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More on the contemptible response of the FBI, Department of Justice, and prosecutors to unwelcome facts

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Those who dedicate their lives and careers to winning convictions are not interested in anything, valid or not, that makes winning a conviction the least bit more difficult. It seems that the majority of the FBI, prosecutors, and DoJ do not really care whether the evidence they use is accurate or not: their sole focus is on winning convictions, and to hell with evidence.

Our criminal justice system has just put on public display the degree of its corruption, and it’s an ugly sight. Daniel Denvir writes in Salon:

Under fire yet again, law enforcement is fighting back. Facing heavy criticism for misconduct and abuse, prosecutors are protesting a new report from President Obama’s top scientific advisors that documents what has long been clear: much of the forensic evidence used to win convictions, including complex DNA samples and bite mark analysis, is not backed up by credible scientific research.

Although the evidence of this is clear, many in law enforcement seem terrified that keeping pseudoscience out of prosecutions will make them unwinnable. Attorney General Loretta Lynch declined to accept the report’s recommendations on the admissibility of evidence and the FBI accused the advisors of making “broad, unsupported assertions.” But the National District Attorneys Association, which represents roughly 2,5000 top prosecutors nationwide, went the furthest, taking it upon itself to, in its own words, “slam” the report.

Prosecutors’ actual problem with the report, produced by some of the nation’s leading scientists on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, seems to be unrelated to science. Reached by phone NDAA president-elect Michael O. Freeman could not point to any specific problem with the research and accused the scientists of having an agenda against law enforcement.

“I’m a prosecutor and not a scientist,” Freeman, the County Attorney in Hennepin County, Minnesota, which encompasses Minneapolis, told Salon. “We think that there’s particular bias that exists in the folks who worked on this, and they were being highly critical of the forensic disciplines that we use in investigating and prosecuting cases.”

That response, devoid of any reference to hard science, has prompted some mockery, including from Robert Smith, Senior Research Fellow and Director of the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard Law School, who accused the NDAA of “fighting to turn America’s prosecutors into the Anti-Vaxxers, the Phrenologists, the Earth-Is-Flat Evangelists of the criminal justice world.”

It has also, however, also lent credence to a longstanding criticism that American prosecutors are more concerned with winning than in establishing a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

“Prosecutors should not be concerned principally with convictions; they should be concerned with justice,” said Daniel S. Medwed, author of “Prosecution Complex: America’s Race to Convict and Its Impact on the Innocent” and a professor at Northern University School of Law, told Salon. “Using dodgy science to obtain convictions does not advance justice.”

In its press release, the NDAA charged that the scientists, led by Human Genome Project leader Eric Lander, lack necessary “qualifications” and relied “on unreliable and discredited research.” Freeman, asked whether it the NDAA was attempting to discredit scientific research without having scientists evaluate that research, demurred.

“I appreciate your question and I can’t respond to that,” he said.

Similarly, Freedman was unable to specify any particular reason that a member of the council might be biased against prosecutors.

“We think that this group of so-called experts had an agenda,” he said, “which was to discredit a lot of the science…used by prosecutors.”

The report, “Science in Criminal Courts: Ensuring Scientific Validity of Feature-Comparison Methods,” was the result of a comprehensive review or more than 2,000 papers and produced in consultation with a bevvy of boldfaced names from the legal community. It found that there is no solid scientific basis to support the analyses of bite marks, firearms, biological samples containing the DNA of multiple individuals and footwear. The report also found that the certainty of latent fingerprint analysis is often overstated, and it criticized proposed Justice Department guidelines defending the validity of hair analysis as being grounded in “studies that do not establish [its] foundational validity and reliability.”

The new report is comprehensive but hardly the first time that scientific research has cast doubt on the reliability of evidence used in trials — everything from eyewitness identification to arson investigations. The report cites a 2002 FBI reexamination of their own scientists’ microscopic hair comparisons and found that DNA testing showed 11 percent of the samples that had been found to match in reality came from different people. A 2004 National Research Council report cited found there was an insufficient basis upon which to draw “a definitive connection between two bullets based on compositional similarity of the lead they contain.”

One of the most important developments in recent decades has been DNA science, which has not only proven that defendants have been wrongfully convicted but also raised questions about the forensic evidence used to win those convictions.

In the Washington Post, University of Virginia law professor Brandon L. Garrettdescribes the case of Keith Harward, who was exonerated on April 8 for a Newport News, Virginia rape and murder that DNA evidence later showed someone else committed. His conviction, for which he spent 33 years behind bars, hinged on the false testimony of two purported experts who stated that his teeth matched bite marks on the victim’s body.

“Of the first 330 people exonerated by DNA testing, 71 percent, or 235 cases, involved forensic analysis or testimony,” Garrett writes. “DNA set these people free, but at the time of their convictions, the bulk of the forensics was flawed.”

