Tag Archives: research

The Genetic Killer

This article originally appeared on Disinfo.com

Another proposed “solution” to the mass shootings in America is sure to upset many camps; privacy advocates, mental health care advocates, and even those calling for the heads of the murderers. Soon we will have the results of genetic analysis of Adam Lanza, which may be used by scientists to model genetic predispositions of violence, or by defense attorneys in their pleas. This controversial science is being criticized from all sides, condemned as “misguided and could lead to dangerous stigmatization.”

via Vaughan Bell at Mind Hacks:

But the request to analyse the DNA of Lanza is just the latest in a long line of attempts to account for the behaviour of individual killers in terms of genetics.

Perhaps the first attempt was for a case that bears more than a surface resemblance to the Sandy Hook shooting. In 1998, a 15-year-old high school student called Kip Kinkel killed both of his parents before driving to school and shooting 24 students, one of whom died.

In his trial a child psychiatrist argued that Kinkel had “genetic loading” that made him susceptible to mental illness and violence.

His appeal also relied upon this angle. His lawyer argued that “owing to a genetic predisposition, and therefore through no conscious fault of his own, the defendant suffers a mental illness resulting in committing his crimes.”

Perhaps for the first in decades, an appeal to genetics was used in an attempt to explain the killer’s behaviour.

The genetic arguments became more sophisticated with the trial of serial killer Cary Stayner where a psychiatrist and geneticist presented a genealogy of the his family showing how mental illness and violence ‘ran through the family’.

By the time of the trial of murderer Stephen Mobley, the defence based part of their case on molecular genetics – suggesting that Mobley had a version of the MAOA gene that made him susceptible to violence.

It’s worth noting that none of these appeals to genetics have been successful in the courtroom but it’s interesting that in light of the tragic events in Sandy Hook there has been, yet again, a look towards genetics to try and make sense of the killer – this time presumably based on the yet more advanced technology of whole DNA sequencing.

On this occasion, however, the reasons seems less related to issues of legal responsibility and more for scientific motivations, supposedly to better understand the ‘DNA of a killer’.

As the Nature editorial makes clear, this is foolish: “There is no one-to-one relationship between genetics and mental health or between mental health and violence. Something as simple as a DNA sequence cannot explain anything as complex as behaviour.”

There is a valuable science of understanding how genetics influences violent behaviour but analysis of individual killers will tell us very little about their motivations.

It does, however, reflect a desire to find something different in people who commit appalling crimes. Something that is comprehensible but distinct, alien but identifiable.

This may give us comfort, but it does little to provide answers. In the midst of tragedy, however, the two can easily be confused.

While I have mulled the utility of psychopathy testing before (mostly to weed out serial killers and white-collar criminals), I certainly don’t want to demonize mental illness. I also don’t want to see this turned into a genetic witchhunt, with public registries that would affect hiring, insurance rates, or result in other forms of discrimination or revocation of rights. Not only is it unknown for sure if Adam Lanza (or even James Holmes, for that matter) suffered from mental illness or disorder, but depending on the definitions, as many as 1-in-4 Americans might fall into this camp. This framing also narrowly and unfairly decides what is “normative,” always a dangerous proposition for society.

This sort of ‘registration’ might end up much worse for our liberty and democracy than any gun registration, by orders of magnitude. Especially if, as indicated by our elected leaders and the NRA, we are more concerned with tracking and banning these individuals than providing resources and help.

It sets a scary precedent, but it is also the observable evidence-based realm of science. Should we even go there? What do you think?

Read the artice in Nature, and follow Mind Hacks for more in-depth analysis of complex psychological and neurological issues.

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Can Liberals and Conservatives Communicate?

