absolute” or “divine” reality was recognized by a vast number of religions under many different names: God, Brahman, Nirvana, or Dao. Much like music – something with immense power that could not be touched or seen – this ultimate reality could inspire such wonder and humility that it reduced a person to silence. In fact, Armstrong tells the story of Brahmin priests who deliberately sought out such silence. They would hold a competition in which each priest would try to give a definition of the divine, whereas his opponents would listen and then respond with their own definition. The winner was the priest for whom no one had a reply – each was speechless, in awe. The ultimate reality was present in this silence, in the realization that words are utterly inept at capturing the true nature of the divine.

While ancient religions may have worshipped other gods (ancient Greece for example had many), they distinguished between gods who were essentially immortal humans, and a greater sense of an ultimate reality. Ancient Israelites took one of these gods and made it (Yahweh) into their chief symbol of the ultimate reality. Even at this point, God still remained a symbol. Sacred texts were not to be taken literally – they pointed to a lesson, a moral, an interpretation beyond their words. The Babylonian Talmud in the 6th century affirmed, “What is Torah? It is the interpretation of Torah.” But Armstrong argues that monotheism did bring us closer to the modern Western conception of God – the worship of a human expression of the divine, rather than the absolute reality that it was supposed to point to.

The shift happened in the 17th century. At this time in the West, science was revolutionizing people’s lives and fundamentally changing their worldview. The scientific method was increasingly seen as the only reliable means of attaining truth, and people began to expect evidence, certainty, and logical proof. This scientific standard spilled over into the realm of religion, and created pressure to find a “proof” for God. Descartes and Newton provided such proof – for them the only way of explaining the magnificent order in the universe was the presence of a divine intelligence. In arguing for the real existence of God, they for the first time provided the church with scientific support for doctrine. It was not long before some began to regard the Bible as the literal word of God (rather than metaphor or interpretation) and God morphed into a type of caring “father figure.”

The false expectation of literal proof for God meant faith was vulnerable to any scientific argument claiming to disprove God. The existential problem that Armstrong sees in so much of the modern religious world is a direct result of this vulnerability. If God hinges on proof and people don’t get the proof they want, atheism is inevitable, at least for some. Therefore when Dawkins claims that “evolution is God's redundancy notice, his pink slip” he is right – but he is trampling on ground that she doesn’t particularly care to defend.

After chronicling the history leading to our modern religious thinking, which she calls simplistic and even infantile at times, Armstrong urges a return to the pre-modern notion of God and a previous understanding of religion. One where nothing can be said of God because he is no thing, and where religion isn’t about answering questions using logic or reason, but rather about dealing with aspects of life for which there are no easy answers. She repeatedly emphasizes the practical nature of religion, saying that there is a need to practice faith, rather than believe in particular doctrine. She says, “religion isn’t about believing things. It’s ethical alchemy. It’s about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness.”

I admire Armstrong for her refreshingly non-combative account of religion. I find her arguments for religion as a call to ethical action encouraging (and very compatible with recent scientific work into the evolutionary development of religion, which I’ll get to later). She also provides a compelling account of the modern notion of the Judeo-Christian God, and its contrast to the ancient, inexpressible versions of God as ultimate reality. However, I suspect many people, especially in the United States, would not agree with the notion of God that she is talking (or not talking) about. Belief does seem to be a fundamentally important element to religion for some people, and many do want a personal God. In the end, Armstrong certainly makes a case – but for her own God. Whether or not she can convince others is a matter yet to be determined. 

Man vs. God, a pair of essays in the Wall Street Journal by Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins

Monday, October 19, 2009

Design Thinking

>> BCN Design Week Campaign

It’s extremely difficult to exist in Barcelona without noticing some element of design every few minutes – a striking poster, a network of walkways around a park, a coiled stack of churros. But as if that wasn’t enough, Barcelona has its own Design Week, and this year it happens to be at the end of October (what luck!). Among the many Design Week events is a conference on “design thinking.” I’ve run into this term before, usually equating it with “the thought process of a designer”. But what does that mean? Can we really find a “typical” way of thinking in the world of design? I decided this concept was worth a bit more research.

As it turns out, “design thinking” involves much more than the mind of the designer, and may actually challenge our very notion of design. As Tim Brown notes in his new book “Change by Design”, design thinking is an interactive, collaborative, nonlinear, human-centered approach to solving problems. It’s a move away from intellectual exercise to actual experience, as well as a change from design-by-designers to design-by-all. Or, more accurately, design-from-all. The notion that good design must be achieved by the expert who knows how to apply all the rules is replaced by the idea that good design comes from many people (the more the better) and rules are just barriers to innovation.

This all sounds very abstract, but the applications of design thinking are real, and pretty exciting. Rather than limiting design to making things more attractive or easier to use, design thinking encompasses a much broader range of approaches, ideas, and systems to make a better human experience. Brown gives an example of a Japanese bike company that wanted to try something new to jumpstart a lagging business. Instead of starting with the bike (adding specialized features, developing a slick new look) it considered the experience of bike riding. Many people have fond childhood memories of riding a bicycle. But the majority of them keep these memories stored away alongside the dusty, unused bikes in their basement. Why don't more adults ride bikes? A team of designers, marketers, engineers and social scientists worked together to answer this question. They identified several real concerns that kept adults away from bikes: anxiety about entering a professional bike store, confusion about the many bike accessories and parts, worries about safety on the road. Designing a better looking bike was not going to help – this team decided they needed to develop a new, simple bike riding experience. The end result was an innovative “coasting” bike that hid an automatic gear-shifting technology in a basic bike framework – no confusing handlebar controls or cables. Advertising campaigns included phrases like: “Chill. Explore. Dawdle. Lolygag. First one there’s a rotten egg.” The company even worked with local communities to post safe riding routes on the web. The coasting bike was hugely popular. This project was not just a bike re-design, it was design thinking applied to bike riding – and its success shows just how powerful this type of thinking can be.