In an interview, Garrett called the NDAA response “juvenile.”

“The response seems to be you say that certain forensic sciences are unscientific, well you’re unscientific,” said Garrett. “To call a group of the leading scientists in the world unscientific, it’s just embarrassing….I really doubt that they speak for most prosecutors.”

Many cases, the report found, have “relied in part on faulty expert testimony from forensic scientists who had told juries incorrectly that similar features in a pair of samples taken from a suspect and from a crime scene (hair, bullets, bitemarks, tire or shoe treads, or other items) implicated defendants in a crime with a high degree of certainty.”

Expert witnesses have often overstated the certainty of their findings, declaring that they were 100-percent certain when in fact 100-percent certainty is scientifically impossible.

Forensic science has largely been developed within law enforcement and not by independent scientists, said Medwed. In the case of bite mark analysis, the report concludes that the method is basically worthless. But by and large, the report calls not for the science to be thrown out forever but to be improved so that it is in fact reliable.

“The NDAA response strikes me as a bit defensive to say the least and puzzling because my hope is that in looking at this report the reaction of prosecutors would be, how do we improve the system,” said Medwed. “Even if they believe that some of these disciplines are legitimate, how do we further test them, and refine them so they can be better?”

The NDAA, however, not only dismisses the scientific research in question but asserts that scientific expertise has no role to play in determining what kind of evidence judges decide to admit into court. . .

Continue reading.

Ignorance is bad, stupidity is worse, and combination is deadly. It’s a bad sign that so many in law enforcement and among prosecutors seem to embrace ignorance with enthusiasm.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 September 2016 at 1:57 pm

“A hundred walked out of my lecture”

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Dr. Susan Blackmore describes the academic spirit nowadays, which lacks the spirit of inquiry:

I’m still shaken by yesterday’s lecture and its aftermath. Oxford in the 21st century was, I’d fondly assumed, the epitome of somewhere I could speak freely and fully, and expect people to listen and then argue and disagree if they wished to. Apparently not.

I was invited to give a lecture on memes by the “Oxford Royale Academy”, an institution that has nothing to do with the University of Oxford but hosts groups of several hundred 17-18 year-olds for two weeks of classes and, I guess, some kind of simulation of an ‘Oxford experience’. I was told they were of 45 nationalities and I assumed many different religions. So I prepared my lecture carefully. I tried it out the day before on my husband’s grandson, a bright mixed-race 16 year-old from Paris, and added pictures of the latest craze for ‘Fatkini posts’ and more videos, including my favourite Gangnam Style parody (Python style), but I wasn’t going to avoid the topic of religious memes – religions are an example, par excellence, of memeplexes that use wicked tricks to ensure their own survival. I simply made sure that my slides included many religions and didn’t single one out.

Looking back I should have seen trouble coming early on. I began with a pile of stuffed animals on the desk that I use to illustrate natural selection. Many laughed at my ‘dangerous predator’ eating them but at the word ‘evolution’ a young man in the second row began swaying side to side and vigorously shaking his head. I persevered, trying to put over the idea that evolution is inevitable – if you have information that is copied with variation and selection then you must get (as Dan Dennett p50 puts it) ‘Design out of chaos without the aid of mind’. It is this inevitability that I find so delightful – the evolutionary algorithm just must produce design, and once you understand that you have no need to believe or not believe in evolution. You see how it works. So I persevered.

Introducing memes, I asked for volunteers to come up on the stage and invent a new meme. This same young man, called Moritz, was up in a flash, followed by four others. I asked him, at the word ‘go’, to make some simple movements and sounds. ‘One, two, three, Go,’ I said, and he waved one hand around in a circle, chanting ‘In the beginning was the word, and the word ….’. The others then imitated him and that was fun. Three obediently began reciting from the Bible but the fourth threw both arms in the air and declared ‘There’s a big old man in the sky’ and raised a huge laugh and cheer from (some of) the audience. This seemed an opportunity not to be missed so I asked the whole audience, at the word ‘go’, to imitate either of these two new memes, whereupon a great cry burst out of, ‘In the beg…’, ‘There’s an old man …’. Great, I said, we’ve now got two memes, you have just seen meme creation and selection at work.

Then I arrived at religion. I pointed out that religions demand lots of resources (I showed them pictures of a church, a Hindu temple, a Jewish menorah and Muslim pilgrims on Hajj); they pose threats to health (I showed people ‘purifying their souls’ by wading in the stinking germ-laden Ganges) and make people do strange things (I showed rows of Muslims bent over with their heads on the floor). I hadn’t gone far with this before five or six young men got up and began to walk out. They had a good distance to go across the large hall, so I said ‘Excuse me, would you mind telling me why you are leaving?’ There was a long silence until one said, ‘You are offending us. We will not listen,’ and they left. Soon after that another bunch left, and then another.

