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Jun. 17 2010 — 9:37 pm | 272 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Psychology and torture: A formal complaint filed against James Mitchell

Torture after 9/11 is a dark stain on the profession of psychology. On June 16, 2010 Dr. Jim L. H. Cox, a psychologist in Texas, filed a cleansing formal ethics complaint against James Elmer Mitchell.

While the story of Mitchell has previously been well told in Vanity Fair, Salon, and Democracy Now (among others) yesterday’s complaint still makes for a chilling read:

Formal Complaint Filed with the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists against Dr. James Mitchell

Jun. 15 2010 — 10:13 pm | 182 views | 1 recommendations | 14 comments

A future of renewable energy? I’m not so sure

A future built on renewable energy sources is the only technological future that makes any sense at all. Forget Apple vs. Android, forget the “Singularity;” if we are to have any digital future at all the electrons animating our screens can no longer come from dead and rotting dinosaurs.

The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now.  Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash America’s innovation and seize control of our own destiny.


But the one approach I will not accept is inaction. The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is somehow too big and too difficult to meet. You know, the same thing was said about our ability to produce enough planes and tanks in World War II. The same thing was said about our ability to harness the science and technology to land a man safely on the surface of the moon. And yet, time and again, we have refused to settle for the paltry limits of conventional wisdom. Instead, what has defined us as a nation since our founding is the capacity to shape our destiny -– our determination to fight for the America we want for our children. Even if we’re unsure exactly what that looks like. Even if we don’t yet know precisely how we’re going to get there. We know we’ll get there.

via Remarks by the President to the Nation on the BP Oil Spill | The White House.

I’m not so sure.

First, “clean” is not the same as renewable. “Clean” energy in our President’s vision licenses all the disasters that await technologically-enhanced coal and nuclear. His vision needs to be warmed by the sun and cleaned by the wind.

Second, while this really is as dire as WWII and as inspiring as a man on the moon, inaction is the strategy of the opposition.

The sad reality is that the future will be a harsh judge of both cloudy vision and partisan politics.

Jun. 11 2010 — 3:44 pm | 444 views | 1 recommendations | 6 comments

Here’s how to wash Gulf oil off your hands

potencial of renewables

Image via Wikipedia

In an article bemoaning the consistently shallow media coverage of the deep problems revealed by the crisis in the Gulf, Bill McKibben wrote,

The questions that the Gulf spill raises, in other words, go well beyond: How big an idiot is Tony Hayward? What will happen to the tourist economy of the Gulf? How cool is James Cameron’s minisub? The questions are more like: How out of balance with the natural world are we? And what would it require to get back in balance?

You’d need to interview not just oil execs and colorful shrimpers, but nature writers, solar pioneers and psychologists.

via Bill McKibben: Missing the Real Drama of the Deepwater Horizon Blowout.

Well, I’m a psychologist and since I’m here on T/S as a “recovering source” no interview is necessary. I can tell you directly what I think.

Simply put, I’ve got Gulf oil on my hands and so do you. It drips from our fingers while we peck at our keyboards, drive our cars, or cool ourselves with frigid A/C air. Like a murder victim’s blood, it leaves a guilty trail on everything we touch.

Also, our hands were oil-soaked well before the Gulf’s environmental, economic, and social disaster became impossible to ignore:

As Bill McKibben wrote in a recent article, “Dirty as the water is off the Mississippi Delta, that’s barely the tip of the damage from fossil fuel. If that oil had traveled down a pipeline to a refinery and then into the fuel tank of a car, it would have wrecked the planet just as powerfully.”

via U.S. crude awakening sets the stage for international climate deal | TckTckTck.

You don’t have to agree that the damage would have been equal to know that there would have been some significant damage “(i)f that oil had traveled down a pipeline to a refinery and then into the fuel tank of a car.”  All you have to do is take climate science more seriously than politics. The fact is that everything from our food to our information to how we get where we’re going floats on a poisonous ocean of oil and gas.

