CRF Blog

Runs in the Family

by Bill Hayes

In Runs in the Family for the New Yorker, Siddhartha Mukherjee reports on new findings about schizophrenia.

That schizophrenia runs in families was evident even to the person who first defined the illness. In 1911, Eugen Bleuler, a Swiss-German psychiatrist, published a book describing a series of cases of men and women, typically in their teens and early twenties, whose thoughts had begun to tangle and degenerate. “In this malady, the associations lose their continuity,” Bleuler wrote. “The threads between thoughts are torn.” Psychotic visions and paranoid thoughts flashed out of nowhere. Some patients “feel themselves weak, their spirit escapes, they will never survive the day. There is a growth in their heads. Their bones have turned liquid; their hearts have turned into stone…. The patient’s wife must not use eggs in cooking, otherwise he will grow feathers.” His patients were often trapped between flickering emotional states, unable to choose between two radically opposed visions, Bleuler noted. “You devil, you angel, you devil, you angel,” one woman said to her lover.

Bleuler tried to find an explanation for the mysterious symptoms, but there was only one seemingly common element: schizophrenic patients tended to have first-degree relatives who were also schizophrenic. He had no tools to understand the mechanism behind the heredity. The word “gene” had been coined just two years before Bleuler published his book. The notion that a mental illness could be carried across generations by unitary, indivisible factors — corpuscles of information threading through families — would have struck most of Bleuler’s contemporaries as mad in its own right. Still, Bleuler was astonishingly prescient about the complex nature of inheritance. “If one is looking for ‘the heredity,’ one can nearly always find it,” he wrote. “We will not be able to do anything about it even later on, unless the single factor of heredity can be broken down into many hereditary factors along specific lines.”

In the nineteen-sixties, Bleuler’s hunch was confirmed by twin studies. Psychiatrists determined that if an identical twin was schizophrenic the other twin had a forty-to-fifty-per-cent chance of developing the disease — fiftyfold higher than the risk in the general population. By the early two-thousands, large population studies had revealed a strong genetic link between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Some of the families described in these studies had a crisscrossing history that was achingly similar to my own: one sibling affected with schizophrenia, another with bipolar disorder, and a nephew or niece also schizophrenic.

“The twin studies clarified two important features of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder,” Jeffrey Lieberman, a Columbia University psychiatrist who has studied schizophrenia for thirty years, told me. “First, it was clear that there wasn’t a single gene, but dozens of genes involved in causing schizophrenia — each perhaps exerting a small effect. And, second, even if you inherited the entire set of risk genes, as identical twins do, you still might not develop the disease. Obviously, there were other triggers or instigators involved in releasing the illness.” But while these studies established that schizophrenia had a genetic basis, they revealed nothing about the nature of the genes involved. “For doctors, patients, and families in the schizophrenia community, genetics became the ultimate mystery,” Lieberman said. “If we knew the identity of the genes, we would find the causes, and if we found the causes we could find medicines.”

In 2006, an international consortium of psychiatric geneticists launched a genomic survey of schizophrenia, hoping to advance the search for the implicated genes. With 3,322 patients and 3,587 controls, this was one of the largest and most rigorous such studies in the history of the disease. Researchers scanned through the nearly seven thousand genomes to find variations in gene segments that were correlated with schizophrenia. This strategy, termed an “association study,” does not pinpoint a gene, but it provides a general location where a disease-linked gene may be found, like a treasure map with a large “X” scratched in a corner of the genome.

The results, reported in 2009 (and updated in 2014) in the journal Nature, were a dispiriting validation of Bleuler’s hunch about multiple hereditary factors: more than a hundred independent segments of the genome were associated with schizophrenia. “There are lots of small, common genetic effects, scattered across the genome,” one researcher said. “There are many different biological processes involved.” Some of the putative culprits made biological sense — if dimly. There were genes linked to transmitters that relay messages between neurons, and genes for molecular channels that move electrical signals up and down nerve cells. But by far the most surprising association involved a gene segment on chromosome 6. This region of the genome — termed the MHC region — carries hundreds of genes typically associated with the immune system. [more]

Getting serious about overfishing

by David De La Torre

In Getting serious about overfishing, The Economist reports on this important problem.

In 2013, the most recent year for which full data are available, 32% of the world’s fish stocks were being exploited beyond their sustainable limit, up from 10% in the 1970s, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. The amount of fish caught at sea has been pretty much flat for the past three decades, but the share of the world’s fish stocks that are being plundered unsustainably has continued to increase ….