I explained the idea of religions as memeplexes: they package up a set of doctrines, tell believers to learn them, to pass them on, to have faith and not doubt, and they ensure obedience with fearsome threats and ridiculous promises. This I illustrated with images of Christian heaven and hell. Then I read from the Koran “those that have faith and do good works, Allah will admit them to gardens watered by running streams … pearls and bracelets of gold.” “Garments of fire have been prepared for the unbelievers. They shall be lashed with rods of iron.” More walked out. By the time I arrived at a slide calling religions (Richard’s fault!) ‘Viruses of the mind’, the lecture hall was looking rather empty.

The cartoon was worse. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 September 2016 at 6:47 pm

Ayahuasca seems to have interesting effects

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Ariel Levy has a long and interesting article on ayahuasca in the New Yorker. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but here’s just a snippet:

. . . Having studied fMRIs and EEGs of subjects on ayahuasca, Araujo thinks that the brain’s “default-mode network”—the system that burbles with thought, mulling the past and the future, while your mind isn’t focussed on a task—is temporarily relieved of its duties. Meanwhile, the thalamus, which is involved in awareness, is activated. The change in the brain, he notes, is similar to the one that results from years of meditation.
Dennis McKenna told me, “In shamanism, the classic theme is death and rebirth—you are reborn in a new configuration. The neuroscientific interpretation is exactly the same: the default-mode network is disrupted, and maybe things that were mucking up the works are left behind when everything comes back together.”
In the early nineties, McKenna, Charles Grob, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Harbor-U.C.L.A. Medical Center, and James Callaway, a pharmaceutical chemist, conducted a study in Manaus, Brazil, that investigated the effects of ayahuasca on long-term users. Fifteen men who had taken part in bimonthly ceremonies for at least a decade were compared with a control group of people with similar backgrounds. The researchers drew blood from the subjects and assessed the white blood cells, which are powerful indicators of the condition of the central nervous system. (McKenna told me, “In psychopharmacology, we say, ‘If it’s going on in the platelets, it’s probably going on in the brain.’ ”) They found that the serotonin reuptake transporters—the targets that many contemporary antidepressants work on—were elevated among habitual ayahuasca drinkers. “We thought, What does this mean?” McKenna said. They couldn’t find any research on people with abnormally high levels of the transporters, but there was an extensive body of literature on low levels: the condition is common among those with intractable depression, and in people who suffer from Type 2 alcoholism, which is associated with bouts of violent behavior. “We thought, Holy shit! Is it possible that the ayahuasca actuallyreverses these deficits over the long term?” McKenna pointed out that no other known drug has this effect. “There’s only one other instance of a factor that affects this upregulation—and that’s aging.” He wondered if ayahuasca is imparting something to its drinkers that we associate with maturity: wisdom.

Charles Grob told me, “Some of these guys were leading disreputable lives and they became radically transformed—responsible pillars of their community.” But, he noted, the men were taking ayahuasca as part of a religious ceremony: their church, União do Vegetal, is centered on integrating the ayahuasca experience into everyday life. Grob cautioned, “You have to take it with a facilitator who has some knowledge, experience, and ethics.” In unregulated ceremonies, several women have been molested, and at times people have turned violent. Last year, during a ceremony at an ayahuasca center in Iquitos, Peru, a young British man started brandishing a kitchen knife and yelling; a Canadian man who was also on ayahuasca wrestled it from him and stabbed him to death.

Grob speculated that the shaman in that case had spiked the ayahuasca. Often, when things go wrong, it is after a plant called datura is added to the pharmacological mix. “Maybe facilitators think, Oh, Americans will get more bang for their buck,” Grob said. He also wondered if the knife-wielding British man had been suffering a psychotic break: like many hallucinogens, ayahuasca is thought to have the potential to trigger initial episodes in people who are predisposed to them.

Problems can also arise if someone takes ayahuasca—with its potent MAOI—on top of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, a common class of antidepressants. The simultaneous blocking of serotonin uptake and serotonin degradation encourages enormous amounts of the neurotransmitter to flood the synapses. The outcome can be disastrous: a condition called serotonin syndrome, which starts with shivering, diarrhea, hyperthermia, and palpitations and can progress to muscular rigidity, convulsions, and even death. “I get calls from family members or friends of people who seem to be in a persistent state of confusion,” Grob said. He had just received a desperate e-mail from the mother of a young woman who had become disoriented in the midst of a ceremony. “She ran off from where she was, and when she was found she was having breathing difficulties and is now having what appears to be a P.T.S.D. reaction.”