The only question is how do we wash it off. And the answer is that the only way to wash the oil from our hands is with as rapid as is possible a transition to a way of life built from renewable energy. This point was reinforced when I contacted Kelly Rigg, Executive Director of the Global Campaign for Climate Action, during the Bonn Climate Treaty talks. She said:

“The only sustainable solution to prevent more oil-spills is to get a good climate treaty and speed up the transition to renewables.”

But unless people feel directly responsible for something it is very hard to make changes and, making it worse, it is even more difficult to feel responsible for consequences that are far away—see, psychology does have a place here. Casual-tokers getting high at a weekend BBQ don’t feel responsible for drug gang shootings in northern Mexico. Nor do lap-dance aficionados shoulder the blame when some pimp beats-up an under-age prostitute. Nor are we able to feel responsible for our energy future, should it result either in catastrophic climate change or a sustainable reliance on renewables. Our minds are just not built that way. The further away a consequence is in space or time, the easier it is to disclaim responsibility.

And when events like the Gulf shove feelings of responsibility into awareness we have lots of ways to get rid of the feelings. We can become outraged and angry: lets find some ass to kick! Or maybe just criticize a President for not being angry enough. Or we can boycott or protest or volunteer in the hope that if we do something—anything—we’ll feel better. Who cares if it moves us closer to a renewable energy future, lets find a villain and get really, really angry or, maybe, wash a few pelicans and switch from bottled to tap water.

This path of immediate emotional discharge that helps avoid uncomfortable personal responsibility can take some funny turns. Consider the following, a move that reminds me of the right-wing trying to rebrand french fries as “Freedom Fries” in response to France’s criticism of the Iraq invasion:

In a protest over the Gulf oil spill, a minor league baseball team is changing the name of batting practice so the players will no longer have to utter the letters “BP.”

The Brevard County Manatees of the Florida State League say they will now take “hitting rehearsal.”

via The Associated Press: Baseball team renames ‘BP’ to protest oil spill.

And then

The River City Rascals (independent; Frontier League) are also changing the name of batting practice to hitting practice.

via Hitting Rehearsal – Vic Christopher – ValleyCats – timesunion.com – Albany NY.

Also discharging rage directed at BP is a protest movement with a rallying cry of seizing BP’s assets:

From coast to coast, people are stepping up to the plate and organizing demonstrations for the Seize BP Week of Action in their cities and towns. We will take to the streets from Thursday, June 3 to Thursday, June 10 in cities across the country to demand: Seize BP

via SeizeBP.org.

In outlining a smart strategy for a boycott my True/Slant colleague Jeff McMahon pointed out the problem is not just with BP:

… is it better if they drive further to fill up at Exxon, which survived the last major oil boycott in the early 1990s to set new profit records in the 21st Century? The effort to boycott BP, growing for a few weeks now, is undermined by the lack of a clean competitor and by the extent to which petroleum is woven into our lives.

via Five ways to boycott BP without helping Exxon – Jeff McMahon – Scorched Earth – True/Slant.

Another True/Slant colleage, Michele Catalano, points to some dangerous unintended consequences of boycotting BP that include hurting small business people who just happen to sell BP rather than some other kind of gas:

Ok then. Who’s going to pay for the cleanup now? Who is going to pay out money to all the people who lost homes, jobs and businesses? Who is going to be held financially responsible for all of this is if there is no BP? I don’t think a few bake sales is going to take care of all that.

Be careful what you death-wish for. And think your protests through.  A boycott may be a symbolic act meant to represent your anger, but the wrong people are going to feel the brunt force of it.

via Who will BP protests hurt the most? – Michele Catalano – Sound System – True/Slant.

If you boycott this oil company that one will still feed our petro-hunger. It really is just a roll of the dice choosing which company will bear the burden of the unintended spills and disasters inevitable with the complex technologies that run petro-world. Oil companies are like hard drives in that there are only two kinds: those that have failed and those that will fail.

Even reducing consumption as much as possible, the ultimate boycott taken to its ultimate extreme, will only slow not stop the rush to “spill, baby, spill.” The only answer is renewables: slow to implement, infrastructure and life changing renewable energy sources.