Overfishing is not the only problem. Pollution, notably fertiliser run-off, damages a lot of marine ecosystems. There are estimated to be 5trn bits of plastic in the ocean, with over 8m tonnes of the stuff added every year. By the middle of the century the sea could contain more plastic than fish by weight, according to research done for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Not all the harm comes directly from the land; some comes via the sky. Carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere has so far raised the world’s average sea-surface temperature by about 0.7ºC. This has effects at depth; when seas warm up they become more stratified, making it harder for nutrients in the waters below to rise to where they are most needed by fish and plankton. Given this, it might seem fortunate that the ocean absorbs a fair bit of that carbon dioxide, thus reducing the warming. But doing so changes the ocean’s chemistry, making it more acidic. This is a particular problem for creatures with calcium-carbonate shells — which includes not just crabs and oysters but quite a lot of larvae, too. Acidification makes carbonates more likely to dissolve. [more]

For free classroom lessons related to biodiversity, see Are We Headed for a “Sixth Mass Extinction”? and also “Rachel Carson and the Modern Environmental Movement,” which is currently only in PDF and can be obtained from our Bill of Rights in Action Archive. You will have to register (if you haven’t already and it is free).

Why feelings are the unstoppable force

by Bill Hayes

In Why feelings are the unstoppable force for the Guardian, John Banville reviews The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures by Antonio Damasio.

From Plato onwards, western philosophy has favoured mind over “mere” body, so that by the time we get to Descartes, the human has become hardly more than a brain stuck atop a stick, like a child’s hobbyhorse. This is the conception of humanness that Damasio wishes to dismantle. For him, as for Nietzsche, what the body feels is every bit as significant as what the mind thinks, and further, both functions are inextricably intertwined. Indeed, from the very start, among the earliest primitive life forms, affect – “the world of emotions and feelings” – was the force that drove unstoppably towards the flowering of human consciousness and the creation of cultures, Damasio insists. [more]

Drug Deaths in America Are Rising Faster Than Ever

by Bill Hayes

Writing in The Upshot section of the New York Times, Josh Katz reports that Drug Deaths in America Are Rising Faster Than Ever.

AKRON, Ohio — Drug overdose deaths in 2016 most likely exceeded 59,000, the largest annual jump ever recorded in the United States, according to preliminary data compiled by The New York Times.

The death count is the latest consequence of an escalating public health crisis: opioid addiction, now made more deadly by an influx of illicitly manufactured fentanyl and similar drugs. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50. [more]

The Radical Humaneness of Norway’s Halden Prison

by Bill Hayes

In The Radical Humaneness of Norway’s Halden Prison for New York Times Magazine, Jessica Benko contrasts Norway’s prison system to that of the U.S.

To anyone familiar with the American correctional system, Halden seems alien. Its modern, cheerful and well–appointed facilities, the relative freedom of movement it offers, its quiet and peaceful atmosphere — these qualities are so out of sync with the forms of imprisonment found in the United States that you could be forgiven for doubting whether Halden is a prison at all. It is, of course, but it is also something more: the physical expression of an entire national philosophy about the relative merits of punishment and forgiveness.

The treatment of inmates at Halden is wholly focused on helping to prepare them for a life after they get out. Not only is there no death penalty in Norway; there are no life sentences. The maximum sentence for most crimes is 21 years — even for Anders Behring Breivik, who is responsible for probably the deadliest recorded rampage in the world, in which he killed 77 people and injured hundreds more in 2011 by detonating a bomb at a government building in Oslo and then opening fire at a nearby summer camp. Because Breivik was sentenced to “preventive detention,” however, his term can be extended indefinitely for five years at a time, if he is deemed a continuing threat to society by the court. “Better out than in” is an unofficial motto of the Norwegian Correctional Service, which makes a reintegration guarantee to all released inmates. It works with other government agencies to secure a home, a job and access to a supportive social network for each inmate before release; Norway’s social safety net also provides health care, education and a pension to all citizens. With one of the highest per capita gross domestic products of any country in the world, thanks to the profits from oil production in the North Sea, Norway is in a good position to provide all of this, and spending on the Halden prison runs to more than $93,000 per inmate per year, compared with just $31,000 for prisoners in the United States, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization.

That might sound expensive. But if the United States incarcerated its citizens at the same low rate as the Norwegians do (75 per 100,000 residents, versus roughly 700), it could spend that much per inmate and still save more than $45 billion a year. At a time when the American correctional system is under scrutiny — over the harshness of its sentences, its overreliance on solitary confinement, its racial disparities — citizens might ask themselves what all that money is getting them, besides 2.2 million incarcerated people and the hardships that fall on the families they leave behind. The extravagant brutality of the American approach to prisons is not working, and so it might just be worth looking for lessons at the opposite extreme, here in a sea of blabaerskog, or blueberry forest.