These cases are rare, but profoundly upsetting trips are common. People on ayahuasca regularly report experiencing their own death; one man told Araujo that he had a terrifying visualization of being trapped in a coffin. “There are some people who are getting damaged from it because they’re not using it the right way,” Dennis McKenna warned. “It’s a psychotherapeutic process: if they don’t integrate the stuff that comes up, it can be very traumatic. That’s the whole thing with ayahuasca—or any psychedelic, really. Set and setting is all-important: they’ve been telling us this since Leary! It’s not to be treated lightly.” . . .

Read the whole thing.

Written by LeisureGuy

8 September 2016 at 12:27 pm

The childhood impact of environmental lead lasts one’s entire life.

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The link between childhood exposure to lead in the environment (for example, in the drinking water of many US schools) and violent behavior persists through one’s entire life, as Kevin Drum notes in this post.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 September 2016 at 10:23 am

Researchers Confront an Epidemic of Loneliness

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Katie Hafner has a very interesting report in the NY Times:

The woman on the other end of the phone spoke lightheartedly of spring and of her 81st birthday the previous week.

“Who did you celebrate with, Beryl?” asked Alison, whose job was to offer a kind ear.

“No one, I…”

And with that, Beryl’s cheer turned to despair.

Her voice began to quaver as she acknowledged that she had been alone at home not just on her birthday, but for days and days. The telephone conversation was the first time she had spoken in more than a week.

About 10,000 similar calls come in weekly to an unassuming office building in this seaside town at the northwest reaches of England, which houses TheSilver Line Helpline, a 24-hour call center for older adults seeking to fill a basic need: contact with other people.

Loneliness, which Emily Dickinson described as “the Horror not to be surveyed,” is a quiet devastation. But in Britain, it is increasingly being viewed as something more: a serious public health issue deserving of public funds and national attention.

Working with local governments and the National Health Service, programs aimed at mitigating loneliness have sprung up in dozens of cities and towns. Even fire brigades have been trained to inspect homes not just for fire safetybut for signs of social isolation.

“There’s been an explosion of public awareness here, from local authorities to the Department of Health to the media,” said Paul Cann, chief executive of Age UK Oxfordshire and a founder of The Campaign to End Loneliness, a five-year-old group based in London. “Loneliness has to be everybody’s business.”

Researchers have found mounting evidence linking loneliness to physical illness and to functional and cognitive decline. As a predictor of early death, loneliness eclipses obesity.

“The profound effects of loneliness on health and independence are a critical public health problem,” said Dr. Carla M. Perissinotto, a geriatrician at the University of California, San Francisco. “It is no longer medically or ethically acceptable to ignore older adults who feel lonely and marginalized.”

In Britain and the United States, roughly one in three people older than 65 live alone, and in the United States, half of those older than 85 live alone. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 September 2016 at 8:11 pm

“We Need to Talk About Huma Abedin Differently”

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Written by LeisureGuy

2 September 2016 at 3:59 pm

Environmental lead and public health: Still a serious problem

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Paul Krugman writes in today’s NY Times:

Donald Trump is still claiming that “inner-city crime is reaching record levels,” promising to save African-Americans from the “slaughter.” In fact, this urban apocalypse is a figment of his imagination; urban crime is actually at historically low levels. But he’s not the kind of guy to care about another “Pants on Fire” verdict from PolitiFact.

Yet some things are, of course, far from fine in our cities, and there is a lot we should be doing to help black communities. We could, for example, stop pumping lead into their children’s blood.

You may think that I’m talking about the water crisis in Flint, Mich., which justifiably caused national outrage early this year, only to fade from the headlines. But Flint was just an extreme example of a much bigger problem. And it’s a problem that should be part of our political debate: Like it or not, poisoning kids is a partisan issue.

To be sure, there’s a lot less lead poisoning in today’s America than there was back in what Trump supporters regard as the good old days. Indeed, some analysts believe that declining lead pollution has been an important factor in declining crime.

But I’ve just been reading a new study by a team of economists and health experts confirming the growing consensus that even low levels of lead in children’s bloodstreams have significant adverse effects on cognitive performance. And lead exposure is still strongly correlated with growing up in a disadvantaged household.

But how can this be going on in a country that claims to believe in equality of opportunity? Just in case it’s not obvious: Children who are being poisoned by their environment don’t have the same opportunities as children who aren’t.

For a longer perspective I’ve been reading the 2013 book “Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and Fate of America’s Children.” The tale the book tells is not, to be honest, all that surprising. But it’s still depressing. For we’ve known about the harm lead does for generations; yet action came slowly, and remains highly incomplete even today.

You can guess how it went. The lead industry didn’t want to see its business cramped by pesky regulations, so it belittled the science while vastly exaggerating the cost of protecting the public — a strategy all too familiar to anyone who has followed debates from acid rain to ozone to climate change.

In the case of lead, however, there was an additional element of blaming the victims: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 September 2016 at 9:43 am

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