The implications of design thinking could be immensely helpful as we go about solving other human-centered problems like health care, education, or security. Taking a step back from small-scale objects to community (or global) experiences may be the only way we can begin to move forward on these very critical issues.

More on design thinking after the conference...

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Don't eat egg salad from a vending machine.

Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food), who’s written a lot about nutrition science and the politics of food, now gives us something with a more home-style flavor: personal food rules from real people (mom’s advice, from real moms). He’s collected these bits of “food wisdom” from hundreds of submissions and will publish them as part of a book in January. Until then, here are a few of his favorites:

“Eat foods in inverse proportion to how much money its lobby spends to push it.”

“Never eat something that is pretending to be something else.”

“It’s not food if it comes to you through the window of a car.”

“If a bug won’t eat it, why would you?”

“If you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, then you are not hungry.”

“Avoid snack foods with the “oh” sound in their names: Doritos, Fritos, Cheetos, Tostitos, Hostess Ho Hos, etc.”

Monday, October 5, 2009

Liberals and Conservatives – A Moral Difference?

I tend to like debate. I see discourse as fundamentally human and critical to any functioning society. Which is why I am so disappointed with debates in which two sides seem to be talking right past each other – each trying desperately to engage with a brick wall. Aspects of the current debate on health care seem to exemplify this type of standstill, particularly surrounding issues that deal with the boundaries of human life. Jonathan Haidt addresses this problem in a recent TED interview, where he explains that liberals tend to take a more materialist and utilitarian view of life, seeing nothing inherently wrong with abortion, voluntary euthanasia, and stem cell research. Many conservatives, on the other hand, tend to place a higher value on the sacredness of life, and will see these practices as abhorrent and profoundly immoral. Because of the different emphasis placed on sanctity, liberals and conservatives each see the other side as making outrageous claims or just missing the point. But Haidt doesn’t stop at health care – he has an entire theory about the differences between liberal and conservative thinking, and relates it back to fundamental differences in moral sentiments.

(Side note: I acknowledge that I’m using broad terms that by no means accurately represent all conservatives or liberals. Haidt certainly does this as well. I do think, however, that at the risk of simplification, such generalizations can be useful in understanding some dimensions of political debate.)

Intrigued by anyone claiming to have a grand theory of morality, I read more about Haidt’s work in moral psychology. His “Moral Foundations Theory” is as follows: there are five psychological foundations (or intutions) that provide the basis of human morality. He labels them harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. These foundations are not rigid determinants of morality, but they do place constraints on the range of human virtues that can be easily learned and cultivated. The extent to which they are valued and taught can vary greatly between different cultures – likened to tastebuds, these moral foundations are universal, but each society can have different “tastes”. Therefore, some societies may place much greater emphasis on virtues that protect the group, like subordination, obedience, and duty.  In these societies the loyalty and authority intuitions are much stronger. Other societies may build up a morality based more heavily on protecting individuals; in these societies the care and fairness intuitions are stronger.

Haidt takes this five-dimensional view of morality and uses it to explain many political disagreements in the US, mapping political liberals and political conservatives onto his system. In a series of surveys he asked participants to answer a set of moral judgment questions and identify which concerns were the most relevant to their decision. After matching up their responses with their self-rated political orientation (from extremely conservative to extremely liberal), Haidt observed an emerging pattern. Liberals in general rated care and fairness as their two main concerns, while conservatives tended to see all five moral foundations as highly relevant. The more extreme the political orientation, the more acute this difference.  In essence, liberals have a narrower focus to their morality than that of conservatives – individual rights and social justice take up most of their moral domain. Conservatives place additional value on the moral foundations that maintain order, provide stability, and bind the community together, and so their morality is more expansive.

Thus, as Haidt goes on to say:
“Conservatives have many moral concerns that liberals simply do not recognize as moral concerns. When conservatives talk about virtues and policies based on the ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity foundations, liberals hear talk about theta waves. For this reason, liberals often find it hard to understand why so many of their fellow citizens do not rally around the cause of social justice, and why many Western nations have elected conservative governments in recent years.”

He uses this theory to explain the reaction of so many liberals after the 2004 election – shocked at how the majority of voters who regarded “moral values” as the most important issue ended up voting for George W. Bush. Seen through a liberal care and justice morality, a president who cuts taxes for the wealthy and has no regard for the environment is hardly “moral.” For conservatives, however, morality doesn’t stop there – it includes values like allegiance, authority, and tradition. So showing support for an ongoing war (solidarity and loyalty) or opposing same-sex marriage (authority of traditional institutions) may follow as moral positions. It is not hard to see why this leads to disagreement.

So, is there anything that can be done? Haidt argues that a better understanding of the five moral foundations and how they are valued in different societies (or different political ideologies) is crucial. Dismissing values like loyalty, authority, and purity as “backwards” or  “ignorant”, as many liberals do, fails to acknowledge the moral concerns that drive many people’s decisions. And it’s hard to persuade people when you don’t understand their motivations. Haidt says that “recognizing these latter foundations as moral (instead of amoral, or immoral, or just plain stupid) can open up a door in the wall that separates liberals and conservatives when they try to discuss moral issues.” I do hope so.

Further links:
Morals Authority, a more detailed article on Jonathan Haidt and his ideas on morality and current American politics.
What's the Frequency Lakoff?, an article that discusses the ideas of both Haidt and George Lakoff, who also tries to identify mental frameworks that can help explain political ideology. Lakoff  traces many differences between liberals and conservatives to their conceptual metaphors of government as family – either a “nurturant parent” or a “strict father”. The article is pretty critical of Lakoff's ideas about political language, and sees Haidt as more accurately addressing the problem.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

In Combination

Somehow this article in Seed Magazine manages to combine almost every single one of my interests – remarkable. I can’t wait for more from Seed's design column.  As I try to write my personal statement for grad school and form a coherent narrative about my interests and my life, it’s a nice reminder that philosophy, science and design can all be connected!