“This punishment, taking away their freedom — the sign of that is the wall, of course,” Gudrun Molden, one of the Halden prison’s architects, said on a drizzly morning a few days after I arrived. As we stood on a ridge, along with Jan Stromnes, the assistant warden, it was silent but for the chirping of birds and insects and a hoarse fluttering of birch leaves disturbed by the breeze. The prison is secluded from the surrounding farmland by the blueberry woods, which are the native forest of southeastern Norway: blue–black spruce, slender Scotch pine with red–tinged trunks and silver–skinned birches over a dense understory of blueberry bushes, ferns and -mosses in deep shade. It is an ecosystem that evokes deep nostalgia in Norway, where picking wild berries is a near–universal summer pastime for families, and where the right to do so on uncultivated land is protected by law.

Norway banned capital punishment for civilians in 1902, and life sentences were abolished in 1981. But Norwegian prisons operated much like their American counterparts until 1998. That was the year Norway’s Ministry of Justice reassessed the Correctional Service’s goals and methods, putting the explicit focus on rehabilitating prisoners through education, job training and therapy. A second wave of change in 2007 made a priority of reintegration, with a special emphasis on helping inmates find housing and work with a steady income before they are even released. [more]

Fareed Zakaria says President Trump has drawn three red lines

by Bill Hayes

In “Fareed’s Take,” Fareed Zakaria argues that President Trump has drawn three red lines.

Who Was David Hume?

by Bill Hayes

In Who Was David Hume? for the New York Review of Books, Anthony Gottlieb reviews Hume: An Intellectual Biography by James A. Harris.

David Hume, who died in his native Edinburgh in 1776, has become something of a hero to academic philosophers. In 2009, he won first place in a large international poll of professors and graduate students who were asked to name the dead thinker with whom they most identified. The runners-up in this peculiar race were Aristotle and Kant. Hume beat them by a comfortable margin. Socrates only just made the top twenty.

This is quite a reversal of fortune for Hume, who failed in both of his attempts to get an academic job. In his own day, and into the nineteenth century, his philosophical writings were generally seen as perverse and destructive. Their goal was “to produce in the reader a complete distrust in his own faculties,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1815–1817. The best that could be said for Hume as a philosopher was that he provoked wiser thinkers to refute him in interesting ways. As a historian and essayist, though, Hume enjoyed almost immediate success. When James Boswell called him “the greatest Writer in Brittain” — this was in 1762, before Boswell transferred his allegiance to Dr. Johnson — he was thinking mainly of Hume’s History of England, which remained popular for much of the nineteenth century. “HUME (David), the Historian” is how the British Library rather conservatively still catalogued him in the 1980s.

Hume the philosopher did have his early admirers, but they had to be careful what they said about him. Six months after Hume’s death, one of his closest friends, Adam Smith, implicitly likened him to Socrates, which caused a scandal. Smith had recently published a controversial treatise on economics, The Wealth of Nations, yet his eulogy of Hume, and especially his account of Hume’s composure in the face of death, “brought upon me ten times more abuse than the very violent attack I had made upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain.” In a published account of his visit to the expiring Hume, Smith reported that he had found him making jokes about the underworld, apropos a satire of Lucian’s, and in good spirits, as usual: “Thus died our most excellent, and never-to-be-forgotten friend…. Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime, and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will admit.” [more]

Are Liberals on the Wrong Side of History?

by Bill Hayes

In Are Liberals on the Wrong Side of History? for the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik reviews three new books that question the ideas of the Enlightenment: Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra, A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy by Joel Mokyr, and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari.

Mishra’s thesis is that our contemporary misery and revanchist nationalism can be traced to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s romantic reaction to Voltaire’s Enlightenment — with the Enlightenment itself entirely to blame in letting high-minded disdain for actual human experience leave it open to a romantic reaction. In Mishra’s view, Voltaire — whose long life stretched from 1694 to 1778 — was the hyper-rationalist philosophe who brought hostility to religion out into the open in eighteenth-century France, and practiced a callow élitist progressivism that produced Rousseau’s romantic search for old-fashioned community. Rousseau, who, though eighteen years younger, died in that same fateful year of 1778, was the father of the Romantic movement, of both the intimate nature-loving side and the more sinister political side, with its mystification of a “general will” that dictators could vibrate to, independent of mere elections. The back-and-forth of cold Utopianism and hot Volk-worship continues to this day. The Davos men are Voltaire’s children, a transnational and fatuously progressive élite; Trump and Brexit voters are Rousseau’s new peasant hordes, terrified of losing cultural continuity and clan comfort.