But we won’t be able to wash the oil from our hands with renewable energy unless we all shoulder our responsibility for what is taking place. We don’t need an angry President who kicks ass, that just makes us feel better momentarily because we don’t then have to feel responsible. But we are. It’s just that it is psychologically quite difficult to hold on to the idea that we are all personally responsible for everything we see down in the Gulf. We’re responsible for the spill even if we are not psychologically built to assume that responsibility. But if you look, you’ll see both the oil dripping from your hands and the reality that renewable energy is the only way to get them clean again.

Jun. 7 2010 — 1:33 pm | 409 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

Pseudo-science makes sloppy journalism


Image via Wikipedia

Ross Douthat should be ashamed of himself.

His May 30 editorial titled “The Birds and the Bees (via the Fertility Clinic)” violated the trust readers should be able to have in an Op-Ed writer.

He started OK: reproductive technologies are indeed creating families and new kinds of families.  It is also true that there is a

freewheeling fertility marketplace whose impact on American life keeps increasing

via Op-Ed Columnist – The Birds and the Bees (via the Fertility Clinic) – NYTimes.com.

Gamete donation (sperm and egg) results in lots of wanted children who otherwise would not have been born. The resulting “marketplace” in donor sperm and donor egg does challenge many basic beliefs about individual freedom, collective responsibility, and the meaning of being human.

And it is especially true, as Douthat also writes, that we need to understand the “inner lives” of children born from using these technologies.

But such understanding can not result from applying the “lessons” of pseudo-science to these complex questions, and that is precisely what Douthat did. One should expect a certain amount of scientific literacy even on an editorial page. Relying on advocacy group pseudo-science is beneath what should be minimally expected from someone in Douthat’s position.

As my colleague and friend Jack Drescher wrote in a letter published in today’s NY Times,

Ross Douthat cites the Institute for American Values’ recently released “study” of children conceived by reproductive technology. But advocacy-group reports like this one are rarely subject to blind peer review, a minimum requirement for scientific objectivity.

Without critical feedback from scientific peers, such reports usually support the pre-existing prejudices and assumptions of the authors or the organization financing the work. These “studies” offer little scientific understanding of the complex issues involved.

Jack Drescher
New York, May 31, 2010
The writer, a psychiatrist, is a past president of the New York County district branch of the American Psychiatric Association.

via Letters – A Family, No Matter How It’s Created – NYTimes.com.

I don’t want to get too “wonky” here so bear with me. When you look at the actual methods and the numbers in this so-called “study” they do not license the claims made in the report, claims Douthat treats as settled scientific fact. In fact when you look closely the report he relied on would not get through an introductory methods class let alone actual scientific peer review.

Let’s just look at one data point used to support the first of the 15 “Major Findings” they make in the “Executive Summary” section of their report. They claim they have found that

Young adults conceived through sperm donation (or “donor offspring”) experience profound struggles with their origins and identities.

If true, that would be important. Such a real finding would influence educational, counseling, and therapeutic interventions. But it is not real, it is conservative advocacy, not research. After they make their pronouncement, the report offers some results from the Internet survey they conducted. This is supposed to provide empirical support. It does not. For example (and this is just one of many data points ill-equipped to support the claims they make), the second sentance in support of this “Major Finding” states,

Forty-five percent agree, “The circumstances of my conception bother me.”

But does this support their conclusion. No. First problem is they don’t report numbers for children born from traditional methods of conception; I’m pretty sure that children conceived while their parents listened to Meatloaf’s Bat out of Hell would probably also be significantly bothered.

But it gets worse the deeper you look, and more and more pseudo-.  In this survery item people are being asked to choose whether they “Strongly agree,” “Somewhat agree,” “Strongly disagree,” “Somewhat disagree,” or “Don’t know”  with the statement “The circumstances of my conception bother me.” When you look at the numbers, guess what; 50% disagree and 30% disagree strongly (the most frequent response). Hardly supporting the supposed finding that “Young adults conceived through sperm donation (or “donor offspring”) experience profound struggles with their origins and identities.” In fact, the numbers seem to suggest that more kids than not are not bothered by the circumstances of their conception.