More links:
Design and the Elastic Mind, 2008 MoMA exhibit
Core Principles, an earlier Seed article about the interface of science and design

Monday, September 14, 2009

Less corners, more conversation.

> aerial view of l'Eixample district

It took me a little while to figure it out. I was walking much more than seemed necessary, considering the market was only a few blocks away. But for each small advance I made in the straight line, there was a diagonal detour to get to the crosswalk. I must have had quite a puzzled look on my face as I passed by several elderly men, chatting outside on picturesque little coffee tables with their café amb llet (coffee with milk). That was another thing. How was it possible that every street corner was brimming with chairs, people and conversations?

And then I realized the two were connected. Each block was cut off at the corners, a rectangular octagon rather than a perfect square. This effectively created a lively, open space out of a congested intersection, with four beautiful facades facing towards the middle.

As I later found out, the man responsible for this genius idea of urban planning is Ildefons Cerdà, who designed a massive new expansion of the city in 1859. The Eixample district (where I live!) is the main achievement of his grand Project for the Extension of Barcelona, which laid out his visions of a city based on the values of functionality, equality, mobility, and communication. He was concerned with the crowded living conditions of Barcelona’s old town–unsanitary and isolating–as well as the unequal access to city services by different social classes. His new grid would allow for easier and more efficient transportation (by foot, carriages, and later, railways), and the beveled street corners were intended to provide ample room for public spaces, greenery, and dialogue. His plan even extended to legal and financial regulations, which encouraged mixed-income housing and enabled poor workers to live together in apartments with wealthy families.

Ironically, in a city that loves curves, Cerdà’s grid turned out to be immensely successful. While much of present-day Barcelona is very different from his original plan (for example, many of the green spaces were filled in to accommodate more people and more parking), his urban designs are, literally, around every corner. And his efforts to encourage communication have been quite successful–as evidenced by all the chatter.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


> El Parque Güell, Barcelona

For the next 3 months, I'll be in Barcelona (!) I'm posting all my photos here. Today involved a lot of walking. And some very pretty mosaics.

And so the adventures begin...

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Science of Morality

This post is a continuation of my thoughts from a few weeks ago, on the Collins nomination and the scope of science. I’m finding myself coming back to this issue of what science can tell us about morality–and the sort of knowledge we can expect to get from science about human nature. To start, we know the type of knowledge we are likely not going to get from science: Alongside the electron and proton, scientists have discovered a new “moral” particle: the moron!* Instead, science will most likely describe our moral practices and possibly hint at how we came to acquire them. For example, a growing body of data shows that people with vastly different cultural practices will still show similarities in their moral judgments. Some scientists (I’ve mentioned Marc Hauser before) are attempting to give an evolutionary account of how we got this way; essentially trying to explain a moral universality through biology. With this and other scientific work we may begin to learn more about the evolution of pro-social or moral intuitions; perhaps we’ll discover that a sense of spirituality was evolutionarily beneficial, or we’ll uncover an underlying universal moral grammar (similar to Chomsky’s theory of language). Animal studies may reveal shared biological mechanisms that drive moral judgments. Brain damage studies may give us more information on how our moral capacities are affected by different parts of the brain and emotional processing. Surveys may tell us more about the types of principles we use to decide whether an act is morally permissible or not. In the past few years, in fact, there has been an explosion of empirical work in exactly these directions. From game theory to neurobiology, science can tell us a lot about morality.

What science cannot tell us is specifically what that morality ought to look like. Science is descriptive (it can tell us how we are) but not prescriptive (it can’t tell us how we should be). So just because our moral intuitions incline us to act a certain way, it doesn’t make it right to act this way. But I don’t think the discussion ends here. It doesn’t make it right, but can a greater knowledge of the science of morality have any implications for what shape that morality should take? I think so. A scientific theory of morality may give us some guidance as to what we, as humans in society, can achieve easily or even reasonably strive for. It could provide some information about to what sort of legal policies will be easier or harder to change, depending on whether they are in accord with our evolutionary intuitions or run counter to them. It may inform how we think about personal responsibility and how we carry out punishment. A notion of a shared morality may even ease some of the conflict between groups of people, who may be able to appreciate underlying similarities rather than differences (optimistic, I admit).

A scientific theory of morality could also help explain why our initial intuitions about particular moral scenarios are so strong, despite the fact that, upon reflection, the morality seems weak. An example from Peter Singer: most people would agree that walking past a child drowning in a pond and doing nothing, when you could easily reach in and save the child, is morally wrong. However, doing nothing to save a starving child in another country, when you could easily donate a few dollars, is arguably the moral equivalent. Yet intuitively these cases seem very different. The evolutionary reason for our making this distinction is not hard to imagine–we evolved in small, isolated groups and had no means of knowing about people hundreds of miles away, let alone helping them. But in our modern, global society, the distinction virtually disappears. If I reflect on these two cases and decide that, in fact, I am morally obligated to send aid to other countries, I will have proven my initial intuition wrong. In other words, moral intuitions might be explained through science, but there is no reason to think that they will necessarily point us in the right moral direction. The fact that we can revise our moral judgments means that we are able to use other human capacities, like reason and empathy, to guide our morality. A scientific understanding of morality cannot dictate how we ought to act, but it can tell us how we are likely to respond to certain moral arguments. Ultimately, it will take careful thinking and a concern for others to provide us with the reasons and motives to change our behavior.

*taken from an essay by Austin Dacey

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Injury Risks for the Female Athlete - Part 3

Ok... last section!