Piling blame on Voltaire as an apostle of top-down neoliberalism is familiar from John Ralston Saul’s 1992 “Voltaire’s Bastards,” and the idea of Rousseau, the Genevan autodidact, as the key figure in the romantic political reaction against modernity, even as the godfather of Nazism, was present in Bertrand Russell’s “A History of Western Philosophy,” back in the nineteen-forties. A fan of Voltaire will object that Mishra offers a comically partial picture of him, neglecting his brave championing of the fight against torture and religious persecution. Mishra’s Voltaire is a self-seeking capitalist entrepreneur, because, among other things, he established a watch factory at Ferney — as a refuge and asylum for persecuted Protestants. Casting Voltaire as the apostle of fatuous utopian progressivism, Mishra curiously fails to note that he also wrote what remains the most famous of all attacks on fatuous utopian progressivism, “Candide.”

The truth is that no thinker worth remembering has some monolithic “project” to undertake; all express a personality inevitably double, and full of the tensions and contradictions that touch any real life. Voltaire was greedy, entrepreneurial, self-advancing; he was also altruistic, courageous, and generous. He spread Enlightenment ideas to the farthest outposts of Europe — and he sold them out to the autocrats who lived there. A persistent oddity of intellectuals is that when they’re talking about someone they actually know they offer a mixed accounting of bad stuff and good stuff: he’ll drive you crazy with this, but he’s terrific in that. The moment someone becomes a feature of the past, however, he is reduced to a vector with a single transit and historical purpose. If we treated our friends the way we treat our subjects, we wouldn’t have any. (Mishra himself is a voice against the neoliberal consensus who also writes a column for Bloomberg View. This does not make him a hypocrite. It makes him, like Voltaire, one more writer who works for a living.)

Mishra’s Rousseau, infatuated with a dream of ancient Spartan order and inflamed with resentment at the condescension of the Enlightenment élite, is more recognizable. But one wonders if an irascible Swiss pastoralist is really responsible for the temper of nineteenth-century anti-rationalism …. [more]

CRF’s Bill of Rights in Action Archive has three lessons on Enlightenment ideas

1.Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau on Government.

2.Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations.

3.“Tolerance: Voltaire and the Spirit of the Enlightenment.” This lesson is currently available from  CRF’s Bill of Rights in Action Archive only in PDF and you will have to register (if you haven’t already), which is free.

Africa’s First City

by Bill Hayes

In Africa’s First City, National Geographic looks at the economic boom and growing inequality in Lagos, Nigeria.

In Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial center, “Be Very Rich” has all but become the city’s motto. The country recently recalculated its gross domestic product to take into account sectors of the economy that barely existed two decades ago. As a result, Nigeria determined that its GDP surpassed South Africa’s in 2012 to become the continent’s largest economy. About 15,700 millionaires and a handful of billionaires live in Nigeria, more than 60 percent of them in Lagos.

As with other African metropolises, oil-enriched Lagos has long nurtured an elite class only marginally inconvenienced by the squalor enveloping the city as a whole. Now the upper class is expanding, and despite persistent income inequality, so is the middle class. The growth of the latter in Nigeria, according to a 2013 survey by Ciuci Consulting, a strategy and marketing firm in Lagos, is driven by the expanding banking, telecommunications, and services sectors, particularly in Lagos. Nigeria’s middle class grew from 480,000 in 1990 to 4.1 million in 2014, or 11 percent of households. Seemingly overnight, Lagos has transformed itself into a city of Davids clamoring to become Goliaths.

This is a great African success story. And how lovely it would be to tell this bright, uplifting tale while ignoring altogether the dark and demoralizing saga of Nigeria’s grotesque terrorists, which has blocked the boomtown narrative from the world’s consciousness like a lunar eclipse. But Lagos does not exist in a parallel universe, any more than the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram does. Both are indigenous to Nigeria, a vast West African nation teeming with industrious strivers … but also with poverty, despair, and violence. If anything, the miracle of Lagos is that its economy gallops onward even when fettered by the same federal incompetence that allows terrorism to go unchecked. A lesser city would be crippled. Then again, in a sense so is Lagos. [more]

A Vision of Crimes in the Future

by Bill Hayes

In a TED Talk, Marc Goodman gives A Vision of Crimes in the Future.