And it gets “worser” (and, I guess, I get wonkier). When children born to lesbian mothers are considered the number drops from 45% to 33%. Why is this significant? Well, it suggests in part that at least 12% of those who are bothered by the facts of their conception may simply be expressing empathy for the struggles their parents had to endure to have them. Or that lesbians make better Moms. Or that two Moms are better than one. But no alternate hypotheses are considered anywhere in this report, just a bunch of  claims that have no empirical support but can be dressed up to look science-y.

I know science has its problems. Peer review is not perfect, far from it. But scientific procedures make it much harder just to make things up like this report did. The inner lives of children born via reproductive technologies is far too important a topic to leave to the pseudo-science of advocacy groups, and to the journalists like Douthat who should know better than rely on pseudo-knoweldge.

Of course, Douthat gets to have his opinions, in fact his opinions are why he’s writing. But he doesn’t have the right to abuse his platform by presenting agenda-driven advocacy as though it was objective science.

Drescher told me this morning “that this kind of ’study’ is typically intended to confuse a larger public that does not understand the difference between a scientific study and a politically-motivated one.” I agree. Clearing that confusion is a journalist’s responsibility and perpetuating that confusion is the shame I think Douthat should feel with which I started this piece.

Jun. 1 2010 — 9:53 pm | 1,093 views | 2 recommendations | 3 comments

4 reasons for good-bye: Keep ’social networking’ from becoming ’social notworking’

On the corner of 12th Street, before the closing

With Memorial Day behind, June ahead, and another academic year wrapping up it’s time for good-byes.

Good-bye is a June ritual on 12th Street where I have my office; psychiatric residents are finishing their training and moving on. They say good-bye to patients, colleagues, and teachers—including me—and go forward to jobs, fellowships, practice.

But this year everything is different.

All the usual good-bye rituals have been blown to bits by the fact that our hospital, St. Vincent’s, has died. After 160 years of service and months of rumors and hope the plug was pulled on April 30th. No more departmental Grand Rounds giving graduates a reason for a visit; no more patients transferred to new residents taught by the same teachers; no more classmates anointed with a faculty appointment. This year it is going to be a naked good-bye, unadorned by the traditional rituals of ending that always have helped buffer the experience.

I was then really intrigued when a graduating psychiatry resident I’ve taught for several years told me there has been more “see you on Facebook!” and “I’ll follow you on Twitter” among her colleagues than she would have expected.

The fact that social networks are transforming the often messy difficult process of good-bye is no surprise. But I’m not so sure this is such a good thing. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s not: not because there’s anything wrong with staying in touch with old friends and former colleagues online—actually, that can be pretty great—but because processes of saying good-bye can be so psychologically rich and valuable it would be a real shame to lose the experience just because we now have a technologically-mediated easy way out.

I know, I know; no one likes to say good-bye: there are too many feelings and no convenient place to put them all. Who wants to participate in something that makes everyone uncomfortable? It is so easy to fall out of synch with those around you and end up feeling alone (and maybe kind of stupid). After all, when saying good-bye nostalgic feelings of loss often mingle with relief that this or that damned thing is finally over and who wants the vulnerability of feeling loss when the other may be feeling relief? That sounds especially unpleasant.

It’s much easier to cut-and-run and avoid the whole thing, or maybe pretend the relationship was never that important, or that it really isn’t ending. Such avoidance and denial are psychologically traditional methods we all learn for how not to say good-bye. And now social networks also make it very easy not to say good-bye. They can help you feel there is no real need to do so because you are still going to be “friends” who can stay in constant online contact.

But neither avoidance nor denial will improve your life and the emotional alchemy of social networks really can’t turn a fondly remembered old friend into the companion or co-worker they once were. Our need for the presence of each other—to see and be seen—is just too strong. In fact, such mutual recognition is part of what makes us human.

Saying good-bye to each other at transitions, and receiving the good-bye of others, can actually help us get the most out of where we’ve been and get ready for where we’re going. But when social networking is used to avoid the human process of saying good-bye it becomes “social notworking,” i.e. asking a social network to fulfill a social need that can only be fulfilled through traditional, fleshy, and mutual interactions.