Interestingly, repetitive loading sports like distance running are not correlated with higher bone density, although the high impact nature of running would suggest otherwise [11]. This may be due to other factors specific to distance runners, such as the high prevalence of disordered eating or menstrual irregularities. Amenorrhea or other menstrual irregularities are correlated with low bone density, and the risk of a stress fracture in athletes with amenorrhea is almost four times greater than athletes without [23]. It has been hypothesized that estrogen can modify the threshold for damage accumulation of the bone, offering a clue into how menstrual function is linked to bone health. Estrogen may exert its effects on the metabolically active trabecular bone, the porous type of bone found in the spine and all joints. Furthermore, studies have indicated that even without any menstrual dysfunction, energy deficits and disordered eating are related to low BMD and a higher risk of stress fracture [11]. Runners, who commonly have high training volumes and restricted eating patterns, may be at a higher risk of energy deficit than other athletes. Running is also a sport that places immense value on leanness and low body weight, which has independently been found to be a predictor of BMD. Therefore, female athletes with amenorrhea who strive to reach or maintain a low body weight through restrictive eating are at a very high risk for developing stress fractures and osteoporosis later in life. It is crucial that this population in particular be aware of the dangerous and lifelong effects of low bone density.

Although sports like running and gymnastics that emphasize leanness and very low body weight can be dangerous, the majority of Americans are on the opposite end of the weight spectrum. Overweight or obese individuals, while at risk for many other life-threatening conditions like diabetes, heart disease and cancer, have relatively high bone mineral density. Increased body weight is associated with a decreased risk of any type of fracture [22], and has a positive effect on bone turnover and bone density [16]. While not completely understood, the protective effect of higher body weight is possibly due to the increase in skeletal loading (due to more weight on the bones) as well as higher levels of certain hormones like insulin. Weight loss has been found to decrease BMD, but studies suggest that exercise incorporated into a weight loss program may help prevent this bone density decrease. Weight loss through dieting has been repeatedly shown to cause rapid bone loss, but weight loss achieved through exercise alone showed none of these harmful effects. Therefore as obesity is confronted as a nation-wide problem and more people are attempting to lose weight, it is important to consider the impact of the method of weight loss on bone health.

Several nutritional factors are critical in maintaining proper bone health. Calcium is perhaps the most well known mineral to be associated with osteoporosis, and it is true that calcium plays a large role in the disease. If not consumed in the diet, calcium will be leached from the bones, where it forms an integral part of the bone matrix. Other nutritional factors that play a role in bone health are Vitamin D, which must be present for calcium to be absorbed, Vitamin K, phosphorous, potassium, and sodium.

Bone mass can be maintained during adulthood, but there are very few treatments that can reverse bone loss. Current treatments for osteoporosis include estrogen replacement therapy or biphosphonates, which block or slow down the breakdown of bone, or agents like fluoride or parathyroid hormone, which promote the formation of bone [1]. No treatment can “cure” osteoporosis, but some can maintain a sufficient bone mass for normal everyday function and activity.

Overall, women are prone to many of the same exercise-associated injuries as men, such as patellofemoral pain syndrome, iliotibial band friction syndrome, medial tibial stress syndrome, Achilles tendonitis, ACL tears, plantar fasciitis, and lower extremity stress fractures. Both men and women can benefit from the same preventative measures like adequate stretching, appropriate warm-up and cool-down, sport-specific strengthening and conditioning exercises. Treatment options are also generally applicable to both men and women, such as relative rest, icing, anti-inflammatories, and physical therapy [2]. However, to tailor the most effective training regimen for the female athlete it is important to consider sex-specific susceptibilities to injury. By exploring the biomechanical, neuromuscular and cellular mechanisms of injury risk, it is possible to develop and implement appropriate preventative and treatment options tailored specifically to the female population.

1. Bonaiuti D, Shea B, Iovine R, Negrini S, Robinson V, Kemper HC, Wells G, Tugwell P, Cranney A. Cochrane Review on exercise for preventing and treating osteoporosis in postmenopausal women. Eura Medicophys. 2004;40(3):199-209.

2. Cosca DD, Navazio F. Common problems in endurance athletes. Am Fam Physician. 2007;76(2):237-44.

11. Mudd LM, Fornetti W, Pivarnik JM. Bone mineral density in collegiate female athletes: comparisons among sports. J Athl Train. 2007;42(3):403-8.

16. Reid IR. Relationships among body mass, its components, and bone. Bone. 2002;31(5):547-55.
22. Villareal DT, Fontana L, Weiss EP, Racette SB, Steger-May K, Schechtman KB, Klein S, Holloszy JO. Bone mineral density response to caloric restriction-induced weight loss or exercise-induced weight loss: a randomized controlled trial. Arch Intern Med. 2006;166(22):2502-10.
23. Warden SJ, Creaby MW, Bryant AL, Crossley KM. Stress fracture risk factors in female football players and their clinical implications. Br J Sports Med. 2007 41: i38-i43.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Injury Risks for the Female Athlete - Part 2

The risk of injury may be related to an ability many women consider beneficial: increased flexibility. Studies have shown that women in general are significantly more flexible and show greater joint laxity (lack of stability of joints) than men [5]. However, joint laxity has been linked to increased incidence of injury. Lax joints are prone to excessive motion and strain, and may require increased muscle activity to provide support. However, the increase in muscle activation places more strain on the surrounding ligaments. For example, muscle activity of the gastrocnemius (the largest muscle of the calf of the leg) works together with the quadriceps and hamstrings to stabilize the knee joint. Gastrocnemius activity has been shown to be higher in women than in men [12]. Because the female knee joint tends to be more lax than the male knee joint, this additional muscle activity is necessary. However, the higher gastrocnemius activation leads to more strain on the ACL, even though it helps protect the knee [7].

