My least favorite professional liars: PR people, speechwriters, and scientists

There is a very scary article in the Feb. 10, 2014 New Yorker, about a scientist (Tyrone Hayes) who discovered in the late 1990s that the herbicide atrazine, made by a company called Syngenta, grossly disrupts the hormonal systems of amphibians. Other researchers have since argued that groundwater contamination from atrazine poses a severe risk to the development of human fetuses and children, as well as to the health of adults.

The article is apparently free-for-view, rather than behind the magazine’s firewall. I urge you to check it out for yourself.

Atrazine was in fact banned in 2004 by the European Union for these potential health risks. Unsurprisingly, however, it is still the most widely used herbicide in the U.S. But the widespread use of such a damaging chemical, all in the name of profit, is not what scares and angers me. That is business as usual in our economy and we support it all the way to hell and back (although the “back” part is becoming increasingly unlikely) with our lifestyles. No, what scares and angers me is the perfectly legal, but morally unsupportable campaign waged for years against Tyrone Hayes, the scientist, in an attempt to discredit him by any means possible.

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Why “Bill Nye the Science Guy” is not called “Bill Nye the Facts Guy”

I was both bemused and pained by the furor kicked up on Facebook a few days ago by the Bill Nye/Ken Ham evolution vs. Creationism debate. Along with others equally ignorant, I waded into threads to assert that I knew (really!) what “science” was and wasn’t. Shortly I found myself in the kind of feeding frenzy that sharks are said to indulge in, where instead of eating their usual prey they eat each other. I ended up blocking someone I didn’t even know, just so I could turn invisible and escape our mutual death-grip over whether it was OK to quote what Ernst Mach once said about science’s reliance on abstraction. (I had thought it was OK; she informed me it was not OK and that Mach was an enemy of science.)

I guess it’s time to admit I don’t know crap about “science” or the “scientific method” or any of that hoo-ha. I passed an 8th grade geology test only because I’d written a list of the various epochs and their proper spellings on my forearm. High school chemistry seemed like alchemy to me—no rhyme or reason to any of it, just more weird things to memorize. Biology or botany? I can’t remember species or genus names any better than epochs. Physics I think might actually be cool, but I can’t do the math. And physics without math is just metaphors. I can get metaphors from fiction, thank you very much.

Weirdly enough though I have all these unread books in my private library about not just science but the philosophy of science. So I thought I might just push my already chewed-upon foot further into my mouth and say a few things about what I think isn’t science—then quote a few things from these books that might be science. Not that I would know.

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Review of Anatomy Of An Epidemic: This is your brain on psychiatric drugs

Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America

by Robert Whitaker

Crown, 404 pp., $26.00

About three-quarters of the way through Robert Whitaker’s expose of the psychiatric drug industry, Anatomy Of An Epidemic, I found myself beginning to worry. Whitaker’s claim is that contrary to what we have been told, psychiatric medications actually cause far more mental illness than they cure. Chapter by chapter, he had built a damning case at which to nod and wince—but now I was neck-deep in the chapter on antidepressants, and I was no longer nodding but reading with concern.

For several years back in my 30s, I had sought desperately for an antidepressant that would “cure” me of my longstanding depression and associated shyness; that would, as psychiatrist and author Peter Kramer infamously wrote in his own book, Listening To Prozac, make me “better than well.” I had tried and flunked not just Prozac, but a half-dozen other antidepressants, often combined with other psychoactive drugs that psychiatrists believed might “potentiate” the antidepressant effect: lithium, synthetic thyroid, speed (Dexedrine), an anti-narcolepsy drug (Provigil), bromocriptine, naltrexone, Depakote, amantadine. None of these drugs or drug combinations ever succeeded in doing much more than ruin my sleep, and I had long ago given up the quest for a magic bullet in favor of the quieter avenues of talk therapy. Yet now I found myself wondering: in those few years of drug experimentation, had I inadvertently made myself more rather than less vulnerable to future bouts of depression? Had I in fact damaged my brain, as the studies cited in the chapter I was now reading implied was a very real possibility?

I’ll most likely never know. And in fact, I’m not all that worried. The greatest danger of brain damage, the book asserts, is for persons who are “maintained” by their doctors not just intermittently, but continuously for many years on antidepressants or other psychiatric medications. The conventional wisdom is that maintenance in this manner helps prevent relapse back into depression—or back into schizophrenia, if one is taking antipsychotics; or back into anxiety, if one is taking an “antianxiety” medication such as Xanax. After reading Anatomy Of An Epidemic, I am thankful that I am not being maintained in this manner. I do not have to worry if the antidepressant I am taking every day is accelerating cell death in the hippocampus, an area of the brain important for mood and memory; or if the antipsychotic I am taking is causing my frontal lobes to shrink, eventually giving me what amounts to a drug-induced lobotomy; or if my antianxiety medication is destroying brain receptors in such a way as to possibly make my anxiety symptoms permanent.

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Journalistic convention: Why the New York Times conflated the Norway shootings with Islamic terrorism

Yesterday’s New York Times carried a deadline report of the killing just outside of Oslo, Norway, of “at least 80 people” by a lone gunman who walked into a youth political camp and began shooting. The story carried the information high up that police had arrested a 32-year-old Norwegian man, reportedly a right-wing extremist, as the only suspect in the massacre. You can read the story here. (I’ve permalinked it so as to preserve more or less the original version.)