by Bill Hayes

An online journal, Atlas, “showcases research that can (or already has) significantly impact(ed) people’s lives around the world. Articles published are selected by an external advisory board made up of representatives of some of the world’s most renowned Non-Government Organisations (NGOs), including the United Nations University and Oxfam. Every month the Board selects a paper from a shortlist of suggested articles published in any of Elsevier’s 1800+ journals. Once selected, the author(s) of the paper are awarded “The Atlas” and work with a team of dedicated Atlas science journalists to summarize the research into an easy-to-digest, lay-friendly story format which will be published online. Additionally, all articles featured on Atlas will include a direct link to the full research paper on ScienceDirect which will be made freely available for all. [more]

Too many prisons make bad people worse

by David De La Torre

In Too many prisons make bad people worse, The Economist looks at prisons and prison reform around the world.

Nelson Mandela once observed that: “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.” This article makes a different argument: that although they have improved in recent decades, the world’s prisons are nowhere near as effective as they should be at curbing crime or reducing harm to society. Far too many fit the description of Douglas Hurd, a former British home secretary, who said that: “Prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse.”

There are at least 10.3m people behind bars worldwide, according to Roy Walmsley of the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, a think-tank. This is a snapshot — many more pass through each year and yet more are on parole or probation. The global total excludes countries such as North Korea and Eritrea, which have big gulags but publish no data. It also undercounts the number in China, which has not recently revealed how many of its people are locked up awaiting trial.

Since 2000 the number of prisoners in the world has risen by 20%, a little above population growth of 18%. The trend masks a frenzy of regional change. South America, South-East Asia and the Middle East have seen sharp increases in prisoner numbers (145%, 75% and 75%). In Europe numbers have fallen by 21%. Over the same period, crime has fallen worldwide. [more]

Millions Are Hounded for Debt They Don’t Owe. One Victim Fought Back, With a Vengeance

by Bill Hayes

In Millions Are Hounded for Debt They Don’t Owe. One Victim Fought Back, With a Vengeance for Bloomberg Businessweek, Zeke Faux tells the story of one man’s successful battle.

[Bruce] Therrien had been caught up in a fraud known as phantom debt, where millions of Americans are hassled to pay back money they don’t owe. The concept is centuries old: Inmates of a New York debtors’ prison joked about it as early as 1800, in a newspaper they published called Forlorn Hope. But systematic schemes to collect on fake debts started only about five years ago. It begins when someone scoops up troves of personal information that are available cheaply online — old loan applications, long-expired obligations, data from hacked accounts — and reformats it to look like a list of debts. Then they make deals with unscrupulous collectors who will demand repayment of the fictitious bills. Their targets are often poor and likely to already be getting confusing calls about other loans. The harassment usually doesn’t work, but some marks are convinced that because the collectors know so much, the debt must be real.

The problem is as simple as it is intractable. In 2012 a call center in India was busted for making 8 million calls in eight months to collect made-up bills. The Federal Trade Commission has since broken up at least 13 similar scams. In most cases, regulators weren’t able to identify the original perpetrators because the data files had been sold and repackaged so many times. Victims have essentially no recourse to do anything but take the abuse.

Most victims, that is. When the scammers started to hound Therrien, he hounded them right back. Obsessed with payback, he spent hundreds of hours investigating the dirty side of debt. By day he was still promoting ice cream brands and hiring models for liquor store tastings. But in his spare time, he was living out a revenge fantasy. He befriended loan sharks and blackmailed crooked collectors, getting them to divulge their suppliers, and then their suppliers above them. In method, Therrien was like a prosecutor flipping gangster underlings to get to lieutenants and then the boss. In spirit, he was a bit like Liam Neeson’s vigilante character in the movie Taken — using unflagging aggression to obtain scraps of information and reverse-engineer a criminal syndicate. Therrien didn’t punch anyone in the head, of course. He was simply unstoppable over the phone. [more]

Politico’s Cartoons for This Week

by Bill Hayes

See Politico’s selection of this week’s political cartoons from across the country and the political spectrum.

For how to use editorial cartoons in the classroom, see Teaching With Editorial Cartoons.

Digital Democracy

by David De La Torre

Digital Democracy “creates a searchable archive of all statements made in state legislative hearings. Now anyone can search, watch, and share statements made by state lawmakers, lobbyists and advocates as they debate, craft, and vote on policy proposals.” Currently, it covers four states: California, Florida, New York, and Texas.

Below is a video with more information on Digital Democracy.