More recent studies have investigated hormonal effects on connective tissue, especially collagen synthesis. Collagen protein is one of the major components of connective tissues like ligaments and tendons. In response to a load – such as an acute bout of exercise – the connective tissue will begin to synthesize collagen at higher rate to repair the tissue. However, estrogen has been reported to inhibit this response [10], and may explain why women have much lower rates of collagen synthesis at rest and after exercise than men do. The lower rate of tissue repair after a strenuous exercise may lead to decreased recovery and higher injury risk. Furthermore, tendon growth in response to exercise is much greater in men than in women [8]. This suggests that training adaptations are different between the sexes – while men respond to long-term training by increasing tendon size, women do not have any detectable tendon size change. Because of both increased collagen synthesis and tendon growth, men have greater collagen strength than women [8], which may independently reduce their likelihood of injury. In studies comparing the cartilage in the knee, men had collagen of greater thickness [4]. Therefore it may be that the sheer volume of collagen serves as an injury prevention factor, and female’s lower volume places them at higher risk.

Female athletes are also more likely to develop a stress fracture, a common sports-related overuse injury — some studies indicate that females are at 2-10 times the risk [23]. Bone health is of particular concern for females in general, as they are at risk for developing osteoporosis, a skeletal condition characterized by low bone mass and deterioration of bone tissue leading to increased risk of fracture. Approximately 30% of postmenopausal women have osteoporosis, with projections for the next decade being closer to 50% [1]. Most fractures occur in the hip, spine and wrist and are termed “fragility fractures” because they occur as a result of a fall from standing height or less, indicating extremely fragile bones. In contrast to the sudden, severe nature of these fragility fractures, stress fractures are a different type of injury that are characterized by tiny hairline cracks in the bone. The predominance of stress fractures in young female athletes, as well as the alarming number of fragility fractures due to weak bones in elderly women, has led to more investigation into the mechanisms of bone physiology in women, and its relation to exercise.

Each individual has a maximum bone mass that they are able to reach at skeletal maturity – or around 20 years old – referred to as peak bone mass. Bone mass is primarily determined (60-80%) by genetics [18]. Since almost all bone mass is attained during adolescence, it is critical to maximize bone growth during this time. Thus many intervention studies have targeted teenagers [3]. It has been suggested that the adolescent years offer a “window of opportunity” to build up bone mineral density (BMD), but environmental or lifestyle conditions can impede the process. Inadequate dietary calcium, oligomenorrhea or amenorrhea, low body weight, insufficient energy intake, and low estrogen levels have all been suggested as risk factors for low BMD and minimal bone growth. Weight-bearing exercise can enhance bone mineralization and increase bone mass in this age group, and therefore the role of physical activity in youth in ensuring bone health is crucial [18].

BMD is measured by a dual X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) bone density scan. A BMD lower than peak bone mass but not low enough to be classified as osteoporosis is called osteopenia. While osteoporosis and osteopenia have been typically defined based strictly on BMD, more information on the quality of bone may lead to changes how bone health is diagnosed. Bone protein content, structure, geometry, and mechanical properties may also play a role in fragility fracture risk [17]. Exercise has two distinct effects on bone. On the one hand bone responds to exercise as a tissue, able to withstand and adapt to increasing load. Muscle contractions place a strain on the bone as it provides internal support to work against gravity. The strain induces remodeling and increased bone strength to compensate for these new loads. The remodeling of bone is caused by the activity of two types of bone cells: osteoblasts, responsible for bone formation, and osteoclasts, responsible for bone breakdown. Together they work on the mineral matrix of the bone, increasing or decreasing bone mass depending on signals sent to the bone cells on the surface. Bone activity thus acts in a negative feedback loop — when the mechanical strain of the bone reaches a certain threshold, adaptation and remodeling occurs [17]. On the other hand, bone is also a material that can be weakened by repetitive stress and microdamage. Bone has repair mechanisms to meet these material failures, but when the bone cannot withstand the accumulation of strain, an overuse injury can occur. The magnitude of the load, how quickly it is introduced, and how often it is repeated are all factors that affect how much damage is accumulated. Without proper care, the continuation of this loading results in a progression of damage from a stress reaction to a stress fracture to a complete fracture. It is not surprising therefore that stress fractures are frequently seen in distance runners, gymnasts, or military recruits, whose bones undergo unusually extreme and repetitive loads [23].

Kept under a certain threshold and not in excess, exercise can be beneficial to building bone mass. The type of exercise is particularly important in regards to bone health. Studies often distinguish between “weight-bearing” and “non-weight-bearing” types of activities — weight-bearing includes any activity in which there is a load placed on the bone, such as walking or running. These activities are usually touted as being the most beneficial for building bone mass. However, weight-bearing activities can be further divided into impact and non-impact exercise. For example, jumping is both weight-bearing and high-impact, while using an elliptical machine is weight-bearing but non-impact. More recent studies have shown that high-impact exercises provide the most bone density benefit, although all types of exercise put a load on the muscle and therefore are beneficial to bone. Brief bouts of high impact loading, for example in activities like jumping or weightlifting, have been shown to build bone in childhood and adolescence [13]. Non-weight-bearing activities like swimming are associated with lower bone density in the spine, while high impact sports like volleyball, squash, soccer, or track events like hurdling have been shown to improve bone density. Therefore the type of mechanical loading, rather than simply the fact that the activity is “weight-bearing”, is important in determining bone strength and mass.

1. Bonaiuti D, Shea B, Iovine R, Negrini S, Robinson V, Kemper HC, Wells G, Tugwell P, Cranney A. Cochrane Review on exercise for preventing and treating osteoporosis in postmenopausal women. Eura Medicophys. 2004;40(3):199-209.

3. DeBar LL, Ritenbaugh C, Aickin M, Orwoll E, Elliot D, Dickerson J, Vuckovic N, Stevens VJ, Moe E, Irving LM. Youth: a health plan-based lifestyle intervention increases bone mineral density in adolescent girls. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2006; 160(12):1269-76.

4. Ding C, Cicuttini F, Scott F, Glisson M, Jones G. Sex differences in knee cartilage volume in adults: role of body and bone size, age and physical activity. Rheumatology (Oxford). 2003;42(11):1317-23.