What I want to try and do is make it a little harder to take the easy way out of “social notworking” by highlighting the value of good-bye. So, here are 4 reasons why saying good-bye, as difficult as it may feel in the moment, is in the best interest of building a good life:

1. Saying good-bye is part of the relationship
A really good way to think about relationships is to see them like stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end—not terribly original, I know, but very useful. Good-bye is just part of the relationship. Not only that, not only is saying good-bye part of the relationship, the process can often be the best part. The end is when you find out what happened and who would want to miss out on that. For example, if you spent 6 years watching Lost would you even consider missing the last episode and decide instead just to read about the conclusion online? Of course not. Same thing with classmates, teachers, administrators, co-workers, etc. The only way to experience the end of the stories you’ve been living is to experience them, to engage fully the process of saying good-bye.

2. Saying good-bye is a process not a moment
Have you ever felt that “I should say something but I don’t know what to say” moment of anxiety when saying good-bye? Or any other uncomfortable moment? I’m sure the answer is yes.  In fact, uncomfortable moments are intrinsic to the process. But, and this is the important part, they are not the entire process. Saying good-bye takes place over lots of moments, not just the uncomfortable anxious ones. Keeping in mind that you are engaged in a meaningful process—with lots of potential gratification—can help when things feel uncomfortable; try to remember that sometimes the good stuff doesn’t come until much later. While the uncomfortable moments are in the present tense, the gratifications of the process are written in both the present and the future and sometimes you just have to wait for the good things to come around.

3. Saying good-bye is full of unexpected feelings
You never know what you are going to feel when you say good-bye. This is a good thing; it keeps life interesting.  When you leave, or are left, the experience touches all the other times you went through a good-bye: from the most routine to the most traumatic, from all those mornings on the way to school when you said good-bye to Mom or Dad to your broken hearts and mournful deaths. Saying good-bye is a chance to re-connect with the person you were and the feelings you had all across your life. It’s life giving you a chance to feel it all over again. Good-bye let’s you reconnect with all the “selves” you have been. In other words, saying good-bye is another way to say hello to your own personal history.

4. Saying good-bye is what starts the next new thing
Life and memory are not linear.  They overlap. Imagine a library where the start of every book was the ending of some other book. If you don’t write the ending of an experience you are also degrading the start of the new experience. Saying good-bye includes both who you were when the relationship that is ending started and who you are becoming in the next thing you are doing. One can think of good-bye, when the process is fully engaged, as a bridge anchored in the next new thing with all those inevitable uncomfortable moments the toll you have to pay. In other words (again), saying good-bye is just another way to say hello to your own personal future.

And, just to make things explicit, this post is also a moment in my process of saying good-bye to St. Vincents’s. I’ve met some truly amazing people (patients, students, teachers, and colleagues) who have helped make me who I am. The experiences—good and bad— leave me with a sweetwater reservoir of feelings and experiences I will drink from for a long, long time.

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    About Me

    I'm a psychologist and psychoanalyst with a full-time therapy practice. Over the last 20 years I've noticed how the NEXT BIG THING, or the one after that, sometimes leaves people feeling more miserable than before; life in the "future" doesn't always feel very good by the time it gets here. But sometimes it does. We just don't know how the future will feel.

    I have been writing and lecturing to professional audiences about how our emerging technologies can change how we feel about and relate to each other, ourselves, and our bodies. Now it's time to go public.

    In case you're wondering, my clinical office is like Vegas; what's said there, stays there. How could it be otherwise? So rather than writing about individual patients, I'll be writing in general about the perils and promise we all confront as we try to build a good life in our increasingly over-simulated world. While no one knows what's coming next nor how it will make life feel, one thing I do know is that for us to thrive as individuals and a society, for us to hold on to our humanity as we become post-human, we're going to have to do it together.

    See my profile »
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    Contributor Since: April 2009
    Location:New York City

    What I'm Up To

    Ever been in online therapy or e-counseling?

    Even just therapy by phone or SKYPE?

    Would you be willing to talk with me about your experience?  I want stories from the “consumer” point-of view for a professional workshop about the ethics of providing care at a distance. No information will be used without your permission.

    Click the <EMAIL ME TIPS> link above to contact me if interested.