The story was a group effort by several reporters (as is typical for deadline pieces about shocking disasters) and was for the most part soberly factual. And yet, strangely, the last seven paragraphs managed to twist the incident into a peculiar and unsupported vein of speculation: the actions of this lone Norwegian gunman, the Times asserted, were somehow proof that Al Qaeda and similar groups were either now, or would be soon, upping the scale of their attacks on Western countries. Here are the key paragraphs that carried this assertion:

Terrorism specialists said that even if the authorities ultimately ruled out Islamic terrorism as the cause of Friday’s assaults, other kinds of groups or individuals were mimicking Al Qaeda’s brutality and multiple attacks.

“If it does turn out to be someone with more political motivations, it shows these groups are learning from what they see from Al Qaeda,” said Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism researcher at the New America Foundation in Washington. “One lesson I take away from this is that attacks, especially in the West, are going to move to automatic weapons.”

How could an otherwise straightforward news story, reported and carried by one of the most respected news organizations in the U.S., deviate into an ugly fantasy that made no sense in the context of the facts? And which might strike some observers as likely to stir up anti-Islamic prejudice without reason? These questions become especially pertinent—indeed, ironic— in light of the fact that today’s story in the Times carries further reports that the killer was not just right-wing, but “a gun-loving Norwegian obsessed with what he saw as the threats of multiculturalism and Muslim immigration.”

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Plot twist in the story about antidepressants?

It occurs to me that we can think of the massive use of antidepressants and similar drugs in this country as involving a kind of story: depression is caused by such-and-such, the drugs will cure it by such-and-such an action, and everything is groovy. So say the drug companies in their TV ads; so hope the GPs and psychiatrists who prescribe the drugs to their patients with crossed fingers. And so hope the patients. I have close friends who, when the subject of this or that mental illness comes up, can be counted on to repeat the mantra of the drug companies: “It’s an imbalance in brain chemistry.”

Yet perhaps the story may change. Several books have recently been written that call the mantra into question; and negative information continues to come forth. Especially diligent in unearthing scary facts is journalist Robert Whitaker, author of one of these recent books, Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America. His latest blog post at Psychology Today summarizes several studies claiming that antidepressants may do worse than simply not work—they may actually worsen depression, via a phenomenon called “tardive dysphoria.” Whitaker isn’t shy about speculating about dire scenarios:

But now here we are 40 years later, with perhaps ten percent of American adults taking an antidepressant, and researchers are writing about “oppositional tolerance,” and drug-induced “tardive dysphoria.” That is surely a health outcomes story that needs to investigated, and if we want to put this into an even sharper moral context, we need only consider this: Many teenagers are now being prescribed an antidepressant, and when they take the drug, their brains will develop “oppositional tolerance” to it. What percentage of these youth will end up with drug-induced tardive dysphoria, and thus suffer a lifetime of chronic depression?

Many people are already leery of the antidepressants they feel they must take. If word spreads of studies like these, I can imagine all hell breaking loose. But what narrative will patients choose to replace the current one? And where will they turn if not to drugs?


Good article on Marsha Linehan, creator of Dialectical Behavior Therapy

Marsha Linehan's wrist, showing scarsLinehan is of the giants of modern talk therapy; in creating Dialectical Behavior Therapy, she went well beyond conventional CBT by including mindfulness and acceptance components, thereby more effectively reaching many people in deep distress about who they feel themselves to be. This article in the New York Times is a particularly nice celebration of her life work:

Expert on Mental Illness Reveals Her Own Fight

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Update and related post: Should “wounded healers” confess to their wounds?


Psychiatric medications as super-placebos

This isn’t directly related to my interest in the psychological aspects of language as behavior, but it does bear on the question of why humans suffer psychologically in the first place, and on how such suffering should best be treated: a review in The New York Review of Books of three books on what seems to be the con game of psychiatric medication.

The review is titled The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why? and the books involved are The Emperor’s New Drugs: Exploding the Antidepressant Myth, by Irving Kirsch, Basic Books, 226 pp., $15.99 (paper); Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America, by Robert Whitaker, Crown, 404 pp., $26.00; and Unhinged: The Trouble With Psychiatry—A Doctor’s Revelations About a Profession in Crisis, by Daniel Carlat, Free Press, 256 pp., $25.00.

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A note about language as behavior

My interest in language as behavior (rather than as we normally think of it, as something that simply describes the world) began quite abruptly back in early 2005. That was when I discovered a relatively new kind of talk therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT.

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Rewriting “The Piano Teacher” for stronger scenes

The Piano TeacherYesterday I came to the end of The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee. It’s an intriguing read, and highly suspenseful—but among other things, it has reminded me of John Gardner’s injunction that actions in a scene should nearly always be described in chronological order.

This is a point of craft I regularly teach to my nonfiction writing students at NYU. Gardner’s argument is that getting the sequence right avoids jarring readers out of the dream state that makes good fiction so compelling. I make the additional argument that even with nonfiction, correct sequencing helps with clarity, allowing readers to understand what’s going on the first time through a passage.

And now I have found still a third reason: it makes the action not only clearer, but far more dramatic—especially if the scene is already a good one.

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My favorite ellipsis

Last night in the essays class I teach at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, the subject of ellipses came up. In a story, an ellipsis consists of leaving something out. The “something” can be anything from a few words to entire events. Unless we are reading quite technically, we usually only notice an ellipsis when it goes wrong—when the gap seems awkward or omits information we’re looking for. But when an ellipsis goes right, especially at the level of a sentence or a phrase, it can produce prose that is wonderfully economical and far more enjoyable than if the writer had told all.

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