This article originally appeared on Disinfo.com

There was a great article a couple weeks ago by Lynn Stuart Parramore, an AlterNet senior editor, titled What if Liberals and Progressives Could Learn to Talk to White Southern Men? in which she reminds us that for Southerners, being polite and reasonable are direct indicators of their sense of honor and self-respect. Most of them, despite our political disagreements, don’t want to be seen as rash, close-minded and unreasonable. Lynn Parramore, also Director of AlterNet’s New Economic Dialogue Project, recounts stories of relating to these individuals on certain issues:

What liberals and progressives don’t seem to understand is that you don’t counter a myth with a pile of facts and statistics. You have to counter it with a more powerful story. And that’s what Obama and the Democrats have repeatedly failed to do. White Southern men want a story that makes them feel proud of America and what it can accomplish. I’m troubled when I hear lefties heap scorn upon the South, partly because I know that the antagonism is precisely what the Mitt Romneys of the world hope for. They want to divide us and keep those regional antagonisms stoked so that the cynical Southern strategy continues to work. Every time a San Franciscan or a New Yorker rails against “rednecks” in the South, he has done Karl Rove’s work for him.

Finding common ground is important, and it’s the sort of thing we need to do to repair the toxic divisions sown by politicians and the media to keep us apart. It is vital if we hope to tackle issues like the debt deal, the fiscal cliff, and yes, even social issues.

There is a lot of ground that conservatives and progressives can share; disapproval of Wall St. tactics, distrusting the very wealthy (“38 percent of the the Bible Belt say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who is “very wealthy” than one who isn’t, a lot more than the 20 percent who admit that they would be less inclined to vote for an African-American), fear of drones and the growing surveillance state, and have historically supported some form of a social safety net. Sure there can be a lot of crazy ideas in there too, but liberalism has their fair share of nutjobs, as well.

And conservatives don’t see themselves as the unreasonable ones, anyway. For a conservative, not only is the uncomplicated authoritarian mindset an internally rewarding and often consistent one (also reinforced by parenting),  they also speak a language that focuses on not just dogma and faith, but also common sense and results. If you can reframe arguments in a certain way, conservatives may see a larger picture that begins to cross over with the debater on the left.

Results-oriented language should have been used by the Obama administration to pitch his ideas to the status quo Right, says Richard Tafel, founder of The Public Squared, a public policy training program for nonprofits and social entrepreneurs. Obamacare, he claims, could have been sold, honestly and openly, but using a different approach:

“Folks, we have universal healthcare in the United States.  It’s called the emergency room and we pay for it. And we cover people’s healthcare right now who don’t pay into any insurance scheme and you’re carrying them. If you’re paying taxes right now you’re covering them. Wouldn’t it make sense for us as a nation to just ask those folks to register and get into an insurance program so we can cut their cost, we can be more proactive with their healthcare, and we can avoid the vast growth of healthcare costs.”

Watch “How to Speak Republican” video from BigThink:

What’s certainly true is that over the past four plus years, conservatives and liberals haven’t even been speaking the same language, let alone having the same conversations when arguing. Until progressives open their minds to respect and include a minority, a populist group, whom they happens to strongly disagree with on religion, taxation, immigration, marriage, foreign policy, and the role of government, there cannot be any real progress. Stubborn and obstructionist, perhaps. But both sides severely believe they are in the right. Regional antagonisms, ivory silos, and othering will not push us together or jumpstart our national dialogue.

Purple America” analysis by Robert J. Vanderbei, Professor of Operations Research and Financial Engineering atPrinceton University. Also included are 3-D models and population analysis of the 2012 election, and the changing electorate over time.

a Thin Veneer of Cheese

or: “Going on a Diet can Go to Hell”

Portion control is very difficult in first-world capitalist consumer-pleasure-dominated society. We can blame the corporations for shoving that delicious pie down our throat to keep us sated as they rob us blind. We can blame the post-WWII boomers who lived to revel in the excesses of sugary, delicious pie. We could even blame the pie for being delicious. In the end, it doesn’t matter. We live in the here and now with 300% of our daily caloric intake, and eating out at trans-fatty dollar-sign fast-foodatoriums.