5. Huston LJ, Wojtys EM. Neuromuscular performance characteristics in elite female athletes. Am J Sports Med. 1996;24(4):427-36.

7. Landry SC, McKean KA, Hubley-Kozey CL, Stanish WD, Deluzio KJ. Neuromuscular and lower limb biomechanical differences exist between male and female elite adolescent soccer players during an unanticipated side-cut maneuver. Am J Sports Med. 2007;35(11):1888-900.

8. Magnusson SP, Hansen M, Langberg H, Miller B, Haraldsson B, Westh EK, Koskinen S, Aagaard P, Kjaer M. The adaptability of tendon to loading differs in men and women. Int J Exp Pathol. 2007;88(4):237-40.

10. Miller BF, Hansen M, Olesen JL, Schwarz P, Babraj JA, Smith K, Rennie MJ, Kjaer M. Tendon collagen synthesis at rest and after exercise in women. J Appl Physiol. 2007; 102(2):541-6.

12. Myer GD, Ford KR, Hewett TE. The effects of gender on quadriceps muscle activation strategies during a maneuver that mimics a high ACL injury risk position. J Electromyogr Kinesiol. 2005;15(2):181-9.

13. Nichols JF, Rauh MJ, Barrack MT, Barkai HS. Bone mineral density in female high school athletes: interactions of menstrual function and type of mechanical loading. Bone. 2007;41(3):371-7.

17. Rittweger J. Can exercise prevent osteoporosis? J Musculoskelet Neuronal Interact. 2006;6(2):162-6.

18. Ruffing JA, Nieves JW, Zion M, Tendy S, Garrett P, Lindsay R, Cosman F. The influence of lifestyle, menstrual function and oral contraceptive use on bone mass and size in female military cadets. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2007;4:17.

23. Warden SJ, Creaby MW, Bryant AL, Crossley KM. Stress fracture risk factors in female football players and their clinical implications. Br J Sports Med. 2007 41: i38-i43.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Can't sleep? There's a mutation for that.

Forget caffeine, stress, or exercise–I have a new reason to blame for my odd sleeping habits: my genes! Or rather, a mutation in one of them. Here's a part of the recent NY Times article on this discovery:
The scientists were searching the samples for variations in several genes thought to be related to the sleep cycle. In what amounts to finding a needle in a haystack, they spotted two DNA samples with abnormal copies of a gene called DEC2, which is known to affect circadian rhythms. They then worked back to find out who provided the samples and found a mother and daughter who were naturally short sleepers. The women routinely function on about 6 hours of sleep a night; the average person needs 8 to 8.5 hours of sleep....
What distinguishes the two women in the study and other naturally short sleepers is that they go to bed at a normal time and wake up early without an alarm. The two women, one in her 70s and the other in her 40s, go to bed around 10 or 10:30 at night and wake up alert and energized around 4 or 4:30 in the morning, Dr. Fu said.
“When they wake up in morning, they feel they have slept enough,” Dr. Fu said. “They want to get up and do things. They arrange all their major tasks in their morning.”
Sound familiar? Does to me. I'll keep an eye out for more info on this DEC2, which is apparently interrupting my sleep.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Injury Risks for the Female Athlete - Part 1 (the most running-related post yet!)

I've been working on an article for the ACSM Health & Fitness Journal about injury risk to the female athlete. The first submission got sent back with a bunch of comments, so I figured as I'm revising I'll post it in a few installments. To the runners/active women out there, it'll hopefully be of some use.

Injury Risks for the Female Athlete

While there are more and more studies showing differences between men and women’s physiology and specifically their response to exercise, historically nearly all studies have been done on men. Thus, most of the data available to the public (in scientific journals, textbooks, and encyclopedias), while providing a great deal of insight into the physiology of exercise, disregards large portions of the population and is severely limited in scope. Because of women’s unique set of physiological responses and health concerns, it is important to consider women as a specific sub-population in the study of exercise and athletics. This article will focus on the topic of injury risk for women, reviewing the current literature on this subject to better understand the special concerns of the female athlete.

The increasing number of women participating in sports also means that more women are likely to sustain injury. While the timing, location, and nature of an injury may vary from person to person, there are specific injury risks for the female athlete. In particular, women are more likely than men to sustain musculoskeletal injuries during physical activity [10], as well as lower-extremity injuries in general [21]. By far the most documented injury in female athletes is the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear. Studies have reported the occurrence of ACL tears in women as up to nine times greater than in men [15]. In soccer and basketball in particular, women are three times more likely to tear their ACL than males [15]. Suggested reasons for greater injury incidence in women have ranged from biomechanics to coordination and fatigue to ligament and tendon properties. To further understand the sex differences associated with injuries and take steps to prevent them, it is crucial to examine these risk factors.

Biomechanical differences are perhaps the most noticeable factor that can predispose a woman to injury. Gait studies have identified particular differences in the up and down motion of the pelvis (or pelvic obliquity) and vertical motion of the whole body. Women generally have greater pelvic obliquity, which translates into less vertical motion [20]. This is a more biomechanically efficient gait, because less energy is expended lifting the body up and down with each stride. However, the greater pelvic motion also causes movement of the lower spine, which has been associated with acute and chronic back pain as well as disc damage. Thus there may be tradeoff between gait efficiency and injury risk – what serves as an advantage for women in conserving energy may promote the development of low back pain.

Studies on the biomechanics of landing from a jump have demonstrated several differences in men and women. Women land with their knees less flexed and turned slightly more inwards than men [14]. The inward turning of the knee is called knee valgus. Both knee flexion and valgus angle have been associated with knee injury and ligament damage. While landing with knees less flexed (and legs more extended) helps decelerate the body from a fall and can absorb more impact from the landing, it puts much more strain on the ACL. Even slight increases in valgus angle (as little as 2 degrees) can increase the force on the ACL by threefold and potentially cause injury. Women have an average of 4.5 degrees greater knee valgus than men during jump landings [14]. This biomechanical difference has important implications for females participating in sports that require jump landings, such as volleyball, basketball, and track and field. Awareness of women’s higher susceptibility to ligament injury may encourage injury prevention and emphasis on correct landing techniques.

Another explanation for increased injury risk in women is neuromuscular fatigue. There is a significant link between fatigue and injury, for example game-related injuries occur much more often at the beginning or end of a season [9]. Injury may occur due to vigorous pre-season training or the accumulated strain of many competitions at the peak of the season. Other studies have reported a higher incidence of knee injuries during the last 15-30 minutes of soccer or rugby matches, which corresponds to the time at which athletes are physically exhausted from the game. Neuromuscular control of the legs is important during maneuvers like landing from a jump or moving from side-to-side, and lack of control is likely to cause injury [9]. High intensity sports that incorporate quick movements and place a high load on the joints (like basketball, soccer, and football) require sustained effort that can fatigue an athlete. The accumulation of fatigue lowers the force-generating capacity of the muscle, affects motor control, and slows reaction times [6]. These deficiencies may change how an athlete performs landing and side-to-side movements, which may lead to injury. Several studies have indicated that women show a greater performance change with fatigue than men, such as a reduced capacity to control the knee and hip joints [6]. These abnormal movements may increase female athlete’s risk for injury, especially of the ACL.

6. Kernozek TW, Torry MR, Iwasaki M. Gender Differences in Lower Extremity Landing Mechanics Caused by Neuromuscular Fatigue. Am J Sports Med. 2008;36(3):554-65.

9. McLean SG, Felin RE, Suedekum N, Calabrese G, Passerallo A, Joy S. Impact of fatigue on gender-based high-risk landing strategies. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007;39(3):502-14.

10. Miller BF, Hansen M, Olesen JL, Schwarz P, Babraj JA, Smith K, Rennie MJ, Kjaer M. Tendon collagen synthesis at rest and after exercise in women. J Appl Physiol. 2007; 102(2):541-6.

14. Pappas E, Hagins M, Sheikhzadeh A, Nordin M, Rose D. Biomechanical differences between unilateral and bilateral landings from a jump: gender differences. Clin J Sport Med. 2007;17(4):263-8.

15. Prodromos CC, Han Y, Rogowski J, Joyce B, Shi K. A meta-analysis of the incidence of anterior cruciate ligament tears as a function of gender, sport, and a knee injury-reduction regimen. Arthroscopy. 2007;23(12):1320-1325.

20. Smith LK, Lelas JL, Kerrigan DC. Gender differences in pelvic motions and center of mass displacement during walking: stereotypes quantified. J Womens Health Gend Based Med. 2002;11(5):453-8.21.

21. van Gent RN, Siem D, van Middelkoop M, van Os AG, Bierma-Zeinstra SM, Koes BW. Incidence and determinants of lower extremity running injuries in long distance runners: a systematic review. Br J Sports Med. 2007;41(8):469-80.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Francis Collins, the New Atheists, and God

Obama’s recent nomination of Dr. Francis Collins as director of the National Institutes of Health has spurred a bit of apprehension in the scientific community. Not for any lack of credentials–he has quite a lot of those. He is a distinguished geneticist with a PhD in physical chemistry. He has been a major contributor to genetic research for the last twenty years. He discovered the genetic markers for several diseases. He led the effort to map the human genome.

He is also an evangelical Christian.

While there are notable scientists and intellectuals who advocate the compatibility of science and religion (Brown University’s Ken Miller, for example), others scoff at the idea. They see religion and science as fundamentally contradictory, faith as something akin to a bad habit or superstition that will disappear with enough scientific training. Richard Dawkins, a biologist and outspoken atheist, claims that “science is corrosive to religion”. He is among a growing number of vocal critics of religion called the New Atheists (Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens are some others), who regard religion as pervasive, obnoxious, and downright dangerous to society. So it comes as no surprise that they should have strong reservations about the Collins nomination.

Harris makes his doubts clear in this recent op-ed in the New York Times. While Harris has the habit of hastily dismissing any argument for religion–and in doing so often overlooking the complexities of the issue–he does raise several good points here. The first is about the scope of scientific inquiry. Collins has said “science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence.” This is a surprisingly decisive statement for a scientist who has been pushing the bounds of knowledge about the very thing that makes us human: our DNA. And many scientists would argue that while it may not be able to answer all our questions about human nature, science can surely inform the discussion. Marc Hauser, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard, would certainly think so. In the past few years he has been investigating the origins and evolution of moral intuitions, and is one of many scientists in the fields of evolutionary biology, cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience that have been trying to accomplish exactly what Collins seems to say they can’t.

The second and perhaps more troubling notion is Collins’ complete dismissal of a morality without God. He has said:

“After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house’ (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the moral law), with free will, and with an immortal soul…If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?”

The idea that morality becomes an illusion if it is the result of evolution is, in my view, just plain wrong. We have evolved faculties of perception, emotion, desires–none of which become less “real” when we discover that they were selected for over time. My instinctual fear in reaction to a loud noise may have evolved because it helped my ancestors escape predators, but that does not imply that I am not scared! In fact, it is precisely because of the reality of these evolved faculties that they have made a difference, and thus are still around today. Morality, if it has evolved, does not suddenly disappear.

Furthermore, the notion that God is the source of our “moral law” is troubling because it can quickly turn into (and historically has been used to support) a deeper implication: that without God we can have no morality, and by definition one must believe in God to be a good person. Frankly, this is absurd. You don’t need to look very far to find plenty of counterexamples–history provides an abundance. Empirical tests also provide support: when asked to make judgments about a series of hypothetical moral dilemmas, religious people and atheists tend to answer the same way. Religion just doesn’t seem to have any sort of monopoly on good behavior. While I doubt that Collins actually holds this extreme view, his statements could be used to support it.