There are several possible solutions, so let’s address them in no particular order, shall we?

1. Die.

You could die of heart disease (the number one killer according to the CDC), diabetes, or other complications arising from unhealthy American obesity. You’ve heard a lot of these facts and figures spouted again and again, and they don’t seem to affect your thinking too much, so here they are again. Dying is perhaps the easiest solution, though dying of these agents may not be as rewarding or exhilerating as, say, jumping off of the Queen Mary. If this is not our fate, then read on.

2. Attempt to lose weight.

Join a gym, prescribe exercises with calorie burning goals, drink nothing but juices, eat nothing but juices, cut out fiber, cut out sugars, cut out carbohydrates, cut out lipids, cut out proteins… and perhaps lose a few pounds. And though calorie counting is still the gold standard of scientific weight loss, there are other contextual considerations.

The problem is not really physical, but psychological. Statistics show that the simple act of making New Year’s resolutions, for example, almost guarantees that they will fail.

I once had a job transcribing for a nonprofit group whose goal had been to change the ‘built environment’ with a mind to ‘active living’ and ‘reducing obesity’ in urban populations. While this was perhaps a fine step in shifting the societal responsibility, it does little to change the manic bipolar attitudes towards weight: glamorize the anorexic fashion models, advertise the fattiest hamburgers, hype the latest diet craze, get the kids to watch TV after school instead of playing outside, censure McDonald’s menus and restrict their private enterprise, blame and marginalize the fat for being fat, raise the monthly rates at the gyms. The irony, of course, was not lost on me that I logged twenty hours of these nonsensical interviews whilst sitting my fat ass in my little-wheelied desk chair.

People often ‘hit plateaus’ in their weight loss plans. Or they lose a lot at first and don’t know why they can’t continue at that rate. Some people may never escape their body type, but still wish they were Victoria’s Secret model thin (*sigh*). More on this later.

“The definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing over and over, and then expecting different results.”

The most successful results come when you do not ‘go’ on a diet, but instead change your habits and your very cognition. As soon as you tire of those calorie counting, rice and celery juicing, overworking exercise regimens, you WILL put that weight back on, because you were looking at the light at the end of the tunnel the entire time. And that light was not just a single delicious slice of pie, but a return to the lifestyle that brought you such devastating misery in the first place. Which brings me to the third potentiality:

3. Alter your habits

There are plenty of things you can do to simply make better choices. As opposed to all those ‘diet fad’ books, I have found that the caloric swaps in David Zinczenko, Matt Goulding (authoritatively titled) Eat This Not That to be frighteningly enlightening and weight-lightening to boot. The restaurant guide in particular reveals what cultural change has done over the generations to slowly let us accept our meaty fate. You would be surprised how easily you can save a hundred calories or two from your diet by eating one specific greasy fast-food dollar-menu breakfast sandwich as opposed to another. It involves calorie awareness, but not necesarilly calorie counting, which I contend is inconvenient, and as such will probably not be a fail-safe sticking method for everyone.

Some foods even trick your brain and stomach into eating fewer calories.

And don’t be hydrophobic, drink water as much as possible! It’s better than any health shake, ‘detox cleanse’ bullshit, soda, coffee, beer, corn syrup juice, or sugar drink you can get. And doctors agree that there is no such thing as water weight (as much as getting two doctors to agree to anything is possible).

Here’s something you may not have put together (I know it came as a late revelation for me, and boy, did I feel stupid). Are you fat and broke? Well, there’s your problem right there. Of course, cutting down on portions is easier said than done. But preventing yourself from losing money is the greatest motivator, combined with losing weight and saving the planet, it may just be the winning combination you need.

There are numerous apps (most of them free) to keep your health on your mind.

An easy way to save money at that overpriced gym is to find a community college that offers phys. ed. classes for college credit. It’s possible to enroll for just that one class, and the monthly breakdown may end up being a fraction what one of those chains (and even the Y) charge. It may also be as simple as taking the stairs at work more often, or, if you take the elevator, doing your squats while you wait both on and off. And simplicity in exercise is often key.

There are websites entirely dedicated to saving you money on outings, activities, and group meet-ups. These are fun, and at least some of them are in line with your interests, but viewing them with an eye to being more active may give you that extra gumption to actually get out and do them. They’re cheap or cheap-as-free, so that chain gym won’t be getting any contractually obligated sum of your money, and they integrate fun, some skill you’ve been meaning to learn, and thus burn calories without you having to think about what a chore this whole calorie-burning thing might be.

These kinds of lateral moves will not only save you some money, but in doing so create a positive mental feedback loop that inspires and encourages you further.

And lest we forget, a rigorous and adventurous sex life is perhaps the best exercise regiment available.

4. Alter your philosophical outlook

How many fuckers do you know who say they are ‘so fat’ when they are ‘so not’? How do you feel when you haven’t quite made that health goal? Additionally, how will you know when enough is enough, without appearing to have some body dimorphism, harmful self-esteem issues, or gypsy curse? And isn’t the worst part about this whole weight loss thing when you’ve put your effort and time in, then fall into a few evenings of lounging instead of exercise (or perhaps as some reward), but then immediately feel guilt?

Don’t feel guilt, this is counterproductive. Likewise, don’t tell yourself that you’ve ‘earned’ this. You are still viewing it all as some external component of life that you engage in, what those alien fitness people allow you to temporarily engage in.

When you have a more platonic relationship with the universe (something I advocate anyway), you don’t care what society tells you about your body image or unhealthy habits. This doesn’t mean you lose all attachment to personal responsibility, just that you can gauge what is both productive physical time, and what is productive relaxation time. Wastefulness is your attachment to complaining, to worry, to stress, and to the labels that prevent you from fluidly being both the fitness-buff-and-couch-potato-in-one. It makes you a diverse person, and who doesn’t want to be that?

If you earnestly stop trying to make specific weight goals, while at the same time making good decisions on a regular basis, you will ingrain it into your being that health is a major motivator along with all the other rewarding and pleasurable activities in your life, you will escape the unfair expectations of a bullshit society and your own deceptive mind, and discover that vagueness can be liberating.

‘Laziness’ has gotten an unfair reputation, as our modern industrial world allows us more leisure than ever before, and people judge whether you spend it as an armchair sophist or benchpress hypertrophist. And let’s not forget the importance of sleep to your health! You most certainly burn calories while you slumber, and at the very least, any cheesecake you consume in a dream isn’t going to your hips.

A recent study suggests that people who are obese (barring other unhealthy factors) may live just as long as their skinny counterparts, and certainly longer than the stressed lives of those who continually attempt to lose weight and fail. It is important to remember that the BMI method is somewhat flawed, that only certain forms of obesity put you at high risk (such as belly fat), and that everything, including not just weight gain but weight loss, should be taken in moderation.

A new advocacy group and online community, Healthy at any Size, is based on the simple premise that the best way to improve health is to honor your body. Their website “supports people in adopting health habits for the sake of health and well-being (rather than weight control). Health at Every Size encourages:

  • Accepting and respecting the natural diversity of body sizes and shapes.
  • Eating in a flexible manner that values pleasure and honors internal cues of hunger, satiety, and appetite.
  • Finding the joy in moving one’s body and becoming more physically vital.”

And let’s face it, though it sounds like something your mother would say, it IS true; do you really want to date/hang out with/sleep with/gain the approval of people who judge you for your body type, anyway?

In the end (your fat rear end), the most important thing is deciding what is right for you. Spend some time thinking about it, and don’t try to give up cheese if you love cheese so VERY, VERY FUCKING MUCH. Moderation by mediation, by meditation, make bargains with yourself as to what your needs, wants, and not-so-needs-or-wants are. Make lists of each. You’d be surprised how much you would happily give up and not notice.