So, do Collins’ beliefs matter? Given his history of scientific excellence and leadership, there is little reason to think that Collins will use his appointment to promote his beliefs, or that his religion will interfere with his ability to be an effective director. However, he is in a profoundly influential position as policymaker and spokesperson for science, and will undoubtedly face some decisions with real ethical implications. Some of the most heated bioethical debates are found particularly in his own field of biomedicine: stem cell research, genetic engineering and testing, human enhancement. He will very likely have to confront these issues in the first few years (if not months) of his appointment, and I don’t think I’m the only one uncomfortable with him letting his religious beliefs determine the morally correct course of action. It seems appropriate, then, for the scientific community to press him on how his religion will effect his decision making for the NIH.

Some further links:

A 2006 debate between Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins.
Godless Morality
, a paper by Marc Hauser and Peter Singer

Monday, July 27, 2009

Good Design is… Invisible

> Evolution of ClearviewHwy, a typeface redesign to make US road signs more legible

Design strives towards invisibility–to present, to inform, to be used but not noticed. In other words, if design works, you’re probably not focusing on it. Instead, you’re thinking about the content of a magazine, you’re opening a door, you’re navigating your way through a museum. Oddly enough, when it comes to design, it takes a lot of work to be invisible. And without an awareness of the value of that work, design is often treated as an afterthought. Which is why I was thrilled to find this article making the case for design in a country that largely fails to appreciate its value or relevance. As Allison Arieff puts it:

“In countries like Finland, Sweden, South Korea and the Netherlands, design is a no-brainer, reflected by the impeccable elegance, usability and readability of everything in those countries from currency to airport signage. These places support strong design policies and a deep-seated understanding and engagement of the value of design by their governments. More than the U.S. they seem willing to recognize the value of design both in terms of economic competitiveness and its benefit to quality of life.”

From highway signage to political campaign typography, there are numerous examples of how great design in the US can have real, concrete consequences. A few companies like Apple and Nike also seem to appreciate the value of great design, and are doing quite well for it. But bad design is pervasive, and it ranges from merely annoying or inconvenient to downright baffling (just look what Republicans did to the Democratic health care plan). The fact is, many people fail to see the connection between design and their daily lives, and it’ll take more than a few instances to promote a culture of design awareness. But there are some signs that the culture is shifting, encouraged by a rise of local design groups and national design initiatives. The Design Industry Group of Massachusetts is bringing together a number of design industries to promote design and economic development across the state. On the national scale, the National Design Policy Initiative is working to push through an agenda of design policy proposals, including the recognition of an American Design Council. As Arieff points out, plenty of other countries have Design Councils, and these bodies act in partnership with their government to implement design policies that work towards better communications, services, and experiences. Given my passion for posters (and voting), I was also pleased to come across Design for Democracy. It’s an organization that demonstrates “the value of design by doing valuable things,” like increasing civic participation through ballot design projects and Get Out the Vote poster campaigns.

I think we can become more design aware. And once design is recognized as a priority, I think we’ll be pleased with the result. Of course, we may not notice it. With any luck, it’ll be invisible.

Saturday, July 25, 2009


Particularly great stories have a tendency to make themselves relevant every now and again. My reflections over the past few days have brought me back to this one. I think it will always remain unsettling, yet powerfully illuminating.
"With my pitiful, earthly, Euclidian understanding, all I know is that there is suffering and that there are none guilty; that cause follows effect, simply and directly; that everything flows and finds its level -- but that's only Euclidian nonsense, I know that, and I can't consent to live by it! What comfort is it to me that there are none guilty and that cause follows effect simply and directly, and that I know it? -- I must have justice, or I will destroy myself. And not justice in some remote infinite time and space, but here on earth, and that I could see myself. I have believed in it. I want to see it, and if I am dead by then, let me rise again, for if it all happens without me, it will be too unfair. Surely I haven't suffered simply that I, my crimes and my sufferings, may manure the soil of the future harmony for somebody else. I want to see with my own eyes the hind lie down with the lion and the victim rise up and embrace his murderer. I want to be there when everyone suddenly understands what it has all been for. All the religions of the world are built on this longing, and I am a believer. But then there are the children, and what am I to do about them? That's a question I can't answer. For the hundredth time I repeat, there are numbers of questions, but I've only taken the children, because in their case what I mean is so unanswerably clear. Listen! If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me, please? It's beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony. Why should they, too, furnish material to enrich the soil for the harmony of the future? I understand solidarity in sin among men. I understand solidarity in retribution, too; but there can be no such solidarity with children. And if it is really true that they must share responsibility for all their fathers' crimes, such a truth is not of this world and is beyond my comprehension. Some jester will say, perhaps, that the child would have grown up and have sinned, but you see he didn't grow up, he was torn to pieces by the dogs, at eight years old. Oh, Alyosha, I am not blaspheming! I understand, of course, what an upheaval of the universe it will be when everything in heaven and earth blends in one hymn of praise and everything that lives and has lived cries aloud: 'Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed.' When the mother embraces the fiend who threw her child to the dogs, and all three cry aloud with tears, 'Thou art just, O Lord!' then, of course, the crown of knowledge will be reached and all will be made clear. But what pulls me up here is that I can't accept that harmony. And while I am on earth, I make haste to take my own measures. You see, Alyosha, perhaps it really may happen that if I live to that moment, or rise again to see it, I, too, perhaps, may cry aloud with the rest, looking at the mother embracing the child's torturer, 'Thou art just, O Lord!' but I don't want to cry aloud then. While there is still time, I hasten to protect myself, and so I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It's not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to 'dear, kind God'! It's not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? Is it possible? By their being avenged? But what do I care for avenging them? What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don't want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don't want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother's heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don't want harmony. From love for humanity I don't want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it's beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It's not God that I don't accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket."

-Rebellion (
Part II Book V Chapter 4) The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky